First Pan-American Congress Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although this meeting of representatives from Western Hemisphere nations did not resolve many substantive issues, it set a precedent for inter-American cooperation that laid the groundwork for creation of the Organization of American States.

Summary of Event

The first Pan-American Congress took place in Washington, D.C., between October, 1889, and April, 1890. The first inter-American meeting to be held in the United States, it was called by President Grover Cleveland through invitations sent out by his secretary of state, Thomas Francis Bayard. Delegates came from all the independent nations of Latin America except Santo Domingo Santo Domingo (later the Dominican Republic Dominican Republic ). When they arrived in Washington, they were met by James G. Blaine, who had succeeded Bayard Bayard, Thomas Francis as secretary of state and who had long advocated holding a congress of this nature. Pan-American Congress (1889-1990)[PanAmerican Congress (1889-1990)] South America;and Pan-American Congress[PanAmerican Congress] Latin America;and United States[United States] [kw]First Pan-American Congress (October, 1889-Apr., 1890) [kw]Pan-American Congress, First (October, 1889-Apr., 1890) [kw]American Congress, First Pan- (October, 1889-Apr., 1890) [kw]Congress, First Pan-American (October, 1889-Apr., 1890) Pan-American Congress (1889-1990)[PanAmerican Congress (1889-1990)] South America;and Pan-American Congress[PanAmerican Congress] Latin America;and United States[United States] [g]United States;Oct., 1889-Apr., 1890: First Pan-American Congress[5660] [g]South America;Oct., 1889-Apr., 1890: First Pan-American Congress[5660] [g]Central America and the Caribbean;Oct., 1889-Apr., 1890: First Pan-American Congress[5660] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Oct., 1889-Apr., 1890: First Pan-American Congress[5660] [c]Organizations and institutions;Oct., 1889-Apr., 1890: First Pan-American Congress[5660] Bayard, Thomas Francis Blaine, James G. [p]Blaine, James G.;and Pan-American Congress[PanAmerican Congress] Cleveland, Grover [p]Cleveland, Grover;and Pan-American Congress[PanAmerican Congress] Calvo, Carlos Carnegie, Andrew Peña, Roque Saénz Varas, Emilio C.

The pan-American ideal included the promotion of closer political, social, and economic bonds among the independent nations of the Western Hemisphere. It had its roots in a meeting called in Panama Panama by Simón Bolívar Bolívar, Simón in 1826 that had been attended by delegations from Central America Central America;and Pan-American Congress[PanAmerican Congress] , Colombia, Colombia Peru, Peru and Mexico. The American representatives did not arrive before the end of the conference on July 15, 1826. Bolívar’s conference was a failure, but it established a precedent for inter-American cooperation that would follow a “good neighbor” "Good neighbor" policy[Good neighbor policy] policy advocated by Henry Clay Clay, Henry [p]Clay, Henry;and Latin America[Latin America] during the 1820’s. Subsequent conferences in Lima Lima , Peru, Peru;and Pan-American Congress[PanAmerican Congress] in 1847-1848, in Santiago, Chile, Chile;and Pan-American Congress[PanAmerican Congress] in 1856, and again in Lima in 1865, however, did not include delegations from the United States and reflected the fear on the part of many Latin American nations of U.S. expansionism.

By the early 1880’s, the United States had recovered from the physical wounds of its Civil War (1861-1865), and its financiers and industrialists were eager to compete for foreign markets. The country’s leaders started to concern themselves with Latin America, which appeared to offer plentiful opportunities for trade and investment. There also was a revival of interest in Central America as a site for a projected canal that would link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In March, 1881, Blaine, who was then secretary of state under President James A. Garfield, stated that one of the major aims of the Garfield administration would be the conservation “of such friendly relations with American countries as would lead to a large increase in the export trade of the United States.”

Successful trade, however, demands peace and stable governments, and wars and civil disorders were endemic in Latin America. Blaine, who also had a vision of U.S. leadership of American nations, made it his personal mission to bring peace and stability to Latin America. On November 29, 1881, in the midst of the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) War of the Pacific (1879-1883) Chile;War of the Pacific , which was being fought between Chile and a Bolivian-Peruvian alliance, Blaine issued invitations to the Latin American countries to send delegates to a Washington conference in 1882. His announced purpose for the meeting was to find a means of preventing open warfare among American nations. Blaine expected that peace not only would be beneficial to trade but also would lead to a pan-American alliance and give the United States an advantage in securing the rights for an isthmian canal in Panama Panama Canal . Blaine intended his Latin American policy to blend harmoniously pan-Americanism and the Monroe Doctrine Monroe Doctrine (1823) . However, many Latin American leaders were less confident that those two doctrines were compatible. Chile, fearful that the meeting would impose an unfavorable settlement in its war, refused to participate, and the meeting was postponed. It was finally held in 1889.

The invitation that the U.S. government sent out for its 1889 Washington meeting stated that the conference would deal only with matters of arbitration and trade and would be consultative in nature, rather than policy making. It set the goals of finding peaceful solutions to the problems of the Latin American nations and of considering “questions relating to the improvement of business intercourse and means of direct communication between said countries.” It also attempted to “secure more extensive markets for the products of each of the said countries.”

As a way of demonstrating the economic capabilities of the United States, Blaine arranged for members of the Latin American delegations to be given a six-week railroad tour of the country’s industrial centers. Delegates traveled to Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and New York. The American interest in opening markets was quickly understood by Latin American delegations to mean increased U.S. business, as U.S. imports of agricultural goods from Latin America then exceeded its industrial exports to the region.

The actual discussions at the first Pan-American Congress, as the gathering came to be called, lasted thirteen weeks. Nevertheless, nothing was accomplished on the proposal to establish obligatory arbitration on disputes between among American states. The head of the Chilean delegation, Emilio C. Varas Varas, Emilio C. , believed that the proposal was the first step in the creation of a permanent court of arbitration, which he feared would be dominated by the United States, and he led the opposition by refusing to discuss the resolution or vote on it. Also defeated was the proposal of the United States to create a customs union in order to attain “trade reciprocity approaching a large scale free trade system.”

By the same token, the U.S. delegation rejected a Latin American resolution that would establish, as a basic principle of American international law, that “the nation neither requires nor recognizes any obligations or responsibilities of aliens beyond these established by the U.S. Constitution and laws for the native born in the same conditions.” The Latin American proposal stemmed from the fact that foreign investors in the area, in cases of conflict, resorted to appeals to their own countries, which often maintained higher standards of protection for individuals. The Latin American delegates, however, believed that this constituted a clear violation of the principle of national sovereignty. They adopted the position of Argentine lawyer Carlos Calvo Calvo, Carlos , who had vigorously defended what he called “indefeasible sovereignty.”

Additional areas of interest included port dues, patents and trademarks, extradition, and banking. There were also disagreements. Roque Saénz Peña, Peña, Roque Saénz the head of the Argentine Argentina;and Pan-American Congress[PanAmerican Congress] delegation, wanted to maintain an independent policy that did not defer to the United States. One difficult point was a proposal for international arbitration. Chile, which was especially sensitive to its territorial gains in the War of the Pacific War of the Pacific (1879-1883) , objected to compulsory arbitration. Secretary Blaine finally attempted to write a compromise statement, but it was never ratified.


Despite the congress’s obvious failings, considerable progress was made in discussing social and cultural matters. The delegates discussed the standardization of sanitary regulations, the building of an intercontinental railroad, and the adoption of uniform weights and measures. Furthermore, the congress agreed to the establishment of the International Bureau of American Republics International Bureau of American Republics , and the precedent was set for meetings that have been held from time to time ever since. The congress also created the structure for the Pan-American Union which, housed in a magnificent building donated by Andrew Carnegie Carnegie, Andrew , industrialist and a member of the United States delegation, would eventually become the Organization of American States Organization of American States .

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bemis, Samuel Flagg. The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy. Vol. 8. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1963. Includes an essay written by Joseph B. Lockey for the original 1928 edition. Chapter 5 discusses Blaine’s participation in the Pan-American Congress.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crapol, Edward P. James G. Blaine: Architect of Empire. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2000. Biography of the U.S. secretary of state that examines Blaine’s relations with Latin America and his attempts to upgrade the merchant marine and U.S. Navy. Crapol argues that Blaine hoped to establish U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Healy, David. James G. Blaine and Latin America. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. Examination of U.S. relations with Latin America during Blaine’s tenure as secretary of state. Healy contends that Latin America was crucial to Blaine’s foreign policy and his vision of America as a world leader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Langley, Lester D. America and the Americas: The United States in the Western Hemisphere. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989. Provides an overview of relations between the United States and Latin America, denoting the changes in emphasis over time, including the Monroe Doctrine and the Cold War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mecham, J. Lloyd. A Survey of United States-Latin American Relations. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. Chapter 4 treats the concept of pan-Americanism, dividing it into two phases: 1826-1889, during which the United States was excluded; and 1889 to mid-1960’s, in which there was hemispheric cooperation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pascoe, Elaine. Neighbors at Odds: U.S. Policy in Latin America. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990. Reviews relations between the United States and its Latin American neighbors, from the Monroe Doctrine through the Cold War, placing the Pan-American Congress within the framework of gunboat and dollar diplomacy.

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