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Critical State of Foreign Affairs on the Accession of General Harrison.— Mr. Web ster appointed to the State Department. —Death of General Harrison.—Embar. rassed Relations with England. — Formation of Sir Robert Peel's Ministry, and Appointment of Lord Ashburton as Special Minister to the United States. – Course pursued by Mr. Webster in the Negotiations.—The Northeastern Boundary. — Peculiar Difficulties in its Settlement happily overcome.—Other Subjects of Negotiation.— Extradition of Fugitives from Justice. —Suppression of the Slave-Trade on the Coast of Africa. — History of that Question. — Affair of the Caroline. —Impressment. — Other Subjects connected with the Foreign Relations of the Government. — Intercourse with China. — Independence of the Sandwich Islands. – Correspondence with Mexico. — Sound Duties and the Zoll-Verein. — Importance of Mr. Webster's Services as Secretary of State.
THE condition of affairs in the United States, on the accession of President Harrison to office, in the spring of 1841, was difficult and critical, especially as far as the foreign relations of the country were concerned. Ancient and modern controversies existed with England, which seemed to defy adjustment. The great question of the northeastern boundary had been the subject of negotiation almost ever since the peace of 1783. Every effort to settle it had but increased the difficulties with which it was beset, by exhausting the expedients of diplomacy. The Oregon question was rapidly assuming a formidable aspect, as emigrants began to move into the country in dispute. Not less serious was the state of affairs on the southwestern frontier, where, although a collision with Mexico might not in itself be an event to be viewed with great anxiety, it was probable, as things then stood, that it would have brought a war with Great Britain in its train.
To the uneasiness necessarily growing out of these boundary questions, no little bitterness was added by more recent occurrences. The interruption of our vessels on the coast of Africa was a frequently recurring source of irritation. Great cause of complaint was sometimes given by boarding officers, acting on frivolous pretences or in a vexatious manner. At other times
* This chapter is republished, with but slight modifications, from the volume of Mr. Webster's Diplomatic and Official Papers which appeared in 1848, tc which it served as the Introduction.
the public feeling in the United States was excited by the exaggerations and misstatements of unworthy American citizens, who abused the flag of the country to cover a detestable traffic, which is made a capital felony by its laws. The affair of the “Caroline,” followed by the arrest of McLeod, created a degree of discontent on both sides, which discussion had done nothing to remove, but much to exasperate. A crisis had arisen, which the Minister of the United States in London" deemed so serious, as to make it his duty to communicate with the commander of the American squadron in the Mediterranean.f Such was the state of things when General Harrison acceded to the Presidency, after perhaps the most strenuously contested election ever known, and by a larger popular vote than had ever before been given in the United States. As soon as the result was known, the President elect addressed a letter to Mr. Webster, offering him any place he might choose in his Cabinet, and asking his advice as to the other members of which it should be composed. The wants and wishes of the country in reference to currency and finance having brought about the political revolution which placed General Harrison in the chair, he was rather desirous that the Department of the Treasury should be assumed by Mr. Webster, who had studied those subjects profoundly, and whose opinions were in full concurrence with his own. Averse to the daily drudgery of the Treasury, Mr. Webster gave his preference to the Department of State, without concealing from himself that it might be the post of greater care and responsibility. In this anticipation he was not disappointed. Although the whole of the danger did not at once appear, it was evident from the outset that the moment was extremely critical. Still, however, the circumstances under which General Harrison was elected were such as to give to his administration a moral power and a freedom of action, as to preexisting controversies, favorable to their settlement on honorable terms. But the death of the new President, when just entering upon the discharge of his duties, changed the state of affairs in this respect. The great national party which had called him to the helm was struck with astonishment. No rallying-point pre
* Mr. Stevenson. f Senate Papers, Twenty-seventh Congress, First Session, No. 33.
sented itself. A position of things existed, not overlooked, indeed, by the sagacious men who framed the Constitution, but which, from its very nature, can never enter practically into the calculations of the enthusiastic multitudes by which, in times of difficulty and excitement, a favorite candidate is borne to the chair. How much of the control which it would otherwise have possessed over public opinion could be retained by an administration thus unexpectedly deprived of its head, was a question which time alone could settle. Happily, as far as our foreign relations were concerned, a character had been assumed by the administration, from the very formation of General Harrison's Cabinet, which was steadily maintained, till the adjustment of the most difficult points in controversy was effected by the treaty of Washington. President Harrison, as is well known, lived but one month after his inauguration, but all the members of his Cabinet remained in office under Mr. Tyler, who succeeded to the Presidency. With him, of course, rested the general authority of regulating and directing the negotiations with foreign powers, in which the government might be engaged. But the active management of these negotiations was in the hands of the Secretary of State, and it is believed that no difference of views in regard to important matters arose between him and Mr. Tyler. For the result of the principal negotiation, Mr. Tyler manifested great anxiety; and Mr. W =bster has not failed, in public or private, to bear witness to the intelligent and earnest attention which was bestowed by him on the proceedings, through all their stages, and to express his sense of the confidence reposed in himself by the head of the administration, from the beginning to the end of the transactions. If the position of things was difficult here, it was not less so on the other side of the Atlantic; indeed, many of the causes of embarrassment were common to the two countries. There, as here, the correspondence, whether conducted at Washington or London, had of late years done nothing toward an amicable settlement of the great questions at issue. It had degenerated into an exercise of diplomatic logie, with the effect, in England as well as in America, of strengthening each party in the belief of its own rights, and of working up the public mind to a reluctant feeling that the time was at hand when those rights WOL. 1. k
must be maintained by force. That the British and American governments, during a considerable part of the administrations of General Jackson and Mr. Van Buren, should, with the fate of the reference to the King of the Netherlands before their eyes, have exerted themselves with melancholy ingenuity in arranging the impossible details of another convention of exploration and arbitration, shows of itself that neither party had any real hope of actually settling the controversy, but that both were willing to unite in a decent pretext for procrastination. The report of Mr. Featherstonhaugh, erroneously believed, in England, to rest upon the results of actual exploration, had been sanctioned by the ministry, and seemed to extinguish the last hope that England would agree to any terms of settlement which the United States would deem reasonable. The danger of collision on the frontier became daily more imminent, and troops to the amount of seventeen regiments had been poured into the British Provinces. The arrest of McLeod, as we have already observed, had brought matters to a point at which the public sensibility of England would not have allowed a minister to blink the question. Lord Palmerston is known to have written to Mr. Fox, that the arrest of McLeod, under the authority of the State of New York, was universally regarded in England as a direct affront to the British government, and that such was the excitement caused by it, that, if McLeod should be condemned and executed, it would not be in the power either of ministers or opposition, or of the leading men of both parties, to prevent immediate war. While this was the state of affairs with reference to the immediate relations of the two countries, Lord Palmerston was urging France into a coöperation with the four other leading powers of Europe in the adoption of a policy, by the negotiation of the quintuple treaty, which would have left the United States in a position of dangerous insulation on the subject of the great maritime question of the day. At this juncture, a change of administration occurred in England, subsequent but by a few months to that which had taken place in the government of the United States. Lord Melbourne's government gave way to that of Sir Robert Peel in the summer of 1841; it remained to be seen with what influence on the relations of the two countries. Some circumstances occurred to put at risk the tendency toward an accommodation, which might naturally be hoped for from a change of administration nearly simultaneous on both sides of the water. A note of a very uncompromising character, on the subject of the search of American vessels on the coast of Africa, had been addressed to Mr. Stevenson by Lord Palmerston on the 27th of August, 1841, a day only before the expiration of Lord Melbourne's ministry. To this note Mr. Stevenson replied in the same strain. The answer of Lord Aberdeen, who had succeeded Lord Palmerston as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, bears date the 10th of October, 1841, and an elaborate rejoinder was returned by Mr. Stevenson on the very day of his departure from London. Lord Aberdeen's reply to this note was of necessity addressed to Mr. Everett, who had succeeded Mr. Stevenson. It was dated on the 20th of December, the day on which the quintuple treaty was signed at London by the representatives of the five powers, and it contained an announcement of that fact. Happily, however, affairs were already taking a turn auspicious of better results. From his first entrance on office as Secretary of State, Mr. Webster, long familiar with the perplexed history of the negotiation relative to the boundary, had perceived the necessity of taking a “new departure.” The negotiation had broken down under its own weight. It was like one of those lawsuits which, to the opprobrium of tribunals, descend from age to age; a disease of the body politic not merely chronic, but hereditary. Early in the summer of 1841, Mr. Webster had intimated to Mr. Fox, the British Minister at Washington, that the American government was prepared to consider, and, if practicable, adopt, a conventional line, as the only mode of cutting the Gordian knot of the controversy. This overture was, of course, conveyed to London. Though not leading to any result on the part of the ministry just going out of office, it was embraced by their successors in the same wise and conciliatory spirit in which it had been made. On the 26th of December, 1841, a note was addressed by Lord Aberdeen to Mr. Everett, inviting him to an interview on the following day, when he communicated the purpose of the British government to send a special mission to the United States, Lord Ashburton being the person selected as minister, and furnished with full powers to settle every question in controversy.