British-American Relations in the 1840’s

The 1840’s were a period of American expansion and diplomacy. Throughout these years, tensions grew in Anglo-American relations. By this time, The United States had extended its power and territories in the world, and the British Empire had problems in government. Throughout the 1840’s, the two countries disputed over many things, new problems as well as old disagreements. However, the resolution of these disagreements is the great achievement of this period. The issues included the resolution of commercial relations between the United States and Britain, the settlement of the Maine boundary dispute, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, and the agreement concerning the Oregon territory.
By the 1840’s, commerce between America and Great Britain had improved from prior decades. But, some disputes still ensued between merchants of the two nations. One major argument was that of the Creole Affair. In the early 1840’s, the British were interested in fighting the slave trade. They were against the importation of African slaves into the Americas. In 1841, on the American ship Creole, 135 enslaved Africans overpowered the crew, murdering one man, while sailing from Virginia to New Orleans. Led by Madison Washington, the slaves sailed the vessel to Nassau, Bahamas, where the British declared most of them free. Americans argued that the property of U.S. slave owners should be protected in foreign ports.

Slave owners were outraged at the British who responded by arguing that once the ship was outside of U.S. territorial waters; the African Americans were entitled to their liberty. The House of Representatives then also stated that any attempt to re-enslave them would be unconstitutional.

Another turning point in U.S. relations with Great Britain came with the signing on August 9, 1842, of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which settled several matters between the two nations. The new British Foreign Minister, Lord Aberdeen, sent Lord Ashburton to Washington to meet with Secretary of State Daniel Webster to negotiate some boundary issues. The two were friends so negotiations went pretty smoothly. Together, they developed a treaty that adjusted the Maine-New Brunswick boundary, which had been the cause of the Aroostock War (1838-1839). The U.S. received most of the territory in dispute as well as navigational rights on the St. John River. The treaty also settled the question of the U.S.-Canada boundary between Lake Superior and Lake of the Woods.

As a result of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, the U.S. and Great Britain also agreed to cooperate in suppressing the slave trade. Both countries agreed to keep military squadrons on the African coast to enforce their own laws, but the “joint police force” never worked in practice. The United States also agreed to station ships off the African coast in an effort to detect Americans engaging in the slave trade. Finally, the British requested to allow boarding of American ships by the British Navy. Secretary of State Webster rejected this request.

One issue the Webster-Ashburton treaty did not touch upon was that of manifest destiny and westward expansion. Manifest Destiny was the attitude of many Americans at this time. It was the belief that all of North America would eventually become part of the United States-“from the Isthmus to the Arctic Circle.” It was this attitude that played a significant role in the desire for war. One of the most important issues of this time was that of the Oregon Country. The Oregon Territory was located between the 42nd parallel and the 54-40 line (Alaska Boundary); and included all or parts of the future states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Both the United States and Great Britain had long-standing claims to the land; the U.S. claims going back to Lewis and Clark. Joint occupation by both nations had been decided for the area of the Columbia River, the “St. Lawrence of the West”. Most easterners didn’t care about the land west of the Rockies (until the 1849 gold rush), but some saw it as a gateway to the Orient and trade. (Beard, p.182-183)
In 1841, Congress considered building forts along the Oregon Trail. Great Britain was enraged by this but did not take any action against the U.S. (the Webster-Ashburton Treaty also avoided this issue in 1842). In 1842, “Oregon Fever” set in. Because California still belonged to Mexico, the only outlet on the west coast was Oregon, which had been occupied jointly with the British since 1818. The area in dispute in the 1840’s lied between the Columbia River and the 49th parallel. The Oregon issue became part of the 1844 election; James K. Polk used the slogan “54-40 or fight” in his campaign. The settlement of the Oregon Territory was also tied to Texas as part of the regional balance over slavery.
In 1844, James K. Polk won the election and became the 14th President of the United States. Polk had four major goals for his administration; to lower the tariff, resolve the Oregon dispute, annex Texas, and to acquire California.

In his inaugural address, Polk asserted the U.S. claim to Oregon, which irritated the British. He and his administration wanted to obtain as much land in Oregon as possible. They were willing to go to war with Britain for this land. Great Britain on the other hand, did not want to risk war over an area with very little British population. As a result, the two nations met to negotiate a deal over the disputed area. Negotiations began in the summer of 1845. The initial American proposal called for the boundary to be drawn at the 49th parallel, bisecting Vancouver Island. When British negotiators rejected this proposal, President Polk took a bolder position by reasserting his campaign promise to support the 54° 40′ line and announced the American intent to terminate the joint occupancy agreement within a year. This was a very bold move and Polk was praised by Northerners who cheered with shouts of “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!” They felt that an empty West Coast was vulnerable to colonization by a third party, particularly Britain. By issuing the Monroe Doctrine in 1824, the U.S. bound itself to prevent any further colonization on the Western Hemisphere. The acquisition of the West Coast by Britain or any other nation would be a big blow to American prestige. The American army simply wasn’t strong enough to enforce the Monroe Doctrine.

Southerners on the other hand, made it clear that they would not risk war with Britain over Oregon. British leaders also were averse to conflict and did not want to jeopardize their important economic relationship with the United States.

In June 1846, the Senate, preoccupied with war against Mexico, quickly approved the Oregon Treaty with Britain, setting the boundary at the 49th parallel.

For the same reason they feared the British in Oregon, the United States was concerned with the British in California. British adventurers and merchants had published alarming books advocating the colonization of California, although these publications did not represent official British ideals. Great Britain realized that any investment in California would represent pointless over-extension. However, Americans nearly went crazy with the idea of the British in California; fearing they would take the land while the U.S. was fighting Mexico. Although nothing happened in this dispute, it shows the tensions that were present during this period in history.

As you can see, the 1840’s were basically a period of disagreement between the United States and Great Britain. However, I believe it was a productive era, in that all the disputes between these nations were solved peacefully – through negotiations, not through war.

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