The Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842

Daniel Webster.

Daniel Webster, the Secretary of State under President John Tyler, brought a breadth of experience and dignity to the office, but he also brought “a different perspective on Anglo-American relations.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 672.

Following the Panics of 1837 and 1839, Webster, and his fellow Whigs, believed that Britain remained an important source of investment capital. See id. In dealing with the British as Secretary of State, however, Webster was confronted with issues that would shape not just how America conducted its relations with Britain but foreign policy for decades to come. See id. at 673.

One such issue occurred during the Caroline incident, during President Martin Van Buren’s presidency, which put America in the middle of a quarrel between Canada and Britain. See id. Canadian rebels were fleeing the Brits, when Americans provided rations and support for those rebels. This issue came up again in 1842, when Webster began negotiating with Lord Ashburton to resolve outstanding issues between Britain and America. See id.

Webster stated that an attack on another country is “legitimate only when a government can ‘show a necessity of self-defence, [sic] instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.'” Id. quoting Papers of Daniel Webster: Diplomatic Papers, ed. Kenneth Shewmaker et al. (Hanover, N.H., 183), I, 58-68. Lord Ashburton agreed with this standard, and Webster’s principle would be invoked much later in history where the question of preemptive strikes can be justified by self-defense (at Nuremberg and during the Cuban Missile Crisis). See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 673.

The result of these negotiations was the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which would clearly demarcate the border of Canada and Maine and the border of Canada and Minnesota. See id. at 675. President Tyler and the Whigs were in agreement that the Treaty was a positive for the country, as Tyler was pleased to see further expansion of American borders and the Whigs were able to get further access to British capital for American economic development. See id.

This resonance between the Whigs and President Tyler would be short-lived, however, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty was a significant accomplishment nonetheless. America was building its geographic and economic empire, piece-by-piece, and in this way, the adversarial relationship between President Tyler and the Whigs was working to the benefit of the country as a whole.

Further, the foreign policy of America was being shaped for generations to come. While Webster certainly did not realize the precedential value of his proclamation about American foreign policy, his approach to preemptive strikes and America’s self-defense would be valuable in understanding America’s place in the world.

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