Pan-Americanism most often expresses itself through international conferences, very loosely joined in the early years, highly structured in more recent decades. In the nineteenth century, conferences were often called to seek combined action against some specific problem. In the twentieth century, sessions have been scheduled long in advance and have had wide-ranging agendas. Attendance at the latter meetings has neared unanimity; in the early days it was irregular, made the worse by slow communications. The record is filled with accounts of delegations not formed in time or sent too late to take part in the proceedings. A final distinction is clear: while in recent times the impetus usually has come from the United States, during the nineteenth century almost all of the leadership came from Spanish America, often to the exclusion of the Anglo-Americans and Portuguese Americans. Some writers, in fact, seeking to divide Pan-Americanism chronologically, have classified the years 1826–1889 as the "old," or Spanish-American, period of the movement.
While many Latin Americans, including José de San Martín, Martínez de Rozas, Bernardo O'Higgins, and Bernardo Monteagudo, understood the necessity for Spanish-American cooperation, the "liberator" of Spanish-American independence, Simón Bolívar, is considered the father of the "old" Pan-Americanism. Long before any other leader, he dreamed of a strong league of American states leading to permanent military and political cooperation. Initially, at least, Bolívar thought of a confederation of only the Spanish-American states, if for no other reason than their common heritage and struggle for freedom from Spain. In 1815 he predicted the creation of three Spanish-American federations: Mexico and Central America, northern Spanish South America, and southern South America. But his ultimate goal, what became known as the "Bolivarian dream," was the unification of all Spanish America. In defeat and in victory his plan never disappeared, and in 1818 he (somewhat inaccurately) wrote to an Argentine friend, "We Americans should have but a single country since in every other way we are perfectly united."
By the 1820s the freedom of most of the Latin American colonies seemed assured, and the United States and some European nations began extending diplomatic recognition to the new governments. Bolívar saw this as an opportunity to implement his plan, and in 1822 he persuaded the government of Gran Colombia to send emissaries to the other South American nations, which resulted in general treaties with Chile, Peru, Buenos Aires, Mexico, and Central America. The signatories agreed to cooperate in sustaining their independence from foreign domination. Still, Bolívar sought much more.
The fear that Spain might attempt to reclaim its empire with the assistance of Europe's Holy Alliance provided Bolívar with the opportunity for his grand alliance. In December 1824 he called for an " assembly of plenipotentiaries" to meet at Panama to address the security issue. Bolívar's notice was addressed to "the American republics, formerly Spanish colonies," and therefore omitted several American states. The invitation included Great Britain, signaling Bolívar's understanding that British support was essential for the success of his confederation. He also permitted the Netherlands to send an observer, apparently without an invitation. Bolívar had ignored both the United States and Brazil, which of course, were not "formerly Spanish colonies"; but when their attendance was sought by other Latin Americans, he posed no objection.
Bolívar's classical training caused him to see Panama as the modern counterpart of the Isthmus of Corinth, and parallel to the Greek experience, he selected Panama as the site of the conference. That unsavory location had many defects as a host of an international conference. In fact, every delegate took ill during the sessions, but it did have the advantage of a central location. In June 1826 the representatives of Peru, Gran Colombia, Mexico, and the Central American Federation met and planned the first steps toward Pan-Americanism.
Technically speaking, attendance was much greater, for in time Gran Colombia was to be divested of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama, and in 1838 the Central American Federation was split into its original five parts, which became the republics of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. In that sense, the four nations accounted for eleven future Latin American republics. But what of the others? The United Provinces of La Plata already evidenced the isolationism and antipathy to alliances that were to mark the policy of its successor state, Argentina. Even more self-contained was Paraguay, which simply declined to be represented. Brazil, Chile, and Bolivia exhibited some interest but for various reasons failed to send delegates to Panama.
Bolívar not only mistrusted U.S. intentions in the hemisphere but thought its presence would preclude an honest discussion about the African slave trade. For its part, when the invitation did come, the United States, officially neutral in Latin America's wars for independence, could quite properly have declined the invitation. However, members of President John Quincy Adams's administration, led by Secretary of State Henry Clay, were eager to join in any movement toward inter-American cooperation, if for no other reason than economic opportunity. Strong congressional opposition arose. Some of it could be attributed to the Democrats seeking to embarrass the Adams administration, but there were more serious concerns. The isolationists objected to participating in any conclave that might produce a permanent and entangling alliance. Many southerners feared a discussion of the slavery issue. In contrast, representatives from the Northeast saw the need to protect commercial interests against British competition. After four months of debate, Congress approved sending two delegates, but to no avail. One died en route to Panama; the other made no effort to reach Panama, but journeyed instead to Tacubaya, Mexico, where the Spanish-American statesmen planned further meetings.
Rivalries, both petty and large, soon appeared at Panama. Some states professed to fear Bolívar's ambitions; others wanted only a temporary league to complete the independence of Latin America from Europe. Even the role of the British at the sessions was debated. Owing to the local climate and unsanitary conditions, the Panama Congress lasted less than one month, but not before concluding a treaty of perpetual union, league, and confederation; a convention providing for future meetings; and a second convention outlining each participating state's financial support for maintenance of an armed force and the confederation's bureaucracy. The treaty contained thirty-one detailed articles designed to implement the treaty's objective: "to support in common defense … the sovereignty and independence" of each state against foreign domination.
After signing the agreements, some of the representatives departed for home; others traveled to Tacubaya, a small village near Mexico City, where they planned to reconvene if their governments deemed the effort worthwhile. Some informal talks were held at Tacubaya, but no formal sessions ever took place, and the Panama Congress had to stand upon its completed work. A dismal fate awaited the Panama Congress treaties across Latin America. Only Gran Colombia ratified them all, despite the surprising opposition of Bolívar.
In only one regard can the Panama Congress be looked upon as a success: the fact of its existence perhaps made the holding of future such conferences a bit easier. Little else was accomplished. Why did it fail so badly? The end of the threat from Spain and the beginnings of civil strife all over Latin America had coincided to make the congress a forum for expressing the new republics' distrust of each other. For the time being, the newly independent nations of Latin America set about the task of nation building. Panama was a noble experiment. Though its aims were obviously far ahead of its time, they were appropriate to any time.
The failure of the Panama Congress also demonstrated that its prime mover, Bolívar, had changed his mind about the vast confederation of states, and would concentrate instead upon establishing a tight federation of the Andes with himself as permanent dictator. This change left a leadership vacuum in Pan-Americanism that was briefly filled by Mexico. Despite rapid shifts from conservative to liberal administrations, the Mexican government for a decade followed a policy of urging the Latin American states to consummate some of the plans drafted at Panama and help protect the region against the possibility of European intervention. Armed with a proposal for a treaty of union, and calling for renewal of the Panama discussions, Mexican ministers were dispatched to several capitals. Mexico was willing that the meetings be convened in almost any convenient spot, but the suggestion received little support. This first bid of 1832 was repeated in 1838, 1839, and 1840, by which time Mexico faced an increasing North American presence in Texas. However, the other nations lacked Mexico's concern, and the proposals did not result in even one conference. Only when the South Americans feared for their own security did they decide to band together again.
The United States also distanced itself from Latin America. President James Monroe's 1823 announcement that the Western Hemisphere was off-limits to European encroachments because the hemispheric nations shared common democratic and republican ideals lost its luster as U.S. diplomats reported back from the region that the Latin American nations were anything but democratic or republican. Nor did the visions of commercial success ever materialize. These same diplomats found the British, who helped to finance Latin America's independence, well entrenched.
The second Latin American conference took place in Lima, Peru, from December 1847 to March 1848. The conference was in response to two threats: the fear of Spanish designs upon South America's west coast and the U.S. incursion into Mexico. General Juan José Flores, a Venezuelan-born conservative, became Ecuador's first president but was subsequently exiled. Flores went to Europe for help and appeared to be successful in raising private troops and a fleet to restore himself to the presidency. Anticipating an invasion by Spain or Great Britain, the government of Peru invited the American republics to meetings at Lima in December 1847. The sessions lasted until March 1848, even though it was known by that time that the British government would prohibit the sailing of the Spanish fleet.
The United States was invited to send a representative, ostensibly to demonstrate to Europe that all the hemispheric nations would unite against a foreign threat. The Latin Americans also intended to remind the North Americans, then engaged in a war with Mexico, that the conference's fundamental purpose was to demonstrate mutual respect for the territorial integrity of all nations. President James K. Polk refused the invitation to send a delegate and instead dispatched J. Randolph Clay as a nonparticipating observer. Only ministers from Colombia, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru participated in the Lima conference, where they concluded four treaties, most of them concerning mutual assistance. Only Colombia ratified one of the agreements. Ironically, Clay, the U.S. observer, expressed great satisfaction with the conference resolutions regarding noncolonization and denying Europe the right to intervene in hemispheric affairs. The conference concluded just as the U.S. Congress was ratifying the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which stripped Mexico of its vast northern territories for annexation to the United States.