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Civil War History 53.4 (2007) 342-378

"As Dead as Julius Caesar":
The Rejection of the McLane-Ocampo Treaty
Pearl T. Ponce

In December 1860, the McLane-Ocampo Treaty with Mexico quietly expired when the United States Senate failed to reconsider its previous rejection of the treaty. By most accounts, the treaty—with its establishment of free trade and the granting of transit rights across the isthmus of Tehuantepec for a scant $4 million—favored the United States. Moreover, it represented President James Buchanan's final effort to propel American expansion into Mexican territory. Given the instability of the Mexican government and the language of the treaty, it was likely the United States could convert a temporary presence into an eventual conquest. Nonetheless, the Senate rejected the treaty on May 31, 1860, by a vote of twenty-seven to eighteen. A motion to reconsider the vote placed it on the December agenda, but by then the fragmenting Union ill-afforded the Senate the luxury of unfinished business.

The reasons behind the rejection of the McLane-Ocampo Treaty remain obscure. Most historians have interpreted its defeat as the result of Northern opposition to slavery. In his biography of Buchanan, for instance, Philip Klein argues that the treaty was favored in the South and condemned in the North for promoting the power of slavery. Similarly, Robert May asserts that although the treaty was not a Southern measure, Southerners viewed the treaty's failure as "proof of Republican hostility." Donathon Olliff believes the treaty "was defeated by sectional and party politics." These three authors place the defeat of the McLane-Ocampo Treaty within a sectional [End Page 342] framework. Frederick Merk, however, attributes the rejection of Buchanan's Mexico policy, which variously included requests to deploy a military force and establish a protectorate, as well as the treaty, to its limited vision. Merk argues that after the Mexican War, American expansion was characterized by a "petty materialism" and plans like Buchanan's lacked "the sweep, the grandeur, the sublimity, of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny," which had fathered the All Mexico policy. Moreover, Merk attributes a disinterest in Mexico to a fear of extending citizenship to so many non-Anglo-Saxons, prompting expansionists to turn to the Caribbean instead.1 While Merk is correct in describing the president's Mexico policy as rhetorically lacking, he errs in slighting Buchanan's covetousness for northern Mexico.

During the 1856 presidential campaign, James Buchanan had urged voters to consider him the representative of the Democratic platform, which had pledged to establish "free seas, progressive free trade, the building and control of Central American trade routes" and, specifically, to achieve "ascendancy in the Gulf of Mexico." Given his unconvincing electoral victory, Buchanan lacked a clear mandate for governing as the opposition Republican and American parties had garnered more popular votes. Furthermore, the 1858 battle over the Lecompton Constitution lacerated the administration with both a defeat and a fracturing of the Democratic party.2 This adverse political situation limited Buchanan's ability to formulate foreign policy.

Although in his inaugural address Buchanan had asserted that "a strict construction of the powers of the government is the only true, as well as safe theory of the Constitution," his third annual address was markedly different. In a speech sent to Congress in December 1859, Buchanan wrote about the divisions of power outlined in the Constitution. While he acknowledged that only Congress could declare war and provide the force necessary to wage war, Buchanan emphasized that he alone would have the discretion to employ any such force. What, however, was to be done in the case of hostilities? Did the Constitution truly imply that the United States must wait until hostilities had [End Page 343] commenced before it could defend itself? Perhaps that was not the framers' intent, for, as Buchanan asserted, "in the progress of a great nation many exigencies must arise imperatively requiring that Congress should authorize the President to act promptly on certain conditions which may or...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 342-378
Launched on MUSE
2007-12-03
Open Access
No
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