A Permanent Barrier: An End to the British-US Conflict

Georgiana B. Smyth
July 15, 1846

Imagine the most expansive area of land you have ever seen, land that is so expansive it fills the horizons with vast greenery not yet cultivated by Americans, land that has been granted by God for us to occupy and settle. That is Manifest Destiny. In August 1839, John O’Sullivan wrote in a Democratic Review article about our nation’s fate, declaring that, “the nation… is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles; to establish on earth the noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High the Sacred and the True.”This ideology that currently shapes America’s geographic and political endeavors was termed “Manifest Destiny” by O’Sullivan in an 1845 Democratic Review article in which he declared, “the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent [was] given [to] us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federative development of self government entrusted to us.”2 O’Sullivan is undeniably owed credit for the coining of this term; however, an avid supporter of this philosophy was President James Knox Polk. Although Polk never directly used this term in his communication, his commitment to this ideal is evident through his support of national expansion, with the annexation of Texas and negotiation for the Oregon territory. Polk, having always been grounded in the concept of Manifest Destiny,3 demonstrated early in his political career this strong emphasis on expansion, as he was the chosen Whig Party presidential candidate based on his reputation as for being an “enthusiastic expansionist.”4 His first annual message in 1845 highlighted the conflict with the British over the Oregon territory, emphasizing that the United States’ held the “just title to that territory.”5  Without Polk’s determination for expansion and the migration of Americans, we could still be confined to a limited territory; however, because of Polk’s pursuits, American’s have the possibility to explore new opportunities.  

Yet, while I can see the glory of new horizons, Americans, for many centuries have been unable to accept expansion as a worthwhile endeavor. One writer from the Savannah Georgian Paper in 1829 who wrote, “the territory beyond the Rocky Mountains promises nothing to the United States but collison with foreign powers and dissension amongst our own citizens.”6 Similarly, in 1837 the idea of Manifest Destiny was again disputed in a letter from William E. Channing to Henry Clay, which read, “we are a restless people, prone to encroachment, impatient of the ordinary laws of progress… We boast of our rapid growth, forgetting that, throughout nature, noble growths are slow…. we cannot advance without imminent peril to our institutions, union, prosperity, virtue, and peace.”7 Thus was and still is the voice of many Americans.8 These assumptions that border expansion will only result in calamity suggest a lack of confidence in the government’s endeavors. I have investigated Polk’s role in the Oregon Treaty negotiation with the British government and the resulting fulfillment of manifest destiny and hope to expose those disbelievers to the usefulness of manifest destiny in Polk’s career.

Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 11.30.19 AM

 A newspaper cartoon critiquing the United States’ vulnerable stance in the Oregon Boundary as a smaller military power; however, Britain still feared what could result from this conflict.

Before Polk’s presidency, three separate negotiation attempts with Britain in 1818, 1824, and 1826 had failed to establish a definite border for Oregon.9 Because of these, joint occupancy of Oregon was allowed with the temporary convention of October 20th, 1818, which remained unchanged and even reinstated in 1827 with the failure of the 1826 compromise.10 It wasn’t until later in 1843 that thoughts of negotiating a permanent boundary from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean  resparked.11 However, again, the proposal of the “49th parallel of north latitude from the Rocky Mountains to the point of its intersection with the north easternmost branch of the Columbia River,” was rejected, leaving Oregon still undeclared.12 However, Polk saw a necessity in ending this continuous conflict saying in 1845 that, “with this conviction the proposition of compromise which had been made and rejected was by my direction subsequently withdrawn and our title to the whole Oregon Territory asserted, and, as is believed, maintained by irrefragable facts and arguments.”13 After Polk’s election into office, one of his first actions was giving the British notice that in a year, they would have to evacuate Oregon.14 Polk’s demands recognized his initial promise of absorbing all of Oregon into America, using the slogan “fifty-four forty or fight.”15 By declaring that America would control all of Oregon to its border at the 54th parallel and 40 minutes or fight, Polk demonstrated his concrete belief that Oregon had the God given right to that land. With this slogan, the aggressive tone of Polk in his 1845 inaugural address, and the inevitable US war with Mexico, Britain began to fear what this continual conflict could accelerate too and thus, in a rush to end the conflict, proposed the 49th parallel border.16 America accepted this proposal and the result was the Oregon Treaty of 1846.17 While this territory only went to the 49th parallel rather than the 54th parallel, Polk was able to increase still America’s land, as we had not previously controlled all land South of the 49th parallel,18 and demonstrate his efficiency in maneuvering expansion conflicts with other countries. While this conflict became a decades affair of unsuccessful negotiations, Polk was able to swiftly end it within a year. With Polk’s guidance, America was able to settle a treaty. Polk’s success demonstrates that his belief in manifest destiny was able to help create a treaty with Britain, as he was determined to acquire as much land as possible from Britain.

This treaty, though a compromise, demonstrates Polk’s efficiency to achieve his pursuits and his desires to expand. I have strong faith in Polk that O’Sullivan’s wisdom will be carried out through his Presidency. Who knows, maybe ten years from now, we could be expanding even further west past the Pacific.


  1. O’Sullivan, John L. “The Great Nation of Futurity.” The United States Democratic Review 6, no. 23 (1839): 426-30. Accessed May 2, 2017. https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/osulliva.htm.
  2. Lubragge, Michael T. “Manifest Destiny- the Philosophy That Created a Nation.” American History: From Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond. Accessed May 2, 2017.http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/essays/1801-1900/manifest-destiny/manifest-destiny—the-philosophy-that-created-a-nation.php.
  3. Michigan State University. “Origins of the Ideology of Manifest Destiny: Oregon Treaty 1846.” HST 325 – U.S. Foreign Relations to 1914 (MSU). Accessed May 2, 2017. http://projects.leadr.msu.edu/usforeignrelations/exhibits/show/manifest-destiny/oregon-treaty-1846.  
  4. Paul F. Boller, Jr., Presidential Campaigns, Revised ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 79, http://www.questiaschool.com/read/78813107/presidential-campaigns.
  5. James K. Polk: “First Annual Message.” Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley. The American Presidency Project. December 2, 1845. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29486.  
  6. Lubragge, “Manifest Destiny – the Philosophy That Created a Nation.” 
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Polk, “First Annual Message.” 
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Walker, Dale L. Bear Flag Rising: The Conquest of California, 1846. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1999. Accessed May 2, 2017. https://books.google.com/books?id=eT8LH1tDyFAC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false.
  15. Boller, Presidential Campaigns, 78.
  16. McClintock, Thomas C. “British Newspapers and the Oregon Treaty of 1846.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 104, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 96-109. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20615299.
  17. James Polk, Polk: The Diary of a President, 1845-1849, Covering the Mexican War, the Acquisition of Oregon, and the Conquest of California and the Southwest, ed. Allan Nevins (London: Longmans, Green, 1929), 111, http://www.questiaschool.com/read/74019222/polk-the-diary-of-a-president-1845-1849-covering.
  18. Michigan State University. “Origins of the Ideology of Manifest Destiny: Oregon Treaty 1846.” 

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