Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Arts



First Advisor

Dr. Willis F. Dunbar

Access Setting

Masters Thesis-Open Access



The Panama Canal is one of the major commercial waterways of the world and, furthermore, it is vital to the defence of the United States. ·Before this canal could be constructed, it was necessary to persuade the British government to give up its right to share with the United States the building of an isthmian canal. The Clayton-Bulwer treaty of 1850 had provided that neither the United States nor Great Britain would carry out the project singly. Later through the Hay-Pauncefote treaty Great Britain agreed to abrogate the Clayton-Bulwer treaty and allowed the United States alone to build and fortify the canal. This was an obvious success for American diplomacy.

Most accounts of the origins of the Clayton-Bulwer treaty have been written in a. manner that leaves the impression that the United States was duped into the involvement and that, once involved, was unable to maintain a relationship with Great Britain and Central America that was in line with American policy and public opinion. , This paper cites evidence which leads to the conclusion that Secretary of State John M. Clayton actually achieved a distinct diplomatic victory in securing the treaty. The victory lay in the effective alteration of the traditional British policy of containment of the United States as a result of the decisions made by the British government in negotiating and signing the Clayton-Bulwer treaty.

Much of the British diplomatic correspondence relating to the treaty was inaccessible to the author. However, all channels of American diplomatic correspondence for the negotiation period w.ere explored and secondary sources on the British side, as well as considerable primary material was used. Extensive use was made of the John M. Clayton Papers at the Library of Congress and the National Archives collection of official State Department correspondence.

The Clayton-Bulwer treaty affected Anglo-American isthmian diplomacy for half a century. It is doubtful, however, that it was the major factor in preventing the construction of a canal during this period. When the United States was sufficiently strong to challenge the British in the isthmus, the latter accepted the United States as a potential partner in any possible canal. When the United States was prepared to proceed alone, the British once more recognized the new nation's ambitions and pride. Much credit must go to the British for the sort of realism that avoided conflict and paved the way for eventual cordial ties with their American cousins.

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