Purging History: Southern Nationalism, John Tyler Morgan, and the Nicaragua Canal

Posted on December 20, 2015


Today the Panamanians, in collaboration with a consortium of international bankers and agencies, are finishing the Panama Canal Expansion Program, which is the largest construction project in Panama since the completion of the original Panama Canal in 1914. It is about 90% complete.

At a cost of more than $5 billion, it will more than double the size of the Canal. Some U. S. funding and engineering is involved in this gigantic endeavor, but it is largely driven by Panama and European and Japanese monies and technology.

The first Panama Canal was, on the other hand, a testimony to the immense ability of the United States in the first half of the twentieth century to engineer and finance projects of staggering proportions, such as building the Panama Canal. The French, under the Suez Canal builder Ferdinand de Lesseps, had failed miserably in the 1880s, and now the Americans turned their shoulders to the plow.

The question was where to build the first transisthmian canal: Panama was not the only venue. A possible route across the narrow Tehuantepec isthmus in southern Mexico was considered. But more liking to the Americans was a route across Nicaragua, using the long San Juan River that connected Lake Nicaragua to the Atlantic as the basis, cutting a water path through the narrow neck of land dividing the lake from the Pacific.

Dueling consortiums developed in the United States, one favoring taking up where the French had failed, the other committed to the salubrious Nicaragua route, not festering with tropical diseases such as yellow fever and malaria which crippled de Lesseps and his engineers.

At the center of this debate was Senator John Tyler Morgan (1824-1907) of Alabama, elected in 1877. A Confederate war veteran and lawyer, Morgan emerged in the late nineteenth century as the most powerful voice in public circles of restoring the South after the devastating Civil War. He believed that one absolutely essential ingredient was a transisthmian canal, to give the Southern states and new industrial and commercial enterprises such as Birmingham’s new iron and steel industries, direct and quick access to markets in the Pacific. And he became the most fanatical advocate for the Nicaragua Canal. So much so that he was known popularly in the national press as “Canal” Morgan.

I became interested in him as I was finishing research on a book later published as Grace: W. R. Grace & Co. and the Modernization of Peru, 1850-1930. At the center of the first half of the book was an Irish immigrant to Peru, and later New York where he became the first foreign born mayor in 1881, William Russell Grace. He built his company around trade between the Americas, especially from the West Coast countries of Peru, Chile, and Ecuador facing the Pacific and, for William Grace, a canal was indispensable for the growth of trade and commerce between the Americas. He too liked the Nicaragua route and became a partisan and supporter of Morgan.

After the French withdrew from Panama, beaten by yellow fever, malaria, monstrous rains, and mud slides, the Americans formed a company, the Maritime Canal Co., and began to dig in Nicaragua in 1893. A financial crash that same year as capitalism seesawed back forth periodically crumpled the Maritime’s ability to continue raising cash and it went bankrupt.

The Spanish-American-Cuban War of 1898 interrupted the dueling canal builders—Panama or Nicaragua—but it brought another Alabamian, William Crawford Gorgas (1854-1920) into the picture. Gorgas, and another two doctors, Walter Reed, and a Scottish immigrant to Cuba, Carlos (Charles) Finlay, all worked together while the Americans occupied Cuba for several years to solve the puzzle of yellow fever and malaria. They narrowed down on the Anopheles mosquito as carrier and started a massive program of eradication in Cuba, which was later transferred to Panama, to control malaria and yellow fever that was devastating the thousands in the work force in 1904 and 1905.

By then the American Senate had voted to build the canal in Panama and the effort was underway. Of Nicaragua’s supporters, Grace died in 1904 and Morgan in 1907, and so neither lived to see the first ships transiting the Panama Canal when it opened in 1914. Gorgas went on to become president of the American Medical Association in 1909, Surgeon General of the Army in 1914, and received an honorary knighthood from King George V shortly before his death in London He was given a special funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral, before being transported back home where he was buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.

Morgan’s portrait was recently removed from Morgan Hall, by decision of Dean of Arts & Sciences Robert Olin, a welcome act according to “We Are Done,” a campus group advocating for more diversity and inclusion at UA.

Among the changes sought by the group, according to the Tuscaloosa News, Dec. 19, 2015, “is the removal of the names of white supremacists, Klansmen, Confederate generals, and eugenicists from the classroom buildings or the installation of markers to indicate their history of racism.”

Let me very quietly suggest that if the above criterion is followed—such as the removal of the Morgan portrait from Morgan Hall which is offensive to some—then just about everybody whose name is associated with the University in this time period has to be removed for segregation was a part of the culture of the times.
So, to help diversity the campus and remove all offensive placards, names, and symbols, let me suggest continuing with the Gorgas home, and, while we’re at it, try changing Bryant-Denny Stadium to something more acceptable.

Purging history to suit your contemporary politics can be fun. The Germans would do well with getting rid of Hitler from their history. He really was offensive!

Pretty soon we will have a history that suits the offended ones. It may be a far stretch from what really happened, but it tends to suit those who want to have things their way.

This is happening in a place, the University, where we are supposedly devoted to investigating and studying with an open, sound, and honest mind, free of politics and inane close-minded ideologies. That sounds more like a modern Marxist or Jihadist regime to me.

It’s my way or the highway.

We have sent enough people packing on the highway in the history of this country, including blacks, Jews, Catholics, Chinese and just about every racial and ethnic type who was new to the country at one time or another.

Why not, for a change, embrace not erase our past? Learn from it. Taking down a photograph or painting is child’s play, invoking a child’s sense of right or wrong. Grow up and see the world through the eyes and mind God gave all of us. Look for the truth, and, as they swear in court, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Published as Rather Than Erase the Past, Learn from It in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday December 27, 2015

Posted in: History