The Oregon Question

A Depiction of the Oregon Territory in 1848.

Following the Democrats’ victory in the Election of 1844, President James Polk began negotiating with the British about the Oregon territory, which America had permitted Britain to occupy for several decades. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 715.

President Polk, a shrewd negotiator, seemed “to demand all of the Oregon country for the United States,” but “in reality he revealed a willingness to compromise, provided he could get most of the core” area that America wanted: the area between the Columbia River and the 49th parallel. See id.

There was more happening than just the negotiation of Oregon, however. President Polk was simultaneously beginning to confront Mexico, and the Mexican-American War was on the verge of breaking out. See id. at 717.

On April 23, 1846, Congress enacted a notice of termination of the joint occupation agreement, prompting the British negotiators to propose America get the land it wanted save Vancouver Island. Id. at 720. This proposal came despite there not being more than “two dozen Americans” living in that area at that time. Donald W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Vol. 2: Continental America, 1800-1867, (1995): 117.

President Polk even sought the advice and consent of the Senate prior to signing the treaty, breaking with the tradition of having the Senate approve a treaty after agreement is met. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 720. The Senate ultimately voted to accept the treaty, 38 to 12, enabling the administration to send the treaty off to London for full execution. See id.

While President Polk was clever in his negotiations, he also had a bit of luck. Just ten days after the British signed the treaty and sent it back to America, word reached London that hostilities had broken out between Mexico and the United States. See id. at 721.

Nonetheless, the deed was done. President Polk had accomplished one of his goals and had settled what was known as the Oregon Question. Notably, this is one instance of America accomplishing its expansionist goals through peaceful means: negotiation. At that same time, however, President Polk was overseeing the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, another manifestation of America’s greed for land and resources.


  1. jeffersonstclair

    Beautiful state with an interesting history even before its statehood. “Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Tale of Ambition and Survival on the Early American Frontier” by Peter Stark tells a fascinating tale about this area. And learning about those oft-forgotten presidents sandwiched between Jackson and Lincoln is always a treat. “A Country of Vast Designs” by Robert Merry is worth the read, as it highlights much of Polk’s contributions to our country. Thanks for sharing.

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