Good Fences, Good Neighbours? Building Peaceful Relations Amidst Political Unrest in the Canada-US Borderland

Patrick Lacroix

“The President also desires me to assure Lord Durham, ‘in the strongest manner’, of his sincere desire to do all in his power to keep up a good understanding between the two Countries.”[1]

So wrote British emissary Sir Charles Grey (the son of a British prime minister and father of a Canadian governor general) after meeting U.S. President Martin Van Buren in June 1838. The diplomatic encounter followed six months of turbulent Anglo-American relations that had fed fears of external aggression in Washington, in London, and across the Canadian colonies.

These tensions grew out of the Canadian Rebellions of 1837. Following their defeat to loyal forces in November and December 1837, Upper and Lower Canadian insurgents found refuge on American soil. With American accomplices, many then launched raids into their home country in hopes of destabilizing British power. Perhaps they would even gain the formal support of the U.S. government.

Lacroix, Sir Charles Grey

Sir Charles Grey, ca. 1870. New York Public Library via Wikimedia Commons

From the insurrections to June 1838, the two governments navigated a string of controversies that inflamed public opinion on both sides of their North American border. In December, British militia boarded an American ship alleged to be supplying a rebel camp on the Niagara River. The burning of the ship Caroline, then left to drift over the falls, instantly became a cause célèbre. In February, the Patriotes Robert Nelson and Cyrille Côté invaded Lower Canada with a small force and declared the province independent of British rule – and quickly retreated back to the apparent safety of New York State.

In May, “pirates” attacked the British ship Sir Robert Peel on Lake Ontario as retribution for the Caroline. The following day, two soldiers fired on an American ship that had left the Brockville docks: the captain had failed to heed their order to stop. Within days of these events, Charles Grey was travelling south as the envoy of Lord Durham, the governor general of the Canadas, to work towards a peaceful outcome.

Confrontations that might have provoked a drumbeat for war – especially in the United States – were mitigated by broader concerns. One was economic distress following the Panic of 1837. British attention to crises in other colonies was another. No doubt memories of the bloody but fruitless War of 1812 served as a powerful deterrent, too.

The two governments were proactive in the making of a peaceful international boundary and thus, peaceful relations. They expressed neutrality in reaction to the other country’s domestic disturbances and sought dialogue. But it would not suffice simply to exercise official restraint: they would have to restrain their own subjects or citizens and pacify their respective borderlands.

Vast areas on both sides of the border had no delegated state authority and no regular mechanism by which to uphold the law. Raids by private individuals could occur back and forth and produce “perplexing controversies with foreign Powers.”[2] Thus, Van Buren dispatched troops to areas of New York and Vermont that had seen pro-Patriot agitation – as did British colonial officials in regions from which cross-border depredations could be launched. The U.S. president empowered customs agents, local sheriffs, and district attorneys to uphold the American policy of neutrality.

As Van Buren told Congress in June 1838, the raids were “treated on each side as criminal offences committed within the jurisdiction of tribunals competent to inquire into the facts . . . some of the individuals inculpated have been arrested, and prosecutions are in progress, the result of which cannot be doubted.”[3]

Outstanding issues were resolved by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842.[4] Subsequently there would be other “perplexing controversies” threatening the peace, including the Oregon border crisis and, during the U.S. Civil War, the Trent affair and the raid on St. Albans, Vermont. For a brief time, however, the type of (sometimes grudging) peaceful coexistence ushered by the Treaty of Ghent of 1814 seemed destined to grow evermore amicable.

The Rebellions of 1837-1838 have received ample attention from the perspective of Canadian political history. They now demand – and have begun to receive – an international outlook that considers the concurrent building of the border (which, until then, in some areas had existed chiefly on paper) and takes into account American public opinion in border states.[5]

“[T]he American Government is one which must always yield to circumstances,” Charles Grey wrote in 1838. “At this moment especially, when Van Buren is a candidate for another term of the Presidency, he will do, not what he may perhaps think right, but what he may think most likely to secure his re-election.”[6] Few historical truths have impressed themselves with such constancy and regularity to the present day. As we come nearer to yet another general election in the United States, we may hope that policymakers recall the lessons of dialogue and restraint in the making of positive bilateral relations – and in the making of a secure, peaceful border.

Patrick Lacroix is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New Hampshire. His work has notably appeared in Histoire sociale/Social History and the Canadian Journal of History. His latest article, “Choosing Peace and Order: National Security and Sovereignty in a North American Borderland, 1837-1842,” appears in the International History Review and is now available online.

[1]. Grey, quoted in Crisis in the Canadas, 1838-1839: The Grey Journals and Letters, ed. William Ormsby (Toronto: Macmillan, 1964), 37. Emphasis in original.

[2]. Van Buren, “Neutrality – Canadian Frontier,” U.S. Congress (SS.), Vol. 322, Session 2, H. Doc. 64 (25th Cong., 2nd sess.), January 5, 1838, 1.

[3]. Van Buren, “Message,” in “British Steamboat Sir Robert Peel and American Steamboat Telegraph,” SS. Vol. 331, Session 1, H. Doc. 440 (25th Cong., 2nd sess.), June 20, 1838, 1.

[4]. Among those issues were legal questions raised by the case of Alexander McLeod, alleged to have participated in the Caroline affair, and the boundary dispute at the heart of the Aroostook War, on the Maine–New Brunswick frontier.

[5]. Illuminating works on this topic include Bradley Miller, Borderline Crime: Fugitive Criminals and the Challenge of the Border, 1819-1914 (Toronto: Osgoode Society/University of Toronto Press, forthcoming 2016), 19-48; Bradley Miller, “The Law of Nations in the Borderlands: Sovereignty and Self-Defence in the Rebellion Period, 1837-1842,” in Essays in the History of Canadian Law, eds. Donald Fyson and Blaine Baker (Toronto: Osgoode Society/University of Toronto Press, 2013), XI:235-277; and Maxime Dagenais, “The ‘Canadian Revolution,” the Early American Republic, and Slavery?,Borealia: A Group Blog on Early Canadian History, Nov. 92015.

[6]. Grey, Crisis in the Canadas, 37.

Featured Image: Destruction of the American Steam-boat Caroline by the British [1837], by L.M. Lefevre & J. Bouvier. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

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