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.