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Jun 9, 1843

The Oregon Question

“We hope that our Government [secures] the Oregon Territory…before the great Brigand of the World pollutes [it with] the freebooters standard of Great Britain.”

Editor’s Note

As the British Empire consolidated its grasp on territory across the globe, “Young American” republican nationalists like New York’s Levi Slamm countered the Anglo establishment at every turn.  Slamm supported the Irish nationalist movement, embraced Canadian independence (and eventual union with the United States), supported the American annexation of Texas, and advocated for American claims to the full Oregon territory in the Pacific Northwest.  To Slamm and his readership, the American republican project seemed qualitatively different from the British system of corporate aristocracy, and the future appeared uncertain at best.  British territories, they observed, were won through rapine and conquest, death, destruction, and subjugation; whereas the “Young Americans” naively believed that the American republic only expanded through the voluntary application of territories or sister nations for statehood.  They relegated the long, trans-Atlantic history of genocide against Native Americans and massive forced migrations from Africa through the slave trade to the realm of natural history.  These were events from the days before Man rediscovered his ancient liberties and declared his independence from arbitrary rulers.  Slamm and his cohort believed that the United States thus represented a revolutionary break not simply with Great Britain, but with History itself.  The Revolution of 1776 opened historical space for republicans in all countries to revolt against their aristocratic populations and arrayed people everywhere in a new system of ideological class identities.  As democratic and republican ideas spread across the globe and republican nations entrenched themselves in the global political order, Man’s libertarian destiny would inevitably manifest itself.

Levi Slamm died in 1862, a year in which the United States appeared damaged perhaps beyond repair.  Locofoco expansionists from Slamm’s era hoped that territorial acquisitions would bolster long-term global support for liberty against power.  Most of them never seriously expected that annexations would, in the end, provoke disunion, civil war, and an unprecedented amount of centralization, militarization, and the consolidation of a veritable American empire.  In the following articles, Levi Slamm and his Daily Plebeian address the political and historical significance involved in “The Oregon Question.”

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

“Oregon Territory”

By Levi D. Slamm

New York Daily Plebeian, 9 June 1843

Considerable excitement seems, at this time, to prevail throughout the whole western sections of our country, relative to a proposed immediate occupation of the Oregon Territory by emigrants from the United States.  An expedition, consisting of five hundred persons, was to leave Jackson county, Mo., on the 20th of last month, for that remote region, to lay the foundation there of an American settlement.  It has also been determined, by those who are deeply interested on the subject, to hold a Convention at Cincinnati, on the 3d, 4th and 5th days of July next, for the purpose of urging upon Congress the necessity of taking immediate possession of the territory.  It will be proposed to base the action of the Convention on Mr. Munroe’s declaration of 1823—“That the American continents are not to be considered subject to colonization by any European powers; and that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their systems to any portion of this hemisphere, as dangerous to our peace and safety.”

The late outrageous robbery perpetrated by the British Government, in seizing upon the Sandwich Islands, should warn us against the encroachments which she meditates upon our own soil.  Her lust of dominion is unbounded.  Already it is truly said—“The morning drum-beat, rolling with the rising sun, and circling with the hours, girdles the earth with one continuous strain of the martial music of Old England.”  It was Daniel Webster who uttered this apostrophe to her power; and this same Daniel Webster has since given up to her rapacity a large portion of territory, of right belonging to the State of Maine—a territory which Lord Brougham has recently admitted that England had not the least shadow of just claim to.  Her ministers are now intriguing for the purchase of Calafornia; and that country will, in all probability, be the next one seized upon by her hired cut-throats.  She is intrenching herself in strong holds on our Northern and Southern borders to become complete mistress of the Pacific, so that, when she ultimately seizes upon the Oregon, her dominion there may at once be secure and her power permanently established.  It is, perhaps, not much to be regretted that the late Treaty with Great Britain did not settle the line of boundary in that quarter.  With such a statesman as Daniel Webster to conduct the negotiations, on the part of this country, our clear title to that territory would, most probably, have been surrendered, like that of Maine, to the arrogant and, unjust demands of England.

We hope that our Government will see the necessity of its speedy action on this question; and that, in order to secure our undoubted right of possession in the Oregon Territory, measures will be taken for its armed occupation before the great Brigand of the World pollutes our soil by planting upon it the freebooters standard of Great Britain.

“The Oregon Question”

By Levi D. Slamm

New York Daily Plebeian, 11 April 1844

The Oregon dispute promises to be one of the most vexed subjects that we have had to settle with Great Britain[,] perhaps not less tangled than was the North East boundary question.  Much of this difficulty, we believe arises from the temporizing policy hitherto observed on our part, while Great Britain, by the possession she has so long quietly maintained there, now begins to look upon the whole country as her own.  This is not as many suppose, a new question just started by the some of the fiery spirits of the west.  More than fifteen years ago, it attracted the attention of Congress, as likely to produce serious trouble for us, unless we then asserted our rights.  Among those who entertained such views, was the Hon. I. R. Ingersoll, of this city, then a member of Congress from this State.  On looking back to the congressional proceedings, we find that on the 7th of January, 1829, more than fifteen years ago, he moved in Congress to extend the laws of the United States over the territory, and followed up his proposition by a speech, from which we extract the following, as then published in the debates.  Whatever difference of opinion there may be among our citizens as to the Oregon, the sentiments advanced then by Mr. Ingersoll, have the merit at least of coming from on who looked at the subject free from any sectional bias, and before it had in any way been mixed up in the politics of the day.  His proposition did not obtain a majority of the House—the let alone policy prevailed, and has since continued, till now we find the difficulty one of the most embarrassing that we have in our foreign relations.

Mr. Ingersoll said, “the convention (with Great Britain) so often alluded to, stipulated that the country west of the Rocky Mountains, shall remain “free and open” to the citizens and subjects of the two contracting parties, during the continuance of the compact:  and neither can recede, without giving twelve months notice to the other.  The erection of a territorial government, therefore, and granting portions of the soil as a bounty to settlers, would be an exclusive occupancy on our part in the teeth of the treaty.  But while he was restrained from going that length, satisfied as he was, that the title of the country was with us, he was not only willing, but anxious that some decisive act should be done on our part, which should indicate our determination not to surrender one particle of our claim—leaving the question of territorial government to be settled hereafter, when the existing convention would not be in our way.  The British have erected and now maintain forts for the protection of their traders and hunters; they have gone further than this—they have covered the whole territory with their criminal and civil jurisdiction; and those who resort to it, are amenable to the courts of Canada and all violations of their laws.  With this act of the British Parliament before me, (said Mr. I.) I cannot for one, refuse to send our laws along with our citizens, if they choose to go there, any more than I would to protect them by the erection of a fort.  It was to meet the British legislation in all its bearings that he had offered the amendment; and he sincerely urged upon us hereafter, that we have at this day waived any of our rights, by silently acquiescing in the foreign jurisdiction now exercised there, or by refusing to spread our flag and our laws co-extensive with our rightful claims…

Surely, if the “free and open” intercourse with that territory guarantied by the convention to the British, in common with ourselves, cannot be made secure to them, without carrying their laws along with their hunting expeditions, we have had abundant evidence in the repeated murders of our hunters beyond the mountains, that our citizens require at our hands a corresponding protection.  Besides, Great Britain is estoped by her own acts from complaining of our going thus far; more than this he did not ask; but any thing less, would be injustice to ourselves.

Mr. I said he was free to confess he had never formed a very flattering picture of the north-west coast of our continent—that is, of its attractions for an agricultural people.  He preferred to see it remain a hunting ground, from which our fur traders can draw some of the treasures that are now monopolized by the Hudson Bay Co., rather than see it erected into a sovereign State.  But whatever our preferences may be in this respect, it was our duty to protect our citizens whose enterprize may lead them there, and it was no less our interest to secure the harbor which the mouth of the Oregon offers to our hardy navigators who frequent the coast.  He was not anxious to hasten the growth of a new State beyond the Rocky Mountains, for he was aware it would have but few ties, aside from its weakness, to bind it to this side of the continent.  Its trade, if the country should ever become settled by a permanent agricultural population, as it must be, before it can grow into a State, would not probably cross the mountains to come to us, but would naturally seek the waters of the Pacific.  For all commercial purposes, India, and the islands of the South Seas, would be to a thriving population there, what Europe and the Atlantic islands are to us.  But although he entertained these opinions, still, when the question was put—and turn it as you may, it will come to this, whether we shall surrender this vast territory into the hands of the British, or maintain our own jurisdiction there, he was ready to give a positive and decisive answer.  It should not, with his consent, go into the hands of a foreign power.

That country once annexed to Canada, with its formidable Indian tribes in the train of the agents of the Hudson’s Bay Company, would be to our advancing frontiers, what Canada has been in all our Indian wars.  Sir, we are not without experience on this subject.  The history of our western settlements gives us ample evidence of Indian aggressions, stimulated by the influence of white men, within the bounds of Canada.  We have felt this hidden influence in all our frontier contests, from the days of the Revolution, down to the declaration of the late war with England, or rather to the battle of Tippecanoe, which shortly preceded it.  Nor have we since ceased to feel its effects; you felt it to the quick, on the frontiers throughout the war with England, and you feel it now.  Yes, in the very territory about which we are told not to legislate, our citizens are shot down by Indians, armed with British rifles.  And with these facts staring us in the face, are we to hold back, and hesitate, lest we give offence to the British government, in deciding to protect our own citizens by the establishment of a fort, or the extension of our laws into this territory?  Let it not be said that the soil of the country is not sufficiently inviting to induce the British to occupy it.

To say nothing of the immense fur trade derived from it, the harbor at the mouth of the Oregon, commanding the upper country, convenient in its position in reference to India, the Sandwich Islands, and the new nations bounding on the west coast of our continent, presented sufficient attractions for the colonial grasp of Great Britain…He verily believed, that not 12 months would elapse after we should abandon our claim to this position, before the mouth of that river would be controlled by the guns of a fortress, manned by our great commercial rival.  Is it asked what reasons we have to suppose this?  The answer will be found in the policy of that nation, which is to plant a colony from her super abundant population, wherever she can penetrate with a fleet.  This policy is identified with the immense power which she wields; and which will be always pushed to its farthest limits.  Small in territory at home, her extensive possessions abroad, are the towers of her strength in every part of the world.  No spot however sterile, is lost sight of, if it can furnish new facilities to her commerce.  She will fortify, at the expense of millions, a rock in the ocean, if it can be made a safe resting place for the merchantmen or a convenient rendezvous for her ships of war.