Classic History Books


The Path of Empire. A Chronicle of the United States as a World Power
by Carl Russell Fish

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

 

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