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

Stuff You Don't Really Want To Know (But For Some Reason Have To) About 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.)

The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (U.S. & U.K., 1850)

The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo is nothing more than a poor man’s Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. (Late Night w/ Jimmy Fallon)

Oh Man, This Plan… A Canal?

The Monroe Doctrine announced by the U.S. in the 1820s had never quite overcome the young nation’s hesitance to openly challenge British influence in Central and South America. They’d been there longer, and despite several embarrassing defeats at the hands of the U.S. and its allies, were still very much the big kid on the block for most of the nineteenth century.

The British had for years flirted with the idea of building a canal right through Central America to allow their massive navy easier access from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Over time, the U.S. started thinking maybe that actually wasn’t such a bad idea – although they, of course, assumed American merchants and military vessels as the primary beneficiaries. Neither side was ready to push ahead with such an ambitious project, but each began worrying that perhaps the other would – perhaps cutting them out in the process.

In the meantime, they at least agreed on the most natural location of such a venture. The geography, the political dynamics, even the catchy name once completed:

The “Nicaragua Canal.”

Half of the envisioned canal was already present in the form of natural waterways. Nicaragua itself had spent the previous few decades being tossed back and forth like the ugly kid in a divorce. It had gone from being part of Mexico to joining a Central American “league” to periods of independence – all while technically remaining part of a British “protectorate” in that part of the world.

There’s no record of anyone in the U.S. or Great Britain consulting Nicaragua as to their thoughts on the matter.

The Actual Treaty

The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty was signed in 1850 while President Zachary Taylor was in office and the Whigs were still a thing... barely. It focused primarily on what each side promised NOT to do:

  • Neither the U.S. nor the U.K. would establish new colonies in Central America.
  • Neither the U.S. nor the U.K. would build up, arm, or fortify any existing interests near the proposed canal.
  • Neither the U.S. nor the U.K. would attempt to build the canal without the cooperation and consent of the other.
  • If a canal were eventually built, neither the U.S. nor the U.K. would take steps to ensure exclusive control of the canal or territories bordering the canal. It would be made available to everyone on some sort of neutral basis.

The young Democratic Party declared the treaty to be a violation of the Monroe Doctrine, an accusation which helped only sped the Whigs’ journey into political irrelevance. Despite the backlash, the treaty held off British influence in Central America and continued to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. and its ex-Motherland. It held for half a century until replaced by the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty (1901), by which time Panama had become the favored site for this long-desired canal. Great Britain was by that point happy to let the U.S. do the building and administrating, knowing they’d have all the access they needed without the expense or headaches of running the thing themselves.

The Gadsden Purchase

Why haven’t you done any jokes about the Gadsden Purchase? Signed in 1854 by President Franklin Pierce? Granted the U.S. sovereignty over the southern tips of Arizona and New Mexico? See, uh... the terrain in the southernmost portion of the Mexican Cession (1848) was, uh... too rocky for the Transcontinental Railroad, so...

Well, if you love this thing so much, why would you want me to make a joke about it?

You gotta be able to laugh at the Gadsden Purchase. I mean... it’s what life’s all about.

(Late Night w/ Jimmy Fallon)

A Lone Star Is Born

You probably remember the major highlights of Texas Independence from Mexico – empresarios like Stephen Austin curating settlements of mostly white folks from the north who never quite believed they weren’t in the U.S. anymore, the Texas Revolution, William Travis, Sam Houston, David Crockett, Juan Seguín, Jim Bowie, and of course General Antonio López de Santa Anna and his two healthy, attached legs. You may even remember details like that “Come And Take It” flag or a minor scuffle involving an old mission called the Alamo.

Somehow out of all that craziness, Texas won.

After a decade or so of doing quite well for themselves as an independent republic (something they still won’t shut up about, honestly), Texas was annexed by the United States in 1845 and became the twenty-eighth state. If Mexico had begun getting over the events of the previous decade, seeing Texas in the arms of another stirred up old passions and resentments, many of which were now directed at new beau Uncle Sam.

As with any messy breakup, there were lingering disputes. In the case of Texas and Mexico, the biggest issue involved the southwestern border of Texas. Mexico claimed the territory ended at the Nueces River, while Texas – and now the U.S. - placed it at the Rio Grande. This wasn’t a difference of a few miles or a dispute over where to park the camper on Labor Day weekend. The maps envisioned by Mexico and the U.S. differed by over half-a-million square miles, including most of what today is New Mexico and a significant chunk of Colorado as well.

The Mexican-American War (1846 – 1848)

President Polk sent Zachary Taylor into the disputed area to provoke Mexican troops repeatedly until someone finally fired back or hit them with a stick or something. At that point, Polk ran to Congress yelling that Mexico had “invaded” American territory and attacked U.S. forces for no reason! Here we were, trying to peacefully resolve things through diplomacy, but those darned Mexicans and their violent natures, etc.

The resulting war commenced in April of 1846 and lasted until the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in February of 1848. The U.S. received the disputed territory (the “Mexican Cession”) but agreed to pay Mexico several million dollars in return. The “Wilmot Proviso” was introduced in Congress, seeking to ban slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico. It didn’t pass, but the resulting debates certainly helped speed the nation towards civil war.

But again, you probably know all of this already. It’s juicy stuff, even if it’s not all particularly flattering to our forebears.

What Life’s All About

Despite the fact that the entire premise of the Mexican-American War was resolving cartographical disparities, boundary disputes lingered even after the treaty ending it was signed. There were other issues as well, but none merited renewed hostilities. What finally reopened negotiations between the U.S. and Mexico wasn’t the specter of war, but Uncle Sam’s commitment to trains and westward expansion.

The Whig dream of connecting the various regions of the nation hadn’t faded, and visionaries of all political stripes coveted an infrastructure to support the nation’s rapid expansion. As the Fallon bit points out, however, the topography of southern plains suggested that the best route for laying railroad tracks dipped ever-so-slightly into Mexican territory – and that wouldn’t go over well. U.S. President Pierce sent U.S. Minister to Mexico James Gadsden to negotiate with whoever happened to be in charge of Mexico that week.

Between the Texas Revolution and the Gadsden Purchase, leadership of Mexico changed hands approximately 873 times. About a third of these resulted in our old friend Antonio López de Santa Anna running things for a season or two at a time, and that’s who happened to be in the big chair when Gadsden arrived. Gadsden’s timing was ideal; Santa Anna was distracted trying to squash internal rebellions (something of a theme for Mexico in those days) and in need of quick cash. Gadsden just happened to be authorized to offer him just that in exchange for what seemed a few negligible swaths of land way up north.

The treaty was signed and one more little chunk of glory was added to the United States. Several other minor issues between the two nations were addressed as well, but none quite so almost-exciting or somewhat-relevant as the Gadsden Purchase.

Why The Fallon Treaties Matter

As previously mentioned, treaties are one indication that a nation is either all grown up or well on its way. As any middle school educator can tell you, the ability to resolve our differences using words is something that comes only with maturity and a sprinkling of hard-won wisdom.

After the War of 1812, the U.S. never again took up arms against Great Britain, whatever their disagreements. Some of this was simply pragmatic; the English still had one of the most powerful militaries in the world and there was no sense messing with them if it could be avoided. Plus, they were becoming excellent trading partners. Just as importantly, however, the U.S. and Britain understood one another – and not just because they shared a common language. Culturally, religiously, economically, and politically, they were far more similar than different. Even when they argued, they wanted the same things and approached disputes in similar ways.

Not so the U.S. and Mexico (or any other Latin American country). Neither ever quite understood the other. The U.S. looked down on what appeared to be a backward people and their chaotic government, while Mexico had little use for smug Americans and their manifestly violent destinies. They could negotiate, perhaps even settle – but they could never truly come to peace with one another.

The tendency of the U.S. to get what it wanted from other nations by dangling bags of cash in front of them would continue (as it still does today). It may not be particularly glorious or noble, but it’s often more economically practical and morally defensible than going to war, whatever the cause.

The Webster-Ashburton Treaty was a major step in normalizing negotiation over calls to arms whenever the U.S. and Great Britain were at odds. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty eventually led to the Panama Canal (although there were several steps in between). The canal was in turn important for most of the twentieth century, from President Theodore Roosevelt’s first cartoon shovel all the way through President Carter’s “giveaway” in the 1970s. And the Gadsden Purchase really did make it easier to run those railroad lines all the way across the continent, despite the project being delayed by civil war before it could be completed.

Making The Grade: What You’re Most Likely To Be Asked

Webster-Ashburton and Clayton-Bulwer are, sadly, more likely to show up as detractors (“wrong answers”) for multiple-choice questions than as correct responses: “Which of the following attempted to prevent the expansion of slavery into territory acquired from Mexico? (A) The Webster-Ashburton Treaty, (B) The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, (C) The Wilmot Proviso, or (D) The Ostend Manifesto.”

Remember that both were between the U.S. and Great Britain and note the general time frame (1840-1850). While you may not be asked about these first two treaties by name, they’re excellent details for short answer or essay responses related to the time period, particularly those involving foreign policy or political parties in the mid-nineteenth century. If you’re really lucky, you’ll be asked about accomplishments of the short-lived Whig Party. Obviously, you’ll focus on stuff related to the American System (infrastructure, a strong centralized economy, etc.), but both Webster-Ashburton and Clayton-Bulwer were negotiated under Whig Presidents, so there! Look at you go, tiger.

Gadsden will come up slightly more often since it involved westward expansion and Texas (er... sort of). It’s the only one of the three likely to manifest itself as part of a map question – “Identify the following territories” or “label these territories and the date each was added to the U.S.” (Such maps will tend to show the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican Cession, Oregon Country, etc., as well as the Gadsden Purchase.) Gadsden is right up there with “Fifty-four forty or fight!” in terms of being nearly name-brand history and only partially boring. It’s essential to remember that it was largely motivated by the needs of the transcontinental railroad. You can rarely go wrong connecting details back to westward expansion or technological progress.

Now, go back and watch the video again. The faux obsessions of the various characters don’t seem quite so out there anymore, do they?  

OK, maybe still a little.

Add new comment