Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/April 1880/Editor's Table



THE presence of M. Ferdinand de Lesseps in this country has precipitated the important question of a change in our national policy regarding an interoceanic canal across the American Isthmus. Let us briefly glance at the history of the subject, that we may understand the import of the new departure.

It is customary to rail at trade as a selfish and sordid occupation; but, as the laws of human development are better understood, it is found that the exchange and distribution of the products of human industry constitute one of the most powerful of all agencies of social amelioration and the improvement of the condition of mankind. The discovery of America, the greatest of all discoveries, may be said to have doubled the habitable world, and to have opened a new destiny for man upon earth; yet it was but an incident in the progress of commerce. The blind passion for wealth was the impulse that drove men to the exploration of the unknown globe; and, as often occurs in investigation, the search for one thing led to another of far more value and importance. To increase Oriental trade by finding a new and shorter route to the Indies was the object of Columbus; he discovered a new land, and died in the conviction that it was Asiatic, and that he had brought "the fabulous wealth of Ind" within the immediate grasp of Europe.

Yet, seven years after the death of Columbus, Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Darien and discovered the Pacific Ocean. So it was not India that had been reached, but a new world that had been found. The old problem, therefore, still remained, how to get to the Indies by a western route; but the question was now how to find a passage through. All navigators were alert in quest of a strait that should lead into the Indian Ocean, and the incentive that inspired the enterprise of Columbus animated his successors during half a century later. Prescott says that the discovery of a new and shorter route to the Indies "is the true key to the maritime movements of the fifteenth and the first half of the sixteenth centuries."

But, failing to find "the secret of the strait," men of enterprise began to think of cutting the knot by opening an artificial waterway for ships across the American Isthmus. The Spaniards led in this project of uniting the opposite harbors by a canal; and Galvao, in 1528, proposed to Charles V. to open a ship communication between the oceans at Panama. Plans and surveys were afterward made for this purpose. In 1534 Charles V. gave instructions to Cortez to seek such a route. In 1551 Gomara, author of the "History of the Indies," proposed three routes, including Nicaragua. In 1567 Antonelli was sent by Philip II. to explore with reference to a ship-canal. In 1795 William Patterson, founder of the Bank of England, and a man of comprehensive views, who had possessed himself of an extensive and minute knowledge respecting the institutions and commerce of foreign countries, obtained the royal sanction to a project for colonizing Darien, one of the objects of the enterprise being to cut a canal through the isthmus. The expedition was attempted, but proved a disastrous failure. During the next hundred years various projects were suggested, and explorations made by citizens of different countries with a view of overcoming this barrier to navigation; and in 1804 Humboldt gave a new interest and impulse to the subject by publishing a careful discussion of the relative merits of several routes for an interoceanic canal. As the commerce of the world increased in the early part of this century, the problem became still more urgent, and projects for solving it multiplied—Spain, France, Holland, England—all the leading maritime nations contributing schemes and projectors for the undertaking.

Thus, for three centuries and a half the question of piercing the American Isthmus has been universally recognized as a world's question, as the common interest of all nations, and as open to anybody who had the ability and the perseverance to accomplish it. For two hundred years before our nation came into existence this was the broad view taken of the enterprise in all countries; and, when the United States first became interested in the subject, it was also as a project concerning alike the whole civilized world.

So far as we learn, the first action taken by the American Government in relation to this question was in response to an appeal from the Central American Republic. Señor Canaz, its Minister at Washington, in a note addressed to the Department of State in 1825, proposed the coöperation of that republic with the United States in opening a canal through the province of Nicaragua. Mr. Clay replied to it, and instructed Mr. Williams, then our Minister in Central America, to investigate the practicability of the Nicaragua route. Through Williams's influence a contract was made with the Central American Government for the construction of a canal through Nicaragua "for vessels of the largest burden possible." It was proposed to raise a capital of only $5,000,000 for the entire work; but even that amount could not be obtained.

The Central American Government then applied to Holland for coöperation, and a Dutch company was formed in 1830 to construct the canal; but owing to European political disturbances it could not carry out its agreement, and the Central American Republic renewed its application to the United States as the country that should naturally have the preference.

The project was again brought up under Jackson's Administration, and in 1831 Mr. Livingston, Secretary of State, instructed Mr. Jeffers, American chargé in Central America, as follows: "You will endeavor to procure for the citizens of the United States, or for the Government itself, if Congress should deem the measure constitutional and proper, the right of subscribing to the stock; and you will, in either case, present and transmit such plans, estimates, and other information relative to the projected work as may enable us to judge of its feasibility and importance."

Four years later, on the 3d of March, 1835, the Senate of the United States adopted the following broad and liberal resolution: "Resolved, That the President of the United States be respectfully requested to consider the expediency of opening negotiations with the governments of other nations, and particularly with the Governments of Central America and New Granada, for the purpose of effectually protecting, by suitable treaty stipulations with them, such individuals or companies as may undertake to open a communication between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by construction of a ship-canal across the isthmus which connects North and South America, and of securing for ever, by such stipulations, the free and equal right of navigating such canal to all such nations, on the payment of such reasonable tolls as may be established to compensate the capitalists who may engage in such undertaking to complete the work."

Again, four years later, in 1839, the American House of Representatives adopted a resolution reaffirming the ground taken by the Senate, and requesting the President to consider the expediency of negotiating with other nations "for the purpose of ascertaining the practicability of effecting a communication between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans by the construction of a ship-canal across the Isthmus, and of securing for ever, by suitable treaty stipulations, the free and equal right of navigating such canal to all nations."

The same policy was even more broadly and emphatically announced by the United States Government in 1850, in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, That convention contains the following declarations:

"The Governments of the United States and Great Britain hereby declare that neither the one nor the other will obtain nor maintain for itself any exclusive control over said ship-canal; agreeing that neither will ever erect or maintain any fortifications commanding the same or in the vicinity thereof, or occupy, or fortify, or colonize, or assume or exorcise any dominion over Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Mosquito Coast, or any part of Central America; nor will make use of any protection which either affords or may afford, or any alliance which either has or may have to or with any state or people for the purpose of erecting or maintaining any such fortification." Moreover, that "vessels of the United States or Great Britain traversing the said canal shall, in case of war between the contracting parties, be exempted from blockade, detention, or capture by either of the belligerents; and that this promise shall extend to such a distance from the two ends of the said canal as may hereafter be found expedient to establish"; that "they will guarantee the neutrality thereof, so that the said canal may for ever be open and free"; and that they "will invite every state with which both or either have friendly intercourse to enter into stipulations with them similar to those they have entered into with each other."

This is solid American ground. These deliberate and explicit declarations of both Houses of Congress and of the treaty-making powers of Government must be taken as expressing the national conviction—1. That the construction of a canal at the American Isthmus is an open project to be entered upon by any "capitalists," "individuals," or "companies" that may undertake it; 2. That it is a great international work to be under the joint control of the nations; and, 3. That the international protectorate is to be secured by treaty arrangements which it is proper for the President of the United States to initiate.

This is the just and honorable historic position of the American Government, and, as we may fairly assume, of the American people, in relation to this great enterprise. It is a definite and explicit line of public policy which has been variously and repeatedly proclaimed without protest or dissent. We have recognized the great desirableness of the interoceanic canal for this country, and its importance to the world; and we have pledged the faith of the republic to cooperate with other nations in affording international security to whatever individual or company would carry out the work.

Ferdinand de Lesseps now comes forward and offers to construct the canal. He is no dreamer, but a man of action. He has had experience in this work, and means business. Fortified by the almost unanimous approval of a large convention, which represented the best engineering skill of the age, he has determined the plan and route of a canal that he thinks will best meet the demands of the future; and stakes his reputation upon its practicability. M. de Lesseps's character gives seriousness to the proposition, and probably brings the measure nearer a practical realization than it has ever been before. It is a question that can not much longer be postponed.

And now come grave intimations that the American Government is to reverse its historic policy on the Isthmian Canal question. The honorable and consistent ground it has hitherto maintained is to be abandoned, faith is to be broken, pledges repudiated, and treaties abrogated. The canal is not to be controlled by international law, and the coöperation of maritime nations, but it must be exclusively controlled by the United States. Whoever makes it, and whoever pays for it, we are to seize it and hold it whenever we please. A select committee of the House of Representatives on the Interoceanic Canal has unanimously recommended the immediate adoption of the following joint resolutions:

Be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled:

That the establishment of any form of protectorate of any one of the Powders of Europe over the independent states of this continent, or the introduction from any quarter of a scheme or policy which would carry with it a right to any European Power to interfere with their concerns, or to control in any other
manner their country, or to transfer to any such Power, by conquest, cession, or acquisition in any other way, of any of those states, or any portion thereof, is a measure to which this Government has, in the declaration of President Monroe, in his message of December 2, 1823, and known as the "Monroe doctrine," avowed its opposition; and which, should the attempt be made, it will regard and treat as dangerous to our peace, prosperity, and safety.

2. Resolved, That it is the interest and right of the United States to have the possession, direction, control, and government of any canal, railroad or other artificial communication to be constructed across the isthmus connecting the American Continents, for the transfer of vessels and cargoes from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, whether the same be built or constructed at Panama, Nicaragua, or elsewhere; and, in view of the magnitude of this interest, it is the duty of the United States to insist that, if built, and by whomsoever the same may be commenced, prosecuted, or completed, and whatever the nationality of its corporators or the source of their capital, the interest of the United States and their right to possess and control the same will be asserted and maintained, whenever in their opinion it becomes necessary.

3. And be it further resolved, That the President be requested to take the steps necessary and proper for the abrogation of any existing treaties whose terms are in conflict with this declaration of principles.

There is, of course, no mistaking the significance of the position here taken. Whoever constructs the canal, and wherever the money comes from, this nation is to take possession of it and to maintain it. The newspapers have prepared us for this by declaring that the canal must be ours even at the cost of war, and though it be necessary to raise armies and navies to fight the whole world. Even so grave a journal as "The Nation" declares, and reaffirms in a subsequent issue, Wherever and whenever it [the canal] is constructed it will become the most sensitive and vital part of our interstate and international commercial system, and we must be prepared to protect it from the evil of local revolutions and foreign aggression, to seize it when necessary, and successfully defend it against the two greatest naval powers in the world. The completion of such a canal involves, therefore, the creation and maintenance of a naval force in the Atlantic and Pacific capable of contending with that of any possible European combination." And here comes the "New York Tribune," formerly the champion of peace, industry, and the ascendancy of civil rule, but now viewing the Interoceanic Canal as first of all a question of war. International law, the honor of governments, and mere paper protectorates are disparaged, and our policy is proclaimed to be "the erection of American forts, manned by American soldiers, at the two mouths of the canal."

The pretext for all this is the "Monroe doctrine," reaffirmed in the first of the above resolutions. Let us see what this doctrine is, and how it has been perverted to base ends for which it was never designed.

When the career of Napoleon ended, and the legitimate kings of Europe were again restored to their thrones, there came a reaction in favor of "strong governments," that is, government by despotic coercion in opposition to free constitutional governments. This resulted in a propagandism of tyrannic rule. A Holy Alliance was formed, embracing Russia, Austria, Spain, Prussia, and France, which, under pietistic pretenses, aimed at the repression of free institutions. The spirit of revolt against Old-World despotism had spread widely in Central and South America; and Venezuela, New Granada, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, and Brazil had declared themselves free and independent. It was in the programme of the Holy Alliance to regain control over the revolted American colonies, and reestablish the European system.

In this enterprise England did not join, nor did she at all approve of it. Mr. George Canning, the English Prime Minister, called the attention of the United States to the Continental plots, and asked if this Government intended to allow the subjugation of the American republics by foreign Powers. In his next message President Monroe said:

We declare that we should consider any attempt [of the allied Powers] to extend their system to any part of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. . . . With the governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have on great consideration and on just principles acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them or controlling, in any manner, their destiny by any European Power, in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.

This was a courageous and timely and most proper declaration, and it had its effect: the Continental despotisms abandoned their projects of interference. A revived Napoleon, indeed, revived the experiment in the case of Maximilian of propagating the European system on this continent; but it quickly ended in disaster, carrying Napoleon himself with it and turning France into a republic.

The emergency which called forth the declaration of this doctrine having passed away, it has since been used as mere political stock buncombe to cover unscrupulous projects which could not be openly and honestly defended. At first an expression of national dignity and justice in defense of the rights of the weak, it has been made the excuse for subverting the very objects it was designed to promote. Conceived and promulgated in the interests of freedom, it has been villainously pressed into the interests of slavery. When there was apprehension that Spain might in some future contingency give liberty to the blacks of Cuba, and thus endanger the American slave system by the contagion of moral example, the Monroe doctrine was invoked to forestall the humane possibility. Buchanan, of Pennsylvania, and Mason, of Virginia, fulminated the "Ostend Manifesto" to prevent "foreign interference on this continent," that slavery might be perpetual; and this in the name of the Monroe policy.

And now it is proposed again to pervert the Monroe doctrine to an end never dreamed of by its promulgators, and in point-blank subversion of its legitimate objects. We have already shown that, promptly following the Monroe declaration, came Congressional instructions to the President to open negotiations with other nations for the encouragement of all canal-constructors. It was then well enough understood that the Monroe doctrine was declared, to stop the extension of political despotisms, not to stop the free and beneficent extension of commerce. It was to prevent aggressive interference with young and feeble republics on this continent, that they may take their equal and independent place among the nations. In the exercise of its national rights thus affirmed, the Republic of Colombia has entered into arrangements to avail itself of foreign enterprise in constructing a canal through its territory. And now, forsooth, the loud proclaimers of the Monroe doctrine of non-interference propose to violate the principle by interfering with the right of Colombia to open a canal. The principle of the Monroe doctrine is not capable of any such application; it is the very bulwark of De Lesseps's enterprise. Originally designed to guarantee to Colombia her sovereign rights over her own soil, it now becomes a hypocritical pretext for invading and crushing her nationality.

Slavery and war are the surviving scourges of barbarism. The Monroe doctrine, having been used to fortify and prolong the curse of slavery, is now to be used to multiply the curses of war, and of war against the progress of peace-promoting commerce.

The sham reasons for defeating De Lesseps being out of the way, there is little difficulty in getting at the real motives of hostility to his project, as evinced by a large portion of the press and embodied in the Congressional resolutions. There are powerful rival interests opposing him, which do not scruple in the use of false pretenses to stir up jealousy and prejudice in the public mind to defeat his enterprise. The Pacific Railroad managers of course oppose further facilities of transcontinental communication; and no one can question that they are at the bottom of much of the hostility to the canal which has found expression in the newspapers. Their case was lately presented in a very candid way by the "New York Evening Mail" as follows: "The people and the Government of the United States have made a tremendous investment in transcontinental railways, that not only bind the Atlantic and Pacific slopes together, but give to the commerce of Europe new and swift channels of communication with the East. In the midst of the terrible uncertainties and fabulous expenditures of civil war, American enterprise, lavishly aided by the Government, undertook the gigantic task of railway-building across the continent. While all branches of industry are still burdened by the taxation imposed during this heroic period, is it quite time for us to favor opening a water-way across the isthmus that would, when completed, become a serious rival for the business that is now partly and gradually recompensing our Government and people? And is it wise at present to aid in opening a channel that will be used by foreign vessels to drive our traffic from the Pacific, as it has been driven from the Atlantic? Are we not entitled to a considerable period of opportunity for reaping the advantages of our costly overland railways, and of the ocean commerce that has been stimulated into a great growth by those railways?"

There is another class of busy operators who are eager for a canal, but in their white-hot patriotism can not endure the thought of its construction by a "foreigner." It must be a purely American affair, in the hands of American contractors, American engineers, and the American Government. So "big a thing," with "millions in it," they think belongs to Americans, And who doubts that in the hands of our business experts it would prove such a bonanza of jobbery, such a placer of plunder as this continent has never seen! Where, indeed, should the series of railroad jobs, of court-house jobs, of State "Capitol" jobs, culminate, if not in a canal costing indefinite hundreds of millions, with indefinite time to build it, with the national Treasury to back it, and so far away as to defy responsibility! And who doubts that those "interests" have been vigilant and active in manufacturing that opposition to De Lesseps which has taken embodiment in the late Congressional resolutions?

In an article contributed by M. de Lesseps to the "North American Review" he says: "It is because the French law is more severe in enforcing the responsibility of directors, thereby more perfectly protecting the rights of shareholders, among whom the United States should be included, that it has been proposed to organize the company under the French law." Could there be a more valid reason for the enterprise being an abomination in the eyes of our "smart American operators," than the fact that the rights of the shareholders would be protected? It is well understood that the experiences of our transatlantic friends in certain of our railroads, our mines, and our repudiated bonds, have led them to be very chary of irresponsible American investments, and that the clamor about the Monroe doctrine and our filibustering designs is intended to frighten away foreign capital from the enterprise of M. de Lesseps.

The sharpers, adventurers, and plotting speculators of the country are a unit against the construction of the Panama Canal by the man who has constructed the Suez Canal, and who defies the world to show that a centime of the funds contributed to it was misappropriated or stolen. Those schemers are well practiced in the arts of hoodwinking the public and of managing Legislatures. Will they be able to force the American Congress to repudiate the most honorable part of the nation's historic policy?


A correspondent from Ann Arbor, Michigan, wants something more explicit and practical from the "Monthly" on the subject of scientific education. He says: "Can not you throw a little more light upon the best collegiate course of education for a young person who designs entering one of the professions of law or medicine? You constantly refer to the value of science as a factor in education and as often vigorously protest against the old or the present classical courses; now, can not you help many who have children to educate, by pointing out the best course? This is a practical question, brought home to thousands of your readers, and it presses upon them for solution. Can not we have something more than glittering generalities, and which will be a guide to those needing the information? la it not time, in fact, to formulate the best course and to give in detail and in their logical order the studies best fitted for the proper development of the faculties?"

We often have communications like this from zealous and impatient educational reformers, who think there. has been talk enough about scientific education, and that it is high time something were done. But they expect too much, and are looking for impracticable things. It is a great mistake to suppose that the object here sought is anywhere to be at once and fully attained. The idea will be slowly and partially realized wherever there is a sufficient number of persons in any community imbued with the proper convictions and feelings to carry it into effect. Such a work must inevitably be gradual, and there will be concessions and improvements just in proportion to the strength and persistence of the demand for them. Our schools, at present, fairly represent the average intelligence and aspiration, and are as good as the people can appreciate or will sustain. A portion of the community—and the numbers are increasing—insist upon more time for science in the lower schools, and more science in place of the classics in the higher schools: both requirements have already been widely yielded. There is a larger provision than formerly in many primary schools for elementary science; and the multiplication of scientific schools in connection with colleges, or independently, and the modification of the old curriculum with better chances for science in many other institutions attest a salutary change in obedience to the growing wants. As the public demand becomes more discriminating and urgent, institutions will improve.

The line of progress, therefore, consists in making existing schools better. They are not to be displaced, but liberalized, and the culture they give made more useful and valuable. There would be no difficulty in forming a rational curriculum, but public ignorance, educated and otherwise, has to be reckoned with in carrying it out, because schools have to be supported. The principles of a better education than we now have are sufficiently understood, and the men are not wanting who could give a receipt for making a college much superior to those now in operation. But, if our correspondent had furnished him a perfect ideal plan, and the whole Johns Hopkins endowment to execute it, he would break down in getting his teachers and trustees, and his establishment would fall to the level of what could be publicly approved. If he merely wants help to construct a liberalized modern curriculum, he will find abundant materials in such works on education as those of Spencer, Bain, and Johnnot.

But there is a good deal of preliminary work to be done before any such ideal can be embodied, and this is the very practical work of enlightening public opinion so as to bring it to bear in improving the existing educational system. There are great impediments to change. Institutions are conservative, and tend to assimilate and subjugate the men who officer them. The noisy reformer is generally quenched by an appointment. His ideals are dissipated in the presence of refractory facts. A great machine system of public instruction, established by the State, and supported by general taxation, is too strongly intrenched to be easily altered. It resists improvement by the inertia of established habits, by official sluggishness, and a foolish pride that will not acknowledge defects. That upon which millions have been spent, and out of which thousands get a living, is sure to be strenuously defended and carefully conserved. Reform must be forced from without, and nothing but a bettor instructed public opinion can give us better schools.