Front Page Titles (by Subject) 294.: LORD ASHBURTON'S TREATY MORNING CHRONICLE, 4 OCT., 1842, P. 3 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III
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294.: LORD ASHBURTON’S TREATY MORNING CHRONICLE, 4 OCT., 1842, P. 3 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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LORD ASHBURTON’S TREATY
The warlike attitude of British Liberals towards the United States, of which Mill complains in this letter, had arisen over such matters as the right to search slave-ships. It had been inflamed in November 1840 by the capture, and subsequent indictment for murder, of Alexander McLeod (1796-1871), a Canadian who boasted of seizing the U.S.S. Caroline and murdering a crew member when the ship was engaged in an attempt by rebels and adventurers to capture Navy Island from the Canadians. McLeod was acquitted in 1841, and an exchange of notes in August 1842 lessened the tension. At the same time, the Canadian-American border dispute going back to the Treaty of Versailles in 1783 was resolved by negotiating teams led by Alexander Baring, Lord Ashburton, for Britain, and Daniel Webster (1782-1852) for the United States. The result was the “Treaty between Her Majesty and the United States of America” (9 Aug., 1842), PP, 1843, LXI, 1-8, known as the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. Palmerston, the former Foreign Secretary, had vigorously attacked the concessive policy of Peel, as manifested in the Treaty, and was reputed to be the author of the critical articles in the Morning Chronicle that had appeared almost daily from 19 Sept. to 3 Oct. Mill’s letter, headed “To the Editor of the Morning Chronicle,” was answered on the day of its publication by an article on p. 2 of the Chronicle. The letter is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A letter signed A on Lord Ashburton’s Treaty with America, in the Morning Chronicle of 4th October 1842”
(MacMinn, p. 55).
As an old admirer of your paper, and an ancient adherent of that Liberal party, one of whose chief distinctions I have always understood to be that it was the party of peace; which, indeed, one can ill imagine how a party carrying the banner of advancing intelligence and progressive improvement, could fail to be; give me leave to solicit some explanation from you on the new character in which, on all matters affecting foreign policy and national differences, it has of late been the pleasure of some of the leaders of that party to manifest themselves, and of some of its organs, yourself in particular, as the most potent of them, to aid and abet that manifestation.
Until within these few years, it was not only the doctrine of the Liberal party, but a sort of commonplace among writers in general, that war is the game of kings,1 not the pleasure of their subjects. We were accustomed to contend, that in proportion as the affairs of nations were withdrawn from the control of individual ambition, vanity, or animosity, and placed under the power of those who pay the taxes and smart by the commercial losses which war engenders, in the same proportion would that ancient and barbarous mode of terminating the disputes between governments fall into disuse. For some years past, however, that which has called itself the popular party in each of the three most powerful countries of the earth—England, America, and France—has, whether in or out of power, been sedulously engaged in blowing up war between those countries, if not by direct instigation, yet by that blustering tone and that bitter and insulting language, which are much more likely provocatives of quarrel than even real injuries; and now, it seems, this course is to be persevered in; as in France, so here the Liberal party, if some who seek to be its leaders are suffered to have their way, will stand openly before mankind in the disgraceful character of a war party, and will labour to discredit and frustrate the apparently sincere and hitherto successful exertions of the governments of the three countries to keep the world at peace;—an attempt of which you, sir, are making yourself in our own country, the main instrument, but in which I trust you are destined to be speedily, signally, and shamefully defeated.
The complaint which I make extends to the principles and tone of nearly every article on foreign policy which has appeared in your paper for the last three years, and I select as the most recent, and one of the most striking examples, your strictures on the late treaty with America.
Although it may suit party politicians to have short memories, I imagine most of your readers can carry back their recollection to the state of public feeling respecting our relations with the United States; for many months previous to the commencement of Lord Ashburton’s mission, public opinion, which is usually in excess either on the side of security or of apprehension, then inclined strongly in the direction of alarm. It was generally thought that feelings naturally tending to hostility between the two countries, were progressively and dangerously on the increase. Many did not hesitate to affirm, some to affirm publicly, that war, even if now averted, was yet, in no very long period, inevitable: while there were none who did not feel that dispositions existed on the other side of the Atlantic, and were, to all appearance, very likely to be excited on this, which would eagerly lay hold of any pretence for quarrel. Above all, it was feared, that so long as the boundary question remained open, acts of aggression on one or the other side, were every year more likely to take place, which might force the two governments into war in spite of themselves: because, however unauthorised by them the provocations might be, it might not be possible for them to extricate themselves from the responsibility except by acts of atonement more humiliating to national vanity than in the present low average of human virtue the public opinion of their respective countries would permit them to make. It is hazarding little to assert that to this extent the generality of sober and sensible people in our own country did feel uneasiness; and that a war of this description, unintended by the two governments or nations, but in which they might insensibly and almost unconsciously become involved by the mere natural progress of the boundary dispute, was the only one of which such people thought there was any real danger. And certainly this belief is not proved to have been ill-grounded, because it may happen that public opinion has since gone round to the opposite quarter, and changed from exaggerated alarm to an indolent forgetfulness that there ever was any ground for apprehension at all.
With this sense of the importance of removing, while it could still be done, all stumbling blocks to good understanding between the two nations, and especially the greatest stumbling block, the boundary dispute, most persons, I believe, saw with pleasure the appointment of a special envoy to the United States. It indicated that an attempt was about to be made in earnest to settle these differences. It proved that Sir R. Peel’s policy on the question was to be pacific.2 And I do not think I am mistaken in affirming that Lord Ashburton was generally deemed to have been wisely selected for this purpose, precisely because of those family ties and former commercial relations which connected his interests and his sympathies with the welfare of America as well as of England. It was felt that the regular diplomatists of the ministerial party with their Tory and anti-American prejudices had been put aside, and that a man had been chosen of whom, more than of almost any other who would have been considered eligible, it might be certain that he had no such prejudices. I believe this circumstance to have been the cause of the decrease of public apprehension, which almost instantly manifested itself on the announcement of Lord Ashburton’s appointment. The choice was approved, not because it was thought that he would not, but that he would, make peace. It was felt that he was a man who would take a practical, rather than a pedantic, view of the matters in issue, and who would be less likely than most men to hold out for the summum jus where it would have the effect of summa injuria.3 However this may be, there was no mistaking the indications of general belief that Lord Ashburton, if any one, was the man to settle this question; and of a general hope that he would settle it, mixed, indeed, with considerable doubt of the practicability, but accompanied by an evident disposition to call both him and the government which employed him to a severe account if, being able to settle it in any manner not disgraceful, they failed to do so.
And now, let me ask, in what manner was it expected, or desired, that Lord Ashburton should apply himself to effecting this settlement?
Was it by announcing the peremptory resolution of Great Britain to make no concessions, but to insist upon receiving the whole of what, upon her own showing, she was entitled to? Would any human being have suggested this as the style of negotiation to be adopted, or a proposition of this nature as the basis of the settlement to be offered? Yet, sir, if your series of articles does not mean this, I am unable to discover what it does mean. Your main ground of accusation is that Lord Ashburton has given up a part—I have no objection to say a very large part—of the territory in dispute, when we were, you say, entitled to it all. We had got a report from our commissioners, which proved our case to our own complete satisfaction.4 We had obtained our own consent to keep the whole country. We had sat as judges in our own cause, and nothing remained but to execute the verdict pronounced by that impartial tribunal. It is difficult to see, on this showing, what Lord Ashburton was sent across the Atlantic to do; for I do not suppose his instructions were to argue the matter à champ clos with Mr. Tyler,5 the report in his hand, until he brought over that gentleman, and along with him the whole American people, to the English way of thinking on the subject.
Where then is the candour of urging, in condemnation of the treaty, our own opinion of our own right, which, if it be an objection to this, would have availed equally against any other treaty by which a person in his senses could have expected to effect a settlement of the differences? I do not mean to weary you by prolonging the discussion on the details of this interminable question. Mr. Featherstonhaugh’s report shall, for me, be the most irrefragable of documents; it shall have proved our entire case, by evidence which only the utmost perversity and folly could resist. It is very natural and very usual for the plaintiff in a cause, to think all this in favour of his own side. But unhappily it is also very common for the defendant to think the exact contrary. It may be very shameful that persons with opposite interests on a question should take such opposite views of it. But as it is a fact, grounded on the testimony of experience, mankind have generally been of opinion that it is not advisable to take an interested party’s views of his own case; that in general he had better forbear to act upon it himself; and that when no tribunal exists having authority over both parties, nor any umpire whom both would accept, that sort of medium between the pretensions on both sides, commonly called a compromise, will in general be not only the most expedient arrangement, but the nearest approach to substantial justice which the circumstances admit of. Accordingly, in the year immediately preceding Lord Ashburton’s mission, the voice of every rational person in both nations was in favour of a compromise. When a special envoy was appointed, nobody had any doubt that a compromise was to be attempted; and at this moment everybody is in reality very glad that it has been effected, and would have been very much disappointed if it had not.
I am quite aware of the volley of argument and oratory which may be opened from the old topic of the danger of yielding to unjust pretensions, the imprudence as well as spiritlessness of submitting to aggression in order to avoid inconveniences, the preferableness of actual war to the reputation of an over-dread of it, &c. &c. These are truisms which nobody desires to dispute. When a real injury is attempted; when, for the purpose of insult, or in the spirit of ambitious encroachment, a neighbour seizes, or endeavours to seize, upon some possession belonging to us, or to usurp from us something generally acknowledged to be our right, nobody but a coward would offer him half the amount on condition of not disturbing us in the remainder. But the present is a case of a totally different complexion. In the first place there is no injury, no aggression, but a fair and allowable difference of opinion. An absurd treaty, framed in ignorance of the country, and in terms which no one could understand, left the question in complete uncertainty; and each party might, and in fact did, in perfect good faith, believe that it had right on its side.6 You yourself admit that our right was not proved until the commission made their report (though just as noisily asserted before as after the appearance of that wonderful document) and since there are many Englishmen who think that the report has not proved it, there is little wonder that the American people should think the same.
But, in the next place, suppose that it really had been, in the beginning of the dissension, a question of injury; that America had been guilty of an intentional and unwarranted aggression upon an indisputable right of ours, which it was incumbent on us to repel, even though war were the result—the time for resisting the injury was the time when it commenced, and not twenty-five years afterwards.7 If there is a proposition in international policy more plain than another, it is, that a question which has been allowed to remain open for that space of time, must either go on to a war, or be settled by a compromise. One generation has passed away, and another has grown up in the belief, well founded or not, that its own side of the question was right. When this is the case, you will vainly strive to convince them that they were wrong. A nation cannot change in a few weeks, an opinion a quarter of a century old in its own favour. This may be very pitiful; but it is because human nature is thus pitifully constituted, that policemen and judges have been found necessary. When a dispute between two nations has lasted so many years, one or other of them must commit the supposed meanness of giving up what it deems its right, or else each side must abate somewhat of its claims. In the adjustment, each will be apt to think the expectations of the other extremely unreasonable; but the opinion which either has of its having a right to more is not the consideration which ought to decide, either whether there shall be a compromise or what shall be its terms.
With respect to the conditions of the compromise, something like an equal division of the matter in dispute was the most natural and most equitable mode of settling the question at once; or since the subject in litigation was of much greater importance to the Americans than to us, if the balance inclined to either side, it was most reasonable that it should incline to theirs. But Lord Ashburton appears to have held the scales tolerably even. His boundary line gives us, it is acknowledged, a larger share of the territory than the King of Holland’s award, which as we were willing to accept, we did not, it must be presumed, deem it grossly unfair, at least as a compromise. But, it is objected, we concede to the Americans what the former award did not give them, the navigation of the St. John’s,8 a concession which cost us nothing, but by which, on the contrary, as their trade by that river will be chiefly with ourselves or our colonies, we equally with them shall be gainers. But it is pretended that the presence of Americans on our river will be dangerous to us, not in time of war with America, for then they would, of course, be excluded, but by enabling them to aid or foment internal disturbances. Why more so, I should be glad to know, than their presence on our highways, where they are already entitled to be, and from which nobody has ever dreamt of excluding them?
As for the pettifogging questions which you profess to think of so much importance, about Rouse’s Point, or any other unheard-of military station on one or other side of the boundary, these are scarcely the sort of objections one is expected to hear from the Morning Chronicle. Does modern warfare turn upon the possession of a frontier post more or less?—a post, too, from which whoever is strongest in the field could expel the other in the first week after the commencement of hostilities, if, as is scarcely probable, he thought it worth while. Lord Ashburton is to be commended for not attaching exaggerated importance to these misères. The wisdom of nations consists in avoiding occasions of quarrel, and in removing them as early as possible when they arise; not in keeping a dispute open, in order that, when it has grown into a war, the war may be carried on with some infinitesimal fraction more of advantage to their own side. If war should come, the issue, we may rely upon it, will be determined by quite another class of considerations than these. Every person who has not some extremely strong interest in maintaining the contrary, knows perfectly well that our retaining or not our American territories, in case of a war with the United States, depends simply and solely upon our so acting in the meanwhile, that when the time comes we shall be found in possession of the sincere adherence and attachment of the colonists. Without that, no military force that we could afford to maintain in the colonies, would hold them against the far larger force which the vicinity of the enemy would enable them to pour down upon us. With it, the whole strength of the union, when it shall have grown to three times what it is, will not suffice to tear them from us. Let us have the affections of the Canadians, and let the Americans have Rouse’s Point. If we gain one additional chance in twenty thousand of averting a war by the relinquishment of that regretted promontory, we have made an advantageous exchange, and Lord Ashburton would have been much to blame if he had perilled the ratification of his treaty by objecting to arrange the matter on that basis.
[1 ]John Dryden (1631-1700), King Arthur; or, The British Worthy (London: Tonson, 1691), p. 19 (II, ii); cf. No. 98, n1.
[2 ]Peel, who had become Prime Minister in August 1841, had charge of Foreign Affairs in the House of Commons.
[3 ]See Cicero, De officiis (Latin and English), trans. Walter Miller (London: Heinemann, 1961), p. 34 (I, x, 33).
[4 ]“Report of the British Commissioners Appointed to Survey the Territory in Dispute, between Great Britain and the United States of America, on the North-Eastern Boundary of the United States” (16 Apr., 1840), Sessional Papers of the House of Lords, 1840, X, 545-639. The Commissioners (appointed in 1839) were George William Featherstonhaugh (1780-1866), British-born geologist, for years resident in the United States, who is usually cited as author of the Report, and Richard Zachariah Mudge (1790-1854), a Royal Engineer who worked on the ordnance survey.
[5 ]John Tyler (1790-1862), 10th President of the United States, 1841-45.
[6 ]To clarify the vague terms of what Mill calls the “absurd” Treaty of Versailles (1783), a Treaty of Arbitration was signed on 29 Sept., 1827, designating the King of Holland, William I, as arbitrator of the disputes over the boundary between the United States and Canada, not resolved after the Napoleonic Wars (see n7). His decision was delivered on 10 Jan., 1831. (See “Copy of an Award of the King of the Netherlands,” PP, 1831-32, XXXII, 241-53.) The boundary disputes, however, continued until the award agreed to in the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty.
[7 ]Art. 4 of “A Treaty of Peace and Amity between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America, Signed at Ghent” (24 Dec., 1814), PP, 1814-15, XIII, 139-50, provided for arbitration if the boundary commissioners could not resolve the claims. If Mill has a specific “injury” in mind, it is probably the U.S. surveyors’ changing their instructions so as to produce in the years between 1815 and 1819 a map with fictitious features, which was presented to the Commissioners in 1819.
[8 ]See Art. 3 of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty.