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54º40' or Fight

During his tenure, US President James K. Polk oversaw the greatest expansion in the size of the United States to date. Polk accomplished this through the annexation of Texas in 1845, the negotiation of the Oregon Treaty with Great Britain in 1846, and the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848. From 1818 until 1846, the Oregon Country was under "Joint Occupancy" by both Great Britain and the United States, which was scheduled for renewal in 1847. In 1844, James K. Polk was elected president with the slogan "54'40 or fight!" This slogan also showed the British that the United States was prepared for war if they did not turn over all of Oregon. "Fifty-four forty or fight" would have included all of present-day British Columbia, up to the tip of Alaska, or "Russian America." Polk appealed to Americans' "just and dear territorial rights, their own self-respect, and their national honor."

However, when the U.S. declared war in 1846, it was not against Britain. When Texas became a state that year, its disputed southern border ignited a brief but bloody war with Mexico. The U.S. seized one-third of Mexico-land that became the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. Meanwhile, Britain and the U.S. compromised over the Oregon territory, settling the boundary at the 49th parallel. In Polk's single four-year term, the U.S. gained full title to its entire Pacific coastline. America now stretched "from sea to shining sea."

Along with territorial disputes with Spain and Mexico over the Southwest, the fate of the Oregon Territory was one of the major diplomatic issues of the first half of the 19th century. The territory became a focus of those who believed that it was the United States' obligation and right to extend its rule and liberties across the North American continent. The Oregon Territory stretched from the Pacific coast to the Rocky Mountains, encompassing the area including present-day Oregon, Washington, and most of British Columbia. Originally Spain, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States claimed the territory.

In 1819, under terms of the Transcontinental Treaty, Spain had ceded its claims to the territory to the United States. Shortly thereafter the United States contested a unilateral Russian move to grant its citizens a fishing, whaling, and commercial monopoly from the Bering Straits to the 51st parallel. In 1823 President Monroe promulgated his doctrine, which put Russia on notice that the United States did not accept Russian attempts at monopoly. The U.S. claim was based on the explorations of Lewis and Clark and on the establishment of trading posts set up by John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company, such as Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River. Great Britain based its claim, in part, on James Cook's exploration of the Columbia River.

As early as 1818 British and American Commissioners had fixed the border between the United States and Canada at the 49th parallel from the Lake of the Woods (Minnesota Territory) west to the Rocky Mountains. The United States had proposed to extend the border along the same parallel to the Pacific Ocean, but Great Britain insisted that the northern border be drawn west to the Columbia River and then follow that river to the ocean. Neither side then budged, but they did agree to postpone the decision for 10 years. In 1827 Washington and London agreed to postpone the issue indefinitely subject to one year's notice by either party. There the matter remained until the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 partially delineated the northeastern U.S.-Canada border, but left the border of the Oregon Territory unsettled.

The migration of white settlers to the Oregon Country, primarily from the Ohio Valley region and Missouri began in 1842. The main route was the Oregon Trail, which begins at Independence, Missouri, and terminates at Oregon City and the Willamette Valley. Also in 1842, Lieutenant John C. Frémont of the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers explored the route to Oregon from the Mississippi River to South Pass in Wyoming. The US and Great Britain established the Canadian boundary from Maine to Lake-of-the-Woods, Minnesota in the Webster-Ashburton Treaty in 1842, but the boundary further west remained contested. In May 1843, over one thousand settlers bound for Oregon left from Independence, Missouri. Oregon settlers, at a meeting at Champoeg, adopted a Constitution for a provisional government to serve until the United States extends its jurisdiction over Oregon.

Often referred to as the first "dark horse" President, James K. Polk was the last of the Jacksonians to sit in the White House, and the last strong President until the Civil War. As a young lawyer he entered politics, served in the Tennessee legislature, and became a friend of Andrew Jackson. In the House of Representatives, Polk was a chief lieutenant of Jackson in his Bank war. He served as Speaker between 1835 and 1839, leaving to become Governor of Tennessee.

Until circumstances raised Polk's ambitions, he was a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for Vice President in 1844. Both Martin Van Buren, who had been expected to win the Democratic nomination for President, and Henry Clay, who was to be the Whig nominee, tried to take the expansionist issue out of the campaign by declaring themselves opposed to the annexation of Texas.

Polk, however, publicly asserted that Texas should be "re-annexed" and all of Oregon "re-occupied." The aged Jackson, correctly sensing that the people favored expansion, urged the choice of a candidate committed to the Nation's "Manifest Destiny." This view prevailed at the Democratic Convention, where Polk was nominated on the ninth ballot. "Who is James K. Polk?" Whigs jeered. Democrats replied Polk was the candidate who stood for expansion. He linked the Texas issue, popular in the South, with the Oregon question, attractive to the North. Polk also favored acquiring California.

The Democratic position on Texas and Oregon annexation captured the imagination of the American public, and every other issue quickly faded into the background of the campaign. Whigs felt that they had a stronger argument in domestic economic issues, and would have preferred to run on the prosperity and protection platforms of their convention. Henry Clay, and the Whig Party generally, repudiated any near-term action on the Texas or Oregon questions, favoring a "masterful inactivity" (borrowing a term from John C. Calhoun).

While Texas annexation clearly meant the expansion of slavery into that territory, the annexation of Oregon would provide a complementary non-slave geographic balance to expansionism. It is no small irony that Clay, a prominent author of geographic compromise on slavery in 1820, found his Presidential aspirations threatened by an obvious, but not explicit, appeal to geographical balance in expansionism between new slave and non-slave territories. Such reasoning would not sway abolitionists, but, as already mentioned, they would likely support neither Clay nor Polk in 1844.

On November 5, 1844, Democratic candidate James K. Polk defeated Whig Party candidate Henry Clay to become the eleventh president of the United States. Polk campaigned vigorously, surprising many with his stalwart support of westward expansion - a hotly debated issue on which Clay disagreed. In the end, Polk's policies won him 170 electoral votes to Clay's 105. His margin of victory was only some 38,000 popular votes. Resolved to serve only one term, Polk acted swiftly to fulfill his campaign promises.

In his stand on Oregon, the President seemed to be risking war with Great Britain. The 1844 Democratic platform claimed the entire Oregon area, from the California boundary northward to a latitude of 54'40', the southern boundary of Russian Alaska. Extremists proclaimed "Fifty-four forty or fight," but Polk, aware of diplomatic realities, knew that no course short of war was likely to get all of Oregon. Neither he nor the British were eager for war.

President Polk, in his first Annual Message, outlined the "Polk Doctrine," claiming the exclusive right of the people "on this continent" to "decide their own destiny." The phrase "manifest destiny" was used for the first time in 1845 by the widely-read editor John L. O'Sullivan in the Democratic Review.

The joint United States-British occupation of the vast western territory in the region north of the forty-second parallel and south of the boundary at fifty-four degrees, forty minutes, was scheduled for renewal in 1847. Polk offered to settle by extending the Canadian boundary, along the 49th parallel, from the Rockies to the Pacific. When the British minister declined, Polk reasserted the American claim to the entire area. This encouraged northern expansionists, who resented Polk's compromise on this issue in contrast to his apparent tenaciousness on behalf of southern slaveholders in the Southwest in the Mexican War.

Polk's Vice President, George Mifflin Dallas, seized the opportunity in 1846 to call for a "settlement" at the 54 40' line, even at the risk of war with Great Britain. For several months early in 1846, the vice president pursued this position - seeking to broaden his national political base.

Colonel Stephen Kearney commanded the South Pass expedition. He led the soldiers along the Oregon Trail to Fort Laramie and then to South Pass, which they reached in June 1845. This was the first time that an active U.S. military force traveled west of the Continental Divide. An unstated purpose of the expedition was to place a military force near Oregon in the event of war. The United States and Great Britain both laid claim to all of the Oregon Territory and were unwilling to relinquish. 54º40" was the line of latitude that marked the northern boundary of Oregon Territory. The threat of war with Great Britain would have loomed large in Colonel Kearny's mind as he awaited further instruction at South Pass. He waited one day and with no word of war, he and his troops began their return journey.

British Minister to Washington, Richard Pakenham, and Secretary of State James Buchanan, supported and encouraged by British Foreign Secretary Lord Aberdeen and Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, worked out a compromise. With some minor modifications, which reserved the whole of Vancouver Island to Canada, Great Britain agreed to Polk's suggestion. The Senate ratified the treaty by a vote of 41-14 on June 18, 1846. The Oregon Treaty was signed in June 1846. The future states of Idaho, Oregon, Washington and parts of Montana and Wyoming comprise the US acquisition.

A later controversy over the precise boundaries in the Juan de Fuca Strait was resolved by international arbitration in favor of the United States.

This outcome satisfied many, as it removed the earlier fear that the United States would be caught in a two-front war, with Great Britain over the Oregon boundary and with Mexico over control of Texas. Now the nation would be free to concentrate on war with Mexico. Polk completed the acquisition of the territory embracing the bulk of the present contiguous 48 States. But this spectacular success had its negative side. The military victories in the Mexican War strengthened the Whigs, as war heroes Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott rapidly became their leading prospects as Presidential candidates. And his actions helped divide the Democratic Party into anti- and pro-slavery wings; while the need to organize the new Territories precipitated quarrels in both parties over the extension of slavery. Furthermore.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:34:12 Zulu