William Howard Taft

Memorandum to Accompany the Panama Canal Act

August 24, 1912

In signing the Panama Canal bill, I wish to leave this memorandum. The bill is admirably drawn for the purpose of securing the proper maintenance, operation, and control of the canal, and the government of the Canal Zone, and for the furnishing to all the patrons of the canal, through the Government, of the requisite docking facilities and the supply of coal and other shipping necessities. It is absolutely necessary to have the bill passed at this session in order that the capital of the world engaged in the preparation of ships to use the canal may know in advance the conditions under which the traffic is to be carried on through this waterway.

I wish to consider the objections to the bill in the order of their importance.

First. The bill is objected to because it is said to violate the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty in discriminating in favor of the coastwise trade of the United States by providing that no tolls shall be charged to vessels engaged in that trade passing through the canal. This is the subject of a protest by the British Government.

The British protest involves the right of the Congress of the United States to regulate its domestic and foreign commerce in such manner as to the Congress may seem wise, and specifically the protest challenges the right of the Congress to exempt American shipping from the payment of tolls for the use of the Panama Canal or to refund to such American ships the tolls which they may have paid, and this without regard to the trade in which such ships are employed, whether coastwise or foreign. The protest states "the proposal to exempt all American shipping from the payment of the tolls would, in the opinion of His Majesty's Government, involve an infraction of the treaty (Hay-Pauncefote), nor is there, in their opinion, any difference in principle between charging tolls only to refund them and remitting tolls altogether. The result is the same in either case and the adoption of the alternative method of refunding tolls in preference of remitting them, while perhaps complying with the letter of the treaty, would still controvert its spirit." The provision of the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty involved is contained in article 3, which provides:

The United States adopts, as the basis of the neutralization of such ship canal, the following rules, substantially as embodied in the convention of Constantinople, signed the 28th October, 1888, for the free navigation of the Suez Canal—that is to say:

1. The canal shall be free and open to the vessels of commerce and of war of all nations observing these rules, on terms of entire equality, so that there shall be no discrimination against any such nation, or its citizens or subjects, in respect of the conditions or charges of traffic, or otherwise. Such conditions and charges of traffic shall be just and equitable.

Then follows five other rules to be observed by other nations to make neutralization effective, the observance of which is the condition for the privilege of using the canal.

In view of the fact that the Panama Canal is being constructed by the United States wholly at its own cost, upon territory ceded to it by the Republic of Panama for that purpose, and that, unless it has restricted itself, the United States enjoys absolute rights of ownership and control, including the right to allow its own commerce the use of the canal upon such terms as it sees fit, the sole question is, Has the United States, in the language above quoted from the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, deprived itself of the exercise of the right to pass its own commerce free or to remit tolls collected for the use of the Canal?

It will be observed that the rules specified in article 3 of the treaty were adopted by the United States for a specific purpose, namely, as the basis of the neutralization of the canal, and for no other purpose. The article is a declaration of policy by the United States that the canal shall be neutral; that the attitude of this Government toward the commerce of the world is that all nations will be treated alike and no discrimination made by the United States against any one of them observing the rules adopted by the United States. The right to the use of the canal and to equality of treatment in the use depends upon the observance of the conditions of the use by the nations to whom we extended that privilege. The privileges of all nations to whom we extended the use upon the observance of these conditions were to be equal to that extended to any one of them which observed the conditions. In other words, it was a conditional favored-nation treatment, the measure of which, in the absence of express stipulation to that effect, is not what the country gives to its own nationals, but the treatment it extends to other nations.

Thus it is seen that the rules are but a basis of neutralization, intended to effect the neutrality which the United States was willing should be the character of the canal and not intended to limit or hamper the United States in the exercise of its sovereign power to deal with its own commerce, using its own canal in whatsoever manner it saw fit.

If there is no "difference in principle between the United States charging tolls to its own shipping only to refund them and remitting tolls altogether," as the British protest declares, then the irresistible conclusion is that the United States, although it owns, controls, and has paid for the canal, is restricted by treaty from aiding its own commerce in the way that all the other nations of the world may freely do. It would scarcely be claimed that the setting out in a treaty between the United States and Great Britain of certain rules adopted by the United States as the basis of the neutralization of the canal would bind any Government to do or refrain from doing anything other than the things required by the rules to insure, the privilege of use and freedom from discrimination. Since the rules do not provide as a condition for the privilege of use upon equal terms with other nations that other nations desiring to build up a particular trade involving the use of the canal shall not either directly agree to pay the tolls or to refund to its ships the tolls collected for the use of the canal, it is evident that the treaty does not affect that inherent, sovereign right, unless, which is not likely, it be claimed that the promulgation by the United States of these rules insuring all nations against its discrimination, would authorize the United States to pass upon the action of other nations and require that no one of them should grant to its shipping larger subsidies or more liberal inducement for the use of the canal than were granted by others; in other words, that the United States has the power to equalize the practice of other nations in this regard.

If it is correct, then, to assume that there is nothing in the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty preventing Great Britain and the other nations from extending such favors as they may see fit to their shipping using the canal, and doing it in the way they see fit, and if it is also right to assume that there is nothing in the treaty that gives the United States any supervision over, or right to complain of, such action, then the British protest leads to the absurd conclusion that this Government in constructing the canal, maintaining the canal, and defending the canal, finds itself shorn of its right to deal with its own commerce in its own way, while all other nations using the canal in competition with American commerce enjoy that right and power unimpaired.

The British protest, therefore, is a proposal to read into the treaty a surrender by the United States of its right to regulate its own commerce in its own way and by its own methods—a right which neither Great Britain herself, nor any other nation that may use the canal, has surrendered or proposes to surrender. The surrender of this right is not claimed to be in terms. It is only to be inferred from the fact that the United States has conditionally granted to all the nations the use of the canal without discrimination by the United States between the grantees; but as the treaty leaves all nations desiring to use the canal with full right to deal with their own vessels as they see fit, the United States would only be discriminating against itself if it were to recognize the soundness of the British contention.

The bill here in question does not positively do more than to discriminate in favor of the coastwise trade, and the British protest seems to recognize a distinction between such exemption and the exemption of American vessels engaged in foreign trade. In effect, of course, there is a substantial and practical difference. The American vessels in foreign trade come into competition with vessels of other nations in that same trade, while foreign vessels are forbidden to engage in the American coastwise trade. While the bill here in question seems to vest the President with discretion to discriminate in fixing tolls in favor of American ships and against foreign ships engaged in foreign trade, within the limitation of the range from 50 cents a ton to $1.25 a net ton, there is nothing in the act to compel the President to make such a discrimination. It is not, therefore, necessary to discuss the policy of such discrimination until the question may arise in the exercise of the President's discretion.

The policy of exempting the coastwise trade from all tolls really involves the question of granting a Government subsidy for the purpose of encouraging that trade in competition with the trade of the transcontinental railroads. I approve this policy. It is in accord with the historical course of the Government in giving Government aid to the construction of the transcontinental roads. It is now merely giving Government aid to a means of transportation that competes with those transcontinental roads.

Second. The bill permits the registry of foreign-built vessels as vessels of the United States for foreign trade, and it also permits the admission without duty of materials for the construction and repair of vessels in the United States. This is objected to on the ground that it will interfere with the shipbuilding interests of the United States. I can not concur in this view. The number of vessels of the United States engaged in foreign trade is so small that the work done by the present shipyards is almost wholly that of constructing vessels for the coastwise trade or Government vessels. In other words, there is substantially no business for building ships in the foreign trade in the shipyards of the United States which will be injured by this new provision. It is hoped that this registry of foreign-built ships in American foreign trades will prove to be a method of increasing our foreign shipping. The experiment will hurt no interest of ours, and we can observe its operation. If it proves to extend our commercial flag to the high seas, it will supply a long-felt want.

Third. Section 5 of the interstate commerce act is amended by forbidding railroad companies to own, lease, operate, control, or have any interest in any common carrier by water operated through the Panama Canal with which such railroad or other carrier does or may compete for traffic. I have twice recommended such restriction as to the Panama Canal. It was urged upon me that the Interstate Commerce Commission might control the trade so as to prevent an abuse from the joint ownership of railroads and of Panama steamships competing with each other, and therefore that this radical provision was not necessary. Conference with the Interstate Commerce Commission, however, satisfied me that such control would not be as effective as this restriction. The difficulty is that the interest of the railroad company is so much larger in its railroad and in the maintenance of its railroad rates than in making a profit out of the steamship line that it can afford temporarily to run its vessels for nearly nothing in order to drive out the business independent steamship lines, and thus obtain complete control of the shipping in the trade through the canal and regulate the rates according to the interest of the railroad company. Jurisdiction is conferred on the Interstate Commerce Commission finally to determine the question of fact as to the competition or possibility of competition of the water carrier with the railroad, and this may be done in advance of any investment of capital.

Fourth. The effect of the amendment of section 5 of the interstate commerce act also is extended so as to make it unlawful for railroad companies owning or controlling lines of steamships in any other part of the jurisdiction of the United States to continue to do so, and as to such railroad companies and such water carriers the Interstate Commerce Commission is given the duty and power not only finally to determine the question of competition or possibility of competition, but also to determine "that the specified service by water is being operated in the interest of the public and is of advantage to the convenience and commerce of the people, and that such extension will neither exclude, prevent, nor reduce competition on the route by water under consideration"; and, if it finds this to be the case, to extend the time during which such service by water may continue beyond the date fixed in the act for its first operation—to wit, July I, 1914. Whenever the time is extended, then the water carrier, its rates and schedules, and practices are brought within the control of the Interstate Commerce Commission. How far it is within the power of Congress to delegate to the Interstate Commerce Commission such wide discretion it is unnecessary now to discuss. There is ample time between now and the time of this provision of the act's going into effect to have the matter examined by the Supreme Court, or to change the form of the legislation, should it be deemed necessary. Certainly the suggested invalidity of this section, if true, would not invalidate the entire act, the remainder of which may well stand without regard to this provision.

Fifth. The final objection is to a provision which prevents the owner of any steamship who is guilty of violating the antitrust law from using the canal. It is quite evident that this section applies only to those vessels engaged in the trade in which there is a monopoly contrary to our Federal statute, and it is a mere injunctive process against the continuance of such monopolistic trade. It adds the penalty of denying the use of the canal to a person or corporation violating the antitrust law. It may have some practical operation where the business monopolized is transportation by ships, but it does not become operative to prevent the use of the canal until the decree of the court shall have established the fact of the guilt of the owner, of the vessel. While the penalties of the antitrust law seem to me to be quite sufficient already, I do not know that this new remedy against a particular kind of a trust may not sometimes prove useful.

In a message sent to Congress after this bill had passed both Houses I ventured to suggest a possible amendment by which all persons, and especially all British subjects who felt aggrieved by the provisions of the bill on the ground that they are in violation of the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, might try that question out in the Supreme Court of the United States. I think this would have satisfied those who oppose the view which Congress evidently entertains of the treaty and might avoid the necessity for either diplomatic negotiation or further decision by an arbitral tribunal. Congress, however, has not thought it wise to accept the suggestion, and therefore I must proceed in the view which I have expressed, and am convinced is the correct one, as to the proper construction of the treaty and the limitations which it imposes upon the United States. I do not find that the bill here in question violates those limitations.

On the whole, I believe the bill to be one of the most beneficial that has passed this or any other Congress, and I find no reason in the objections made to the bill which should lead me to delay, until another session of Congress, provisions that are imperatively needed now in order that due preparation by the world may be made for the opening of the canal.

Signature of William Howard Taft

THE WHITE HOUSE, August 24, 1912.

William Howard Taft, Memorandum to Accompany the Panama Canal Act Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/367052

Simple Search of Our Archives