The "Fallon Treaties" (Part One)

NOTE: This post and its sequel are from the rough draft of a book I'm hoping will be called something like "Have To" History: Stuff You Don't Really Want To Know (But For Some Reason Have To) About The Most Boring Events, People, and Issues in American History.

I'd like a longer title, but it simply won't fit on the cover.

The "Fallon Treaties": The Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842), the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (1850), and the Gadsden Purchase (1854) 

Three Big Things:

1. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842) between the U.S. and Great Britain settled boundary disputes between New England and Canada as well as a handful of other “play nicely together” logistics. Larger issues like the slave trade or Oregon Territory, however, were left for another time.

2. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (1850) between the U.S. and Great Britain primarily consisted of promises by both sides not to bulk up their presence in Central America and mutual promises not to build a canal through Central America without consulting one another first.

3. The Gadsden Purchase (1854) added strips of land along southern Arizona and New Mexico to territory already taken from Mexico by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (1848). It was primarily motivated by the needs of the transcontinental railroad.

The “Fallon Treaties”?

Several years ago, talk show host Jimmy Fallon did a wonderful bit with planted audience members in which they argued about which historical treaties were the coolest. The humor was built on the relative obscurity and banality of the treaties being discussed contrasted with the passion shown by the faux audience members. In other words, it was engaging because the subject matter was presumed to be so boring that no one could possibly care about it that much – and yet, they did.

Sound familiar?

The Fallon video has since practically become required viewing in any American History class dealing with the first half of the nineteenth century. (If you’re not familiar with it, try searching “Fallon Gadsden Purchase” on YouTube. I’ll wait.) 

The sketch references the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (1848) which ended the Mexican-American War and granted the U.S. a big chunk of land known as the “Mexican Cession.” This one should be well-known to any student of history, in school or otherwise. The Louisiana Purchase is mentioned in passing as well, but it, too, is pretty hard for anyone to miss. That leaves the three agreements covered below.

And yes, they’re worth knowing – even beyond what’s covered in the sketch.


There are so few truly engaging treaties in U.S. history. They sometimes end interesting wars – the Treaty of Paris (1783) which granted the colonies independence, for example. They may come about as the result of a memorable surrender – the Confederacy at Appomattox Court House (1865), Japan on the deck of the USS Missouri (1945), or Cheap Trick on Heaven Tonight (1978). But the treaties themselves? Not so much.

Treaties created to prevent wars are even less exciting, and yet remain stubbornly present in state standards and APUSH course descriptions. It’s like they don’t even want history to be fun.

Boring or not, treaties are an essential element of foreign policy and by their very nature suggest that a nation is grown-up enough to solve at least some of its problems with words rather than violence. They require two parties to acknowledge one another as sufficiently legitimate for a signed agreement to be both appropriate and reliable. For a still relatively young nation like the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century, the fact that nations like Great Britain and Mexico would negotiate small print with them proved that – if nothing else – they were practically a real country.

Understanding treaties you’re required to know sometimes starts by exploring a few things you’re not – so buckle up and let’s see if we can hit enough essentials that you can (a) remember these boring-but-somewhat-important treaties, and (b) throw in enough details when asked that you’ll sound like you actually know (and care) way more than you do.

The Webster-Ashburton Treaty (U.S. & U.K., 1842)

You mean the 1842 treaty that resolved minor boundary disputes between the U.S. and Canada? Negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster? I LOVE the Webster-Ashburton Treaty! (Late Night w/ Jimmy Fallon) 

The Caroline Affair

In 1837-1838, several British colonies in Canada began pushing back against what they perceived as oppressive rule and inadequate representation in their own government. (Who knows where people get these wacky ideas?) The result was a small-scale revolution which the British promptly put down, although the Motherland did attempt to address a few of their complaints as a result.

A handful of unsatisfied rebels ended up on a little island in the Niagara River along with a smattering of Americans who were either sympathetic to their cause or just couldn’t resist the chance for a good scrap. Canadian soldiers (still loyal to the British Empire at that point) intercepted a U.S. ship named the Caroline which the islanders had hired to bring them supplies, killing one of the crew in the struggle. The captured ship was then sent over Niagara Falls. 

Sadly, no one thought to post the video.

The Caroline Affair, as it became known, was certainly unpleasant for those involved, but it didn’t become an international incident until a guy named Alexander McLeod showed up in New York claiming to have been the guy who killed the crewmember and bragging about his role in seizing the Caroline. Whatever his motivations, this was totally uncool. New York arrested him, but England intervened, claiming McLeod could not be punished by criminal law for something he’d done as a member of the British military – even if he was being a jerk about it now. The U.S. agreed but lacked the authority to force New York to release him. (Obviously, state-federal dynamics have evolved considerably in the nearly two centuries since.)

New York tried McLeod and acquitted him, thus saving face for themselves without actually incarcerating or executing a British soldier. Despite this diplomatic (and possibly predetermined) outcome, emotions remained raw all ‘round.

The Aroostook War (aka, “Battle of the Maps”)

Around the same time, in an otherwise unrelated incident, another contingent of British troops almost came to blows with the state of Maine.

The Treaty of Paris (1783) which ended the American Revolution fell a bit short when it came to clearly defining boundaries between the new United States and what later became Canada. The U.S. and England quibbled about sections of this border off and on for several decades, until someone finally realized they’d been overlooking the most obvious solution in the world. They asked the King of the Netherlands to decide everything.

Yes, seriously.

He did, but the U.S. didn’t like his answer, so they stomped their little toddler-nation feet and refused to accept it. The conflicts continued.

In the meantime, New England settlers had begun drifting into the disputed region – as had Canadian lumberjacks coming from the other direction. The two groups initially settled for scowling at one another across the greens, but by the late 1830s, things were escalating. Violence became a very real possibility.

Canadians began arresting New Englanders as “trespassers.” New Englanders in turn arrested Canadian “intruders.” In 1839, the British sent in troops from Quebec. The state of Maine responded by sending in 10,000 state militia volunteers (who’d apparently missed the bit in the Constitution about how states can’t go to war with foreign powers all by themselves). This is what’s known in the history biz as “escalation.”

President Martin Van Buren, who you probably thought never did anything cool, ordered General Winfield Scott and 50,000 federal troops into the area to calm things down, which seems counterintuitive until you remember that they were the only ones in the mix without a personal stake in the outcome – one of the many benefits of a “professional” army. It also didn’t hurt that they substantially outnumbered everyone else.

A truce was reached, and the two nations agreed to finally get serious about resolving their boundary problems. Sadly, they’d have to do so without the help of the King of the Netherlands this time.

The Creole Revolt 

In 1841, the U.S. experienced arguably the most successful slave uprising in American history, which is probably why we don’t talk about it that much. It’s much more comfortable to focus instead on all the times white people quickly took back control and killed everyone.

A ship called the Creole was transporting 134 slaves from Virginia to New Orleans (an entirely legal venture at the time since it didn’t involve bringing in newly enslaved chattel from abroad). The slaves revolted and managed to steer the Creole to Nassau in the Bahamas, knowing it was under British rule at the time and believing that British law would require they be set free.

They were right.

This wasn’t the first time the British had freed American slaves who for whatever reason ended up in their hands, but it was certainly the largest group emancipated all at once. Americans could hardly contain their outrage – do the British have NO respect for property rights or personal freedoms? Who DOES that to other people?!?

We Need To Talk

Ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Great Britain finally led to the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842. It was negotiated by Secretary of State Daniel Webster (by this time serving under President John “Yes, I’m A ‘Real President’” Tyler) and did, in fact, settle those pesky boundary disputes. It established criminal extradition between the two nations and granted the U.S. navigation rights on the St. John River, which runs through Maine into Canada before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean via the Bay of Fundy – a name so cool it simply had to be Canadian.

The treaty also included some lofty language about working together to suppress the slave trade, but other than informal assurances, the issues at the heart of the Creole conflict were left unresolved. A year after the treaty was signed, Great Britain agreed to compensate the “owners” of the freed slaves for their loss – a pragmatic move, no doubt, but it kinda took the moral shine off the whole affair. 

The two nations deferred discussions of similar boundary disputes further west (perhaps hoping the Grand Duchy of Finland or the Governor of New Zealand could somehow be persuaded to get involved). This decision would later provide James K. Polk with one of the most memorable campaign lines of the mid-nineteenth century. If he were elected president, he assured the nation, there’d be no compromising with the British in Oregon Territory – “Fifty-four forty or fight!” Never had a line of latitude been so loaded with patriotism or testosterone.

It worked, by the way. Contrary to all appearances, Oregon is today part of the United States.

Finally, the nations agreed that the next time either one of them decided to send an entire ship over a waterfall, they’d absolutely make sure the video was posted on YouTube. (Presumably this language was accidentally omitted from the final draft.)

Next Time: Part Two - the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty & the Gadsden Purchase

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