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- The Path of Empire, - 3/32 -


Doctrine and to explain those controversies which accompanied this growth and taxed the diplomatic resources of American Secretaries of State from the times of Adams and Webster and Seward to those of Blaine and Hay and Elihu Root. The diplomacy of the Great War is reserved for another volume in this Series.

CHAPTER II. Controversies With Great Britain

No two nations have ever had more intimate relationships than the United States and Great Britain. Speaking the same language and owning a common racial origin in large part, they have traded with each other and in the same regions, and geographically their territories touch for three thousand miles. During the nineteenth century the coastwise shipping of the United States was often forced to seek the shelter of the British West Indies. The fisherfolk of England and America mingled on the Grand Bank of Newfoundland and on the barren shores of that island and of Labrador, where they dried their fish. Indians, criminals, and game crossed the Canadian boundary at will, streams flowed across it, and the coast cities vied for the trade of the interior, indifferent to the claims of national allegiance. One cannot but believe that this intimacy has in the long run made for friendship and peace; but it has also meant constant controversy, often pressed to the verge of war by the pertinacious insistence of both nations on their full rights as they saw them.

The fifteen years following Adams's encounter with Canning saw the gradual accumulation of a number of such disputes, which made the situation in 1840 exceptionally critical. Great Britain was angered at the failure of the United States to grant her the right to police the seas for the suppression of the slave trade, while the United States, with memories of the vicious English practice of impressment before the War of 1812, distrusted the motives of Great Britain in asking for this right. Nearly every mile of the joint boundary in North America was in dispute, owing to the vagueness of treaty descriptions or to the errors of surveyors. Twelve thousand square miles and a costly American fort were involved; arbitration had failed; rival camps of lumberjacks daily imperiled peace; and both the Maine Legislature and the National Congress had voted money for defense. In a New York jail Alexander McLeod was awaiting trial in a state court for the murder of an American on the steamer Caroline, which a party of Canadian militia had cut out from the American shore near Buffalo and had sent to destruction over Niagara Falls. The British Government, holding that the Caroline was at the time illegally employed to assist Canadian insurgents, and that the Canadian militia were under government orders justifiable by international law, assumed the responsibility for McLeod's act and his safety. Ten thousand Americans along the border, members of "Hunters' Lodges," were anxious for a war which would unleash them for the conquest of Canada. Delay was causing all these disputes to fester, and the public mind of the two countries was infected with hostility.

Fortunately in 1841 new administrations came into power in both England and the United States. Neither the English Tories nor the American Whigs felt bound to maintain all the contentions of their predecessors, and both desired to come to an agreement. The responsibility on the American side fell upon Daniel Webster, the new Secretary of State. With less foreign experience than John Quincy Adams, he was more a man of the world and a man among men. His conversation was decidedly less ponderous than his oratory, and there was no more desirable dinner guest in America. Even in Webster's lightest moments, his majestic head gave the impression of colossal mentality, and his eyes, when he was in earnest, almost hypnotized those upon whom he bent his gaze. A leading figure in public life for twenty-five years, he now attained administrative position for the first time, and his constant practice at the bar had given something of a lawyerlike trend to his mind.

The desire of the British Government for an agreement with the United States was shown by the selection of Washington instead of London as the place of negotiation and of Lord Ashburton as negotiator. The head of the great banking house of Baring Brothers, he had won his title by service and was, moreover, known to be a friend of the United States. While in Philadelphia in his youth, he had married Miss Bingham of that city, and she still had American interests. In the controversies before the War of 1812 Lord Ashburton had supported many of the American contentions. He knew Webster personally, and they both looked forward to the social pleasure of meeting again during the negotiations. The two representatives came together in this pleasant frame of mind and did most of their business at the dinner table, where it is reported that more than diplomatic conversation flowed. They avoided an exchange of notes, which would bind each to a position once taken, but first came to an agreement and then prepared the documents.

It must not be supposed, however, that either Ashburton or Webster sacrificed the claims of his own Government. Webster certainly was a good attorney for the United States in settling the boundary disputes, as is shown by the battle of the maps. The territorial contentions of both countries hung largely upon the interpretation of certain clauses of the first American treaty of peace. Webster therefore ordered a search for material to be made in the archives of Paris and London. In Paris there was brought to light a map with the boundary drawn in red, possibly by Franklin, and supporting the British contention. Webster refrained from showing this to Ashburton and ordered search in London discontinued. Ironically enough, however, a little later there was unearthed in the British Museum the actual map used by one of the British commissioners in 1782, which showed the boundary as the United States claimed it to be. Though they had been found too late to affect the negotiations, these maps disturbed the Senate discussion of the matter. Yet, as they offset each other, they perhaps facilitated the acceptance of the treaty.

Rapidly Webster and Ashburton cleared the field. Webster obtained the release of McLeod and effected the passage of a law to prevent a similar crisis in the future by permitting such cases to be transferred to a federal court. The Caroline affair was settled by an amicable exchange of notes in which each side conceded much to the other. They did not indeed dispose of the slave trade, but they reached an agreement by which a joint squadron was to undertake to police efficiently the African seas in order to prevent American vessels from engaging in that trade.

Upon the more important matter of boundary, both Webster and Ashburton decided to give up the futile task of convincing each other as to the meaning of phrases which rested upon half-known facts reaching back into the misty period of first discovery and settlement. They abandoned interpretation and made compromise and division the basis of their settlement. This method was more difficult for Webster than for Ashburton, as both Maine and Massachusetts were concerned, and each must under the Constitution be separately convinced. Here Webster used the "Red Line" map, and succeeded in securing the consent of these States. They finally settled upon a boundary which was certainly not that intended in 1782 but was a compromise between the two conceptions of that boundary and divided the territory with a regard for actual conditions and geography. From Passamaquoddy Bay to the Lake of the Woods, accepted lines were substituted for controversy, and the basis of peace was thus made more secure. The treaty also contained provision for the mutual extradition of criminals guilty of specified crimes, but these did not include embezzlement, and "gone to Canada" was for years the epitaph of many a dishonest American who had been found out.

The friendly spirit in which Webster and Ashburton had carried on their negotiations inaugurated a period of reasonable amity between their two nations. The United States annexed Texas without serious protest; in spite of the clamor for "fifty-four forty or fight," Oregon was divided peacefully; and England did not take advantage of the war with Mexico. Each of these events, however, added to American territory, and these additions gave prominence to a new and vexing problem. The United States was now planted solidly upon the Pacific, and its borders were practically those to which Adams had looked forward. Natural and unified as this area looks upon the map and actually is today, in 1850 the extent of territorial expansion had overreached the means of transportation. The Great Plains, then regarded as the Great American Desert, and the Rockies presented impossible barriers to all but adventurous individuals. These men, uniting in bands for self-protection and taking their lives in their hands, were able with good luck to take themselves but little else across this central region and the western barrier. All ordinary communication, all mail and all freight, must go by sea. The United States was actually divided into two very unequal parts, and California and Oregon were geographically far distant colonies.

The ocean highroad belonged to the United States in common with all nations, but it took American ships to the opposite ends of the earth. No regular shuttle of traffic sufficient to weave the nation together could be expected to pass Cape Horn at every throw. The natural route lay obviously through the Caribbean, across some one of the isthmuses, and up the Pacific coast. Here however, the United States would have to use territory belonging to other nations, and to obtain the right of transit and security agreement was necessary. All these isthmus routes, moreover, needed improvement. Capital must be induced to do the work, and one necessary inducement was a guarantee of stable conditions of investment.

This isthmus route became for a time the prime object of American diplomacy. The United States made in 1846 satisfactory arrangements with the Republic of New Granada (later Colombia), across which lay the most southern route, and in 1853 with Mexico, of whose northern or Tehuantepec route many had great expectations; but a further difficulty was now discovered. The best lanes were those of Panama and of Nicaragua. When the discovery of gold in California in 1848 made haste a more important element in the problem, "Commodore" Vanderbilt, at that time the shipping king of the United States, devoted his attention to the Nicaragua route and made it the more popular. Here however, the United States encountered not only the local independent authorities but also Great Britain. Just to the north of the proposed route Great Britain possessed Belize, now British Honduras, a meager colony but with elastic boundaries. For many generations, too, she had concerned herself with securing the rights of the Mosquito Indians, who held a territory, also with elastic boundaries, inconveniently near the San Juan River, the Caribbean entrance to the Nicaraguan thoroughfare. From Great Britain, moreover, must come a large portion of the capital to be employed in constructing the canal which was expected soon to cut the isthmus.


The Path of Empire, - 3/32

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