Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Foreign Affairs

After the Civil War, much of America's attention turned inwards as the country concentrated on rebuilding. Nevertheless, Grant's appointment of Hamilton Fish as secretary of state was one of his best decisions. The two men worked well together and respected each other's opinions although they did not always agree. Fish remained in the Grant administration for its entire eight years.

Cuban Insurrection

From the outset, both President Grant and Secretary of State Fish focused their attention on the Caribbean region. In 1868, Cuban rebels began to fight a guerrilla campaign against Spain to win independence. Although many Americans were sympathetic to the rebels and wanted to support them, Grant and Fish sought to avoid a possible war with Spain just as the United States was trying to recover from the Civil War. Despite the administration's stance, many in Congress wanted to support the rebels. When Congress attempted to pass a resolution recognizing the Cuban rebels' fight against Spain, Grant sent a message reasserting the administration's position, and the resolution was defeated. The administration tried to negotiate with Spain to acquire Cuba but talks failed. Ultimately, Spain reasserted its control over the island nation, and the United States stepped back from the situation.

Annexing Santo Domingo

One of Grant's failed initiatives in foreign policy involved the Caribbean nation of Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic). For many years, the U.S. Navy had wanted a base in the Caribbean to house its operations. Santo Domingo had a suitable bay, and its government was interested in having the United States annex the country. The President was also interested in the island nation because it presented black Americans with an alternative to staying in the South and facing discrimination and violence. He believed that blacks would be in a better position to negotiate with Southern whites about improving working conditions if they could chose to leave the South and immigrate to Santo Domingo.

Although Secretary of State Fish did not support annexing Santo Domingo, he agreed to send Grant's private secretary to the country to assess the situation. After his secretary returned with a report favoring annexation, Grant spoke with Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, chair of the foreign relations committee, to gain his support. The two men had always been uneasy allies and their talk left Grant with the impression—incorrect, as it turned out—that Sumner would support annexation. However, when the President presented the relevant treaty to the Senate in 1870, Sumner spoke out against it and withheld his support. In the end, it failed to pass the Senate.

However, Grant was unwilling to give up. He persuaded enough senators and representatives to support a fact-finding commission of three men that would explore the situation in Santo Domingo. Although the commission recommended annexation, public opinion had turned against the treaty, and the issue disappeared from public debate.

Alabama Claims

During the Civil War, Britain had declared its neutrality but some of its citizens, interested in the cotton trade and other profits, aligned with the South. English firms constructed Confederate warships, which the South used to disrupt Northern shipping. After the war ended, the United States claimed that Britain owed it compensation for disrupting shipping, prolonging the length of the war, and violating its neutrality. Known collectively as the Alabama Claims (the Alabama was a Confederate cruiser), these accusations strained British and American relations. The United States and Britain also divided over a number of unresolved issues regarding Canada, such as fishing rights and boundary disputes.

Secretary of State Fish convinced Grant of the importance of improving U.S. relations with Britain, and Grant let him handle the negotiations to resolve the Alabama Claims and other issues. A Joint High Commission made up of American, Canadian, and British negotiators met in Washington, D.C., in 1871 to hammer out an agreement. The commission resolved most of the issues and agreed to submit the Alabama Claims to international arbitration. The Senate quickly approved the resulting Treaty of Washington, which determined that Britain owed the United States $15.5 million. Although the 1872 treaty favored the United States, it greatly improved Anglo-American relations and made international arbitration more widely accepted. It was also seen as one of greatest accomplishments of Grant's presidency.