Presidential Speeches

February 16, 1839: Message Regarding Disputes on the Maine-Canadian Border

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Martin Van Buren

February 16, 1839

Source (not specified)
Presidential Speeches |

February 16, 1839: Message Regarding Disputes on the Maine-Canadian Border


To the Senate and House of Representatives:
I lay before Congress several dispatches from his excellency the governor of Maine, with inclosures, communicating certain proceedings of the legislature of that State, and a copy of the reply of the Secretary of State, made by my direction, together with a note from H. S. Fox, esq., envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary of Great Britain, with the answer of the Secretary of State to the same.
It will appear from those documents that a numerous band of lawless and desperate men, chiefly from the adjoining British Provinces, but without the authority or sanction of the provincial government, had trespassed upon that portion of the territory in dispute between the United States and Great Britain which is watered by the river Aroostook and claimed to belong to the State of Maine, and that they had committed extensive depredations there by cutting and destroying a very large quantity of timber. It will further appear that the governor of Maine, having been officially apprised of the circumstance, had communicated it to the legislature with a recommendation of such provisions in addition to those already existing by law as would enable him to arrest the course of said depredations, disperse the trespassers, and secure the timber which they were about carrying away; that, in compliance with a resolve of the legislature passed in pursuance of his recommendation, his excellency had dispatched the land agent of the State, with a force deemed adequate to that purpose, to the scene of the alleged depredations, who, after accomplishing a part of his duty, was seized by a band of the trespassers at a house claimed to be within the jurisdiction of Maine, whither he had repaired for the purpose of meeting and consulting with the land agent of the Province of New Brunswick, and conveyed as a prisoner to Frederickton, in that Province, together with two other citizens of the State who were assisting him in the discharge of his duty.
It will also appear that the governor and legislature of Maine, satisfied that the trespassers had acted in defiance of the laws of both countries, learning that they were in possession of arms, and anticipating (correctly, as the result has proved) that persons of their reckless and desperate character would set at naught the authority of the magistrates without the aid of a strong force, had authorized the sheriff and the officer appointed in the place of the land agent to employ, at the expense of the State, an armed posse, who had proceeded to the scene of these depredations with a view to the entire dispersion or arrest of the trespassers and the protection of the public property.
In the correspondence between the governor of Maine and Sir John Harvey, lieutenant-governor of the Province of New Brunswick, which has grown out of these occurrences and is likewise herewith communicated, the former is requested to recall the armed party advanced into the disputed territory for the arrest of trespassers, and is informed that a strong body of British troops is to be held in readiness to support and protect the authority and subjects of Great Britain in said territory. In answer to that request the provincial governor is informed of the determination of the State of Maine to. support the land agent and his party in the performance of their duty, and the same determination, for the execution of which provision is made by a resolve of the State legislature, is communicated by the governor to the General Government.
The lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick, in calling upon the governor of Maine for the recall of the land agent and his party from the disputed territory, and the British minster, in making a similar demand upon the Government of the United States, proceed upon the assumption that an agreement exists between the two nations conceding to Great Britain, until the final settlement of the boundary question, exclusive possession of and jurisdiction over the territory in dispute. The important bearing which such an agreement, if it existed, would have upon the condition and interests of the parties, and the influence it might have upon the adjustment of the dispute, are too obvious to allow the error upon which this assumption seems to rest to pass for a moment without correction. The answer of the Secretary of State to Mr. Fox's note will show the ground taken by the Government of the United States upon this point. It is believed that all the correspondence which has passed between the two Governments upon this subject has already been communicated to Congress and is now on their files. An abstract of it, however, hastily prepared, accompanies this communication. It is possible that in thus abridging a voluminous correspondence, commencing in 1825 and continuing to a very recent period, a portion may have been accidentally overlooked; but it is believed that nothing has taken place which would materially change the aspect of the question as therein presented. Instead of sustaining the assumption of the British functionaries, that correspondence disproves the existence of any such agreement. It shows that the two Governments have differed not only in regard to the main question of title to the territory in dispute, but with reference also to the right of jurisdiction and the fact of the actual exercise of it in different portions thereof.
Always aiming at an amicable adjustment of the dispute, both parties have entertained and repeatedly urged upon each other a desire that each should exercise its rights, whatever it considered them to be, in such a manner as to avoid collision and allay to the greatest practicable extent the excitement likely to grow out of the controversy. It was in pursuance of such an understanding that Maine and Massachusetts, upon the remonstrance of Great Britain, desisted from making sales of lands, and the General Government from the construction of a projected military road in a portion of the territory of which they claimed to have enjoyed the exclusive possession; and that Great Britain on her part, in deference to a similar remonstrance from the United States, suspended the issue of licenses to cut timber in the territory in controversy and also the survey and location of a railroad through a section of country over which she also claimed to have exercised exclusive jurisdiction.
The State of Maine had a right to arrest the depredations complained of. It belonged to her to judge of the exigency of the occasion calling for her interference, and it is presumed that had the lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick been correctly advised of the nature of the proceedings of the State of Maine he would not have regarded the transaction as requiring on his part any resort to force. Each party claiming a right to the territory, and hence to the exclusive jurisdiction over it, it is manifest that to prevent the destruction of the timber by trespassers, acting against the authority of both, and at the same time avoid forcible collision between the contiguous governments during the pendency of negotiations concerning the title, resort must be had to the mutual exercise of jurisdiction in such extreme cases or to an amicable and temporary arrangement as to the limits within which it should be exercised by each party. The understanding supposed to exist between the United States and Great Britain has been found heretofore sufficient for that purpose, and I believe will prove so hereafter if the parties on the frontier directly interested in the question are respectively governed by a just spirit of conciliation and forbearance. If it shall be found, as there is now reason to apprehend, that there is, in the modes of construing that understanding by the two Governments, a difference not to be reconciled, I shall not hesitate to propose to Her Britannic Majesty's Government a distinct arrangement for the temporary and mutual exercise of jurisdiction by means of which similar difficulties may in future be prevented.
But between an effort on the part of Maine to preserve the property in dispute from destruction by intruders and a military occupation by that State of the territory with a view to hold it by force while the settlement is a subject of negotiation between the two Governments there is an essential difference, as well in respect to the position of the State as to the duties of the General Government. In a letter addressed by the Secretary of State to the governor of Maine on the 1st of March last, giving a detailed statement of the steps which had been taken by the Federal Government to bring the controversy to a termination, and designed to apprise the governor of that State of the views of the Federal Executive in respect to the future, it was stated that while the obligations of the Federal Government to do all in its power to effect the settlement of the boundary question were fully recognized, it had, in the event of being unable to do so specifically by mutual consent, no other means to accomplish that object amicably than by another arbitration, or by a commission, with an umpire, in the nature of an arbitration; and that in the event of all other measures failing the President would feel it his duty to submit another proposition to the Government of Great Britain to refer the decision of the question to a third power. These are still my views upon the subject, and until this step shall have been taken I can not think it proper to invoke the attention of Congress to other than amicable means for the settlement of the controversy, or to cause the military power of the Federal Government to be brought in aid of the State of Maine in any attempt to effect that object by a resort to force.
On the other hand, if the authorities of New Brunswick should attempt to enforce the claim of exclusive jurisdiction set up by them by means of a military occupation on their part of the disputed territory, I shall feel myself bound to consider the contingency provided by the Constitution as having occurred, on the happening of which a State has the right to call for the aid of the Federal Government to repel invasion.
I have expressed to the British minister near this Government a confident expectation that the agents of the State of Maine, who have been arrested under an obvious misapprehension of the object of their mission, will be promptly released, and to the governor of Maine that a similar course will be pursued in regard to the agents of the Province of New Brunswick. I have also recommended that any militia that may have been brought together by the State of Maine from an apprehension of a collision with the government or people of the British Province will be voluntarily and peaceably disbanded.
I can not allow myself to doubt that the results anticipated from these representations will be seasonably realized. The parties more immediately interested can not but perceive that an appeal to arms under existing circumstances will not only prove fatal to their present interests, but would postpone, if not defeat, the attainment of the main objects which they have in view. The very incidents which have recently occurred will necessarily awaken the Governments to the importance of promptly adjusting a dispute by which it is now made manifest that the peace of the two nations is daily and imminently endangered. This expectation is further warranted by the general forbearance which has hitherto characterized the conduct of the Government and people on both sides of the line. In the uniform patriotism of Maine, her attachment to the Union, her respect for the wishes of the people of her sister States (of whose interest in her welfare she can not be unconscious), and in the solicitude felt by the country at large for the preservation of peace with our neighbors, we have a strong guaranty that she will not disregard the request that has been made of her.
As, however, the session of Congress is about to terminate and the agency of the Executive may become necessary during the recess, it is important that the attention of the Legislature should be drawn to the consideration of such measures as may be calculated to obviate the necessity of a call for an extra session. With that view I have thought it my duty to lay the whole matter before you and to invite such action thereon as you may think the occasion requires.