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John Milton Hay (1838–1905) served as secretary of state under presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, from 1898 to 1905. He is perhaps best known for the Open Door Policy with regard to trade with China. In Latin American affairs, he was heavily involved in the actions that led to the building of the Panama Canal. Hay was born in Salem, Indiana, but spent much of his youth in Illinois. After attending Brown University, he went to Springfield, Illinois, to study law and became acquainted with Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln was elected president in 1860, he took Hay and John G. Nicolay to Washington, D.C., as his private secretaries. Hay and Nicolay later collaborated on a massive ten-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. Hay also wrote novels, poems, and other nonfiction works, some of which achieved modest critical acclaim.
After Lincoln's death, Hay served in several diplomatic posts in Europe, and under President Rutherford B. Hayes, he served as assistant secretary of state from 1878 to 1881. President William McKinley appointed Hay as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain in 1897. When Secretary of State William R. Day resigned his position in 1898 in to serve as a negotiator on the treaty ending the Spanish-Cuban-American War, McKinley appointed Hay as secretary of state. In a private letter to Theodore Roosevelt in July 1898, Hay made his oft-quoted observation that the Spanish-Cuban-American War was “a splendid little war.” When President McKinley died in September 1901, Hay continued to serve as part of Roosevelt's Cabinet.
Hay was the primary U.S. diplomat involved in negotiating the treaties that led to the building of the Panama Canal. Interest in a canal through Panama, which at the time was a province of Colombia, had existed for decades. The United Kingdom and commercial interests in France had both explored the possibility. In 1850, the United States and Great Britain agreed in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty to cooperate in building a canal in Central America. By the early 1900s, however, Great Britain was preoccupied with the Boer War in South Africa. In February 1900, Hay worked with Lord Julian Pauncefote, the British ambassador to the United States, to negotiate the first Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, in which Great Britain surrendered the right to be involved in building the canal and in return the United States agreed that any canal it built would be open to all nations. Disagreements over some of the precise terms in this version of the treaty led to a second Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, completed in November 1901.
Two principal routes were considered for a Central American canal. One was the route that the United States eventually built through Panama. Another possibility was through Nicaragua, which was a longer crossing but could make use of Lake Nicaragua as part of its route. In November 1901, the congressional Isthmian Canal Commission, chaired by Admiral John G. Walker, recommended the choice of the Nicaraguan route, in part because the New Panama Canal Company, the French firm that had been working on a canal in Panama, wanted more than $100 million for its holdings and its franchise to build a canal there. Based on this recommendation, the 1902 Hepburn Bill authorized the United States to explore the possibility of a Nicaraguan canal. However, faced with the fact that the United States might choose the route through Nicaragua, the New Panama Canal Company lowered its asking price to $40 million. In June 1902, Congress passed the Spooner Act, which authorized purchasing the holdings of the French company if Colombia would grant a perpetual right of way through Panama. This bill also provided that if negotiations with Colombia failed, the president could begin talks with Nicaragua. In 1903, Hay, in negotiations with Colombian chargé d'affaires for the United States, Dr. Tomás Herrán, concluded the Hay-Herrán Treaty with Colombia. It gave the United States a ninety-nine-year lease on a canal zone six miles, or ten kilometers, wide, with an option for renewal. The United States was to pay Colombia $10 million outright and an annual payment of $250,000. In August 1903, however, the Colombian senate voted to reject the treaty, seeking greater financial rewards for its country.
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Many residents of Panama were outraged at Colombia's rejection of the treaty. Panamanians believed the canal would bring them great economic opportunities and feared that the United States might now revert to a Nicaraguan route. The unrest in Panama led to a revolution to separate the region from Colombia, which started on November 3, 1903. Philippe Bunau-Varilla, an official of the French company that had been working on building a canal in Panama, played a major role in encouraging this revolution. The extent of the U.S. involvement in instigating or encouraging the Panamanian revolution is still debated, but a U.S. naval ship prevented Colombian forces from landing in Panama to quell the uprising. Within seventy-two hours of the uprising, the United States had recognized the new republic of Panama and, less than a week later, welcomed Bunau-Varilla as its minister. By November 18, 1903, Hay and Bunau-Varilla had concluded negotiations on a treaty between the United States and Panama. The terms were similar to those originally offered to Colombia, except that the United States would receive perpetual use of a zone ten miles wide.
The U.S. Senate ratified the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty in February 1904. While most members of the Senate wanted the canal and were willing to accept the treaty, some expressed concern about the U.S. role in encouraging the revolution in Panama and the rapidity with which the final treaty was written. The policies of the United States in building the canal, which opened in 1914, were perceived as high-handed by many Latin Americans and created considerable ill will throughout the region. Hay, who died at his summer home in New Hampshire in July 1905, did not live to see the canal completed.
See also Bunau-Varilla, Philippe J.; Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, 1850; Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty, 1903; Hay-Herrán Treaty, 1903; Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, 1901; Hepburn Bill, 1902; McKinley, William; Panama, Isthmian Canal Interests, Nineteenth Century; Roosevelt, Theodore
- John Hay: The Gentleman as Diplomat. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975.
- The Path between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977. .
- The Panama Canal Controversy: U.S. Diplomacy and Defense Interests. Palo Alto, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1977.
- The Life and Letters of John Hay. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915. .
US politician and writer. Educated at Brown University, he became a lawyer, and private secretary to President Lincoln . After Lincoln's death...
Presidential secretary, historian, poet, diplomat, novelist, and journalist The career of John Milton Hay is that of a man who always made the...
Keywords Panama Nicaragua Colombia U.S. Secretaries of State European Powers John Milton Hay (1838–1905) served as secretary...