CLAYTON-BULWER TREATY, a treaty concluded on 19 April 1850 in Washington, D.C., between Secretary of State John Middleton Clayton (1796–1856) and the British minister plenipotentiary, Sir Henry Lytton Bulwer (1801–1872).
Rivalries between the United States and Great Britain had been sharpening in Central America because of British occupation of the Bay Islands (under the sovereignty of Honduras), their establishment of a protectorate over the Mosquito Indians (on the coast of Honduras and Nicaragua), and the seizure of the mouth of the San Juan River (the most probable end of the future canal) in January 1848.
Until the 1850s, the United States had shown a constant but rather mild interest in building a canal; however, since the discovery of gold in California (1848) and the new territorial acquisitions following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), it became urgent to secure a shorter and more convenient access to the Pacific coast. This conjunction of commercial, strategic, and security factors led to a growing interest in the Caribbean and Central America, and in British activities there.
The treaty set out that neither Great Britain nor the United States should have exclusive control over the projected canal, nor colonize any part of Central America, but both would guarantee the protection and neutrality of the canal. The treaty was rather speedily ratified by the Senate (42 to 11), but its wording was so ambiguous that it led to a national uproar and became one of the most unpopular in American history.
The treaty was considered as a betrayal of the Monroe Doctrine; the self-denying pledge was an obstacle to the future and inevitable southward expansion of the United States, and the doctrine was devitalized because Britain was permitted to keep what they had illegally seized. Inversely, the treaty was also considered instrumental in strengthening the Monroe Doctrine nationally and internationally, since Britain had implicitly recognized it by accepting not to expand any further in Central America.
Most historians agree that the treaty was a good compromise between a politically, economically, and culturally dominant world power in Latin America—Britain—and a minor though growing-in-influence regional power. Hence the United States probably obtained then as much as it could from Britain. It was not until Theodore Roosevelt's presidency that the United States did obtain the exclusive right to build and fortify the isthmian canal through the Hay-Pauncefote Treaties (1901).
This treaty can be considered both as laying the foundations for the building of the isthmian canal by the United States at the turn of the twentieth century and as consolidating the Caribbean and Central American regions as priorities for American diplomacy and security.
Brauer, Kinley J. "The United States and British Imperial Expansion, 1815–1860." Diplomatic History 12 (winter 1988): 19–37.
Crawford, Martin. The Anglo-American Crisis of the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.
Travis, Ira Dudley. The History of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. Ann Arbor, Mich.: The Association, 1900.
Williams, Mary Wilhelmine. Anglo-American Isthmian Diplomacy, 1815–1915. Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith, 1965.