Harper's Weekly
April 10, 1880

Our Yankee Notion

                 U. S. (la Belle Sauvage).  "Bon voyage!  au revoir!  Count Ferdinand de Lesseps.
                 Don't go home with the impression THAT I DON'T RULE OVER HERE."

                 Artist: Thomas Nast

                This Thomas Nast cartoon emphatically declares that any interoceanic
                canal built in Central America or Mexico must be administered by the
                American government, not the European powers.  It rejects the plan of
                French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps to construct such a canal in Panama,
                and reflects the view expressed by President Rutherford B. Hayes in his
                recent special message to the U.S. Senate of March 8, 1880.

                De Lesseps was world-renowned for directing the construction of the Suez
                Canal in Egypt (1859-1869), and he was eager to replicate that feat in the
                western hemisphere.  In May 1879, delegates from 22 nations (including the
                United States) met in Paris at the International Congress for the Study of an
                Interoceanic Canal.  Proposals were presented for canals across Panama, the
                southern border of Nicaragua, and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern
                Mexico.  It was, however, De Lesseps's plan for a Panama canal which won
                the backing of the majority of delegates.  (Only 19 of the 136 delegates were
                engineers, and only one had actually visited Central America.)

                In December 1879, the determined De Lesseps embarked on a trip to the
                proposed site in Panama, before journeying to the United States.  The Hayes
                administration would have been leery about any European enterprise in
                Central America, but was particularly uneasy after French involvement, given
                the failed attempt by (now-deposed) Napoleon III to install a puppet ruler in
                Mexico in the 1860s.  In his annual message to Congress in December 1879,
                President Hayes warned that an interoceanic canal must be "under the
                protective auspices of the United States."  On January 9, 1880, he ordered
                two American naval ships to dock near the possible sites, and requested
                $200,000 from Congress to establish coaling stations in the area.

                On February 10, 1880, Hayes informed his cabinet that he intended to send a
                special message to the Senate on the issue, which he believed threatened the
                prosperity and, especially, the security of the United States.  The cabinet
                strongly endorsed his stance, but the president's secretary, William Rogers,
                had to work on gaining press support, particularly from Harper's Weekly.  In
                the newspaper's February 28 edition (on newsstands February 18), George
                William Curtis disputed the assumption that De Lesseps's plan threatened the
                vital interests of the United States or violated the Monroe Doctrine.  The
                editor pointed out that it was a private enterprise, not backed by the French
                or any other foreign government, to which Americans could invest and buy

                Rogers contacted Curtis on February 23 to urge him to support the
                administration's policy.  The secretary explained the president's position and
                stressed how important press opinion was on the issue.  In the March 13
                issue (available March 3), Curtis artfully straddled the question.  He first
                summarized the arguments of both De Lesseps and his political opponents,
                then stated that while construction of an interoceanic canal by a Frenchman or
                French company was not itself a threat, it did raise the possibility of trouble.
                Therefore, a clear statement by the American government was justified so that
                all parties knew what was and was not permissible.

                In New York City, De Lesseps assured Americans that not only was his a
                private venture which desired American investors, but that he would consider
                locating its headquarters in the United States.  On March 8, as De Lesseps
                was testifying before a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives,
                Hayes issued his special message to the Senate in which the president stated
                unequivocally the administration's position:  "The policy of this country is a
                canal under American control."

                Whether or not De Lesseps had read Curtis's second editorial, which
                contended that the project's director and all interested parties would welcome
                an explicit administration statement, he acted in accordance with it.  De
                Lesseps hailed the president's message as good news for his project, then
                went on a round-trip speaking tour across the country.  Meanwhile, the
                French government promptly sent their American minister to reassure Hayes
                that they had no direct or indirect involvement in the project.

                To win public approval and give the impression of U.S. government support,
                De Lesseps established an American advisory committee and offered the
                chairmanship to Ulysses S. Grant, who had advocated construction of an
                interoceanic canal while president.  After Grant's rejection, De Lesseps turned
                to Navy Secretary Richard Thompson, who in December 1880 accepted the
                $25,000 salary, while intending to remain at his administration post (paying
                $8,000).  An angry and appalled President Hayes, who had just reiterated his
                firm position on the canal in his final annual message to Congress, fired

                Although Hayes did not stop the project, the issue of the proposed
                interoceanic canal prompted the president to expand his vision in foreign
                policy.  After it arose, he called on Congress to subsidize steamship lines to
                Latin America, Asia, and Australia; to subsidize a telegraph cable from
                California to Hawaii, then to Asia and Australia; and to increase the number
                of ships in the tiny American navy, which would sail in every region of the

                De Lesseps's company began excavation for the Panama canal in 1881, but
                was plagued with problems and went bankrupt in 1889.  An investigation by
                the French government into the company's operations resulted in five-year
                prison sentences for De Lesseps and his son, Charles, but an appeals court
                reversed the decision.  In 1903, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty gave the
                United States sole rights to construct and operate a canal in Panama.  The
                next year, De Lesseps's former company, which had reorganized in 1894,
                sold its holdings to the United States.  The Panama Canal was officially
                opened in 1914.  In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the Panama Canal
                Treaty which returned ownership to the Republic of Panama in 2000.

                In Nast's first cartoon on the subject of an interoceanic canal (the cover of
                March 13), the artist presents the "European Plan" as a collusion between the
                British and the French.  In this featured cartoon (Nast's second), the focus is
                now on De Lesseps the Frenchman, while the British symbol, John Bull, has
                literally taken a backseat (and the German Kaiser's helmet is barely
                noticeable).  Miss Columbia is presented as a noble savage, and De Lesseps
                efforts to win over Americans is mocked as a bowl of French candy.

                Robert C. Kennedy