Martin Van Buren - Foreign affairs
The president demonstrated much more certain control over foreign relations than over financial affairs. Although preoccupied with the panic, Van Buren proved to be a shrewd diplomat, preventing the Texas Revolution from inflaming sectional tensions in the United States. Van Buren inherited a Texas policy not totally to his liking. Having avoided a stand on the Texas question during the election, he was disappointed when Jackson, a day before leaving office, recognized the new regime. In the summer of 1837, the Texans went a step further by pressing for annexation. Their formal request appealed to American nationalism, characterized Mexico as a society of "barbarians," and argued that the president should move quickly or Texas would sign treaties with foreign powers that might injure the United States.
At that time, Van Buren was trying to prepare his proposals for the special session and was in no mood to be rushed or pressured. After consulting the cabinet, he decided to reject the proposal. In his reasoned reply, Van Buren argued that there was no constitutional precedent for annexation of a sovereign state; annexation might be construed as an act of war against Mexico. The president concluded that the United States had no objection to commercial treaties between Texas and European powers. The Texans bristled at the reply, threatening to take their cause directly to Congress and venturing the opinion that had Jackson been president, the United States would have welcomed annexation. Van Buren ignored this tactless reply and kept the Texas question out of the special session. By the time Congress convened in regular session, in December 1837, annexation had become intertwined with a dispute between the United States and Mexico over injury claims by American citizens against the Mexican government.
A by-product of the Texas Revolution, the Mexican claims dispute could have propelled the two nations into war. Throughout the first year of his presidency, Van Buren tried to reach agreement on the claims dispute, to no avail. In his first annual message, the president reported the negative results of a special mission to Mexico City and then referred the entire controversy to Congress for it "to decide upon the time, the mode, and the measure of redress." This action alone was a sharp contrast to Jackson's earlier request for force, but Van Buren went further, expressing his confidence that congressional action would be marked by a "moderation and justice which will, I trust, under all circumstances govern the councils of our country."
The president's opponents took advantage of even this pacific passage to charge the Democrats with a secret conspiracy. "The annexation of Texas and the proposed war with Mexico are one and the same thing," claimed former president John Quincy Adams, now a congressman from Massachusetts. Adams privately speculated that annexation was designed to increase the extent of slavery and commit the North to a permanent defense of southern institutions. According to the National Intelligencer , the Whig newspaper in Washington, the president sought war with Mexico to divert national attention from the panic.
Although a war might have provided a diversion, the president had no intention of abandoning his quest for a peaceful solution to the claims dispute, one that would avoid sectional discord. By the spring of 1838, Texas realized that it could not outflank the president by going directly to Congress. The waning of annexationist ardor convinced the Mexican government that Van Buren was sincere in his expressed desire for peace. Mexico admitted the legitimacy of the claims and proposed third-party arbitration to reach a final solution. On 11 September 1838, the president signed a convention to this effect.
Van Buren refused to indulge expansionist Democrats, because he wanted to avoid further damage to the North-South axis of the party, which he considered the bulwark of the Union. Ironically, the Texans saw this most clearly. "Many of our friends as well as enemies in Congress dread the coming of the question at this time," wrote the Texan emissary, Memucan Hunt, in 1838, "on account of the desperate death-struggle, which they foresee, will inevitably ensue between the North and the South, a struggle involving the probability of a dissolution of this Union."
A rebellion on the nation's northern border coincided with the Mexican crisis and compounded the president's political problems. The revolt centered in southern Canada, where dissatisfaction with British rule reached a peak in the fall of 1837. William Lyon Mackenzie led an uprising that enlisted American citizens who joined the Canadian rebels in their stronghold on Navy Island, in the Niagara River. Since New York officials seemed unable to restrain their own people, British authorities decided to disarm the outpost. They sent a raiding party to attack the steamship Caroline , a forty-six-ton vessel used to supply Navy Island. The British found the Caroline at a pier in Schlosser, New York. Ignoring the international boundary, the party boarded the ship, set it aflame, and cast it adrift. The Caroline sank before reaching Niagara Falls. In the ensuing confusion, one American died and several were wounded.
Rumors of the raid spread quickly and exaggerated the outcome. "It is infamous," wrote one observer; "forty unarmed Americans butchered in cold blood, while sleeping, by a party of British assassins, and the living and dead sent together over Niagara." The president dispatched General Winfield Scott to Buffalo with strict instructions to call out the militia but employ it only as a last resort and then to avoid placing arms in the hands of border residents who might join the rebellion. The president then issued a neutrality proclamation calling for strict adherence to the law. Senate Democrats overcame Whig attempts to capitalize on the crisis and, in early March 1838, passed a new neutrality law. This measure was to run for two years and empowered civil authorities to prevent border excursions in the future. The president's proclamation, the Senate bill, and the Scott mission combined to defuse the border crisis.
Early in 1839, another conflict arose in a remote area of northern Maine known as the Aroostook Valley. The Peace Treaty of 1783 had left in doubt the exact location of the international boundary dividing Maine from New Brunswick. By the 1830s, American and British citizens alike wanted to develop the more than seven million acres of virgin timber that lay in this disputed territory. Clashes between Maine and New Brunswick developers were inevitable. In January 1839, Canadian authorities arrested a Maine land agent and took him to a New Brunswick jail. New Brunswick's lieutenant governor, Sir John Harvey, justified the arrest and issued a proclamation calling for withdrawal of all American forces from the disputed region. Maine's governor, John Fairfield, assembled nearly a thousand men and asked the state legislature for money and authority to call out another ten thousand. When the president heard of these measures, he appealed directly to the British minister, Henry Fox, and together they drew up a memorandum calling for all parties to withdraw from the Aroostook Valley.
The calm that prevailed in Washington had little impact in Maine. Fairfield denounced peace proposals. "Should you go against us on this occasion," he warned the president, "or not espouse our cause with warmth and earnestness and with true American feeling , God only knows what the result would be politically." Van Buren had dealt with too many professional politicians to be upset by the threats of an amateur. Again he turned to Winfield Scott, sending him to Augusta with instructions to calm the angry governor and prevent any warlike actions by the assembled Maine militia. While Scott journeyed north, Congress contributed to the war fever by granting the president more authority and funds than he requested. The legislature that refused to pass a subtreasury bill to safeguard government money gave Van Buren authority to spend $10 million and the power to mobilize fifty thousand militia for defense of the frontier. Once in Augusta, Scott worked swiftly and surely to disarm the crisis.
As president, Martin Van Buren established a solid record as a statesman, acting swiftly and surely in times of international tension. His handling of crises on the northern and southern borders of the country demonstrated a sincere and consistent commitment to neutrality and peaceful settlement of disputes. He displayed none of the aggressive behavior that marred the record of his predecessor. Van Buren passed up several opportunities to embrace expansionist ideology for political advantage. The nation's prolonged and severe financial crisis obscured this record of accomplishment. By the time Van Buren finally earned the respect of foreign governments, his term was nearly over and he was fighting for his political life.