The Oregon question, which now became associated, if not complicated, with the Texas question, originated many years before. By our treaty with Spain in 1819, the southern boundary of our possessions on the Pacific had been accurately defined. Our northern boundary was still unadjusted, and had been matter of dispute with Great Britain ever since we acquired the country. By the treaty of October 20, 1818, the 49th parallel of north latitude was established as the boundary between the United States and British America, from the Lake of the Woods to the Stony Mountains, as the Rocky Mountains were then termed. In the same treaty it was agreed that any country claimed by either the United States or Great Britain westward of the Stony Mountains should, with its harbors, bays, and rivers, be open for the term of ten years to the vessels, citizens, and subjects of either power. This agreement was entered into solely for the purpose of preventing disputes pending final settlement, and was not to be construed to the prejudice of either party. This was the beginning of the joint occupancy of the Oregon country, England having with prompt and characteristic enterprise forced her way across the continent after she had acquired Canada in 1763.2 Stimulated by certain alleged discoveries of her navigators on the northwest coast, Great Britain urged and maintained her title to a frontage on the Pacific, and made a bold claim to sovereignty, as far south as the mouth of the Columbia River, nearly, indeed, to the northern border of California. . . .
The two governments came to an agreement on these differences in 1842 by the negotiation of the convention known as the Ashburton Treaty. In transmitting the treaty to Congress, President Tyler made, for the first time since the agreement for a joint occupancy was renewed in 1827, a specific reference to the Oregon question. He informed Congress, that the territory of the United States commonly called the Oregon country was beginning to attract the attention of our fellow citizens, and that "the tide of our population, having reclaimed from the wilderness the more contiguous regions, was preparing to flow over those vast districts which stretch from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean"; that Great Britain "laid claim to a portion of the country and that the question could not be well included in the recent treaty without postponing other more pressing matters." He significantly added, that tho the difficulty might not for several years involve the peace of the two countries, yet he should urge upon Great Britain the importance of its early settlement.
As this paragraph was undoubtedly suggested and probably written by Mr. Webster,3 it attracted wide attention on both sides of the Atlantic; and from that moment, in varying degrees of interest and urgency, the Oregon question became an active political issue. Before the next annual meeting of Congress, Mr. Upshur had succeeded Mr. Webster in the State Department; and the message of the President took still more advanced ground respecting Oregon. For political reasons, there was an obvious desire to keep the action of the Government on this issue well abreast of its aggressive movements in the matter of acquiring Texas. Emboldened by Mr. Webster's position of the preceding year, Mr. Upshur, with younger blood, and with more reason for a demonstrative course, was evidently disposed to force the discussion of the question with the British Government. Under his influence and advice, President Tyler declared, in his message of December, 1843, that "after the most rigid, and, as far as practicable, unbiased, examination of the subject, the United States have always contended that their rights appertain to the entire region of country, lying on the Pacific, and embraced between latitude 42° and 54° 40'." Mr. Edward Everett, at that time our minister in London, was instructed to present these views to the British Government.
Before the President could send another annual message to Congress, Mr. Calhoun had been for several months at the head of the State Department, engaged in promoting, with singular skill and ability, his scheme for the annexation of Texas. With his quick perception, he discerned that if the policy apparently indicated by Mr. Webster and aggressively proclaimed by Mr. Upshur, on the Oregon question, should be followed, and that issue sharply prest upon Great Britain, complications of a most embarrassing nature might arise, involving in their sweep the plans, already well matured, for acquiring Texas. In order to avert all danger of that kind, Mr. Calhoun opened a negotiation with the British minister in Washington, conducting it himself, for the settlement of the Oregon question; and at the very moment when the Democratic National Convention which nominated Mr. Polk was declaring our title to the whole of Oregon as far as 54° 40' to be "clear and unquestionable," the Democratic secretary of State was proposing to Her Majesty's representative to settle the entire controversy by the adoption of the 49th parallel as the boundary!
The negotiation was very nearly completed, and was suspended only by some dispute in regard to the right of navigating the Columbia River. It is not improbable that Mr. Calhoun, after disclosing to the British Government his willingness to accept the 49th parallel as our northern boundary, was anxious to have the negotiation temporarily postponed. If the treaty had been concluded at that time it would have seriously interfered with the success of Mr. Polk's candidacy by destroying the prestige of the "Fifty-four forties," as Colonel Benton termed them.
In Mr. Polk's election, Mr. Calhoun was deeply and indeed doubly interested; first, because of his earnest desire to defeat Mr. Clay, with whom he was at swords' points on all public issues; and again, because, having assumed the responsibility of defeating the nomination of Mr. Van Buren, he was naturally desirous that his judgment should be vindicated by the election of the candidate whom his Southern friends had put forward. Urgently solicitous for the annexation of Texas, those friends were indifferent to the fate of the Oregon question, tho willing that it should be made a leading issue in the North, where it was presented with popular effect. The patriotic spirit of the country was appealed to, and to a considerable extent aroused and inflamed by the ardent and energetic declaration of our title to the whole of Oregon. "Fifty-four forty or fight" became a Democratic watchword; and the Whigs who attempted to argue against the extravagance or inexpediency of the claim continually lost ground, and were branded as cowards who were awed into silence by the fear of British power. All the prejudice against the British Government which had descended from the Revolution and from the War of 1812 was successfully evoked by the Democratic party, and they gained immeasurably by keeping an issue before the people which many of their leaders knew would be abandoned when the pressure of actual negotiations should be felt by our Government.
Mr. Polk, however, in his inaugural address, carefully reaffirmed the position respecting Oregon which his party had taken in the national canvass, and quoted part of the phrase used in the platform put forth by the convention which nominated him. The issue had been made so broadly that it must be squarely met, and finally adjusted. The Democrats in their eagerness had left no road for honorable retreat, and had cut themselves off from the resources and convenient postponements of diplomacy. Dangerous as it was to the new administration to confront the issue, it would have been still more dangerous to attempt to avoid it. The decisive step, in the policy to which the administration was committed, was to give formal notice to Great Britain that the joint occupation of the Oregon country under the treaty of 1827 must cease.
A certain degree of moral strength was unexpectedly imparted to the Democratic position by the fact that the venerable John Quincy Adams was decidedly in favor of the notice, and ably supported, in a unique and powerful speech in the House of Representatives, our title to the country up to 54° 40'. The first convention for joint oceupancy had been negotiated while Mr. Adams was Secretary of State, and the second while he was President; so that, in addition to the weight of authority with which he always spoke, his words seemed entitled to special confidence on a question with which he was necessarily so familiar. His great influence brought many Whigs to the support of the resolution; and on the 9th of February, 1846, the House, by the large vote of 163 to 54, declared in favor of giving the treaty notice to Great Britain.
The country at once became alarmed by the growing rumors that the resolution of the House was a direct challenge to Great Britain for a trial of strength as to the superior title to the Oregon country, and it was soon apparent that the Senate would proceed with more circumspection and conservatism. Events were rapidly tending toward hostilities with Mexico, and the aggrandizement of territory likely to result from a war with that country was not viewed with a friendly eye, either by Great Britain or France. Indeed, the annexation of Texas, which had been accomplished the preceding year, was known to be distasteful to those governments. They desired that Texas might remain an independent republic, under more liberal trade relations than could be secured from the United States with its steady policy of fostering and advancing its own manufacturing interests. The directors of the administration saw therefore more and more clearly that, if a war with Mexico were impending, it would be sheer madness to open a quarrel with Great Britain, and force her into an alliance against us. Mr. Adams and those who voted with him did not believe that the notice to the British Government would provoke a war, but that firmness on our part, in the negotiation which should ensue, would induce England to yield her pretensions to any partof Oregon; to which Mr. Adams maintained, with elaboration of argument and demonstration, she had no shadow of right.
Mr. Adams was opposed to war with Mexico, and therefore did not draw his conclusions from the premises laid down by those who were charged with the policy of the administration. They naturally argued that a war with Great Britain might end in our losing the whole of Oregon, without acquiring any territory on our southwestern border. The bare possibility of such a result would defeat the policy which they were seeking to uphold, and would at the same time destroy their party. In short, it became apparent that what might be termed the Texas policy of the administration, and what, might be termed its Oregon policy, could not both be carried out. It required no prophet to foresee which would be maintained and which would be abandoned. "Fifty-four forty or fight" had been a good cry for the political campaign; but, when the fight was to be with Great Britain, the issue became too serious to be settled by such international law as is dispensed on the stump....
In simple truth, the country was not prepared to go to war with Great Britain in support of "our clear and unquestionable title" to the whole of Oregon. With her strong naval force on the Pacific, and her military force in Australasia, Great Britain could more readily and more easily take possession of the country in dispute than could the United States. We had no way of reaching Oregon except by doubling Cape Horn, and making a dangerous sea-voyage of many thousand miles. We could communicate across the continent only by the emigrant trail over rugged mountains and almost trackless plains. Our railway system was in its infancy in 1846. New York City did not have a continuous road to Buffalo. Philadelphia was not connected with Pittsburgh. Baltimore's projected line to the Ohio had only reached Cumberland among the eastern foot-hills of the Alleghanies. The entire Union had but five thousand miles of railway. There was scarcely a spot on the globe, outside of the United Kingdom, where we could not have fought England with greater advantage than on the northwest coast of America at that time. The war-cry of the Presidential campaign of 1844 was, therefore, in any event, absurd; and it proved to be mischievous.
It is not improbable, that, if the Oregon question had been allowed to rest for the time under the provisions of the treaty of 1827, the whole country would ultimately have fallen into our hands, and the American flag might to-day be waving over British Columbia. The course of events and the lapse of time were working steadily to our advantage. In 1826 Great Britain declined to accept the 49th parallel, but demanded the Columbia River as the boundary. Twenty years afterward she accepted the line previously rejected. American settlers had forced her back. With the sweep of our emigration and civilization to the Pacific coast two years after the treaty of 1846, when gold was discovered in California, the tendency would have been still more strongly in our favor. Time, as Mr. Calhoun said, "would have effected everything for us" if we could only have been patient and peaceful.
Taking the question, however, as it stood in 1846, the settlement must, upon full consideration and review, be adjudged honorable to both countries. Wise statesmen of that day felt, as Wise statesmen of subsequent years have more and more realized, that a war between Great Britain and the United States would not only be a terrible calamity to both nations, but that it would stay the progress of civilization throughout the world. Future generations would hold the governing power in both countries guilty of a crime if war should ever be permitted except upon the failure of every other arbitrament. The harmless laugh of one political party at the expense of the other forty years ago, the somewhat awkward receding from pretensions which could not be maintained by the executive of the nation, have passed into oblivion. But a striking and useful lesson would be lost if it should be forgotten that the country was brought to the verge of war by the proclamation of a policy which could not be, and was not intended to be, enforced. It was originated as a cry to catch votes; and except with the ignorant, and the few whose judgment was carried away by enthusiasm, it was from the first thoroughly insincere. If the punishment could have fallen only upon those who raised the cry, perfect justice would have been done. But the entire country suffered, and probably endured a serious and permanent loss, from the false step taken by men who claimed what they could not defend and did not mean to defend.
The Secretary of State, Mr. Buchanan, gained much credit for his conduct of the Oregon question, both diplomatically and politically. His correspondence with Mr. Packenham, the British minister at Washington, was conspicuously able. It strengthened Mr. Buchanan at home and gave him an enviable reputation in Europe. His political management of the question was especially adroit. His party was in sore trouble over the issue, and natuarlly looked to him for relief and escape. To extricate the administration from the embarrassment caused by its ill-timed and boastful pretensions to the line of 54° 40' was a difficult and delicate task.
1 From Blaine's "Twenty Years of Congress." By permission of Mrs. Walter Damrosch and James G. Blaine, Jr., owners of the copyright. Copyright, 1884.
2 That is, by the treaty of peace which ended the war in America with France.
3 Daniel Webster, then Secretary of State.