The Panama Congress (May 1825 – July 1826)

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John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)

The Panama Congress (May 1825 – July 1826)

In December 1824, Latin American revolutionary Simon Bolivar proposed the convening of a diplomatic congress, in Colombian Panama, of all the nations that had once been a part of the Spanish Empire, in order to discuss the principles by which the commercial and political relations between the Latin American states would continue to unfold. The foreign minister of Colombia, Don Pedro Gaul, invited the United States to attend. The Adams cabinet discussed the proposal in May 1825 and decided that the United States would participate.

President Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay saw the Panama Congress as an opportunity to promote American foreign policy ideals such as commercial reciprocity and neutral rights, as well as build diplomatic relationships that would help achieve the vision of the Monroe Doctrine of keeping the Americas a separate sphere from Europe. They did not see participation in the Panama Congress as a departure in American foreign policy. In December 1825, Adams sent the names of two men, Richard C. Anderson and John Sergeant, to be approved as envoys to the Senate.

Partisan politics hamstrung the Panama nominations and crippled American efforts to participate in the Congress. In the Senate, Martin Van Buren, already an enemy of the Adams administration, led the opposition to participation in the Panama Congress. A report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee alleged Adams was trying to secretly commit the United States to an alliance that would undermine American neutrality and independence. The envoys were approved in March 1826, but the debate did not stop. After Senator John Randolph of Virginia delivered a speech laden with personal insults, Secretary Clay challenged him to a duel. They actually dueled on April 8, 1826, although neither man was injured. The envoys received instructions and left for the Congress in May 1826.

The American envoys never reached the Panama Congress. Anderson died of a tropical disease in Cartagena, on his way to the Congress. Sergeant made it only to Mexico City. The Congress itself lasted from June 22 through July 15 1826. Only Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Guatemala attended, and although those states concluded four treaties, only Colombia ever ratified them. A planned follow-up congress never occurred. A diplomatic failure in and of itself, the debate over the Panama Congress in the U.S. Senate only served to weaken and embarrass President Adams and reveal some of the sources of the growing animosity to his administration were.

James E. Lewis, Jr., John Quincy Adams: Policymaker for the Union (Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, 2001)

Lester H. Burne, ed., Chronological History of United States Foreign Relations, 1776 to January 20, 1981 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1985).

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