Charles Goodyear advises his countrymen to cast off the yoke of romantic destiny and instead “await coolly the progress of events.”

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

Representative Charles Goodyear’s speech on “the Oregon Question” was especially important because it was a rare example of principled consistency in the face of an increasingly pragmatist political culture. As we mentioned at the end of our last number, incoming President Polk struck a grand imperial bargain with many of his northern supporters—he would push for their full rights in the Oregon country if they would support the slaveholders’ war in Mexico. He won office with the slimmest of margins, and a shift of fewer than 10,000 votes in either New York or Pennsylvania would have tipped the election of 1844 to the anti‐​expansion Whig, Henry Clay. Polk knew that his success hinged on gaining and maintaining support from New York’s Van Buren men (called “Barnburners” for their radical politics during Rhode Island’s Dorr War), but Polk did not want to lose control of the Democratic Party by ceding too many concessions to Van Buren himself. Polk passed over Van Buren’s suggestions for the Cabinet, he rewarded Van Buren’s New York enemies (called the “Hunkers”) with patronage positions, and to guarantee the people’s support, he promised them “all Oregon.” But he never intended to follow through. Texas was good enough for him, and so long as Britain was willing to split the non‐​slaveholding Pacific territories, Polk would take the deal.

For the moment, though, war was a distinct possibility—and many raving Young Americans were positively aching for a war with Britain. In many ways, it was their movement’s grand historical prophesy, the great cataclysmic contest between aristocratic and republican society the outcome of which would determine humanity’s fate. The Young Americans were restless by nature, and they were tired of waiting. Let Victoria’s minions show themselves on America’s shores, and she would see the consequences of resisting destiny. Yet, always, there were those average Americans untouched by either Polk’s ruthlessly pragmatic, slaveholding imperialism or the Young Americans’ naïve, romantic republican imperialism. There were always Americans like our Charles Goodyear, willing to give up even those things within the sphere of legitimate interests in the pursuit of peace. People like Polk were well used to forcing others to labor for their own benefit, but the vast majority of Americans probably had no interest whatsoever in Oregon, Texas, or any other scrap of territory the United States might want to claim. That was the gentleman of leisure’s playground, not the vote‐​less woman’s concern, nor the adolescent factory hand’s, and certainly none of it was the slave’s business at all. Let the politicians, the army officers, and the foolish recruits go ahead and plan their grand adventures—most people had more mundane concerns to occupy them day to day.

Readers may counter with the familiar historian’s narrative that the Mexican War sparked the interest of millions, a fascination fueled by steam‐​powered newspaper presses and telegraph communications, or they may cite the most rudimentary estimates of public opinion indicating mild support for Polk’s policies. But the truth is that the vast majority of the public left behind little or no documentation of their opinions about Texas or Oregon. We substitute the voices of powerful people in place of the actual people and we tend to assume that a politician’s election indicates public support for his platform—but libertarians and methodological individualists know better, and consistent voices for peace (like Goodyear’s) give the lie to any grand narratives of consensus. The Empire has never worked for you and I—nor did its architects ever intend it to—and by recovering lost anti‐​imperialists like Charles Goodyear, we can slowly invert the standard narrative and the historical assumption of empire.





I cannot rid myself of the conviction that England has some rights in Oregon—rights commencing, in some pretensions to early discovery, continued by a partial occupation, and confirmed by thirty years’ negotiation and numerous treaties—negotiations entered upon and conducted with the avowed purpose of settling a boundary, not the title, and terminating in treaties for the joint occupation of the whole territory, but conceding no superior rights or paramount title to either party. It is with this view of the matter that I arrive at the conclusion that the action of our own Government has conceded to England some rights in the territory of Oregon. But the extent of those rights—we having, the better title—must depend entirely upon our sovereign will and pleasure. The determination of that will has been repeatedly expressed by our Government, and recently signified to the British minister resident in this city, by a proposition to divide the territory by the 49th parallel of latitude. This, sir, I take it, is the extreme limit to which concession will be carried. This division of the territory has been repeatedly offered to Great Britain; and those offers constitute almost the sole foundation of her title. Whether it be viewed, then, in the light of a gratuity, or a concession for compromise, the just pride and acknowledged power of the nation alike forbid the resumption of the gift. The American people should scorn to retract the charitable boon. But I have said that Britain has claims to this territory which, by our own concessions, have ripened into rights. Let us for a moment reverse the picture, for the purpose of ascertaining the more clearly whether this position be tenable. Suppose (which is the truth) the two countries had conflicting claims to the whole of this territory, claims resting somewhat in illy authenticated journals of navigators and in vague tradition; suppose (which is also the truth) that, for the purpose of settling these conflicting claims, negotiation should be resorted to, and should result in unsuccessful propositions on both sides to divide the territory, but by different lines, and should finally terminate in a convention for the joint occupation of the whole territory, conceding exclusive rights to neither; that this state of things should continue for the period of some thirty years, and in the meantime the citizens of both countries should make partial settlements upon those portions of the territory which, by all the propositions on both sides, were conceded to be the exclusive property of their respective countries. Suppose, then, that Britain, with the same show of better title which we now exhibit, should turn upon us and claim the whole: what would be our answer? We would say: you have conceded to us rights; our citizens have taken possession accordingly; they are entitled to our protection, and an impartial world will justify us in maintaining those rights, if necessary, by a resort to arms. And we would do it. We would feel it unnecessary to go further back for title, but would unhesitatingly hurl back the threats of England by a stern defiance.

I am aware, sir, that a claim in our favor paramount to all others has been set up—that of manifest destiny. It runs thus: God hath given to this nation the western continent and the fulness thereof. This, as I understand it, overrides all titles, and sets at defiance all reasoning. This claim to universal dominion was put forth in the commencement of this debate, and has been frequently urged in the course of it; and more particularly by the gentleman from Michigan, [Mr. CHIPMAN,] as a…conclusive argument. I regretted to hear the sentiment avowed in an American Congress, because it implies a doubt of the validity of our own perfect title, and because it has ever been used to justify every act of wholesale violence and rapine that ever disgraced the history of the world. It is the robber’s title; but its record is accompanied by the instructive lesson that it, ultimately meets the robber’s doom. The Macedonian conqueror consulted the Delphic oracle, and having obtained from the priestess an equivocal answer, which, in his construction, gave him the right, by manifest destiny, to conquer the world, he pursued his career of victory amid sighs and tears and blood, over homes and hearths made desolate, cities wasted, and prostate thrones, until, standing on the verge of the then habitable globe, he wept that he had not another world to conquer. Confident in the omnipotence of his fate, he drew around him his imperial robes and proudly boasted of the endless duration of his dynasty and his throne. But death struck the conqueror in a drunken revel, and his fated empire was broken into fragments, and disappeared from the earth, like the sand before the simoom of the desert. Rome, too, consulted her oracles, and sought in omens and signs her title by manifest destiny to universal empire. The response of the priest was propitious, and her legions proceeded to execute the decree. The title lost nothing of its force while there was wealth to plunder or nations to subdue; under it, the rapacity of the Roman praetor knew no bounds, his cruelty no remorse. She checked not her career of victory until the spoils of every nation, from the pillars of Hercules to the Indian ocean, swelled the triumph of her conquerors, and contributed to the luxuries, and magnificence of what she fondly termed the Eternal City. “While the Colliseum stands Rome shall stand,” was her proud boast. The Colliseum still stands, majestic in its ruins; but the Eternal City, long since despoiled of its glory and its power, is now only known to the traveller as the city of shattered columns and mighty recollections. The modern conqueror—the man of unbeating heart and iron nerve, who pursued his purposes with like unbending firmness upon the sands of Egypt and the snows of Russia -whose eye never quailed, and whose heart never faltered—who asserted and proved his title at the cannon’s mouth, until victory, even, seemed the doomed minister of his stern and unrelenting will— he, too, pointed to his star and talked of destiny; but that bright luminary has set in perpetual night, and the eye that gazed upon its brightness was closed forever upon a barren rock in the steep Atlantic wave.

Who hath read the book of fate, or fathomed the purposes of the Almighty? Sir, we may read the future by the past. I have no doubt of our destiny, if we limit our ambition to the development of the human faculties and the cultivation of the arts of peace. With a territory capable of sustaining a larger population in comfort and opulence than any other country under one Government upon earth, the human mind can scarcely limit the progress of our dominion, either in duration or extent. But if, on the other hand, we should be stimulated to territorial aggrandizement by the prospect of successful war, I have as little doubt that the western continent would soon be found too narrow a sphere for our conquests. But with this brilliant prospect before us, we should remember that all history comes burdened with the admonition, that the nation which is destined to extend its territory by conquest, is equally fated to perish in the midst of its victories. It is due, sir, to the American people to know that their title, in this instance, needs no such equivocal alliance. In the appropriate language of the gentleman from Tennessee, [Mr. STANTON,] our right is our destiny, not our destiny our right. But we are led to consider, in this connexion, the duty of our Government, in case England should propose to renew the negotiation upon the basis of the division of the territory in the spirit of amicable adjustment. I answer, she should be met in the same spirit; and, in case she should offer the terms recently tendered and withdrawn by this Government, they should be unhesitatingly accepted. If it was consistent with the duties of Government to make the offer then, it is proper to accept it now. The interests and rights of the two countries have in no respect changed in regard to this territory. I do not say that the negotiation should be reopened at our instance, nor that any more favorable terms should be offered or accepted. On the contrary, I think our Government, in the manifestation of its disposition to adjust this difficulty, has approached the extremest limit which the rights, the interests, or the honor of our country will warrant: and if England should prefer to try the issue of a resort to arms, we shall then be restored to our belligerent rights, and may claim and take the whole. England well knows that war is a game which more than one can play at.

Sir, the inference I draw from this view of the matter is, that the notice being given, the joint occupancy terminated, and England remaining quiet, our rights to exclusive jurisdiction should be asserted only up to the 49th parallel of latitude. This being understood to be the policy and determination of our Government, the chances of war are entirely removed. England will not incur the hazards of a war for an inconsiderable tract of unproductive wilderness, the title to which she knows is clearly and unquestionably in us. This being known, the excitement upon this subject, as well in England as in this country, would entirely subside, and we should hear little more of Oregon.

But if the extreme policy, of the whole or none, urged by a few gentlemen upon this floor, is to be carried out, I cannot see how a war can be avoided. England cannot, consistently with her national honor, accept less, in the division of this territory, than has been repeatedly offered her; and, how ever reluctant she may be, I see not how she can escape a resort to this last dread alternative.

I proceed to consider for one moment whether it is our interest to drive her to this extremity.

Our national honor is no way concerned in the matter. By adopting the 49th parallel as our boundary we make our own terms, and dictate them, too, somewhat imperiously to the haughtiest and most powerful nation upon earth. It is, then, a mere matter of expediency, and as such I propose to consider it.

The value of the territory in dispute, compared with the expenses, the sacrifices, the sufferings, bloodshed, and horrors of a war, is the question at issue. Sir, I address not my arguments to those sublimated gentlemen who assert that the existence of a right precludes the consideration of consequences in its assertion. The gentlemen have forgotten, or haply never learned, that a regard to consequences is the first duty of a statesman; that it is that alone for which impartial history will give him credit for sagacity and wisdom. The notions of these gentlemen are somewhat too abstract and transcendental for my present purposes. On this branch of the subject, I prefer addressing the gentlemen upon this floor who have been educated in a less ethereal school of statesmanship.

First…the territory is entirely valueless to us. We have now a territory which centuries of the most uninterrupted national prosperity cannot populate to the full extent of its capability. I am well aware of the adventurous spirit and impatience of contiguity of the West; but I think if the most zealous pioneer will join a caravan for the mouth of the Columbia, and pursue his pilgrimage for some six months over a boundless expanse of forest and prairie, without the sign of a human habitation and scarce the sign of human life, where the wild horse and the buffalo have revelled for centuries in the profusion of nature’s bounties, he will be most effectively cured of all scruples on the score of density of population…The 49th parallel secures to us the Straits of Fuca and Puget’s sound—thus furnishing, for all the commerce of the East, the best harbors on the coast of the Pacific; and for this territory, so valueless, in every respect, to the United States, gentlemen propose to take the chances of at best a disastrous war with Great Britain.

Sir, I am not satisfied by the remarks which have fallen from the gentlemen who insist upon the whole or none of the territory, that they themselves have any very clear conception of the means necessary to accomplish their purpose. The one portion of these gentlemen propose what has been termed a “masterly inactivity;” the other, immediate and coercive measures. Though I question not the sincerity, nor doubt their valor, yet I much fear that the lofty pretensions of the first, compared with their supineness of action, will pass in the eye of the world as a very shallow covering for timid counsels—a sort of whistling to keep one’s courage up. The other has more of the bravado in it, but seems equally wide of its purpose. True, the gentleman from Michigan [Mr. CHIPMAN] pledges the State of Michigan alone to take Canada in ninety days. This, at all events, looks like action; but it might have occurred to that gentleman that in the last war General Hull proposed a somewhat similar feat, and issued a like boastful proclamation; and in less than twenty days thereafter he and his gallant army passed beneath the Caudine Forks. I intend, sir, no improper comparison between Michigan then and Michigan now; I merely allude to it for the purpose of showing that lofty pretensions and high‐​sounding promises are not always the best evidences of faithful and efficient performance. Perhaps the gentleman will make the application. Another gentleman seems to think there will be a great deal of valorous bush fighting in Oregon, and, in the exuberance of his fancy, talks about the fountains of the Pacific coast spouting blood until they shall have tinged the broad ocean with their crimson currents. Sir, there will be no fighting in Oregon. The few inhabitants of that vast forest will be content to remain quiet and await the fearful shock which is to uproot and unsettle the nations of the earth. The war will be in Canada, in the British colonial islands, on our own frontiers, on the ocean, wherever the two nations may be deemed most vulnerable, or can meet in deadly and mortal combat. The blood and resources of the two nations will be exhausted in the fruitless struggle. All the worst passions of the human race will be aroused and brought into fierce action; commerce will be destroyed, civilization retarded, and the progress of improvement rolled back for half a century; the bonds of society will be ruptured and the affections crushed; the page that records the triumph will be streaked with blood, and the cheer that hails the victory will meet with no response at the desolate fireside and in the breaking heart.

It is well said, that no little war can hereafter be waged between these two great and powerful nations; no war of outposts and detachments. It will be England, with all her tremendous military resources, matched with the aroused and terrible energies of a nation of freemen—the long‐​deferred contest for the dominion of the western continent and for maritime supremacy—the fearful death struggle with which foe grapples foe, and falters not nor yields, until death unnerves the muscle and relaxes the grasp. It would be well for gentlemen who talk thus flippantly of a contest where plows are to be given and not received, where laurels are to be won without the cypress, to turn their attention for a little to the magnitude of hostile preparations, and learn to look the realities of war steadily and sternly in the face. The time for the exercise of all their courage and patriotism may be nearer than they suppose. War will not ensue from any disputed boundary in Oregon, unless it be precipitated by our own indiscretion. If we yield to England the territory north of the 49th parallel—and more than that she should not have— and war then ensue, the disputed boundary will be the pretext, not the cause. If, in her newly awakened apprehensions for the safety of her colonies on the western continent, it is the purpose of England at this time, in conjunction with other European Powers, to humble the pride and cripple the resources of this Republic, concession on our part would be worse than useless. Give her the whole of Oregon, and she will find a pretext for the quarrel; she will find it in California, in Mexico, on the reefs of Florida, or the banks of Newfoundland. She will find it wherever the red cross meets the flag of the Union on the ocean. Concession on our part would not prevent nor long postpone the struggle; and the more resolutely we meet it in the assertion of the principle of demanding nothing but what is clearly right, and submitting to nothing wrong, the more readily may we hope for a speedy and favorable issue. Sir, the danger may be remote‐​apprehension may be causeless. for a speedy and favorable issue. Sir, the danger may be remote‐​apprehension may be causeless. I am inclined to think that the time has gone by when the combined interests of European monarchies could seriously think of ar resting the progress of human rights, at least on the western continent. But “coming events cast their shadows before.” The insidious suggestion of a balance of power upon this continent manifests a trembling apprehension that the Atlantic is not broad and deep enough to protect the East from the all‐​encroaching influences of rational but progressive Democracy. The political atmosphere of Europe has become dark and lurid; elements never before combined are now found in close alliance. Our ancient friend and ally is prompt to suggest to its ancient and hereditary enemy the readiest means of checking the progress of the far‐​reaching Republic. The gathering storm is preceded by the deep mutterings of the distant thunder. No human foresight can foretell the fearful catastrophe which may be produced by the bold assertion of a political right, when the contest is stimulated by the passions engendered in the warfare of conflicting principles, Hampden, by resisting the collection of a sixpenny tax, aroused a spirit in England which never again slept until it had overturned the throne, and brought the head of its monarch to the block. The colonies, by resisting an equally trifling tax upon tea, dismembered the British empire, and laid the foundation for a great and now powerful Republic. What mighty revolutions may now be on the verge of their accomplishment, it is impossible for us to foresee. In the meantime, it is our policy to await coolly the progress of events, with a firm reliance upon our undoubted rights, and a stern determination to maintain them at all and every hazard.