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‘Worst president’ left his mark on Pacific Northwest

The inauguration of James Buchanan. (Courtesy Feliks Banel)
LISTEN: 'Worst president' left his mark on the Pacific Northwest

When Oregon Territory – including what’s now Washington – officially became part of the United States on Aug. 15, 1848, it was because James Buchanan had negotiated a treaty with Great Britain to divide the jointly occupied “Old Oregon Country” at the 49th parallel.

At the time, Buchanan was Secretary of State in the administration of President James K. Polk. Polk had appointed Buchanan after defeating him for the Democratic nomination for the White House in the election of 1844.

Polk and Buchanan clashed over the terms of the Treaty of 1846 – Polk had run for office partly on the promise of securing all of the Oregon Country from Great Britain and promised action in his first State of the Union – but Polk ultimately submitted Buchanan’s treaty for approval by the U.S. Senate.

Walter Borneman, author of the 2008 book “Polk: The Man who Transformed the Presidency and America,” says that the Oregon boundary issue was already somewhat settled when Buchanan took on the issue.

“Buchanan as secretary of state really inherits from the previous [President John] Tyler administration the situation in Oregon, where basically the British have agreed or there’s an offer on the table that the British would accept a line at the 49th parallel,” Borneman said. “And it’s up to Buchanan to see if he can really get that into a treaty.”

Borneman says that President Polk found Secretary of State Buchanan too timid in his negotiations with the British; Polk, after all, had campaigned in 1844 on securing all of the Oregon Country for the United States, as far north as 54 degrees, 40 minutes north – the boundary with what was then Russian America (now known as Alaska).

By the early 1840s, the balance in Oregon Country had tipped in favor of the Americans. The Oregon Trail had opened up the area to settlement, and thousands of Americans were arriving and making it home, and even organizing their own provisional government.

Meanwhile, the British were mostly represented in the Pacific Northwest only by employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Great Britain was also at this time having economic troubles back at home. So there was incentive for them to settle.

The end game for the Treaty of 1846 was complicated, but Buchanan essentially cemented the deal with his British counterpart Richard Pakenham – to set the boundary at the 49th parallel — giving the US the prized and sought-after land north and west of the Columbia River, including Puget Sound — but also dipping down and around to give the British all of Vancouver Island.

Borneman says that Polk wasn’t necessarily thrilled, but he decided to submit the treaty to the Senate for review (or, in Constitutional terms, “advice”) before seeking formal ratification; the treaty was accepted and then ratified in fairly short order. This two-step process gave Polk – if not possession for the US of all the territory that’s now British Columbia – some very effective political cover for the final outcome.

“For Polk, it’s a win-win situation,” Borneman said. “He becomes the man that has really stood firm on his campaign promise of all of Oregon. By asking the Senate’s advice before submitting the treaty for ratification, he sort of puts the burden on the Senate for having given up the ground north of the 49th parallel.”

The one bit of irony in this is that in 1846 as the treaty process was concluding, Buchanan already had his eye on the 1848 election. While he was timid about pushing the British behind the scenes for all of Oregon, when it comes to Polk’s proposal to submit the treaty to the Senate for review, Buchanan is the only member of Polk’s cabinet who goes on the record as being against the agreeing to the 49th parallel.

“Buchanan is really playing the political game here in terms of on the one hand saying to Polk, ‘oh boy, we gotta compromise, we gotta do something,’” Borneman said. “But then, when it becomes a matter of record in terms of sending it on to the Senate, Buchanan wants to put out the position that ‘oh no, he wasn’t in favor of compromise he wants all of Oregon up to the Alaskan boundary.’”

Buchanan would run for president himself in 1856, and his one term just prior to the Civil War is considered among the worst in American history. Buchanan is often blamed for standing idly by while the issue of slavery tore the Union apart, and some historians call him a “Doughface,” or Northerner with Southern sympathies.

After Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected president in November 1860 but before he would be inaugurated in March 1861, the lame-duck Buchanan gave his State of the Union address in December 1860.

“How easy would it be for the American people to settle the slavery question forever and to restore peace and harmony to this distracted country,” President Buchanan said. “They, and they alone can do it. All that is necessary to accomplish the object, and all for which the slave States have ever contended, is to be let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way. As sovereign States, they, and they alone are responsible before God and the world for the slavery existing among them. For this, the people of the North are not more responsible and have no more fight to interfere than with similar institutions in Russia or in Brazil.”

Seven states seceded from the Union before Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861; the Civil War began just five weeks later on April 12, 1861.

James Buchanan died in 1868.

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