In his “Speech on the Oregon Question,” New York Representative Charles Goodyear stood for a small republic in the face of continental imperialism.

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

Charles Goodyear was a throwback of a politician, even in the days before American government became a federal‐​imperial behemoth. He was born in the tiny town of Cobleskill, New York—which I suppose counted as “upstate” in 1804. He studied law in college and practiced from 1826 to 1838, when he was appointed a county judge. He joined the state Assembly in 1840 and belonged to Van Buren’s Democratic Party, but he was no Jacksonian cultist, no raving radical of any stripe; he was not a lifelong politician, nor does it appear he was much of an activist for the never‐​ending series of reform movements which sprung up and dominated American culture during his lifetime. He was not one of Van Buren’s cherished corps, the “new men of politics,” nor was he especially “Young American” or romantic in his outlook for American history. No, Charles Goodyear was more or less your average middle or upper‐​middle class American—and while that might often make for an especially anti-libertarian person, in this case it made for one of the more important (though overlooked) moments in anti‐​war and anti‐​imperial speech‐​making on the House floor.

Goodyear was elected to the 29th Congress, from 1845 to 1847. As regular readers will note, these were auspicious years. Goodyear won election the same year Polk ascended to the Presidency and leadership in the Democratic Party. It signaled a major shift in party power and national policies like territorial expansion. Van Buren (who was the party favorite approaching the national convention) committed himself against annexing Texas on the grounds that it would almost certainly come with a war on Mexico. He also feared that adding territories would agitate the slavery issue and break his system of party politics into a scramble for sectional power. But Polk rode to the nomination on a wave of expansionism with deep roots in Jacksonian cultural and political history we have covered extensively elsewhere. Most importantly, the Young American movement to produce a genuinely American national culture stirred the romantic hopes of a rising generation of reformers. In Rhode Island’s Dorr War and the ensuing “clam bake” political fairs, speakers railed against European influence on American forms of government, British imperialism across the globe, and party politicians who wanted “business as usual” more than they wanted to lead the world’s free peoples into a dazzling new future. For over a decade, Young American writers, editors, visual artists, and lecturers fused their passionate regard for republicanism and democracy with the political will to actually implement it. For incoming President Polk, Young Americanism was an opportunity–to steal half of Mexico, secure lucrative territories on the Pacific coast, and transform the limited republic into a continental, slaveholding empire.

But Polk’s Mexican War was one of the most unpopular conflicts in American history, and “normal” Americans like Goodyear made their stands against Polkite imperialism while they still could. Polk’s expansionist bargain with the Young Americans included both Texas and Oregon—Texas was his real priority, prime slaveholding territory as it was, but he needed to convince northerners that he also had their interests at heart. He paid lip service to the so‐​called “All Oregon” cause which pressed American claims to the entire area against the competing claims of British Canada. Once his war with Mexico was on, though, Polk had a free hand to keep the peace with Britain and accept limits on the Oregon territory. Many northerners felt the double‐​sting of betrayal: additional slave territory from Mexico and paltry scraps of the Pacific shore for them. Folks like Goodyear, though, they still didn’t want any part of this scramble for Empire.





The Resolution authorizing the President to give the notice for the termination of the join occupancy of the Oregon Territory being under consideration in Committee of the Whole‐

Mr. GOODYEAR spoke as follows:

Mr. CHAIRMAN: I observe that the interest in this discussion, though not in the subject, has necessarily, from its protracted character, very much abated; and I cannot hope to claim the attention of the House to any lengthened exposition of my views in regard to it. I therefore propose simply a very brief detail of the considerations which will control my action in connexion with the vote which I shall deem it my duty to give upon the final disposition of the question. In the early part of this debate the matter seemed to take a sectional, and somewhat local character; it was said to be a western measure, so far any advantage arising from an addition of territory and safety from foreign invasion is concerned; and to have a southern aspect so far as the desolating effects of war were to be apprehended from its prosecution. It might be difficult to give any very good reason for either view of the matter. I cannot conceive how the West can claim any advantage over the Union, either by way of exemption from military burdens, in case of war, or by the addition of a tract of uninhabited territory upon the outer verge of its already almost boundless wilderness; most gentlemen who have spoken upon this subject in behalf of their respective States, any particular merit for patriotic devotion. It is sufficient for me to say, that she asks no exclusive regard for her interests, and that now, as at all times, she is ready to discharge her whole duty to the commonwealth. And if national rights, interests, or honor, shall demand the sacrifice, she counsels no craven policy, though the issue should involve the annihilation of her commerce, the decimation of her citizens, and the exposure of her towns and cities to plunder and conflagration; she is even now speaking upon this momentous subject through the medium of her own State Legislature, and I doubt not that her voice, when heard, will awaken a sentiment in every bosom, and an echo from every lip, worthy in all respects of the Empire State.

But, sir, without regard to any action of my own State upon the subject, I had, in the early stages of this debate, for reasons satisfactory to myself, come to the conclusion that this resolution should pass this House, and that the President should take immediate action under it. Thirty years of unsuccessful negotiation would of itself seem to demand some more efficient action. Diplomacy has exhausted its skill, and a maure [sic] auspicious period has been sought in its procrastination; but the one has only added to its embarrassments, and the other multiplied its difficulties and dangers.

May I be permitted to ask gentleman who counsel further delay, when they propose to terminate this controversy? Are we to bequeath this deferred quarrel, rendered doubly complicated by delay and unsuccessful negotiation, as a legacy to our children? Ah, sir, even if that timid and tardy policy could be deemed honorable and patriotic, it is no longer practicable. The time has gone by when safety might be found in supineness. The relations of the two countries growing out of this controversy have assumed a critical and alarming attitude. The feverish and excited state of the public mind demands immediate action, and mighty interests await the result. The provisions of the joint convention will not be observed, in fact, though they be continued in form. The efforts of the two countries will be stimulated by recently excited jealousies, to fortify and defend their respective claims. Confidence and friendly intercourse will be destroyed, and all the commercial relations of the two countries, and with the rest of the world, will be constrained and embarrassed by the ever‐​recurring danger of an immediate and fatal collision. The effect of the existence of this sate of things between two of the greatest commercial nations upon earth is too apparent to leave room for a doubt that it can not long continue. Every nerve and fibre of the body politic is tremblingly alive to the slightest indication of menace or aggression; enterprise is restrained, business at a stand; the public pulse is madly bounding with excitement; and if the adjustment of the difficulty be much longer deferred, either a surrender of the whole territory, or war, with all its consequences, will be sought as a relief from this wild fever of apprehension and suspense. Beside, sir, I said there were mighty interests awaiting the issue. The progress of events within the few past years has vastly enhanced the value of this territory. When the convention was first entered into, the disputed domain was deemed of little moment; it has even been questioned whether it would not more properly constitute an independent sovereignty than a part of our confederacy. But recent improvements in the facilities of transportation and intercourse have rendered the ports on the Pacific coast contiguous to our territory of immense importance. It can no longer be doubted that, unless the onward progress of our country is checked by a devastating war with Europe, the mouth of the Hudson and the Columbia will, ere long, by means of the railroad and magnetic wires, be brought into close communion. However stupendous the project may appear, its early accomplishment is nevertheless within the limits of the enterprise and highly stimulated energies of the day. The late revolution in the foreign policy of China has awakened the attention of the public to the importance of this overland communication between our Pacific and Atlantic coasts. I can conceive that the whole trade of the Celestial Empire may be diverted through this channel, and that Europe may find her India market where she now purchases her cotton, tobacco, and corn.

But the first step in the prosecution of this vast enterprise cannot be taken until this convention for a joint occupancy is abrogated. Again, sir, our citizens are flowing into that territory in one continuous tide of emigration. They leave behind them the graves of their ancestors, but carry with them, together with our language, our manners and customs, and all those natural affections which attach them to the land of their birth. They demand the protection of our laws; but this we cannot rant them during the existence of this treaty for joint occupancy. Perfect protection to the citizen admits of no divided sovereignty. And yet we cannot deny it them, without being recreant to our duty, and faithless to our trust. Sir, I admit that the Roman Republic, although frequently alluded to by gentlemen in the progress of this debate, furnishes no model for our imitation. I should deeply regret to read our future in the page of blended virtue and crimes—of justice and oppression—of magnanimity and meanness—of fidelity and treason—of profuse generosity and the most grasping cupidity—of glorious victories and wide‐​spread desolation, which mark her pathway to universal empire. The deep shadows of her decline and fall stand out too ready and pertinent a commentary upon the crimes which contributed to her elevation. The justice which broke the sceptre of her power was too prompt and retributive, and her final degradation was too dark and despairing, to make her career the object of rational ambition. I cherish the hope of a brighter page for my country’s history—one less bespotted with blood, less sullied with tears. But the varied page is before us; and, with a disposition to profit by the teachings of the past, we may select the virtues and reject the crimes. If in the whole history of Roman greatness there is any one trait which, more than any other, challenges imitation and approval, it is the protection which her policy, in conjunction with her power, afforded her citizens. In that age even of lawless violence, Roman citizenship—alike in the wilds of Europe, the wastes of Asia, and the deserts of Africa—was a talisman which invested its fortunate possessor with an invulnerable panoply. Our citizens, to say the least of it, are entitled to a like protection within our own territory and upon our own soil.

But it is said, sir, that all our purposes may be accomplished by delay. As far as I have been able to ascertain the state of parties upon this subject, there are, among others, two, both of which claim the whole of Oregon, but widely differ in the means of obtaining it. The one proposes to give the notice, and immediately on its expiration take a forcible possession of the whole territory; the other, to defer the notice, and, by a masterly inactivity—or, in the more expressive and meaning phrase of the gentleman from Virginia, [Mr. BEDINGER], by a quiet but efficient action—accomplish the same purpose. The first, as I shall attempt to show hereafter, would, in my view, be inexpedient and unjust; the other, utterly impracticable. With England awakened to the subject—England, that never slept upon her rights or left her interests unguarded—it would be worse than folly, it would be madness, to hope to gain by stealth what we dare not demand by open defiance. Hasten on, as you please, the emigrant armed with the axe and the rifle, and for every hundred men who crossed the Rocky mountains, England would erect another fort, mount it with her cannon, and garrison it with her troops; she would draw around her in closer alliance the Indian tribes, and arm them with the implements of their savage warfare; and after the lapse of any given period of “ masterly inactivity,” we should find either the British in quiet military possession of the whole territory, or the war precipitated with all its horrors, which the gentleman so much deprecates and dreads. Then, indeed, in the gentleman’s own eloquent language, might we hear burdening every breeze from the west, the savage yell and the shriek of torture; then might we see, not in imagination but in fact, the bones of the emigrants whitening the prairies, and his own favorite eagle uttering his wild cry above their mutilated, blackened, and festering bodies. No, sir, if we wish to avoid the horrors which the gentleman has so eloquently depicted, we must settle this question of disputed boundary before our people are madly thrust upon the danger. What, sir, is it proposed to send our citizens forward into the wilderness, far beyond the reach of aid, expose them to all the vicissitudes of a forest life, and the more terrible weapons of a powerful nation, united with a savage foe—and when their prowess and fortitude shall have overcome all obstacles, and their industry made the forest bloom around them, to exemplify the benign influence and protecting care of our Government by kindly extending over them our laws, and visiting them with the tax‐​gatherer? Such was the protection which England vouchsafed to her colonies, and which they indignantly hurled back upon her. In my judgment, this policy pursued, the war will be speedy and inevitable; and by giving the notice, it will be equally certain to be avoided. The notice, if given, will be in pursuance of a treaty stipulation; and its effect will be simply to throw into our exclusive possession a large portion of this territory, the title to which is undisputed, and leave the residue to be settled by negotiation, accompanied, however, with an admonition which may not be disregarded as to the necessity of its speedy adjustment. War cannot be the direct or necessary result of the notice to abrogate this convention. That contingency will depend upon another and far more important question, to which I shall presently allude. I confess that, if war were to be the necessary consequence, as some seem to apprehend, of the passage of this resolution, I should hesitate, at all events until a certain other measure had first found its way through this House—that of providing for the public defence. I do not subscribe to the oft‐​repeated doctrine, that the genius of our institutions must necessarily subject us to defeat in the commencement of a war. We need not be prepared for offensive operations; we want no standing army, but the material for defence should, at all times, be complete; we should be satisfied by the report of competent engineers, that the requisite number of guns are mounted upon our defences and fit for service; we can at all times find hands to man them. I could not consent that, by any hasty action of ours, the important seaports of the Atlantic coast should be exposed to a sudden and fatal attack, nor that our country should ever again be disgraced by having the very walls of her Capitol blackened by the torch of an invading foe. But no war need be apprehended from this measure. These conflicting claims existed before this convention was entered into, and no war ensued; they may exist again upon like terms. But the gentleman from Alabama [Mr. YANCY] says the convention was a substitute for war. No, sir; it was a wretched substitute for firm and efficient negotiation; it was this putting off the encountering of difficulties, which time alone has rendered formidable. There have been several periods at which this controversy might have been favorably adjusted. It is now well known that Lord Ashburton had full instructions from his government upon this question, and it is believed that he was prepared to make liberal concessions in the northwest for the advantages which he actually gained in the northeast without them. If the Government had, at that time, firmly insisted upon connecting the two questions, we should not now be troubled with this; but the then Administration preferred the continuance of this substitute for diplomatic firmness and efficiency. Happily we have at length arrived at a period when neither the state of the affair itself, nor the inclination of the Administration will admit of longer delay.

But I proceed to the consideration of the more important question—that of the extent to which our right to the possession of the territory should be asserted under the notice. It is the uncertainty of the policy of our Government upon this question, which has alone multiplied the chances of war…