CHAPTER VI. Venezuela

Probably no President ever received so much personal abuse in his own day as did Grover Cleveland. In time, however, his sterling integrity and fundamental courage, his firm grasp of the higher administrative duties of his office, won the approval of his countrymen, and a repentant public sentiment has possibly gone too far in the other direction of acclaiming his statesmanship. Unlike Blaine, Cleveland thought soundly and consistently; but he was more obstinate, his vision was often narrower, and he was notably lacking both in constructive power and in tact, particularly in foreign relations. In his first Administration, through his Secretary of State, Thomas F. Bayard, Cleveland had negotiated fairly amicably with Great Britain, and when he failed to secure the Senate's assent to a treaty on the irritating question of the northeastern fisheries, he arranged a modus vivendi which served for many years. In American affairs he opposed not only the annexation of Hawaii but also the development of the spirit of Pan-Americanism. He was, however, no more disposed than was Blaine to permit infractions of that negative side of the Monroe Doctrine which forbade European interference in America. His second Administration brought to the forefront of world diplomacy an issue involving this traditional principle.

The only European possession in South America at this time was Guiana, fronting on the Atlantic north of Brazil and divided among France, Holland, and Great Britain. Beyond British Guiana, the westernmost division, lay Venezuela. Between the two stretched a vast tract of unoccupied tropical jungle. Somewhere there must have been a boundary, but where, no man could tell. The extreme claim of Great Britain would have given her command of the mouth of the Orinoco, while that of Venezuela would practically have eliminated British Guiana. Efforts to settle this long-standing dispute were unavailing. Venezuela had from time to time suggested arbitration but wished to throw the whole area into court. Great Britain insisted upon reserving a minimum territory and would submit to judicial decision only the land west of what was known as the Schomburgk line of 1840. As early as 1876 Venezuela appealed to the United States, "the most powerful and oldest of the Republics of the new continent," for its "powerful moral support in disputes with European nations." Several times the United States proffered its good offices to Great Britain, but to no effect. The satisfactory settlement of the question grew more difficult as time went on, particularly after the discovery of gold in the disputed region had given a new impulse to occupation.

President Cleveland took a serious view of this controversy because it seemed to involve more than a boundary dispute. To his mind it called into question the portion of Monroe's message which, in 1823, stated that "the American continents...are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers." According to this dictum, boundaries existed between all nations and colonies of America; the problem was merely to find these boundaries. If a European power refused to submit such a question to judicial decision, the inference must be made that it was seeking to extend its boundaries. In December, 1894, Cleveland expressed to Congress his hope that an arbitration would be arranged and instructed his Secretary of State to present vigorously to Great Britain the view of the United States.

Richard Olney of Boston, a lawyer of exceptional ability and of the highest professional standing, was then Secretary of State. His Venezuela dispatch, however, was one of the most undiplomatic documents ever issued by the Department of State. He did not confine himself to a statement of his case, wherein any amount of vigor would have been permissible, but ran his unpracticed eye unnecessarily over the whole field of American diplomacy. "That distance and three thousand miles of intervening ocean make any permanent political union between a European and an American state unnatural and inexpedient," may have been a philosophic axiom to many in Great Britain as well as in the United States, but it surely did not need reiteration in this state paper, and Olney at once exposed himself to contradiction by adding the phrase, "will hardly be denied." Entirely ignoring the sensitive pride of the Spanish Americans and thinking only of Europe, he continued: "Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition."

The President himself did not run into any such uncalled-for extravagance of expression, but his statement of the American position did not thereby lose in vigor. When he had received the reply, of the British Government refusing to recognize the interest of the United States in the case, Cleveland addressed himself, on December 17, 1895, to Congress. In stating the position of the Government of the United States, he declared that to determine the true boundary line was its right, duty, and interest. He recommended that the Government itself appoint a commission for this purpose, and he asserted that this line, when found, must be maintained as the lawful boundary. Should Great Britain continue to exercise jurisdiction beyond it, the United States must resist by every means in its power. "In making these recommendations I am fully alive to the responsibility incurred, and keenly realize all the consequences that may follow." Yet "there is no calamity which a great nation can invite which equals that which follows a supine submission to wrong and injustice and the consequent loss of national self-respect and honor beneath which axe shielded and defended a people's safety and greatness."