Congress Risks War with England over the Oregon Country
Few Americans realize that we almost fought a third war with the British when, in the 1840s, war fever gripped the nation over the dispute concerning the “Oregon Country.” This was a vast area, stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, from California all the way up to Alaska, rich with resources and fertile land. The U.S. and Great Britain signed the Anglo-American Convention of 1818, agreeing to joint occupancy of the Oregon Country, and updated this with another treaty in 1827.
The Oregon Trail kept bringing more American pioneers into the Oregon Country, and with the nation in the grip of “Manifest Destiny,” Rep. Ingersoll introduced a resolution on Jan. 5, 1846, calling on the president to notify Great Britain that the U.S. was ending the joint occupancy and taking over Oregon—even if such a move led to war.
On Saturday, January 3—two days before the resolution was introduced—there was a lively debate in the House of Representatives over the Oregon question. This article was published by the Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) on Jan. 5, 1846:
(Reported for the Baltimore Sun.)
Washington, Jan. 3, 1846.
House of Representatives
In the House, the first business was the consideration of the motion relative to the reference of the bill reported yesterday from the Military Committee for the raising of two regiments of riflemen [in anticipation of trouble with Great Britain—ed.].
Mr. C. J. Ingersoll, the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, took the floor. He applauded the speech of Mr. Adams yesterday, and said it could not fail to exert an immense pacificatory influence on both sides of the Atlantic. He, Mr. I., agreed most fully with the venerable gentleman, that at present there can be no fear of war, nor can there be until the termination of the joint occupancy. Our only plan was to go on and give the notice, and leave the rest to the women and children. (Cries of what do you mean?) Why, said he, what I mean is this. When Doctor Franklin was at the British court, and he found that all hope of peace was at an end, he turned to a gentleman near him, and said there is no safety now but in the women and children. Our success all depends upon them, therefore go home and tell them all to go to work and get children as fast as possible. (Roars of laughter.) Yes, continued Mr. I., our only safety lies in a proper obedience to the population laws; let us give the year’s notice, and the women and children will attend to the rest. (Renewed laughter.) He went on to say, that he had just been told by a friend that the recommendation of Doctor Franklin was being fully attended to in Oregon. (Roars of laughter.) He repeated, that in giving the year’s notice, there was no fear of war. It was, on the contrary, emphatically a measure of peace, and in this view he was sustained by the English paper published in New York. He furthermore expressed his belief that in the course of a few days the Committee on Foreign Affairs would report in favor of giving the notice. He then referred to the fact that there are already in Oregon seven thousand American citizens, with their wives and children. These men had, too, American rifles, and considering the immense difficulty Great Britain would have in sending troops 20,000 miles, these seven thousand rifles were able to hold the country, and Great Britain well knew it. If, however, on the giving of the notice, Great Britain should think proper to declare war on that account, as some imagined, it would be a war which both God and man would condemn.
Mr. Haralson, in reply to the remarks of Mr. Holmes yesterday, said, that the committee in reporting this bill for two regiments of riflemen, had no view to any expected hostilities. The bill was simply reported for the completion of our peace establishment.
Mr. Darragh, with reference to our Oregon difficulty, took the ground that nothing is to be gained by delay. He thought we had delayed the assertion of our rights long enough. He alluded to the rumored war preparations of Great Britain ever since the first cloud arose in the horizon relative to Oregon—and why, he asked, ought we not to take the same course? Ever since 1823, Great Britain had been adopting measures for the protection of her settlers in Oregon—and what, he asked, had we done? He was for dallying no longer.
Mr. King was glad the negotiation had ended. He thought there was nothing to be gained by it.
Mr. Winthrop made a conciliatory speech, and contended that it was our best policy, if we desired to procure our rights, not to give the notice at this time, but to permit our settlers to swell the population. By this means we should, at a future time, be in a much better condition than now to enforce our claims, should they be disputed. Under all existing circumstances, he was of opinion that the giving of the notice at this time would precipitate us into a war. He did not see how it was to be prevented. He advocated peace, and held that the difficulties can all be settled by arbitration, if not by crowned heads, by other disinterested parties.
Mr. Owen gave a history of the Oregon question, and dissented from many of the views of the last speaker.
Mr. Baker went the whole figure for Oregon, and declared that he loved every grain of sand that glittered in her moonlight and every pebble on her shores. If England should go to war, he protested that she would very speedily be swept entirely from this continent.
Mr. McDowell next obtained the floor, but it being late the House adjourned.
Not everyone in the country was eager for war with Great Britain over the Oregon question. This dissenting editorial was published by the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) on Jan. 5, 1846—the very day Rep. Ingersoll’s resolution was introduced in the House:
The Oregon Question
The difference between the United States and Great Britain on the subject of the Oregon Territory, has at length assumed an importance which throws into the shade all other questions of National politics. …the British Ministry, the British Press, and the British People are of one mind, and that is, that their right to all that part of Oregon lying north and west of the Columbia river, is clear, unbroken and incontestable, and that any attempt, on the part of the American Government to dispossess them, must be resisted, at every hazard and to the last extremity. The idea of taking anything less than half the territory in dispute, is scouted as preposterous, and not to be entertained one moment.
On our side, the advices from Washington seem to indicate that the Administration is intent upon asserting and enforcing its claim to the whole of Oregon, with the least possible delay. In such a state of things how is it possible that War shall be avoided? And yet, how utterly unprepared are we for a resort to this bloody trade, and how fearful the responsibility which must rest upon the rulers and statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic, who shall needlessly plunge two powerful, enlightened, Christian Nations into all the sufferings, horrors and desolations of War!
The introduction of Rep. Ingersoll’s resolution was reported by the Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.) on Jan. 6, 1846:
House of Representatives.
The Journal of Saturday having been read—
Mr. Charles J. Ingersoll said he was instructed by the Committee on Foreign Affairs to report a joint resolution in relation to Oregon; and, for the purpose of affording him an opportunity of doing so, he moved a suspension of the rules prescribing the order of business.
The question being put, the rules were suspended, and—
Mr. Ingersoll reported the resolution, which was read, as follows
Resolved, (the Senate concurring) That the President of the United States forthwith cause notice to be given to the Government of Great Britain that the convention between the United States and Great Britain concerning the territory of Oregon, of the 6th of August, 1827, signed at London, shall be annulled and abrogated twelve months after the expiration of the said term of notice, conformably to the 2d article of the said convention of the 6th of August, 1827.
Mr. Ingersoll then said he was instructed by the Committee on Foreign Affairs to move that the resolution be committed to the Committee of the Whole on the State of the Union, and made the special order of the day for the first Monday in February next.
Voices: “Oh not so long!—tomorrow—today—immediately!”
In the face of such defiance, Americans’ fierce belief in their “Manifest Destiny” to expand across the entire continent, and the overwhelming number of American settlers that continued to reach the Oregon Country via the Oregon Trail, Great Britain realized compromise was better than losing everything. The British foreign secretary, Lord Aberdeen, was authorized to work out a settlement with the Polk administration, and the resulting agreement, the Oregon Treaty signed on June 15, 1846, established American control of the Oregon Country up to the 49th parallel (the American-Canadian border today). Great Britain was allowed to keep the stretch of territory above that boundary up to Alaska’s border.
Click here for more articles about America’s “Wild West.”