The Oregon Country was governed equally by Great Britain and the United States. James Polk supported US expansionism, became president and settled the boundary dispute.
In 1818, an agreement was made between the U.K and the U.S. o jointly occupy the Oregon Country. This area was defined on the south by the 42nd Parallel, which is today’s California Oregon border. East to West it lay between the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountain’s Continental Divide. The Northern border was the same latitude as the southern extremity of Russian Alaska. This border was set at the latitude of 54° 40’.
During the next 20 years there seemed to be little issue with the 1818 agreement as the only occupants of the area were Native Americans and fur trappers who were mostly British working under the Hudson’s Bay Company. As the American population began to grow, however, more people were following a few early missionaries and mountain men to Oregon.
As the 1844 election cycle began to heat up, one of the biggest issues was westward expansion. At first, the Texas question was what was on everyone’s mind. President John Tyler expected to be reelected easily based on his aggressive stance on statehood for Texas and expansionism in general. This all unraveled when Secretary of State John Calhoun wrote a letter to the British Ambassador, defending Texas statehood. In the letter, he said that Texas was vital to protect the institution of slavery.
Tyler’s tepid support in the Whig party immediately dried up. The Whigs turned to Henry Clay but his running mate, a Seventh Day Adventist, cost the Whigs the critical Catholic vote in New York. Meanwhile, the Democrats, beginning to see a north-south slavery split, finally nominated the unknown James Polk from Tennessee on the ninth ballot.
The expansion issue was focused on three main fronts. The first was Texas statehood and it’s implications for slavery. The second was the western territories that included New Mexico, Arizona and, most lucratively, California for its ports in San Diego and San Francisco. Thirdly, the Oregon Territory was in everyone’s sights. It was to Polk’s advantage to focus on Oregon because it pleased the expansionists in both the north and the south. The drawback was that the other two areas would almost certainly bring on a war with Mexico.
Bravado over caution usually wins elections so Polk made a strong stand on Oregon. Non-expansionist Whigs had ridiculed the absurdity of going to war with both Mexico and Great Britain by saying that the expansionist war hawk’s stand was summed up in the expression “54 40 or Fight”. This referred to Oregon’s northern border. Polk’s campaign successfully usurped this sarcasm for their own use. He shouted this challange at every campaign stop and rode it all the way to the White House.
The Compromise and Manifest Destiny
President Polk knew that he did not want to fight two wars at once and so he magnanimously proposed to give the British everything above the 49th parallel, extending the current Canadian boundary to the Pacific Ocean. The British had taken the stance that the American claim was only valid as far north as the Columbia River (today’s Oregon-Washington border). The British refused the offer because it cut Vancouver Island in two. When they saw Polk was resolved to fight they asked to go to international arbitration. Polk refused and pushed a resolution through the Senate to terminate joint occupancy in April of 1846.
Finally, Richard Packenham, the British Ambassador, proposed that they use the 49th parallel but then loop southward around Vancouver Island. Britain sent war ships to the region just to let Polk know this was their final offer. Both sides decided this was the best and another war with Great Britain avoided. During the negotiations in 1845, John O’Sullivan had written that the United States had a “manifest destiny to overspread the whole of the Continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty”. “Manifest Destiny” became the term used for the inevitability of the United States expansion from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
- Manifest Ambition: James K. Polk and Civil-Military Relations During The Mexican War by John C. Pinheiro, 2007, Greenwood Publishing Group
- Oregon: The Struggle For Possession by William Barrows, 1888, Houghton Mifflin
- United States Magazine and Democratic Review editorial by John O’Sullivan, July 1845