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Special Message

May 19, 1838

To the Senate of the United States:

I herewith transmit to the Senate the copy of a letter addressed to me on the 28th ultimo by the governor of Maine, inclosing several resolves of the legislature of that State, and claiming reimbursement from the General Government of certain moneys paid to Ebenezer S. Greely, John Baker, and others in compensation for losses and sufferings experienced by them respectively under circumstances more fully explained in his excellency's letter.

In the absence of any authority on the part of the Executive to satisfy these claims, they are now submitted to Congress for consideration; and I deem it proper at the same time, with reference to the observations contained in Governor Kent's note above mentioned, to communicate to the Senate copies of other papers connected with the subject of the northeastern boundary of the United States, which, with the documents already made public, will show the actual state of the negotiations with Great Britain on the general question.


(The same message was sent to the House of Representatives.)


Augusta, April 28, 1838.

His Excellency MARTIN VAN BUREN,

President of the United States.

SIR I have the honor to inclose to you a copy of a resolve* of the legislature of this State in favor of Ebenezer S. Greely, also a copy of a resolve* in favor of John Baker and others; and in compliance with the request of the legislature I ask of the Government of the United States a reimbursement of the several sums allowed thereby, which several sums have been paid by this State to the individuals named in the resolves.

* Omitted.

The justice and propriety of granting this request, I can have no doubt, will be apparent to you and to Congress when the circumstances under which the allowances were made are called to mind.

Mr. Greely, acting as agent under a law of this State authorizing and directing a census to be taken in unincorporated places, was forcibly seized and imprisoned for several months, and then, without trial, released.

John Baker and his associates named in the other resolve suffered by imprisonment and otherwise for acting under a law of this State incorporating the town of Madawaska in 1831. The State of Maine has acknowledged by these and other resolves its sense of obligation to remunerate in the first instance these sufferers in its cause and to satisfy as far as it is able their claims upon its justice. But the wrongs by which they suffered were committed by a foreign power with whom we are now at peace. The State of Maine has no power to make war or authorize reprisals. She can only look to the General Government to assume the payment as an act of justice to a member of the Union under the provisions of the Constitution and to demand redress and remuneration from the authors of the wrong in the name of the United States.

A minute recapitulation of the facts upon which these resolves are rounded is deemed entirely unnecessary and superfluous, as they have heretofore been communicated and are well known to the Executive and to Congress.

Maine has suffered too many repetitions of similar attempts to prevent her from enjoying her rightful possessions and enforcing her just claims to feel indifferent on the subject, and we look with confidence to the General Government for protection and support. The amount of money, although considerable, is of comparatively small importance when contrasted with the principles involved and the effect which must result from an immediate and ready assumption of the liability on the part of the United States. Such an act would be highly gratifying to the people of this State as evidence that their just claims and rights are fully recognized by the United States, and that the strong arm of the Union will be stretched out for their protection in every lawful effort to maintain and enforce their claims, which they know and feel to be just and unimpeachable and which they are determined to maintain.

I trust I shall be pardoned for earnestly urging immediate action on the subject.

I had the honor to inclose to you, under date of the 28th of March last, a copy of my message to the legislature and of the resolves of the legislature of Maine in relation to the northeastern boundary, which I have no doubt have received and will receive all the attention the importance of the subjects therein discussed and acted on demands. You will perceive that in accordance with your wishes I communicated the proposition in relation to a conventional line of boundary, with the letter of Mr. Forsyth addressed to the executive of Maine. The views and wishes and determination of the executive and legislature, and I think I may safely add of the people, of Maine are fully and distinctly set forth in the documents referred to, communicated to you heretofore by me. The proposition was distinct and definite, and the answer is equally so, and I consider that it may be regarded as the fixed determination of Maine to consent to no proposition on our part to vary the treaty line, but to stand by that line as a definite, a practicable, and a fair one until its impracticability is demonstrated. It is needless for me to recapitulate the reasons upon which this determination is founded. I refer you to the documents before alluded to for my own views on this topic, sanctioned fully by the legislature. The duty devolving upon me by your request I have endeavored to discharge in a spirit of profound respect for the constituted officers of the General Government, and with a single eye to the interest and honor of the United States and of the State of Maine. The attitude assumed by Maine in relation to the survey of the line of the treaty of 1783 has doubtless attracted your attention. I feel it due to the State to say to you frankly and unequivocally that this position was taken deliberately and with a full consideration of all the circumstances of the case; but it was assumed in no spirit of defiance or resistance and with no design to embarrass the action of the General Government. Maine feels no desire to act alone or independently on this question. She knows and feels that it is a national question, and that it is the right and duty of the General Government to move forward in effecting the object proposed.

I feel fully warranted in saying that Maine does not intend by this expression of her determination to run the line in a certain contingency to waive in the least degree her well-founded claim upon the General Government to run, mark, and establish it. On the contrary, she will most reluctantly yield the hope she now so strongly feels that it is the intention of that Government to relieve her from the necessity of throwing herself upon her own resources to assert and defend her most unquestionable right. The wish of this State is that the first act should be to run the line of the treaty of 1783 to ascertain the facts in relation to the topography of the country and the exact spot where the northwest angle of Nova Scotia may be found according to our construction of the treaty language, and to place suitable monuments along the whole line. Such a survey would not settle or determine any rights, but it would express and declare our views and intentions. Such a survey is not a warlike or offensive movement, and can not justly give offense to the other party in the controversy. It is the unquestionable right of litigants in a court of justice to make explorations of land in dispute, and if either party declines a joint survey it may be made ex parte , and surely the United States have never so far yielded the actual possession to Great Britain as to preclude the right on our part to ascertain for ourselves the absolute facts and to mark out the limits of our claim and our alleged right. This act Maine asks, and asks earnestly, the General Government to perform without delay. Such an assumption of the controversy on the part of the United States would be to Maine an assurance that her rights were duly regarded, and would be steadily and perseveringly maintained. We want the name and the authority of the United States, and there can be no doubt that an act emanating from that source would be regarded by those interested on both sides as of more importance than any act of an individual State. So far, then, from any indifference on the part of Maine as to the action of the General Government, or any desire to be driven to assume the performance of the duty alluded to, she looks with intense anxiety and confident hope to be relieved from this position. She believes it is alike due to the honor of the United States and the rights of Maine that the General Government should go forward in the work, and that there is less to apprehend in the result from such a course than any other. But Maine feels that the time for decisive action has come, that she can not be satisfied to have the claim to absolute and exclusive jurisdiction of a large part of her territory longer tolerated and acquiesced in. She knows that it rightfully belongs to her jurisdiction, that it is hers by a clear, perfect, and honest title--as clear, as perfect, and rightful as her title to any portion of the State--and she can not consent to have this title impaired or weakened by bold encroachments and unscrupulous demands. She can not consent that a title transmitted by the fathers of the Revolution shall be destroyed or defeated by acquiescence in the adverse occupation of a foreign state, and that what was once fairly yielded shall be reclaimed in utter defiance of a solemn deed of cession. I am confident I am not mistaken in stating that the legislature of Maine considered the question as fairly and plainly before the National Government, and that if the present session of Congress should close with a denial or postponement of the proposed survey and no commission should be created by the Executive, as contemplated in the resolution referred to, we should have a right and be bound to regard such a delay or refusal as evidence of an indisposition on the part of the General Government to accede to our expressed views and wishes, and a denial of justice, and that Maine in that event owed it to herself to cause the survey to be made under her own authority. The duty of the executive of Maine is plainly pointed out and made imperative and absolute by the resolves of the legislature, and I certainly can not hesitate, so far as I have the means and power, to execute their declared will.

The people of Maine, sir, are not desirous of conflict or war. Both in their habits and their principles they love and wish for peace and quiet within their borders. They are not ambitious to win laurels or to acquire military glory by waging war with their neighbors, and least of all are they desirous of a border warfare, which may be the means of sacrificing human life and engendering ill will and bad passions, without bringing the controversy to a conclusion. They are scattered over our thousand hills, engaged in their quiet and peaceful labors, and it is the first wish of their hearts to live peaceably with all men and all nations. They have no anxiety to extend our limits or to gain territory by conquest, but there is a firm and determined spirit in this people which can not brook insult and will not submit to intentional injury. "They know their rights, and knowing dare maintain them" with calm determination and deliberate purpose, and they appeal with unshrinking confidence to their sister States and to the Government which binds them together for effective support in this their purpose.

The crisis, as we believe, demands firm and decided language and the expression of a determined design. Maine has never refused to acquiesce in any fair and honorable mode of fixing the line according to the treaty of 1783 . I have no doubt (but upon this point I speak according to my individual belief) that the mode proposed by Great Britain of establishing the treaty line upon the face of the earth by a commission composed of impartial and scientific men, to be selected by a friendly power, would be satisfactory and acquiesced in by this State, but that we should neither ask nor agree that any preliminary points should be yielded by either party. We should only ask that the treaty should be placed in their hands with directions to ascertain and run and fix the line according to its plain language and obvious meaning.

Maine can never consent, as I apprehend, to yield the main points of the case and then refer it to enable the judges to divide the subject-matter of the controversy.

We feel that we now stand on the high vantage ground of truth and justice, and that it can not be that any nation professing to act on the principles of right and equity can stand up before the civilized world and contest with unyielding pertinacity our claim. We have too much respect for the nation from which we descended to believe that she will sully her reputation by such persevering resistance.

I am conscious that the language and style of this communication are unusual and probably undiplomatic; that there is more of the fervor of feeling and the plain language of direct appeal than is usual in such papers; but it is a subject of such vast importance to the State whose interests have been in part intrusted to me and whose organ I am that I can not speak in measured terms or indefinite language. On this subject we have no ulterior views and no concealed objects. Our plans and our policy are open and exposed to the view of all men. Maine has nothing in either to conceal or disguise. She plainly and distinctly asks for specific and definite action. In performing what I conceive to be my duty I have been actuated by entire respect toward the General Government and by the single desire to explain and enforce as well as I was able our wishes and our rights. I can only add that we trust the General Government will assume the performance of the act specified in the resolution and relieve Maine from the necessity of independent action.

With great respect, I have the honor to be, your most obedient servant,



Washington, April 27, 1838.

HENRY S. FOX, Esq., etc.:

The undersigned, Secretary of State of the United States, has the honor, by the directions of the President, to communicate to Mr. Fox, Her Britannic Majesty's envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary, the result of the application of the General Government to the State of Maine on the subject of the northeastern boundary line and the resolution which the President has formed upon a careful consideration thereof. By the accompanying papers,* received from the executive of Maine, Mr. Fox will perceive that Maine declines to give a consent to the negotiation for a conventional boundary, is disinclined to the reference of the points in dispute to a new arbitration, but is yet firmly persuaded that the line described in the treaty of 1783 can be found and traced whenever the Governments of the United States and Great Britain shall proceed to make the requisite investigations with a predisposition to effect that very desirable object. Confidently relying, as the President does, upon the assurances frequently repeated by the British Government of the earnest desire to reach that result if it is practicable, he has instructed the undersigned to announce to Mr. Fox the willingness of this Government to enter into an arrangement with Great Britain for the establishment of a joint commission of survey and exploration upon the basis of the original American proposition and the modifications offered by Her Majesty's Government.

The Secretary of State is therefore authorized to invite Mr. Fox to a conference upon the subject at as early a day as his convenience will permit, and the undersigned will be immediately furnished with a requisite full power by the President to conclude a convention embracing that object if Her Majesty's minister is duly empowered to proceed to the negotiation of it on the part of Great Britain.

The undersigned avails himself of this occasion to renew to Mr. Fox the expression of his distinguished consideration.



WASHINGTON, May 1, 1838.


SIR: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your official note of the 27th ultimo, in which you inclose to me a communication received by the Federal Government from the executive of Maine upon the subject of the northeastern boundary line, and in which you inform me that the President is willing to enter into an arrangement with Her Majesty's Government for the establishment of a joint commission of survey and exploration upon the basis of the original American proposition and of the modifications offered by Her Majesty's Government, as communicated to you in my note of the 10th of January last, and you invite me to a conference for the purpose of negotiating a convention that shall embrace the above object if I am duly empowered by my Government to proceed to such negotiation.

I have the honor to state to you in reply that my actual instructions were fulfilled by the delivery of the communication which I addressed to you on the 10th of January, and that I am not at present provided with full powers for negotiating the proposed convention. I will forthwith, however, transmit to Her Majesty's Government the note which I have had the honor to receive from you in order that such fresh instructions may be furnished to me or such other steps taken as the present situation of the question may appear to Her Majesty's Government to require.

I avail myself of this occasion to renew to you the assurance of my high respect and consideration.

H. S. FOX.


Washington, May 8, 1838.

His Excellency EDWARD KENT,

Governor of Maine.

SIR: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt on the 22d ultimo of the communication addressed to this Department by your excellency on the 28th of March last, transmitting a printed copy of your message of the 14th of the same month to the legislature of Maine, together with certain resolves passed by that body, in relation to the northeastern boundary of the State.

Although the answer thus given to the application made to you, by direction of the President, under date of the 1st of March last, to ascertain the sense of the State of Maine in regard to a conventional line of boundary may be regarded as conclusive, I still deem it proper, with reference to your excellency's message, to mark a misconception which appears to have existed on your part when communicating to the legislature the letter and documents received from this Department. This is done with the greater freedom since the frank and liberal manner in which your excellency invited the attention of that body to the subject is highly appreciated by the President. The question therein presented for consideration was not, as your excellency supposed, whether the State of Maine should "take the lead in abandoning the treaty and volunteer propositions for a conventional line," but simply whether the government of Maine would consent that the General Government should entertain a direct negotiation with the British Government for a conventional line of boundary on the northeastern frontier of the United States. Had that consent been given it would have been reasonable to expect the proposition of a line from Great Britain, as it was that power which particularly desired the resort to that mode of settling the controversy. It was also the intention of the President so to arrange the negotiation that the approbation of Maine to the boundary line agreed upon should have been secured. It was with this view that in the application to the State of Maine for its assent to a negotiation for a conventional line express reference was made to such conditions as she might think proper to prescribe. To all such as were, in the opinion of the President, required by a proper regard for the security of Maine and consistent with the Constitution he would have yielded a ready assent. Of that character was he disposed to regard a condition that in a negotiation for the final establishment of a new line, with power on the part of the negotiators to stipulate for the cession or exchange of territory as the interests and convenience of the parties might be found to require, the State of Maine should be represented by commissioners of her own selection and that their previous assent should be requisite to make any treaty containing such stipulation binding upon her.

These suggestions are not now made as matter of complaint at the decision which the State of Maine has come to on a matter in which she was at perfect liberty to pursue the course she has adopted, but in justice to the views of the President in making the application.

I am instructed to announce to your excellency that by direction of the President, upon due consideration of the result of the late application of the General Government to the State of Maine on the subject of the northeastern boundary and in accordance with the expressed wishes of her legislature, I have informed Mr. Fox of the willingness of this Government to enter into an arrangement with that of Great Britain for the establishment of a joint commission of survey and exploration upon the basis of the original American proposition and the modifications offered by Her Majesty's Government, and to apprise you that Mr. Fox, being at present unprovided with full powers for negotiating the proposed convention, has transmitted my communication to his Government in order that such fresh instructions may be furnished to him or such other steps taken as may be deemed expedient on its part.

I have the honor to be, with great respect, your excellency's obedient servant,


Martin van Buren, Special Message Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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