· · · MAINE, CANADA · · ·

DANIEL WEBSTER

Maine’s Border: The Devil in Daniel Webster

The [human] race, if it cannot drag a Webster along with it, leaves him behind and forgets him. The race is rich enough to afford to do without the greatest intellects God ever let the Devil buy.

—WENDELL PHILLIPS1

Those who know of Daniel Webster typically know of him only from being assigned to read “The Devil and Daniel Webster” or from having seen the film it spawned. Stephen Vincent Benét’s fanciful short story posits Webster as the defense attorney for a man who has signed a pact with the devil; Webster wins the case even though the devil gets to pick the judge and jury.

Webster was indeed a great lawyer. He argued more than 200 cases before the Supreme Court and became the preeminent debater in the U.S. Senate. He was also a bit of a devil himself.

Those unfamiliar with Webster can take comfort in the fact that in September 1852 the Daily Ohio Statesman headlined an article on the then longtime political veteran, “Who Is Daniel Webster?” Everyone at that time knew his name, but few knew what—other than oratory—he had done.

Webster served for over twenty-three years as a senator from Massachusetts, was the secretary of state twice, and sought the presidency three times. While he never made it to the White House, his work as secretary of state is engraved on today’s map in the boundary between Maine and Canada.

Daniel Webster (1782-1852) (photo credit 22.1)

One might think that Maine’s boundary would have been established in the treaty ending the American Revolution, thus defining the borders of this new nation England was relinquishing and recognizing. Americans thought it did, as the 1783 Treaty of Paris indeed devoted an entire section to boundaries. It divided Maine from Canada along “a line drawn due north from the source of St. Croix River to the highlands, along the said highlands which divide those rivers that empty themselves into the river St. Lawrence from those which fall into the Atlantic Ocean to the northwestern-most head of Connecticut River.” Other than determining which rivers flow where, what was left to discuss?

Nothing … until the War of 1812 caused England to rethink the line. The narrow strip of land it left between the American border and England’s primary route into Canada, the St. Lawrence River, was highly vulnerable to attack—particularly in the winter when the river froze, closing off navigation.

Daniel Webster was a rookie congressman when England first sought to redefine Maine’s boundary. In 1814, during negotiations to bring the War of 1812 to a close, British negotiators complained:

With respect to the boundary of the District of Maine … [we] regret that, although the American plenipotentiaries have acknowledged themselves to be instructed to discuss a revision of the boundary line, with a view to prevent uncertainty and dispute, yet by assuming … an exclusive right to determine what is or not a subject of uncertainty and dispute, they have rendered their powers nugatory.

It being wartime, the British had called Americans all kinds of things. But “nugatory” was below the belt, and the Americans let them know it:

The proposal of the British plenipotentiaries was not to ascertain, but to vary those lines in such a manner as to secure a direct communication between Quebec and Halifax, an alteration which could not be effected without a cession by the United States to Great Britain of all that portion of [Maine] … intervening between the provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec, although unquestionably included within the boundary line.

1783 treaty: border of Maine

The Americans allowed that, if the British wanted the two nations to survey the as-yet-unmarked line through the sparsely settled forests, any discrepancies could then be negotiated. Consequently, the line was surveyed in 1817, and indeed a discrepancy surfaced. The United States interpreted the 1783 treaty’s phrase “highlands which divide those rivers that empty themselves into the river St. Lawrence from those which fall into the Atlantic” as the ridge separating the two watersheds. England interpreted the preceding phrase leading up to the word “highlands”—“a line drawn due north from the source of St. Croix River to the highlands”—as meaning a line due north to the highest land.2

The treaty ending the War of 1812 stipulated that boundary disputes could be arbitrated by a third nation agreeable to both sides. Most likely, the United States would have prevailed in arbitration, but it suddenly had cause to hesitate, owing to another glitch recently discovered elsewhere along the U.S.-Canadian border. “The line between New York and Canada on Lake Champlain,” the National Intelligencer reported, “will leave Rouse’s Point, on which the United States have expended between two and three hundred thousand dollars in fortifications, within the British province.” The fort being built was located on a site long accepted as being on the south side of New York’s border with Canada. But the surveys that followed the War of 1812 revealed the fort was actually on the border’s north side.

“Fort Blunder,” as it came to be called, was no minor military outpost. It commanded the northern entrance to Lake Champlain, a lake that extends far into New York and Vermont. The fort’s importance for defense was equaled only by its importance as a danger if it were to end up in British hands. The Maine boundary negotiations were now profoundly changed. “A proposal has been discussed,” the Intelligencer reported, “that the territory that would accrue to Maine be given as an offset for the fine military station on the Lake, which would be confirmed to New York. Our friends in Maine think the Commissioners have no right to run the line agreeably to the proposed compromise, and loudly protest against it.”

Fort Montgomery, aka “Fort Blunder”

From this point on, the reality was that the U.S. government was no longer negotiating with England; it was negotiating with the District of Maine. And Maine (which gained statehood in 1820) wasn’t budging. Indeed, Maine became more militant, as a report from New Brunswick “to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty … humbly sheweth.” The report informed British authorities that “a senator of the state of Maine … came into this province and seized and marked a quantity of pine timber lying in the river St. John … as having been cut on the river Restook, in the territory of the United States.… In the last year, 1825 … [Maine issued deeds] to the settlers in this territory … [for] one hundred acres each of the land by them possessed.”3

Maine, in response, further sought to force the federal government to intervene on its behalf by ridiculing New Brunswick’s appeal to its mother country. “Our neighbors in New Brunswick,” Maine’s Thomaston Register wrote, “feel quite warlike on the subject of the northeastern boundary.… They appear to think their masters in England have no other interest to protect.… But [England] … has nothing to gain and much to lose by another contest with us.”

Angered by this taunting, New Brunswick bit the bait. “John Baker, the citizen of Maine who was lately seized by the British authorities and carried to Frederickton [New Brunswick], was indicted … on two charges amounting to Treason against the king of England,” Vermont’s Burlington Messenger reported. The acts of treason the newspaper cited consisted of Baker having flown the American flag and “resisted a British officer.”

The U.S. government did not bite the bait. “Some young, discreet lawyer should be sent into New Brunswick to see Baker,” President John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary, aware that there was more to the story than reported in the press. Baker, Adams noted, had been imprisoned “for stopping the British mail from passing over the land on which he was settled, within the disputed territory.”

Baker wasn’t the only American whose behavior was making life difficult for the president. The governor of Maine contributed, too, as Adams confided to this diary:

[April 28, 1827] A letter from Enoch Lincoln, Governor of the State of Maine … is querulous, testy, and suspicious.… The tendency of all this is to multiply the difficulties of the negotiation.

[November 26, 1827] Lincoln’s letters are absurd and provoking; and he is deeply infected with a disease which many of the Governors of the States are apt to catch—wanton assailing of the General Government, overweening zeal for the interests of the State.

When Maine’s governor then activated the state’s militia, Adams finally had no choice but to respond, and dispatched U.S. troops to Maine.

But Adams simultaneously made movements in the other direction as well, using the crisis to justify allowing the king of Holland to arbitrate the dispute. In 1831 King William I specified a compromise line that sought to split the difference between the American and British positions.

Maine responded by changing its strategy. It now maintained its boundary claims were part of a larger national issue: states’ rights.4 By aligning itself with slave states that were asserting states’ rights to resist federal restrictions on slavery, Maine succeeded in getting the Senate to reject the Dutch king’s decision. Consequently, the situation continued to smolder. Seven years later the smolders began to flame. In March 1839 the Boston Atlas reported:

A detachment of 26 [American] men, sent … to break up a horde of trespassers on the Fish River has returned, having succeeded in their object.… [Maine] Gov. Fairfield is urging forward his militia with great zeal. In addition to the 700 enlisted men on the Aroostook, [militia] Gen. Hudson’s brigade of 1000 men at Houlton, and Gen. Batchelder’s brigade of 1000 who are on the march from Augusta, another 1000 are under orders to march.… It is rumored that 5000 British troops … left Frederickton on the 23rd for the disputed territory.

Northern Maine: arbitration decision

Through the skillful intervention of U.S. General Winfield Scott and his British counterpart, no one died in what has come to be known as the Aroostook War (or, more incongruously, the Pork and Beans War). It did, however, result in two indisputable facts. First, a verdict on the boundary could no longer be postponed. Second, getting Maine to agree on a verdict would require a courtroom magician. The United States had one: Daniel Webster.

During the years that Maine’s boundary dispute had been simmering, Webster had been orating his way to an 1836 presidential bid. Americans found him spellbinding. “No man has been found tall enough to overshadow him,” Washington, DC’s National Intelligencer exclaimed. “No man has been able to attract or intercept from him the constant regard of the nation, for he has been so conspicuous, so prominent, that whatever he has done, and whatever he has said, has been watched and understood throughout the borders of the land.”

Webster’s flair for speaking, however, was a component of an exuberant personality that also resulted in rumors of excessive drinking, of large sums of money having been given to him by wealthy merchants and bankers, and of womanizing.5 Running in a field of five presidential candidates, Webster wound up with less than 3 percent of the vote.

In the next presidential election, candidate William Henry Harrison offered candidate Webster the vice presidency, in an effort to consolidate his bid. Webster declined, stating “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead.”6 Still, rather than fruitlessly oppose Harrison in the 1840 election, Webster accepted the popular general’s alternate offer of secretary of state. (Had Webster accepted the vice presidency, he would have become the president when Harrison died thirty-two days after his inauguration.)

In the wake of the 1839 Aroostook War, Maine’s boundary with Canada became one of Secretary Webster’s top priorities. England, equally anxious to end the dispute, sent Lord Ashburton to Washington as its negotiator. It was as shrewd a choice on England’s part as Webster would prove to be on the American side. Lord Ashburton’s family owned Barings Bank. Webster had performed legal services for Barings. The two men knew each other and liked each other. So informally did they proceed that, when the treaty they created was sent to Senate for ratification, Senator Thomas Hart Benton complained that he had never before seen a treaty accompanied by so little documentation.7 The dearth of supporting documents, however, was not the result of a cozy relationship. Rather, it resulted from the fact that Webster was negotiating primarily with Maine—invisibly.

To tilt public opinion, Webster began with the press. The State Department budget set aside $17,000 for “secret service” regarding the boundary negotiations.8 The money was used to fund a public relations campaign aimed at placing stories in newspapers and other publications.

It worked. In December 1841, as the nation awaited the arrival of Lord Ashburton, the Christian Mirror proposed a possible compromise that was extraordinarily detailed. After laying out what was purportedly its own proposal, the article pointedly concluded, “Is there a citizen of Maine who will not, upon careful meditation, pronounce such a compromise honorable to both parties, advantageous to both parties, and founded in a just regard for the wants and rights of the respective parties?”

The National Intelligencer, whose coverage of political events in Washington was often picked up by newspapers nationwide, published numerous editorials favoring a compromise. These editorials were rumored to have been written by Webster himself, a close friend of one of the paper’s publishers. One such editorial, quite likely written by Webster, appeared in July 1842:

Rumors are afloat concerning the supposed terms of adjustment of the Northeastern Boundary question which we rather think—indeed, we may almost say we know—are calculated to mislead the public mind.… It is not unlikely, we learn, that the line which the Dutch arbiter decided for … will be agreed to. But then Maine gets what the Dutch king did not give her, the navigation of the [St. John] River, and this trebles the value of all her tall pine trees.

The editorial went on to detail other trade-offs, including:

England takes a tract of mountain land, untimbered and of no earthly value but as a boundary, and she relinquishes to the United States Rouse’s Point, the key of Lake Champlain, and a large territory heretofore supposed to belong to New York and Vermont, but which turns out to lie north of the 45th degree of latitude and is therefore a part of Canada.

From the newspaper’s point of view, it got a scoop. Webster got to dish it out.

In time, even Maine’s Augusta Age, while remaining ardently opposed to any boundary compromise, was now conceding, “We do not deny that very many candid and honest men are numbered among the friends of the treaty; men, too, of the highest intelligence, and every way entitled to respect.”

To persuade Maine itself, Webster employed a different approach: cartographic blackmail. Webster learned of two maps on which red lines had been drawn that conformed to the British interpretation of the Treaty of Paris. The lines had purportedly been drawn by Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, two of the key American negotiators. While questions could be raised as to whether Franklin and Jay had personally drawn the red lines, there was no question as to the maps’ authenticity. One had belonged to Friedrich von Steuben, the Prussian general who had provided invaluable assistance to the Americans in the Revolutionary War; the other was in a French archive, also a nation allied with the Americans in that war.9 Webster secretly sent word of the maps to Maine’s governor, threatening that their existence would be made public if Maine did not accede to a compromise. Soon papers were reporting, along with the New York Spectator, “It is satisfactory to learn that the legislature of Maine is proceeding rapidly and judiciously in measures … that will enable the general Government to effect an arrangement with Lord Ashburton.”

Judiciously, perhaps. Rapidly for sure. Four months after Lord Ashburton arrived in the United States, the Senate ratified the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, establishing the boundaries of Maine at their present-day location.10

Webster went on to make yet another bid for the presidency, this time in 1852. Because of the treaty he had managed to secure, he had reason to hope this election would be the one to put him in the White House. But he now had an additional liability: he was seventy, older than any first-term president ever elected. He lost the Whig nomination to Winfield Scott, who in turn lost in November to Franklin Pierce. By then, however, Webster was dead. In May 1852 he had sustained a head injury in a carriage accident. His recovery was hindered by cirrhosis of the liver.11 Daniel Webster died in late October, nine days before the election.

Upon his death, the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, visiting the site of one of Webster’s greatest speeches, wrote in his journal:

Last Sunday I was at Plymouth.… I supposed Webster must have passed, as indeed he had died at three in the morning. The sea, the rocks, the woods, gave no sign that America and the world had lost the completest man.

Yet, on another occasion, Emerson had said of Webster:

It was for his defect in moral perceptions, for the inequality of his moral to his intellectual faculty … that hence came the sterility of thought.… It is a curious fact that though he wrote and spoke with an ability that impresses the world, there is not a single remarkable sentence, not a single valuable aphorism which can pass into literature from his writing.12

Both observations were true.

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