The State of the Union in 1855: The Crimean War Recruitment Controversy

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce told the 34th Congress that the United Kingdom had broken faith with the United States in Central America and now imposed its will upon the nation by recruiting for the Crimean War on American soil and without permission. We had laws specifically against such things in the name of preserving American neutrality. Furthermore, Pierce avowed, those laws comported well with established nineteenth century practice. As such, when news came that the United Kingdom would seek foreign enlistments

Nothing on the face of the act or in its public history indicated that the British Government proposed to attempt recruitment in the United States, nor did it ever give intimation of such intention to this Government.

Yet the British came anyway. While they didn’t set up a recruiting office in Times Square, they did have agents go about finding people and sending them along to Halifax for proper enlistment. This “was going on extensively, with little or no disguise.” The men so engaged soon found themselves under arrest for their lawbreaking and Pierce’s administration protested through diplomatic channels.

Thereupon it became known, by the admission of the British Government itself, that the attempt to draw recruits from this country originated with it, or at least had its approval and sanction; but it also appeared that the public agents engaged in it [had] “stringent instructions” not to violate the municipal law of the United States.

That might sound nice on paper, but how do you keep within the law while doing the specific thing it forbids? Pierce might cave to the Slave Power for a few stern words from his fellow Democrats, but he had no such respect for British shenanigans. They could promise whatever they liked, but if they recruited at all then they must either have broken the law or found some shady legal excuse to violate its spirit whilst respecting its letter.

And it got worse:

the matter acquired additional importance by the recruitments in the United States not being discontinued, and the disclosure of the fact that they were prosecuted upon a systematic plan devised by official authority; that recruiting rendezvous had been opened in our principal cities, and depots for the reception of recruits established on our frontier, and the whole business conducted under the supervision and by the regular cooperation of British officers, civil and military, some in the North American Provinces [Canada] and some in the United States.

All of this came out when the recruiters went to trial. A few bad apples, one might shrug off. Irresponsible civilian contractors or private businessmen might slip beneath official notice. But the British had a whole, organized operation to move Americans through the United States and just over the border to train them as soldiers for a foreign war.

Nineteenth century Americans often have a chip on their shoulder about national sovereignty, particularly as relates to European powers and especially when the British come into it, but even when making allowances for that one struggles to see the whole business as anything less than a complete disregard of American self-determination. Britain had not embarked on a course to annex the United States back to its empire, but clearly didn’t take American laws and their jurisdiction seriously. In past decades, the United States had done a somewhat better job of restraining filibusters operating against Canada and such expeditions had never had the full backing of the state.

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The State of the Union in 1855: More Central American Trouble

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

We left Franklin Pierce inveighing against the British in his third annual message. The Young Hickory of the Granite Hills complained that perfidious Albion had agreed to renounce all claims to control of Central America in exchange for the United States doing the same. This would ensure that neither power had to worry about the other using a future canal to their detriment. But then the British persisted in their protectorate over the Mosquito Coast and expanded their recognized influence over Belize at the expense of Honduras by colonizing the Bay Islands. London had agreed to do exactly the opposite of this in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850.

Or had it? Franklin Pierce called on the Great Britain to do the right thing and withdraw completely from everywhere save Belize. The British thought otherwise:

the British Government has at length replied, affirming that the operation of the treaty is prospective only and did not require Great Britain to abandon or contract any possessions held by her in Central America at the date of its conclusion.

According to London, the British empire only committed in 1850 to develop no new claims or interests in the area. What Britain had, it would retain. You can read the treaty that way without twisting yourself in too many knots. The text makes frequent reference to a future canal and how the parties will not obtain or maintain dominance over it. But nor does it include language that only brought the neutrality and renunciation provisions into operation when someone built a canal and the text often looks as much to present circumstances as to the future. Even if one granted Belize and the Mosquito Coast as properly untouched by the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, that still left Britain’s new colony on the Bay Islands as a positive advance of British influence.

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia)

Pierce, understandably, didn’t buy what London tried to sell. To him, and to posterity in general, the British position simply assumed prior rights held, up to and including the expansion of British power in Central America until such time as someone built a canal. Then the United States would just have to trust Britain to do as promised. This would make for a hard sell between nations with uneasy relations today, let alone the tense Anglo-American accord that prevailed in the nineteenth century. Pierce told Congress that he hoped for a peaceful solution still, but he saw

reason to apprehend that with Great Britain in actual occupation of the disputed territories, and the treaty therefore practically null so far as regards our rights, this international difficulty can not long remain undetermined without involving in serious danger the friendly relations which it is the interest as well as the duty of both countries to cherish and preserve. It will afford me sincere gratification if future efforts shall result in the success anticipated heretofore with more confidence than the aspect of the case permits me now to ascertain.

Pierce would love it if everything worked out, but he didn’t like the odds. Posterity, for once, vindicated him. The British wouldn’t renounce their interests, outside a Belize expanded well beyond American understandings of its borders, until the end of the decade.

 

The State of the Union in 1855: Central American Trouble

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Fed up with the House’s inability to organize itself, Franklin Pierce issued his annual message on the very last day of the year. Custom dictated he wait for the Congress to have its affairs in order, but the Constitution required him to report on the state of the Union every year. Pierce’s message dealt with a wide variety of topics beyond the Kansas question, so it offers an occasion to catch up on the other things happening in 1855.

Pierce claimed that foreign relations proceeded amicably, except where they did otherwise. He opened with the dispute over Central America which informed the destruction of Greytown, in modern Nicaragua, the year previous. (Nobody died and they soon rebuilt.) Per the terms of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, the United States and the United Kingdom mutually renounced dominion over Central America. In a time before the Pacific Railroad, the United States had a keen interest in ensuring that the easier path between its new conquests on the Pacific coast and the old Union remain free from foreign domination. Mutual renunciation of imperial designs and guarantees of the region’s neutrality meant that neither power would dominate a future canal across it. If neither side exactly won, then they didn’t quite lose either.

So long as both nations held up their end of the deal, that all worked fine. Per Pierce, the British had not. They had a colony in the area, Belize, but the understanding at the time of ratification held that the treaty didn’t involve it. The United Kingdom had previous rights to the area, though Pierce construed those rights as strictly economic. The British could “cut mahogany or dyewoods […] with the positive exclusion of all domain or sovereignty.”

London had done rather more than that:

It, however, became apparent at an early date after entering upon the discharge of my present functions that Great Britain still continued in the exercise or assertion of large authority in all that part of Central America commonly called the Mosquito Coast, and covering the entire length of the State of Nicaragua and a part of Costa Rica; that she regarded the Balize as her absolute domain and was gradually extending its limits at the expense of the State of Honduras, and, that she had formally colonized a considerable insular group known as the Bay Islands, and belonging of right to that State.

Pierce didn’t imagine any of this. The United Kingdom did maintain a protectorate over the Mosquito Coast. For a time, it even occupied Greytown at the eastern terminus of the trans-isthmus route across Nicaragua. Nor did the Court of St. James care to pretend otherwise. Instead, the British argued that they had prior rights to the Mosquito Coast based on treaties with the local Indians. Pierce found the claim preposterous, declaring that “by the public law of Europe and America no possible act of such Indians or their predecessors could confer on Great Britain any political rights.” Only American powers could treat with Indians, and then only so long as they felt like it. Maybe if Britain had cut a deal with the Spanish that would count; the word of a white power to another white power had to mean something. But Indians? Even the British could not muster sufficiently unamerican a character as to treat with them as the equals of whites.

The Bay Islands? Those belonged to Honduras and the British had there “as distinctly colonial governments as those of Jamaica or Canada.” Once more, one can’t argue with Pierce on the facts. The British really had set up a proper colony on the islands. This flew in the face of the nation’s mutually-agreed renunciations all of five years prior. What part of no colonies and no occupation had London failed to understand? That the United Kingdom had chosen to act in such a way and broke faith with the clear provisions of the treaty suggested that it aimed for a revision of the status quo in Central America very much to its favor, and to the detriment of the United States.