Lieber Code

“That Lincoln was serious about understanding the exact nature of the international law of war is the organizing thesis of another recent prize-winning historical study. John Fabian Witt’s Lincoln’s Code (2012) argues that one of the Civil War’s most enduring global legacies was in establishing modern legal precedents for wartime codes of conduct. Witt describes how almost simultaneous with the development of its emancipation policy, the Lincoln administration was also commissioning a Columbia University political scientist named Francis Lieber to compile a series of orders for the Union army directing their conduct toward belligerents and civilians under the highest standards of contemporary laws of war. Lieber was a German immigrant who had taught for years in South Carolina and who had sons in both armies. Widely respected as a scholar, Lieber produced General Orders No. 100 in April 1863 which became known as the Lieber Code, and which later provided critical precedents for The Hague and Geneva conventions of war.” –Matthew Pinsker, Law of War, Lincoln and War Powers, House Divided Project [WEB]

Discussion Questions

  • Why did international law even matter for regulating conduct in an American civil war?
  • How would you recommend introducing the subject of nineteenth-century international law to students in middle or high school?


Francis Lieber (Library of Congress)

Francis Lieber might be considered both the first American political scientist and one of the founders of the modern international laws on war. Lieber was born in Germany at the end of the eighteenth century, soon became a leading scholar, but also fought against Napoleon’s armies during the Waterloo campaign of 1815. He emigrated to America in 1827 and helped to edit the new Encyclopedia Americana.   For over two decades, he taught at South Carolina College and published several leading treatises on subjects related to politics and ethics. An opponent of slavery, Lieber relocated to New York in 1856, accepting the first American professorship designated in the field of “political science” with Columbia University.  During the Civil War, Lieber drafted a code of conduct for the Union Army known as the Lieber Code that President Lincoln issued as General Orders. No. 100 and which later became an important precedent for twentieth century international conventions on war established at The Hague and Geneva.

Additional Material

  • Francis Lieber (b. March 18, 1798 (est.) in Berlin; d. October 2, 1872 in New York City)
  • Three of Lieber’s sons fought in the Civil War –two for the Union and one for the Confederacy.  One son lost an arm and the son who fought for the South died.
  • Lieber once wrote that memory is “the most useful and indispensable of all instruments in all pursuits.” (Miscellaneous Writings, 1881, p. 29)
  • Excerpt from biographical profile by M.R. Thayer (published in Miscellaneous Writings):  “His method of teaching was such as to make the subject attractive in the highest degree to his students, and they thoroughly understood everything they learned. He never read lectures, but expounded his subject, in terse, familiar language, and impressed them by copious and happy illustrations. At the end of every recitation he gave out what for the next time they ought to read collaterally, and what peculiar subjects or persons they ought to study, besides the lesson. He caused them to read poetry and fiction, in connection with history, to see how great writers had conceived great characters. He relied much upon the blackboard. To one he would give chronology, to another geography, to another names, to another battles. Four large blackboards were in constant use at the same time, and often a considerable part of the floor besides.” (p. 34)
  • One of Lieber’s favorite expressions was that books, like men, were useless without a stiff back.


Further Reading

  • Frank Friedel, Francis Lieber: Nineteenth Century Liberal (1947)
  • Burrus Carnahan, Act of Justice: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Law of War (2007)
  • John Fabian Witt, Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History (2012)

Seward’s Folly

“Scorned by many at the time, the purchase [of Alaska] became Seward’s greatest triumph.  Eager for something to offset the administration’s domestic failures, he jumped at the chance to purchase Alaska.  The price of $7.2 million was $2 million more than he wanted to pay and $2 million more than the Russians originally sought, but the secretary was in a hurry to consummate the deal; he and Russian minister Eduard Stoeckl worked until 4:00 AM to draw up a treaty.  Critics dismissed Alaska as a ‘sucked orange,’ ‘Seward’s Folly,’ or Johnson’s ‘polar bear garden.’ Editor Horace Greeley called it ‘Walrussia.’ Foes of the purchase accused Johnson and Seward of trying to deflect attention from failures at home.  Seward lobbied furiously and effectively, however, emphasizing the land’s commercial and strategic potential and the importance of obliging good friends like the Russians.  Congress was in full revolt against Johnson by this time, and the House of Representatives out of pique threatened not to appropriate funds.  While complaining about the ‘wholly exceptional’ difficulties of conducting diplomacy in the American democratic system, Stoeckl, who stood to profit handsomely from the deal, bribed key congressmen.  At the time of the purchase, the main product of ‘Seward’s ice box’ was indeed ice, sold in large quantities to the bustling communities along the West Coast. More quickly than anyone might have imagined, the secretary’s vision was vindicated, his prize acquisition, like California earlier, bringing the added bonus of gold.” –Herring, From Colony to Superpower, p. 258

Discussion Questions

  • Herring’s summary of the value underlying the Alaskan purchase requires a good deal of background or context knowledge about US-Russian relations and American domestic politics in the Reconstruction era.  What are some of the key contextual factors that made “Seward’s Folly” possible in 1867?
  • Herring calls the Alaskan purchase as William Henry Seward’s “greatest triumph” as US secretary of state. Earlier in the chapter, he also suggested that “Seward now ranks among the nation’s best secretaries of state” (228).  What do consider to be Seward’s most impressive accomplishments and traits as a diplomat, or do you find yourself unpersuaded by Herring’s high praise?

Seward's Folly

Cartoon by Thomas Nast from Harper’s Weekly, April 20, 1867 (HarpWeek)

Trent Affair

“This changed suddenly in November 1861 when an incident at sea brought the United States and Britain to the verge of war.  The Trent affair was the handiwork of the brilliant and eccentric Capt. Charles Wilkes.  An accomplished scientist as well as naval officer, Wilkes headed the Great United States Exploring Expedition on its worldwide journey in the 1840s.  Arrogant, overbearing, as paranoid as the legendary Capt. William Bligh, he was also impulsive and ambitious –once he promoted himself to captain while at sea and ostentatiously donned the uniform he had packed away for the occasion.  His actions in 1861 made clear the way an impetuous individual could provoke a major crisis.” –Herring, From Colony to Superpower, p. 232

Discussion Questions

  • How exactly did this “impetuous and ambitious” individual (Charles Wilkes) provoke “a major crisis”?
  • Which individuals deserve most credit for deescalating this crisis between the US and Great Britain?

Student-created map by Emilia McManus (Fall 2014)

Mapping American Diplomacy

“Ever since George Washington’s Administration, Americans have debated the following questions:  Should the national government cooperate with business to build the economy through trade and tariffs?  Should the extension of democracy, the defense of human rights, and the construction of a world order based on international law stand at the center of U.S. foreign policy?  Is the hope a peaceful world a beguiling illusion, and should the United States therefore build up a strong defense system to protect itself?   Should Americans seek to minimize foreign entanglements and shun foreign quarrels to focus on strengthening democracy at home?  To ignore the history of these debates is shortsighted, for a thorough understanding of how these issues have shaped U.S. foreign policy in the past can help shape the present –both for policymakers and for the American public.”

–Walter Russell Mead, “The American Foreign Policy Legacy,” Foreign Affairs 81 (Jan.-Feb. 2002): 164-65

Discussion Questions

  • Which of these organizing questions are most intriguing to you?
  • What other questions might Mead have posed that could help address recurring or important themes in U.S. foreign policy?


Diplomatic cartoon

The illustration above appeared in Walter Russell Mead’s article on “The American Foreign Policy Legacy.” Can you identify the five figures caricatured here?










Here is a revealing chart from Mead’s 2002 book, “Special Providence,” but it does contain one small error.  Can you identify the mistake?


2013 Interview with Walter Russell Mead

In this interview, Mead, a noted diplomatic history professor at Bard College, mentions Noam Chomsky and Henry Kissinger as two figure who have two radically different views of US diplomatic history.  To find out more about Chomsky and the radical critique of US diplomatic history, see Michael Henderson, “Professionals or Pariahs?  Noam Chomsky, William Appleman Williams and the American Historical Profession,” Australasian Journal of American Studies 1 (July 1997): 45-70 [JSTOR].  To capture a glimpse of the Kissinger world-view on balance-of-power politics, offered at about the same time that Mead wrote his article, “American Foreign Policy Legacy” (and his book, Special Providence), see an excerpt from Kissinger’s 2001 book, Does America Need a Foreign Policy?  available from the New York Times.

Dollar Diplomacy in Latin America

US-Latin American relations have been historically complicated, shifting between a quasi-imperialist northern neighbor to isolationism from the region. After the US acquisition of Cuba and the Philippines at the end of the Spanish-American War the United States found itself in a precarious situation. Having historically opposed the idea of imperialism the US now held two territories that did not have a planned path to statehood. From 1989-1902 the US balanced its disdain for imperialism with its desire to control surrounding regions, inevitably resulting in wars in both Cuba and the Philippines.[i] As violence and instability continued throughout Latin America, there began to grow an even stronger anti-imperialist sentiment within Congress and the American public. By 1902 Venezuela had acquired a massive foreign debt that resulted in European intervention within the Western Hemisphere.[ii] The scorn of US imperialist behavior and fear over continued European intervention forced Roosevelt to develop a strategy that would stabilize Latin America without requiring traditional imperialism through military intervention. The strategy which President Theodore Roosevelt would first implement, and President William Taft would continue during his presidency is now known as Dollar Diplomacy.

Political Cartoon

The World’s Constable courtesy of The Library of Congress depecits President Theodore Roosevelt as a constable standing between Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa with a truncheon labeled The New Diplomacy

Eventually, Dollar Diplomacy would come to identify a partnership between private US investment banks and the US government in which customs collections within a Latin American state would be transferred over to a US-appointed company.[iii] Dollar Diplomacy straddled the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and thus explains US policy after its transition from territorial colonialism but prior to the foundation of international financial institutions after WWII.[iv] Spanning the two contrasting eras Dollar Diplomacy may be perceived as the US’ abonnement of imperialism at the forefront of the Progressive age. In reality, it was not the US’ relinquishment of imperialism but solely a shift from territorial to economic imperialism under the guise of humanitarian principles.

Photograph showing Theodore Roosevelt

Photograph of Theodore Roosevelt courtesy of The Library of Congress

In 1892, during the period of traditional US colonialism in Latin America, prior to the Spanish American War, the San Domingo Improvement Company (SDIC) was founded in the Dominican Republic by New York Democratic, Smith Weed.[v] Due to SDIC’s suspect dealings and continual loan default throughout Latin America, the Dominican Republic acquired an enormous foreign debt and the Roosevelt Administration was forced to act. In 1904, Roosevelt issued a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine which decreed that in the event in which states within the Western Hemisphere participate in negligent finical practices that could result in European intervention it is the US’ responsibility as the “international police power” to intervene.[vi] Under the Roosevelt Corollary, if states in the Western Hemisphere “act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters, if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need fear no interference from the United States,” it is only when “it became evident that [states] inability or unwillingness to do justice at home and abroad had violated the rights of the United States or had invited foreign aggression to the detriment of the entire body of American nations” that the US would be obligated to intervene.[vii] Under the corollary, Roosevelt established US dominance as the regional hegemon entitled to intervention as it sees fit.

Photo of Jacob Hollander

Photo of Jacob Hollander courtasy of The Library of Congress

Therefore, in 1904 the Dominican Republic became the test subject for a new means of transforming the failing financial system, Dollar Diplomacy. In the following year, under the pretext of the interventionist Roosevelt Corollary, the US intervened in the Dominican Republic’s debt crisis.[viii] With the assertion of the Roosevelt Corollary, the United States had shifted its policy in Latin America to one of commitment and activism. The US believed in their inherent exceptionalism and that under this precedent Roosevelt was doing the “world’s work” in assisting in the development of their Latin American neighbors.[ix] In March of 1905, Roosevelt appointed Jacob Hollander, a prominent John Hopkins economist to operate as an agent for the US to begin investigating the Dominican debt crisis.[x] By December of 1905, Hollander had the Dominican Republic converted to the gold standard and by September of 1906, he had fully adapted the Dominican debt into a persuasive US instrument to establish hegemony in the region.[xi] Hollander had created an outline for Dollar Diplomacy where finance and foreign relations intersected to create a complex system that both US bankers and the government could manipulate for their benefit.[xii] United States policymakers believed that the increase in foreign investment would provide economic and political stability in the region. Within the US in the late nineteenth century, there was a rise in investment banking which provided an avenue to move investments abroad and receive higher foreign interest rates.[xiii] Dollar Diplomacy, therefore, incentivized a partnership to form between investment bankers and the Roosevelt administration with a two-sided mission, for investment bankers to get rich off Latin America and for the US to have influence in the region without taking on its political sovereignty. Roosevelt saw Dollar Diplomacy as a gift to Latin America, specifically, the Dominican Republic so that “stability and order and all the benefits of peace are at last coming to Santo Domingo, [the] danger of foreign intervention has been suspended” all due to the US’ intervention.[xiv]

It wasn’t until after the Roosevelt Administration, during William Taft’s presidency that Dollar Diplomacy transitioned from informal arrangements to official US policy, ultimately becoming a key aspect of Taft’s foreign policy.[xv] President Taft and Secretary of State Philander Knox initially attempted to institute Dollar Diplomacy through treaties, but after receiving pushback from Latin American countries and Congress they converted to a system of “colonialism by contract” that more resembled what Roosevelt had implemented in the Dominican Republic.[xvi] In President William Howard Taft’s fourth State of the Union Address, he described the shift from traditional imperialism to Dollar Diplomacy as a “response to modern ideas of commercial intercourse” which is characterized as “substituting dollars for bullets” in order to avoid direct military intervention.[xvii] Overall during the Taft administration George Herring concluded that Dollar Diplomacy amounted to nothing more than increased instability and US military intervention in Latin America, the exact of which the US claimed to be trying to prevent.[xviii] Even though Taft claimed to be acting in the interest of “idealistic humanitarian sentiments” he and Knox still maintained an air of ethnocentrism in which they believed in US dominance over the “rotten little countries” of Latin America.[xix]

Political Cartoon

The Crown Prince courtesy of The Library of Congress depicts President Theodore Roosevelt, wearing royal robes, holding on his shoulders and presenting a diminutive William H. Taft wearing a crown

Through Dollar Diplomacy both the Roosevelt and Taft Administrations were able to use commercial-government partnerships throughout Latin America and beyond to facilitate fiscal reform without the US taking on complete responsibility for the sovereignty of states. Under the definition of imperialism in which a state assumes a part of the sovereignty of another in order to foster a dependent relationship, the US’ dominance over the financial systems of Latin American countries through Dollar Diplomacy represents a form of imperialism even though the US never formally held the territories.[xx] No matter what intentions the US claimed to have during this period there was an underlying exploitive nature in their actions, since the primary objective of the policies were political, the stability of Latin America, not the development of states for pure humanitarian gains.[xxi] Dollar Diplomacy was the manifestation of US quasi-imperialist ideals where the US sought to achieve its best interest with little regard for other states.[xxii]


[i]Ellen D. Tillman, “Military Diplomats and Dollar Diplomacy” In Dollar Diplomacy by Force: Nation-Building and Resistance in the Dominican Republic,” 28-52. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 22. [JSTOR]

[ii]George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Relations since 1776(New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 370.

[iii]Cyrus Veeser, “Inventing Dollar Diplomacy: The Gilded-Age Origins of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 27, No. 3 (2003): 325. [JSTOR]

[iv]Emily S. Rosenberg and Norman L. Rosenberg, “From Colonialism to Professionalism: The Public-Private Dynamic in United States Foreign Financial Advising, 1898-1929,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No. 1 (1987): 59. [JSTOR]

[v]Eric Paul Roorda, “Imperial Improvement,” Diplomatic History, Volume 28, Issue 5, (2004): 796. [JSTOR]

[vi]Rosenberg, 63

[vii]President Theodore Roosevelt, “Fourth Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union.” (speech, Washington, DC, December 6, 1904) The American Presidency Project,

[viii]Roorda, 795

[ix]Herring, 364.

[x]Cyrus Veeser, “Concession as a Modernizing Strategy in the Dominican Republic,” The Business History Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (2009): 753. [JSTOR]

[xi]Emily S. Rosenberg, “Foundations of United States International Financial Power: Gold Standard Diplomacy, 1900-1905,” The Business History Review, Vol. 59, No. 2 (1985): 192. [JSTOR]

[xii]Veeser, 323.

[xiii]Rosenberg, 62

[xiv]President Theodore Roosevelt, “Fifth Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union.” (speech, Washington, DC, December 5, 1905) The American Presidency Project,

[xv]Herring, 372

[xvi]Herring, 373

[xvii]President William Howard Taft,  “Fourth Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union.”(speech, Washington, DC, December 3, 1912) The American Presidency Project,

[xviii]Herring, 373

[xix]President William Howard Taft,  “Fourth Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union.”(speech, Washington, DC, December 3, 1912) The American Presidency Project,; Quoted in Herring, 373.

[xx]Rosenberg, 65

[xxi]Herring, 364

[xxii]Dana G. Munro, “Dollar Diplomacy in Nicaragua, 1909-1913,” The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 38, No. 2 (1958): 209. [JSTOR]






America First

“Pressure groups also spearheaded the opposition.  In July [1940], Yale University students and midwestern businessmen formed the America First Committee.  As the name suggests, America Firsters ardently opposed intervention –and aid to Britain, which, they argued, would inevitably lead to intervention.  They saw the war not as a great ideological conflict but as another round in the endless struggle among Europeans for power and empire.  The United States, they insisted, had no stake in that conflict.  Some like aviator hero Charles Lindbergh preached accommodation with Hitler.  Others minimized the German threat and advocated defense of the Western Hemisphere.  America First was an unwieldy coalition of strange bedfellows, businessmen, old progressives and leftists, and some strongly anti-Jewish groups.  Many blamed Roosevelt’s interventionist policies on a personal lust for power.  These various groups created local and regional offices, organized rallies, sent out mailings, and propagandized Congress.” –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, p. 521-22.

Discussion Questions

  • What was the essential context behind the strong anti-war movement in the late 1930s and early 1940s?
  • How did FDR overcome the opposition of America First and general isolationist sentiment to secure Lend-Lease aid for Great Britain (and later the Soviet Union)?

Dollar Diplomacy

“[President] Taft and [Secretary of State] Knox adopted the Dominican model to develop a policy called ‘dollar diplomacy,’ which they applied mainly in Central America.  They sought to eliminate European political and economic influence and through U.S. advisers promote political stability, fiscal responsibility, and economic development in a strategically important area, the ‘substitution of dollars for bullets,’ in Wilson’s words.  United States bankers would float loans to be used to pay off European creditors.  The loans in turn would provide the leverage for U.S. experts to modernize the backward economies left over from Spanish rule by imposing the gold standard based on the dollar, updating the tax structure and improving tax collection, efficiently and fairly managing the customs houses, and reforming budgets and tariffs.  Taft and Knox first sought to implement dollar diplomacy by treaty.  When the Senate balked and some Central American countries said no, they turned to what has been called ‘colonialism by contract,’ agreements worked out between private U.S. interests and foreign governments under the watchful eye of the State Department.  Knox called the policy ‘benevolent supervision.’  One U.S. official insisted that the region must be made safe for investment and trade so that economic development could be ‘carried out without annoyance or molestation from the natives.’ These ambitious efforts to implement dollar diplomacy in Central America produced few agreements, little stability, and numerous military interventions.”  –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower (2008), p. 373

Panama Canal

“Determined to complete the transaction before real Panamanians could get to Washington, [Philippe Bunau-Varilla] negotiated a treaty drafted by Hay with his assistance and far more favorable to the United States than the one Colombia had rejected.  The United States got complete sovereignty in perpetuity over a zone ten miles wide.  Panama gained the same payment promised Colombia.  More important for the short run, it got a U.S. promise of protection for its newly won independence.  Bunau-Varilla signed the treaty a mere four hours before the Panamanians stepped from the train in Washington.  Nervous about its future and dependent on the United States, Panama approved the treaty without seeing it.  Colombia, obviously, was the big loser.  Panama got nominal independence and a modest stipend, but at the cost of a sizeable chunk of its territory, it’s most precious natural asset, and the mixed blessing of a U.S. protectorate.  Panamanian gratitude soon turned to resentment against a deal Hay conceded was ‘vastly advantageous’ for the United States, ‘not so advantageous’ for Panama.  TR vigorously defended his actions, and some scholars have exonerated him. Even by the low standards of his day, his insensitive and impulsive behavior toward Colombia is hard to defend.  Root summed it up best.  Following an impassioned Rooseveltian defense before the cabinet, the secretary of war retorted in the sexual allusions he seemed to favor:  ‘You have shown that you have been accused of seduction and you have conclusively proven that you were guilty of rape.’  Although journalists criticized the president and Congress investigated, Americans generally agreed the noble ends justified the dubious means.  Even before the completion of the project in 1914, the canal became a symbol of national pride.  The United States succeeded where Europe had failed.”  –George Herring, From Colony to Superpower (2008), pp. 368-9

Open Door

“The Open Door Notes have produced as much mythology as anything in the history of U.S. foreign relations.  Although he knew better, Hay encouraged and happily accepted popular praise for America’s bold and altruistic defense of China from the rapacious powers.  These contemporary accolades evolved into the enduring myth that the United States in a singular act of beneficence at a critical point in China’s history saved it from further plunder by the European powers and Japan.  More recently, historians have found in the Open Door Notes a driving force behind much of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy.  Scholar-diplomat George F. Kennan dismissed them as typical of the idealism and legalism that he insisted had characterized the American approach to diplomacy, a meaningless statement in defense of a dubious cause –the independence of China– which had the baneful effect of inflating in the eyes of American s the importance of their interests in China and their ability to dictate events there.  Historian William Appleman Williams and the so-called Wisconsin School have portrayed the notes as an aggressive first move to capture the China market that laid the foundation for U.S. policy in much of the world in the twentieth century.” (George Herring, From Colony to Superpower, pp. 333-4)

Discussion Questions

  • Herring uses the Open Door episode as way to further delineate major schools of thought about American diplomatic traditions.  Earlier in the semester, Walter Russell Mead tried something similar.  Can you summarize the different interpretive approaches on your own by this point?
  • Among American diplomats and secretaries of state, John Hay usually ranks quite high.  How you would characterize his accomplishments?  Do recent shifts in American attitudes about imperialism and race diminish the standing of statesmen like Hay (or figures like Theodore Roosevelt) in your eyes?

China map

Student-produced map of the Boxer Rebellion (Julianne Greco)

James Buchanan, Secretary of State 1845-49

James Buchanan was born on April 23rd, 1791 in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania to a well-off family[1]. Buchanan graduated from Dickinson College in 1809, though he claimed little attachment to the school as “his life [there] had not been happy.”[2] James Buchanan was expelled in 1808 for poor behavior, but re-enrolled after a plea to his school minister.[3] Despite his performance as an undergraduate student, Buchanan continued on to study law in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.[4] As his law career grew and he gained recognition, Buchanan was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.[5] Buchanan took on a plethora of different roles throughout his life, including Minister to Russia, US senator, Minister to Great Britain, and the 15th President of the United States from 1857-61. Additionally, Buchanan served as the Secretary of the United States Department of State.

James Buchanan was appointed Secretary of State under President James K. Polk in 1845.[6] Polk

Picture of letter

Letter to the U.S. Department of State announcing Buchanan as Secretary of State.

appointed Buchanan as Secretary of State, in part, because of his constant interest and talent in connection to the foreign relations of the United States.[7]  With this appointment to office, Buchanan was able to act upon his expansionist viewpoints. Under Polk and Buchanan, the territory of the United States significantly increased as a result of the Oregon Treaty and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This post will focus on the Oregon Treaty and Buchanan’s success in expanding US territory into the northwest.

The Oregon Treaty of 1846 was the result of one of the most important diplomatic disputes in the first half of the 19th century.[8] The disputed territory of Oregon was the focus of those who believed in was the United States’ duty and right to spread its control, laws, and liberties across North America. This rationale for expansion stemmed from the idea of Manifest Destiny, as well as the thought that US morals and way of life brought civilization to the territories it controlled. Originally, Spain, Great Britain, Russia and the United States claimed control of the Oregon territory. However, due to the decline in power and strength which characterized the Spanish empire at this time, the Spanish ceded control to the United States in the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819.[9] Following this, Russia attempted to secure ownership of the territory, but faced pushback in 1823 when President Monroe notified Russia that the US did not accept their claim.[10] The border dispute grew throughout the years as American westward expansion further pushed into the territory. James Buchanan decided that American border expansion westward and into Oregon was the best option as not many people had explored that area of what was, at the time, Canada. Initially Buchanan wanted to settle an agreement with the British at the 49th parallel, however President Polk insisted on America’s right to controlling even more land.[11] Democrats, supporting further expansion to spread American territory to cover westward settlers, started to coin the slogan “54°40’ or fight”.[12] These boundaries aimed to include the land north of Fort Simpson in British-controlled Canadian territory.[13] With the support of his constituents, Buchanan agreed to negotiate for further control stating, “war before dishonor is a maxim deeply engraved upon the hearts of the American people.”[14] This quote illustrates Buchanan’s idea to go to war with the British, had they disagreed with American terms and boundaries. However, President Polk changed his mind and once again decided it was in America’s best interest to settle with the British at the 49th parallel.[15]

Click to view the original Oregon Treaty

The final settlement came with the signing of the Oregon Treaty on June 15th, 1846 in Washington, DC. The first article states: “from the point of the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude… the line of boundary between the territories of the United States and those of her Britannic Majesty shall be continued westward along the said forty-ninth parallel of north latitude.”[16] Additionally, the treaty guarantees free passage of the channel and Fuca’s straits to both the United States and Great Britain.

James Buchanan was a controversial president of the United States, but his time as Secretary of State showed multiple successes. He was a successful diplomat as he had experience working as ministers abroad in Russia and Great Britain. This time abroad taught him the functions of British colonialism and gave him an informed perspective into the possibility of future British involvement in areas of disputed boundaries. Specifically, Buchanan was able to use his experience abroad to identify the possible threat that British control could pose in relation to American dealings in Oregon, Texas, and Mexico.[17] Positive and effective diplomacy greatly depends on experience and communication abroad, which is what contributed to the success of James Buchanan’s tenure as Secretary of State.

[1] “James Buchanan.” National Archives and Records Administration. [web]

[2] George Leakin Sioussat, “James Buchanan,” in The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy, ed. Samuel Flagg Bemis (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928), vol. 5, 241.

[3] “James Buchanan (1791-1868).” Dickinson College Archives, 2005. [web]

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] George Leakin Sioussat, “James Buchanan,” in The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy, ed. Samuel Flagg Bemis (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928), vol. 5, 241.

[7] ibid.

[8] “The Oregon Territory, 1846.” U.S. Department of State. [web]

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] Jean H. Baker, James Buchanan, (New York: Times Books, 2004), 40.

[12] ibid.

[13] ibid.

[14] Jean H. Baker, James Buchanan, (New York: Times Books, 2004), 41.

[15] ibid.

[16] Oregon Treaty, 5 August 1846, ARC 299808, National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives at Washington, DC, United States. [web]

[17] Jean H. Baker, James Buchanan, (New York: Times Books, 2004), 37.