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The Panama Canal

Grade 7 | Informative | Source-Based

Source Lexile®: 1230L-1250L

Learning Standards




Prompt: Research the construction of the Panama Canal. First, read a secondary source (Theodore Roosevelt and the Panama Canal). Then, read a primary source (President Theodore Roosevelt’s Speech about the Panama Canal). Finally, look at a map (International Highway). After reading these sources, write an essay explaining how the Panama Canal created a connection between foreign nations. Be sure to cite evidence from all three sources to support your essay.




Source 1

Theodore Roosevelt and the Panama Canal (Secondary Source)


  1. "By far the most important action I took in foreign affairs during the time I was President was related to the Panama Canal," wrote Theodore Roosevelt in his autobiography. In a speech several years after he "took" Panama, Roosevelt explained: "There are plenty of other things I started merely because the time had come that whoever was in power would have started them. But the Panama Canal would not have started if I had not taken hold of it, because if I had followed the traditional or conservative method I should have submitted an admirable state paper to Congress… the debate would be proceeding at this moment… and the beginning of work on the canal would be fifty years in the future. Fortunately it came at a period when I could act unhampered. Accordingly, I took the isthmus, started the canal, and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me." --Theodore Roosevelt
  2. No action during his presidency aroused as much controversy. At the time, The New York Times called it an "act of sordid conquest." The New York Evening Post called it a "vulgar and mercenary venture." More recently, historian George Tindall labeled it "one of the greatest blunders in American foreign policy." It is often cited as the classic example of U.S. diplomacy in Latin America, and the best illustration of what Roosevelt meant by the old African saying, "speak softly and carry a big stick [and] you will go far."
  3. The story has been told many times, perhaps best by David McCullough in The Path between the Seas (1977), so this is merely a brief summary. Ever since Balboa (first explorer to cross Panama) crossed the isthmus in 1513, it was considered the future site of an inter-oceanic passage.
  4. Roosevelt had advocated a strong navy long before becoming President in 1901, so naturally he was "delighted" when the United States Senate approved the Hay-Herran Treaty in 1903. This treaty offered the Colombian government $10 million in cash and an annual payment of $250,000 for a six-mile-wide strip across the Colombian province of Panama. Nevertheless, the Colombian senate refused to approve the treaty, holding out for $25 million. Roosevelt considered this nothing less than a shakedown and he refused to up the ante. Never known for his patience, Roosevelt was eager to make the dirt fly. While Roosevelt and his foreign policy advisors explored their options, word reached Washington that a revolution was once again brewing in Panama, and that the terms of the treaty recently rejected by the Colombian Senate would be agreeable to the Panamanians. While careful not to endorse the revolt, Roosevelt discreetly let it be known that the U.S. would view this as a positive development and could be counted on to act accordingly.
  5. Critics later charged that Roosevelt conspired to start the revolution in Panama. In fact, fearing that the U.S. might choose an alternate route through Nicaragua, an enterprising group of Panamanian businessmen--anxious to reap the commercial benefits of the canal--seized the moment. There had been numerous uprisings in the region, and the U.S. had helped suppress them in the past. As Roosevelt later put it, "While I was President I kept my foot on these revolutions… I did not have to foment it; I simply lifted my foot."
  6. On November 3, 1903, the Panamanian rebels successfully carried out a bloodless coup. Without having fired a single shot, they proclaimed their independence the following day. Without the U.S. Marines from the gunboat Nashville, which arrived in Panama on November 2, Colombian troops would have crushed the revolt. And the presence of no less than ten U.S. warships standing off shore prevented Colombia from sending in additional troops. The U.S. immediately recognized the Republic of Panama (as did several Latin American nations) and a treaty based on the original offer to Colombia was quickly ratified.
  7. Work on the canal began in 1904 and was completed in 1914, just as World War I broke out in Europe. Completion of the canal, which a French company had pursued for six years (1881-87), proved to be a massive engineering feat. Once the U.S. took over the project in 1904, an additional 232 million cubic yards were excavated to complete the 50-mile path between the seas. Over 5,600 men died from disease and accidents (not including the 25,000 earlier French casualties). The U.S. cost was about $350 million (on top of the $290 million spent by the French company). The Pacific fleet passed through the locks for the first time in 1919, seven months after Roosevelt’s death.
  8. The facts do not support the allegation that Roosevelt orchestrated the Panamanian revolt, but clearly U.S. naval forces ensured that the rebellion succeeded (undoubtedly carrying out his instructions). Roosevelt's diplomacy in the affair was calculated and restrained. No shots were fired; and with the completion of the canal in 1914, the United States gained a strategic and economic advantage of immeasurable value. Roosevelt insisted that he had acted "in absolute accord with the highest standards of international morality." Military intervention, he argued, was necessary to protect U.S. interests. There is also the charge that Roosevelt should have been more patient with the Colombian government and that he needlessly hurt relations with Latin America. Perhaps Roosevelt was guilty of needlessly "offending Latin American sensibilities.”
  9. For better or worse, Roosevelt was not about to let the opportunity slip away. Moreover, Roosevelt remained immensely popular at home and abroad, and he was enthusiastically welcomed when he visited Latin America in 1906 to inspect construction of the canal and in 1913 (to explore an uncharted river in Brazil).





  • unhampered (adj.) – unharmed; to not hinder

  • isthmus (n.) – narrow strip of land bordered on both sides by water connecting two larger bodies of land

  • aroused (v.) – to stir to action; strong response; to excite

  • sordid (adj.) – dirty; vile; ignoble

  • mercenary (n.) – person who fights or steals for money

  • venture (v.) – to take a chance



Hanson, David C. "Theodore Roosevelt and the Panama Canal." Theodore Roosevelt and the Panama Canal. Virginia Western Community College, n.d. Web. 15 June 2017.





Source 2

President Theodore Roosevelt’s Speech about the Panama Canal (Primary Source)


Charter Day Address (1911): President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt gave this speech on March 23, 1911 at a college in Berkeley, California. He spoke about the European reaction to the Panama Canal and his decision to start building the canal without approval from Congress. President Roosevelt also spoke at length about how the Panama Canal was a great feat of construction.  


You should consider the following questions as you read this source:

  • What role did President Theodore Roosevelt play in the construction of the Panama Canal?

  • What is the purpose of this speech?


  1. I have been rather amused to find that on the whole our people, or at least those among our people who claim to be the special repositories of culture – and I am speaking more of the East now than of the West – are actually more ignorant than Europe is of some of the deeds to our special credit. For instance, in this country, the average educated person until very recently has paid astonishingly little attention to the building of the Panama Canal.


  1. In Europe, I found that the two feats performed by Americans in the last decade, which had really made a deep impression, were the digging of the Panama Canal and the sending of the battleship fleet around the world. The Panama Canal I naturally take special interest in, because I started it. If I had acted strictly according to precedent, I should have turned the whole matter over to Congress; in which case, Congress would be ably debating it at this moment, and the canal would be fifty years in the future.

  2. Fortunately, the crisis came at a period when I could act unhampered. Accordingly, I took the isthmus, started the canal, and then left Congress – not to debate the canal, but to debate me. Moreover, in portions of the public the debate still goes on as to whether or not I acted properly in taking the canal. However, while the debate goes on the canal does too; and they are welcome to debate me as long as they wish, provided that we can go on with the canal.


  1. Now, I believe that I am telling the exact truth, that I am speaking with scientific accuracy, when I say that the canal is the greatest feat of the kind by all odds that has ever been attempted by civilized mankind, and that our engineers and doctors under Colonel Goethals and Dr. Gorgas, have done their work there better than any corresponding men of any country have ever done any similar work before.


  1. In the field of practical achievement, in statecraft, and in such material work as that of the Panama Canal, America has done its full part. It has done more than its full part. I am proud of this.





  • repository (n.) - storehouse; abundant source or supply

  • feats (n.) - a noteworthy, extraordinary act or achievement

  • precedent (n.) - legal decision proceeding serving as authoritative or pattern in future similar cases

  • ably (adv.) - able; with skill or ability; competent


Roosevelt, Theodore. "Charter Day Address." California, Berkeley. 23 Mar. 1911. Speech.





Source 3

International Highway (Secondary Source)




"Panama Canal." All Places and Travel & Tourism Directory. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 June 2017.









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