In addition to the territorial treaties, the United States signed a number of trade treaties during its first half century. In realizing these treaties, as was also the case with the treaties annexing overseas territories, the navy was the chief instrument utilized. Chief among these were the Commercial Convention of 1815 with England (extended in 1818) and treaties of commerce with Russia (1832), Siam (1833), China (1844, 1858, and 1867), the Hawaiian Islands (1849 and 1875), and England (the Marcy-Elgin Treaty of 1854). Of a rather different nature were the treaties concerning possible canals linking the Atlantic and the Pacific. In 1846 a treaty was concluded with New Granada (later Colombia) guaranteeing the United States transit across the Isthmus of Panama, as well as the neutrality of the canal zone. In 1850 England and the United States signed the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty regarding the isthmus. Each of the countries undertook not to establish exclusive control over and to guarantee the neutrality of any canal that might be built across Central America. In 1867 a treaty signed with Nicaragua gave the United States the right to build a canal across that country.
Another economic treaty, which subsequently proved to be of great importance, was the Treaty of Kanawaga (Yokohama) with Japan (31 March 1854). Commodore Matthew C. Perry, bearing a letter from President Millard Fillmore requesting the opening of the archipelago to world trade and seeking provision for the safety of shipwrecked American sailors (mainly whalers), led an expedition that reached Japan in July 1853 and returned in February–March 1854 to receive Japan's answer. This treaty was supplemented by the Harris Treaties of 18 June 1857 and 29 July 1858, the latter of which established diplomatic relations between the two countries. In 1883 the Treaty of Chemulpo, negotiated the year before by Commodore Robert Shulfeldt, which provided for American diplomatic representation in Seoul and opened Korea to American trade, passed the Senate.
The Treaty of Washington of 8 May 1871 between Great Britain and the United States should also be mentioned. The Confederate privateer Alabama, one of several constructed in British shipyards, had been involved in destructive attacks on the merchant fleet of the North. The United States demanded that London reimburse the damages incurred, with compound interest, as well as the cost of the two additional years of war supposedly rendered possible by this naval activity. The Senate had rejected an earlier treaty proposal (the Johnson-Clarendon Convention) on 13 April 1869. After international arbitration at Geneva, the Alabama Claims were settled by payment of an indemnity of $15.5 million.
Few treaties were signed in the next quarter century. From the time of the Alabama Claims until around 1890, the United States, preoccupied with its internal expansion, pursued a reserved foreign policy, being satisfied to formulate or recall the basic principles unilaterally, without concluding any important treaties. And, although after 1890 the United States did embark upon an imperialist foreign policy, replete with overseas conquests or interventions, this development came relatively late and was not as extensive as the colonial activities of the European powers, being limited geographically to the Caribbean, Central America, and the Pacific.
In addition, American annexation methods (whether purchase and partition, or through treaty or joint resolution) had been brought to a high degree of refinement and had only to be applied to colonial or occupied insular territories. The occupation of a territory depended, moreover, not on treaty-making power but on the power of the president as commander in chief and did not, therefore, provide occasions for making treaties.