Oregon Treaty Prevents War between U.S. and Great Britain
Most Americans know that the United States fought two wars with Great Britain in the early days of this country: the Revolutionary War leading to our nation’s independence, and the War of 1812. However, few Americans realize we nearly fought a third war with Great Britain over the disputed “Oregon Country” in the 1840s. 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 two nations had jointly occupied the Oregon Country since 1818. Aside from Native Americans the only real presence in this area was the British Hudson’s Bay Company, and from 1818 until 1840 the Oregon Country was essentially British territory, despite the joint occupancy agreement. All that changed in the 1840s, when America became obsessed that its “Manifest Destiny” was to extend across the entire continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. What made this expansion possible, and enabled so many Americans to pour into Oregon that Great Britain realized further resistance was futile, was the Oregon Trail.
The Treaty of 1818 established the boundary between the U.S. and Canada (British North America) along the 49th parallel of north latitude, from Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains. The border beyond that, however, was in dispute. A militant portion of the U.S. government and public, called the “54 40s,” wanted the border west of the Rockies to be at the 54 40 parallel, which would give the United States all of Vancouver Island and a big chunk of present-day western Canada. President James K. Polk won the presidential election of 1844 as a strong proponent of American territorial expansion. War fever began to grip both nations while government negotiators scurried to settle the dispute.
Despite his promises during the 1844 campaign, President Polk was eager to compromise with Great Britain in the spring of 1846 after the Mexican-American War began; he had no desire to fight two wars at once. The Oregon Treaty, signed by President Polk on June 15, 1846, continued the border at the 49th parallel west of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, the existing border between the U.S. and Canada today. Under terms of the Oregon Treaty, Great Britain retained all of Vancouver Island. The U.S. gained control of land that became the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.
The following three newspaper articles are about the Senate giving its “advice and consent” to the Oregon Treaty, ending the threat of war between the U.S. and Great Britain.
This article was published by the Daily Evening Transcript (Boston, Massachusetts) on June 15, 1846—the day President Polk signed the Oregon Treaty:
The Oregon Treaty
The following gratifying intelligence was received in this city yesterday morning by the steamboat mail, and is from the telegraphic correspondence of the Philadelphia North American, and which appeared in that paper on Saturday morning, dated Washington, 6¼ o’clock P.M. Friday.
Peace is secured! Huzza for the glorious Senate! The great question of the session is settled! The Senate has saved the country from all danger of war! It has just given their advice, by the constitutional majority, and a Treaty will be immediately framed upon the terms offered by Great Britain.
The vote was 38 ayes to 12 nays. Mr. Corwin was detained from his seat by sickness, and Mr. Crittenden and Mr. Barrow are in Virginia; a fourth Whig vote might have been obtained, if necessary. Mr. Atchison did not vote, and Mr. Bright was absent. The terms are those stated in my previous dispatches.
…The prospect of an amicable settlement of the vexed Oregon question burst, like a gleam of sunshine, upon our community, cheering the hearts and uplifting the hopes of thousands, over whose bosoms and business the war cloud had cast its gloom. The long array of afflictions anticipated as the fruits of such a war—a gasping commerce—a crushing taxation—credit floating away like a mist, and industry without reward, together with the darker shades of carnage and crime, licentiousness and despair—a nation on the rack and a green land crimsoned with conflict—passed away from the eye; and the restored and secured blessings of virtue and peace resumed their place.
This article was published by the Morning News (New London, Connecticut) on June 15, 1846:
From the Tribune Extra, of Saturday.
From Washington. Peace Secured!—Peace with England Secured!—The Oregon Question Settled!—The 54 40s Extinguished!—The Senate in Favor of the Treaty: 38 to 12.—The Country Saved from War!
We hasten to lay before our readers the announcement which has just reached us by telegraph and locomotive express, that the Senate has voted, 38 to 12, to advise the President to make a Treaty for settlement of the Oregon Question on the basis suggested by the British Government.
The terms of the Treaty, though not officially announced, are, no doubt, substantially as named in previous dispatches. This is great news, not for its bearing alone upon this country, but upon the whole civilized world.
It is a triumph of patriotism over selfish and brutal passion of which both Great Britain and the United States may well be proud. May no untoward circumstance prevent the consummation of the work so auspiciously begun! The laurels won in this contest are unstained by human blood, and shall bloom in undying beauty when those achieved by war and carnage are trampled in the dust!
The great question of the session is settled. They have saved the country from a war, and secured an honorable abjudication of a much vexed question. The Senate has given the advice to the President by the constitutional majority, and a Treaty will immediately be framed on the terms offered by Great Britain.
This article was published by the Georgia Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on June 16, 1846. While its correspondent, as in the two previous articles, welcomed the Oregon Treaty, it is obvious the paper’s editors were “54 40s” who did not favor a compromise with Great Britain:
Our readers will join with us in bidding our Washington Correspondent—Tatnall—welcome to our columns again.
We are sorry that we cannot agree with Tatnall in viewing the proposed Oregon Treaty as favorably as he seems to regard it. Amongst our own party, we are aware there are some who would go further than others in measures of compromise. For our own part, to the extent of our own rights, we would yield nothing upon the score of conciliation. If we understand the basis of the new treaty, the surrender of Vancouver’s Island and its harbors with the free navigation, all of the Columbia River, will lose us the chief advantages in dispute.
From Our Washington Correspondent
Washington City, June 10, 1846.
The long season of gloom and anxiety which has oppressed and burdened the minds of the people in reference to the Oregon Question, appears to be at last drawing to a close, and brighter and more auspicious prospects are dawning upon us. In plain phrase, I am gratified almost beyond measure in being able to say that the difficulties respecting the Oregon Question, which have so long been felt as an incubus upon the nation, may be regarded as settled—disposed of—put to rest. Mr. Pakenham has made, under the instructions of the British Government, propositions for a settlement, which are of such a nature as to be highly satisfactory, and to put it almost beyond the reach of doubt that the Oregon Question will be amicably and honorably settled before the present session of Congress adjourns. The terms which have been discussed and informally arranged, are understood to be: the exclusion of the 49th parallel from the Rocky Mountains to the Straits of Fuca, and along those Straits to the Pacific Ocean, giving the whole of Vancouver’s Island to the British, and granting the free use of the river Columbia for a term of years—either ten or twenty—to the Hudson’s Bay Company, so as to prevent the necessity of the British Government being called on to compensate that company for the loss of the use of the river during the term of their charter. The basis of a treaty has been, as I have said, discussed and arranged by Messrs. Pakenham and Buchanan, and today the President communicated a message to the Senate, with the protocols and correspondence, and requesting the advice of the Senate as to whether he should reduce this basis to a treaty, or not.
I cannot myself see the necessity of this step on the part of the President. The terms agreed upon are highly honorable to both parties, and will prove eminently satisfactory to the people; and I think the course and action of the Senate has been such as ought to satisfy any reasonable man of their willingness to ratify such a treaty.
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