Rival Claims and Pretensions

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The claims of the European nations to ownership of the lands and resources of America rested on a somewhat flimsy basis in right. Its morality was that of might. There was a quasi yielding to these claims as against each other on grounds of discovery and formal occupancy. At the same time not one of these powers stopped for a moment to consider what rights of these people that were found there when they came would be violated by their assumptions. Barbaric nations never had any rights that nations calling themselves civilized have felt bound to respect. England, France, and Spain were, as relates to what were termed barbaric nations, the freebooters of the world. America was a field for civilized rapine worthy of the struggle of these racial giants. Under some forms of treaty, designed mostly by either Party to limit the pretensions of the other, but as far as possible leaving itself free to enlarge its own claims as it might have power to enforce them, these powers moved forward first in the agreed division of the area of North America among themselves, and then in using the allotted areas as the small change that settled the balances of peace and war in continental Europe. Plenipotentiaries sat in European capitals, five thousand miles away from the regions most interested, and arbitrated American destinies. In this wav America became the real, though passive, arbiter of the world’s new era. It was what Providence had thrown into the balances of history to poise ultimately its beam for the equities and liberties of humanity. Let us see how the question stood two hundred years after the Spanish navigator had lifted the veil of the sea from the fair face of this new land.

When the treaty of Ryswick, in 1697 gave some definition to the claims of France and Spain and Russia in the New World, Spain claimed as her share of North America all the Pacific coast from Panama to Nootka sound, or Vancouver island. Her pretensions covered the coasts, bays, islands, fisheries, and extended inland indefinitely. Part of this claim was alleged on the ground of discovery by the heroic De Soto and others; and all of them were based on discovery under the papal bull of Alexander VI., in 1493. This bull or decree gave to the discoverer all newly discovered lands and waters. In 1530 Balboa, the Spaniard, discovered the Pacific ocean as he came over the isthmus of Panama, and so in harmony with the pretentious decree of Alexander VI. Spain assumed rights of proprietorship over it. France held advantageous positions in America for the mastery of the continent; but as they were outside of the limits of what was afterward known as “Oregon” they need not be discussed. Russia at this time held no possessions in North America. But Peter the Great was her emperor, and his plans were already matured for entering the list of contestants for empire in the New World. Before his plans could be fully consummated Peter the Great had died, and his widow. Catherine, was on the throne of Muscovy. With an enterprise not less aggressive than his, she pushed forward his plans of commercial and territorial aggrandizement until northern Asia as well as northern Europe had been made commercially tributary to the designs of Russia. It was but a step from the Asiatic shores of the northern Pacific to those of the American mainland of Alaska, and Russia was in a position to take that one step. The fur trade furnished the occasion. Prominent, if not indeed chief among the agents of Russian aggression in this direction was Behring the Dane, who made three voyages through the straits that now bear his name, and on the third gave up his life on a desolate little granite island that still monuments his memory. But he, and those associated with him. had given, by visitation and trade, a color of title to Russia to this northwestern America. At this time England made absolutely no pretense to territorial or even commercial rights on the Pacific coast, and none on the American continent anywhere except on the Atlantic slope from Charleston to Penobscot northward, and inland to the watershed of the Alleghanies.

Thus stood the pretended foreign ownership of the New World at the conclusion of the treaty of Ryswick in 1697. The intelligent reader can-not but have observed how shadowy were these pretensions, and how vague in territorial limits, but they were the basis of claims that afterward became more tangible and real, and in their ultimate settlement cost long continued struggles of the ablest diplomats of the world, and were no mean elements in setting nations in array of arms against each other.

Though it would be deeply interesting to trace the movements of the struggling forces that sought for mastery on this “Armageddon” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, our limits preclude much more than the merest outline, and this confined to what relates to the Oregon country, of which Idaho was an integral part. In doing this we must refer once more to the edict of Pope Alexander VI, who, on the 4th of May, 1493, immediately after the return of Columbus from his voyage of discovery, published a bull in which he drew an imaginary line from the north pole to the south, a hundred leagues west of the Azores, assigning to the Spanish all that lay west of that boundary, and confirming to Portugal all that lay east of it.

While the act of Alexander VI. had little authority, it did have a great influence on those to whom it was made, and Spain and Portugal, in the glory of discovery and in the pompous “gift” of the Pope, ruled the splendid hour. Such was the superstitious awe with which the pretensions of the Pope were then regarded in Europe that this edict did very much to control the actions of all the powers of that continent in regard to the New World. Of course very little was known of the geography of America at this time, and there could really have been no prescience of the great part it was to play in the future history of the world. Something, therefore, of the indifference with which these pretences were viewed must be set down to this fact.

Through the maze of boundary lines, fixed on imaginary maps by the negotiations of contending parties, rather than run by the compass on the solid earth, and which involved to a greater or less extent the ultimate title to the Oregon country, we shall not attempt to lead our readers. It is sufficient to say that France and England began to crowd Spain southwardly and westwardly on the eastern slope of the continent.

France had established some mythical right to “the western part of Louisiana,” which she secretly conveyed to Spain in 1762. Thirty-eight years thereafter Spain reconveyed the same to France. In 1803 France sold the same territory to the United States, and practically disappeared from the list of contestants for the possession of the empire on the western continent. Spain, however, still held Florida, but when in 1819 the United States purchased that, she also disappeared from the same list, the rights and claims of both having passed into the hands of the United States.

It is important that we now restate the fact that the old Spanish claim, which had been accorded some international authority, extended on the Pacific coast from Panama to Prince William sound, and this entirely covered the Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia of today up to 54′ 40″. Presumptuous as it was, this claim became one of the most determining elements in the final settlement of what is historically known as the “Oregon question.”

The claims of France to American territory were hardly less ambitious and retentions than those of Spain. They covered more than the size of all Europe. The treaty of Ryswick conceded these claims. But the peace of Ryswick was brief. War soon followed, and the titles to empire were written again by the point of the sword.

Though the parties to the struggle for the possession of the country of the Pacific northwest had changed, yet the struggle went on. Little of it was in the territory in question. It was in the plots and counterplots of European capitals, in Paris and London and St. Petersburg. It was about the tables of diplomats. Within six-teen years of Ryswick came Utrecht, when the issues of war between France and England, waged chiefly in North America, brought Anne of England and Louis XIV of France face to face in the person of their embassadors. The aged and humbled Louis XIV gave up to Great Britain the possessions of France on the Atlantic slope, and thus yielded the morale of position to the Saxon. Thus Great Britain became reinstated in place of France over the Hudson’s Bay basin, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. But France still held the Canadas, though they were sandwiched between the northern and southern possessions of Great Britain. The grain between the upper and nether millstones could remain unbroken when the stones were whirring as easily as these French provinces could remain in peace in such a position. In the struggles that followed the execution of the treaty of Utrecht, in the old world and in the new, more and more the tide of battle turned against France, in favor of England. At last the culmination of events came. In Montcalm and Wolfe the hopes, and even a large measure the destinies of France and England, were impersonated. When they looked into each other’s faces at Quebec, standing at the head of their armies on that great September morn in 1759, each felt that was the morn of duty, the morn of destiny for themselves and for their country. The issue of that day on the plains of Abraham gave each general to immortal fame, but it gave to England all the territorial treasures of France east of the Mississippi, except three small islands off the coast of Newfoundland. Had France not already, by secret treaty with Spain, executed about one hundred days before the great transfer to Great Britain, alienated her Pacific coast possessions, Great Britain would have taken all, and this would so have changed the relations of things that the atlas of the world would have had an entirely different lining. Either the whole must have gone without controversy to the United States of America at the close of the Revolution, or the title of Great Britain would have been conceded and unquestionable to all the territory between California and the Russian possessions. In either event the story of the history of this coast would have been quite another book.

With the transfer of all the claims of France and Spain to the territory on the Pacific coast to the United States, which was concluded in 1803, it would seem that there was no rightful contestant with the United States for any portion of that territory; certainly not as far north as the 49th degree of latitude. None had appeared in the negotiations through which this transfer was made. The state of the case seems to have been this: In the treaty of Utrecht in 171 3, between the English and the French, the boundary between Louisiana and the British territory north of it was fixed by commissioners, appointed under it to run from the lake of the Woods westward on latitude forty-nine indefinitely. When France conveyed the territory of Louisiana, whose line had been thus fixed, to Spain in 1762, she also conveyed up to and along this same line westward, indefinitely, on to the Pacific coast. If she did not convey to the coast, it was because Spain already had a more ancient claim along the coast. When Spain, in 1800, reconveyed the same to France, it was, in the language of the third article of the treaty: “The colony or provinces of Louisiana, with the same extent which it now has in the hands of Spain and which it had when France possessed it.” As Spain had not alienated any of the territory she had received from France, of course she retroceded to that power all that she had received from her. When, therefore, the United States made the purchase of Louisiana she purchased clear through to the Pacific on the line of the 49th parallel if that was a part of the original cession of France to Spain, or, if not, as Spain had never ceded it to another power, then to the Spanish possessions on the Pacific. It was then either American territory, made such by the purchase of Louisiana in 1803, or it was still Spanish territory. From 1800 to 1819 Spain made no changes of ownership, sovereignty or jurisdiction touching Oregon. In the “Florida Treaty” of 1819 Spain ceded to the United States all her possessions north of a line beginning at the mouth of the Sabine in the Gulf of Mexico and running variously north and west until it reached the Pacific latitude forty-two, or the southern boundary of Oregon. The third article of the treaty said: “His Catholic Majesty cedes to the United States all his rights, claims and pretensions to any territory east and north of said line, and for himself, his heirs and successors renounces all claims to the said territory forever.” Therefore, by the purchase of 1803 from France and by the purchase of 1819 from Spain, the United States gained all pretended titles to sovereignty on the Pacific coast between the forty-second and the forty-ninth parallels of north latitude, the exact Pacific limits of the earlier Oregon. England at this time advanced no claim to sovereignty. As late as 1826 and 1827 her plenipotentiaries formally said: “Great Britain claims no exclusive sovereignty over any portion of that territory. The present claim, not in respect to any part but to the whole, is limited to a right of joint occupancy in common with the other states, having the right of exclusive dominion in abeyance.” This, with the history already recounted, leaves the title of the United States to the Oregon country beyond any question of power. And with this statement our reader will be willing to follow us through the story of diplomatic negotiations between the United States and Great Britain in regard to the “Oregon Question” as well as the actions of the national legislature through the quarter of the century during which Great Britain succeeded in some way in so beclouding the title of the United States to the territory in question and in bewildering our diplomats as to well nigh secure this vast Pacific empire to the crown. We shall make this story as brief as we reasonably can, and be faithful to the facts of history concerning it. The diplomacy was tedious and intricate, and the action, tentative or completed, of the American congress, often doubtful and inconsequent; yet a careful resume of both is a need of Idaho history.

At the precise moment the United States was negotiating the treaty with France, in Paris, for the acquisition of Louisiana, her commissioners were also negotiating one in London for the definition of the boundary line between the possessions of the two countries in the northwest. The negotiators of the two treaties were ignorant of the action of the others. When the two treaties were remitted to the senate of the United States for ratification, that for the purchase of Louisiana from France was ratified without restriction. That defining the northwest boundary was ratified with the exception of the fifth article, which fixed the boundary between the Lake of the Woods to the head of the Mississippi. The treaty was sent back to London, the article expunged, and then the British government refused to ratify it.

In the year 1807 another effort was made at negotiation between the two countries. A treaty was agreed upon by the commissioners, fixing the line of the forty-ninth parallel as the boundary between the territory of the two countries as far as their possessions might extend, but with a proviso making this provision inapplicable west of the Rocky Mountains. This treaty was never ratified, Air. Jefferson rejecting it without reference to the senate.

In the treaty signed at Ghent, in 1814, the British plenipotentiaries offered the same articles in relation to the boundaries in question as were offered in 1803 and 1807, but nothing could be agreed upon; and hence no provision on the subject was inserted in that treaty.

In 1818 negotiations upon this subject were renewed in London. The plenipotentiaries of Great Britain, Mr. Goulborne and Mr. Robinson, for the first time in all the negotiations, gave the grounds of the pretensions of Great Britain to the country in controversy. They asserted “That former voyages, and principally that of Captain Cook, gave to Great Britain the rights derived from discovery;” and they alluded to purchases from the natives south of the Columbia, which they alleged to have been made prior to the American Revolution. They made no formal proposition for a boundary, but intimated that the Columbia River itself was the most convenient that could be adopted, and declared that they would not agree upon any boundary that did not give England the harbor at the mouth of that River in common with the United States. Messrs. Gallatin and Rush, the American plenipotentiaries, made a moderate, if not a timid, reply to the intimations of Great Britain. The final conclusions reached on this subject were announced in these words: “That any country claimed by either on the northwest coast of America, together with its harbors, bays, and creeks, and the navigation of all Rivers within the same, be free and open, for the term of ten years, to the subjects, citizens and vessels of the two powers, without prejudice to any claim which either Party might have to any part of the country.” This was the celebrated “Joint Occupancy” treaty.

It must be confessed that the adoption of this article of “joint occupancy” gave Great Britain a decided advantage in the Oregon controversy. First, it conceded that she had some sort of a claim to the country, a claim that stood for no less, even if it stood for no more, than that of the United States. Secondly, she was on the ground in much greater force in her Hudson’s Bay Company and her Northwest Company, united into one of the strongest commercial corporations in the world, and having all the elements in itself of political propagandism. With her advantages in trade, her strong semi-political occupation of the country by the Hudson’s Bay Company, Messrs. Gallatin and Rush should have known that she would be able to drive all American enterprises from the country before the ten years were gone. Great Britain knew this; intended to do so, and did it. One of the wonders of the historian is that such a treaty could ever have been approved by an American president, or ratified by the senate of the United States.

The session of the congress of the United States for 1820-21 was made remarkable, especially in the light of subsequent events, as the first at which any proposition was made for the occupation and settlement of the country acquired from France and Spain on the Columbia River. It was made by John Floyd, a representative from Virginia, an ardent and very able man, and strongly imbued with western feelings. His attention was specially called to the subject by some essays of Thomas H. Benton, just then appearing in the field of national politics, as senator-elect from Missouri, and he resolved to bring the matter to the attention of congress. He moved for the appointment of a committee of three to consider and report on the subject. The committee was granted, more out of courtesy to an influential member of the house than with any expectation of favorable results. General Floyd was made chairman, with Thomas Metcalf of Kentucky, and Thomas V. Swearingen, of Virginia, associated with him. In six days a bill was reported, “To authorize the occupation of the Columbia River, and to regulate trade and intercourse with the Indian tribes thereon.” They accompanied the bill with an elaborate and able report in support of the measure. The bill was treated with parliamentary courtesy, read twice, but no decisive action was taken. But the subject was before congress and the nation, and that was much gained.

In studying the reasons assigned at that time, by the committee, and by such men as Benton and Linn, why the proposed action should be taken, one is impressed with the clear foresight of their prophetic minds .as to the future history of this great northwest. To the great part of their contemporaries their views were wild vagaries and their propositions extravagant and chimerical: to us they are a fulfilling and fulfilled history.

The Oregon question slumbered in congress until 1825, when Senator Benton introduced a ‘ bill into the senate to enable the president, Mr. Monroe, to possess and retain the country. The bill proposed an appropriation to enable the president to act efficiently, with army and navy. In the discussion of this bill the whole question of title to Oregon came up, and, in reply to Mr. Dickinson, of New York, who opposed the bill, Mr. Benton made a speech which entirely met all objections against the proposed action, and thoroughly answered all the pretensions of Great Britain in relation to the country. The bill did not pass, but fourteen senators voted for it. The action of Senator Benton on the bill showed very clearly that the sentiment in favor of asserting the rights of the United States to Oregon was rapidly increasing. The ten years of joint occupancy, provided for in the treaty of 1818, were drawing toward a close, and a strong and intelligent part of our national legislators, under the lead of Senator Benton, was opposed to renewing that provision. The reasons on which these views were based were never invalidated, but were the final grounds on which the United States won her case and secured Oregon. They were these:

The title to Oregon on the part of the United States rests on an irrefragable basis. First: The discovery of the Columbia River by Captain Gray in 1792. Second: The purchase of its territory of Louisiana, which included Oregon, from France in 1803. Third: The discovery of the Columbia River from its head to its mouth by Lewis and Clarke in 1806. Fourth: The settlement of Astoria in 1811. Fifth: The treaty with Spain in 1819. Sixth: Contiguity of settlement and possession.

The next step in the negotiations between Great Britain and the United States was the proposition, in 1828, at the end of the ten years of joint occupancy, to renew the terms of the convention for an indefinite period, determinable on one year’s notice from either Party to the other. Mr. Gallatin was the sole negotiator of this renewed treaty on the part of the United States, and his work was sustained by the administration then in power, that of John Quincy Adams. The treaty met strong opposition in the senate, led by that steadfast and intelligent friend of Oregon, Thomas H. Benton, but it was ratified: and thus England was indefinitely continued in her position of advantage over the United States in the territory in question.

From 1828 to 1842, “joint occupation” was the law of the land so far as the United States was concerned, while “British occupation” was the fact so far as Oregon was concerned. Every attempt of the citizens of the United States to establish commercial enterprises in the valley of the Columbia had been frustrated and defeated by the Hudson’s Bay Company, the potent representatives of British interests on the Pacific coast. Astor’s great plans, conceived in a broad intelligence prosecuted at enormous expense, and representing American interests in Oregon, had failed. Wyeth had sunk a fortune between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific, and all other Americans who had adventured kindred enterprises had been equally unfortunate, and after a quarter of a century of “joint occupancy” England had almost exclusive possession of Oregon.

What is known as the “Ashburton-Webster Treaty” was negotiated at Washington, in 1842, said Ashburton being the sole negotiator on the part of England, and Mr. Webster, then secretary of state under President Tyler, on the part of the United States. Said Ashburton was Mr. Alexander Baring, head of the great banking house of Baring & Brothers, and was a very astute and able man, and a finished diplomat. His mission was special, and though Mr. Fox was then the resident British minister at Washington, so thoroughly did the government trust Lord Ashburton that even Mr. Fox was not joined in the mission. Neither did the president associate any one with Mr. Webster. The English plenipotentiary came, professedly, to settle all questions between the United States and England, a chief one of which was the “Oregon Question.” The United States wished it settled. England wished it adjourned; and the wishes of England prevailed. What conferences, if any, were held between Mr. Webster and Lord Ashburton about anything further than the adjournment of this question, does not appear in any record, and about the only reference to it made of record is the statement of the president that there were some “informal conferences” in relation to it, and in his message communicating the treaty to the senate, that “there is no probability of coming to any agreement at present.”

The treaty was ratified by the senate on the 26th day of August 1842. After its ratification by the queen of England, and its proclamation as the supreme law of the land on the l0th day of November, England was more firmly intrenched, so far as law was concerned, in her claims and pretensions to Oregon than ever before. But while plenipotentiaries temporized and compromised, and executives and senates moved at a laggard pace on such great questions, events hastened. The people took up the question and went before the government. What they determined, the government must soon affirm. So fully did the question which the late treaty had postponed occupy the public mind, even during the pendency of the negotiation of that treaty, that, had the ear of Mr. Webster been nearer the heart of the people, he would surely have understood that adjournment of the question by himself and Lord Ashburton meant anything rather than a suppression, or even a postponement, of it from public debate. The newspapers took it up, and it was thus brought to the boys and girls, fathers and mothers on the hearthstones of the million homes of the country. The sentiments of the leaders of political action in our national legislature, as those sentiments appeared in the debates of the senate on the question of the ratification of the Webster-Ashburton treaty, were criticized, approved or condemned by the people in all the land. One sentiment was for the ratification, with postponement of the Oregon question and its easy forbearance with the crafty and insidious policy of England; the other was for the rejection of the treaty, a withdrawal of the United States from joint occupancy, and an act of colonization which would assume the full sovereignty of the United States over the territory in question by granting lands to emigrants, and otherwise encouraging their settlement in Oregon. Representing the first class, and speaking for it. as well as for Mr. Webster, the negotiator of the treaty, was Mr. Rufus Choate, senator from Massachusetts, who spoke in his place in the senate as follows: “Oregon, which a growing and noiseless current of agricultural immigration was filling with hands and hearts the fittest to defend it the noiseless, innumerous movement of our nation westward. We have spread to the Alleghanies, we have topped them, we have diffused ourselves over the imperial valley beyond; we have crossed the father of Rivers; the granite and ponderous gates of the Rocky Mountains have opened, and we stand in sight of the great sea. * * Go on with your negotiations and emigration. Are not the rifles and the wheat growing together, side-by-side? Will it not be easy, when the inevitable hour comes, to beat back ploughshares and pruning hooks into their original forms of instruments of death? Alas, that that trade is so easy to learn and so hard to forget!”

This was beautifully said, and it had a certain amiability about it that commended it to the favorable thought of many. Still it was far from representing the views of those who, from the beginning of the diplomatic struggle with Great Britain, had been the steadfast and radical advocates of the right of the United States to the possession of Oregon. Their views were better expressed by Senator Benton, who on the “Oregon Colonization Act” closed a speech of great vigor and power by saying:

“Time is invoked as the agent that is to help us. Gentlemen object to the present time, refer us to future time, and beg us to wait, and rely upon time and negotiations to accomplish all our wishes. Alas! Time and negotiations have been fatal agents against us in all our discussions with Great Britain. Time has been constantly working for her and against us. She now has the exclusive possession of the Columbia, and all she wants is time to ripen her possession into a title. For above twenty years the present time for vindicating our rights on the Columbia has been constantly objected to, and we were bidden to wait. Well, we have waited, and what have we got by it? Insult and defiance! a declaration from this British ministry that large British interests have grown up on the Columbia during this time, which they will protect, and a flat refusal from the olive-branch minister (Lord Ashburton) to include this question among those which his peaceful mission was to settle! No, sir time and negotiations have been bad agents for us in our controversies with Great Britain. They have just lost us the military frontiers of Maine, which we had held for sixty years, and the trading frontier of the northwest, which we had held for the same time. Sixty years’ possession and eight treaties secured these ancient and valuable boundaries; one negotiation and a few days of time have taken them from us! And so it may be again. The Webster treaty of 1842 has obliterated the great boundaries of 1783, placed the British, their fur company and their Indians within our ancient limits: and I, for one, want no more treaties from the hand which is always seen on the side of the British. I now go for vindicating our rights on the Columbia, and, as the first step toward it, passing this bill, and making these grants of land, which will soon place the thirty or forty thousand rifles beyond the Rocky Mountains, which will be our effective negotiators.”

The bill of Mr. Benton passed the senate by a vote of twenty-four to twenty-two. It went to the house, where it remained unacted upon during the session. But its moral effect was to assure the enterprising people of the west that the period of national procrastination and timidity was well-nigh over, and that it would be but a very short time before such decisive action would be taken as would compel a settlement of the controversy with England.

Following immediately in the train of the events just related, came the presidential election of 1844. The Oregon question was too available a question for the uses of a political campaign to be kept out of the preliminary canvass. “America for Americans,” “The Monroe Doctrine,” ‘Fifty-four Forty or Fight,” became the catchwords, if not the watchwords, of the hour. The politicians of one Party took their cue from the obvious tendency of this popular cry. The annexation of Texas and the immediate occupation of Oregon were very skillfully united together in the platform of the convention that nominated James K. Polk for president. On the Oregon question it declared that our title to the whole of Oregon up to 54° 40′ north latitude was “clear and indisputable,” thus denying and defying the pretensions of Great Britain to any territory bordering on the Pacific. The nominee of the Democratic Party for president, Mr. James K. Polk, indorsed the platform, and the canvass for him proceeded on that issue. Mr. Polk was elected over Henry Clay, who, although the idol of his Party and one of the most popular of American statesmen, could not overcome the excited state of the public mind on these questions. Thus the verdict of the people of the United States at the election was unquestionably in favor of Oregon, even up to 54° 40′ north latitude. It was well known, however, that the leading statesmen of the Democratic Party believed the forty-ninth degree to he the line of our rightful claim. Mr. Benton had already demonstrated it on the floor of the senate. Mr. Calhoun, as Democratic secretary of state for Mr. Tyler, at the very moment when the Democratic convention was making its platform and nominating Mr. Polk upon it, was engaged in a negotiation with the British minister in Washington, and offering to him a settlement of the entire question on the line of the forty-ninth parallel. Only some item in regard to the right of Great Britain to navigate the Columbia River prevented the acceptance of this proposition by the British minister, and the settlement of the whole question at that time.

While, doubtless, Mr. Calhoun himself would have been glad to have concluded the Oregon question as secretary of state, and as he evidently might have done, politically he did not dare to do so. The annexation of Texas was a southern question, and the south could be carried for Mr. Polk on that issue. Oregon was a northern question, and the north could be carried in the same way by keeping up the cry of “Fifty-four Forty or Fight.” To settle on 49° would be to yield the question, and with it the election to the Whigs, and make Mr. Clay president. So the Oregon question was not settled, as it might have been before the election of 1844, and exactly the same line as was adopted two years later, after it had achieved the political results for which it was kept in the air during the political canvass of 1844, namely, electing Mr. Polk president, and finally defeating the aspirations of Mr. Clay for that eminent position.

With this result achieved, and on this ground, this question could not slumber. Mr. Polk brought it promptly forward in his inaugural address, reaffirming the position of the platform on which he was elected. The position of the inaugural threw the public mind of Great Britain into a ferment, and the English nation thundered back the cry of war. For a year the two nations stood face to face like gladiators, with uplifted swords waiting for a word that would send them breast to breast in the fierce grapple of war. History must record that the United States must retreat, in her diplomacy and in her legislation, from the political decision of her people, or the inevitable war must come. It was an embarrassing and mortifying position for the new government, but it had to be endured and met as best it could be.

James Buchanan was now secretary of state. He waited for some time for a proposition from the British minister at Washington to renew the negotiations on the Oregon question, but none came. On the 22d of July 1845 he therefore addressed a note to Mr. Packenham, the British minister at Washington, resuming negotiations where Mr. Calhoun had suspended them, and again proposed the line of forty-nine to the ocean. This the British minister refused, but invited a “fairer” proposition. The knowledge of this proposition on the part of the secretary of state raised a political storm in his Party before which the administration cowered, and, as Mr. Packenham had not accepted it, it was withdrawn. The president recommended strong measures to assert and secure our title, and the political storm was measurably appeased. Meantime, the withdrawal of the proposition of Mr. Buchanan, coupled with the recommendation of the president, somewhat alarmed the British people, and it began to be rumored that England would propose the line she had before rejected. The position of the dominant Party absolutely required that it should make a demonstration according to its iterated and reiterated promises to the people. Accordingly, a resolution determining the treaty of joint occupancy, and looking to the maintenance of that position, was introduced into the house of representatives, most ably debated John Quincy Adams taking strong grounds in its favorite and, on the 9th of February 1846, adopted, by the decisive vote of 163 to 54.

The resolution thus passed in the house went to the senate. Here, in the form in which it passed the house, it encountered violent opposition, a strong contingent of the Democratic Party taking position against it. Among these, if not their leader, was Senator Benton. General Cass, E. A. Hannigan and William Allen led the debate in its favor. Besides, Benton, Webster, Crittenden and Berrien made exhaustive arguments against it. It was well understood in the senate that President Polk thought it necessary to recede from the position of his Party the position on which he had fought the campaign in which he was elected to the presidency and accept the line of 49° without a “fight.” So the resolution of the house was defeated in the senate. But the senate adopted another resolution, authorizing the president “at his discretion” to give notice to Great Britain for the termination of the treaty. The senate resolution was conciliatory, its preamble declaring that it was only to secure “a speedy and amiable adjustment of the differences and disputes in regard to said territory.”

When this resolution went to the house that body receded from its former position, and, with even a greater unanimity than had characterized their action on that which the senate had rejected, adopted it; only forty-six, and they almost entirely northern Democrats, voting against it.

With this action the danger of the war with Great Britain was dispelled. It was immediately followed by a treaty between Mr. Buchanan, secretary of state, under the direction of the president and British minister at Washington, adopting the forty-ninth parallel as the boundary between the two countries, with certain concessions touching the line westward of where that parallel strikes the gulf of Georgia, and. for a definite period, the rights of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the navigation of the Columbia River by the British. Thus closed a controversy with Great Britain that came very near involving the two nations in a conflict of arms. In a war England could have possessed, and, it may not be too much to suppose, would have possessed Oregon, but, perhaps at the cost of the Canadas. Had the settlement been postponed a few years longer, it is not improbable that American emigrants would have so filled the country even up to 54° 40′ and all the country would have been one. In the discussion both sides were partly right and partly wrong, as history clearly demonstrates. The “30,000 rifles” theory of Senator Benton, in the hands of emigrants, was correct. The “time and patience” theory of Mr. Webster and Mr. Calhoun was also correct. These acting together solved the “Oregon question,” and on the whole, as matters stood in 1846, solved it honorably and justly to both the high contracting parties.

Although the Oregon treaty was made, and had been proclaimed as the law of the land, one thing remained to be done which became a matter of infinite disagreement, and came very near involving the two countries in war before its final conclusion. The line was agreed upon, but it was not run. The trouble arose from a long continued permission, on the part of Great Britain, of the application of the description of the line from where the forty-ninth parallel of latitude strikes the gulf of Georgia. Thence, as it was worded in the treaty, it was to follow “the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver’s island,” and follow it through the straits of Fuca to the ocean. No map or chart was attached to the treaty on which the line could be traced; so little was really known of the geography of the gulf of Georgia that it would have been difficult for the commissioners to have traced the middle of the channel had one been present. This left open a ground for dispute and diplomatic finesse, which continued to drag the controversy along through many years, the matter being finally submitted for final arbitration, without appeal, to Emperor William of Germany, on the 8th of May 1871.

For twenty-five years, under the finesse of British diplomacy, the treaty of June 15, 1846, had waited for its execution. Its interpretation was the last question of territorial right between Great Britain and the United States. For over ninety-two years, the two great English-speaking nations of the world had been trying to decide upon a line that should decide between them from sea to sea, and at Berlin, and by the Emperor William, the last and definite word was spoken, and the controversy was ended, July 21, 1872.




MLA Source Citation:

Illustrated History of the State of Idaho. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company. 1899. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 16 April 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/oregon/rival-claims-and-pretensions.htm - Last updated on Jun 30th, 2013


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