We Have Got Quite Territory Enough
A few weeks ago one of our blog readers asked if I had seen any comments from Barnum about the Mexican-American War. I replied that perhaps I would find something when I got to his letters from 1846; at present we’re still reading correspondence from November 1845. Then, wouldn’t you know, I came across letters that contains political remarks and comments about war—content that is rather different from what we’ve seen up to this point. Though Barnum was not referring to the Mexican-American War in his letters of November 12th and 15th, there is a connection between that war and the potential war with England that he wrote about—a war that didn’t happen, thankfully.
Dual escalating disputes over territories—one with Great Britain and one with Mexico—were occurring simultaneously in 1845 and 1846 and eventually led to President James K. Polk’s decision to back down on one to avert another war. The dispute with Great Britain concerned the Oregon Country, or what the British referred to as the Columbia District, an area of land they claimed in the Pacific Northwest from the 42nd parallel northward. Since 1818, both the British and Americans had occupied and jointly controlled the area, but as more settlers arrived in the west, conflicts arose. American expansionists, who had supported the Democratic ticket with candidate Polk, wanted to push the British claim from the 42nd parallel (now the border between California and Oregon) all the way up to the 59°40’N line, which is more than 400 miles (as the crow flies) northwest of Vancouver, British Columbia. The Brits weren’t about to agree to that, and the possibility of war loomed. Meanwhile long-simmering territorial disputes in the southwest heated up with the annexation of Texas. The prospect of fighting two wars at once was formidable. Thus, after the U.S. declared war on Mexico on May 13th, 1846, the need for a resolution to the “Oregon Question” became a priority. The Oregon Treaty was signed a month later, on June 15th, 1846. This established the 49th parallel as British North America’s southern border. Ironically, that had been Polk’s original proposal—rejected by the British—before the more extreme “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!” rallying of unyielding expansionists provoked even greater tension. So that is basic context for understanding Barnum’s political comments in these next letters.
On November 12th Barnum wrote to his older half-brother Philo F. Barnum, in Bridgeport, essentially to call in a favor for a friend, and in that letter he shared his views about a war with England. Though writing from Paris, Barnum had just taken a brief trip to England at the end of October, and thus heard the opinions of his English acquaintances and read editorials in the London newspapers. To Philo he remarked,
The English have got their “dander” up and swear they will fight rather than to lose Oregon, and I guess they will. The people will hear out the English Governor in making war on that point. For my own part although I am aware that “the British can lick the world and we can lick the British” I think it could be folly and madness to be driven into a war for the sake of more territory. We have got quite territory enough for the present, and we are perfectly sure of having Oregon by adopting Mr Calhoun’s advice to let the question rest, and let our people settle there. War is always or nearly always a curse to a nation—it would be particularly so to America. I hope in God’s name the democratic party will not be so rash as to force Mr Polk into such measures regarding Oregon as will bring about war with England. All depends upon the democratic party—they can at this moment force or avert war between the two nations. I hope they will avert it.
Thus end his comments to Philo on that situation, but a few days later Barnum picked it up in a letter to Mr. West. West being one of the editors of the New York Atlas, Barnum expressed the hope that he would compose an editorial informing people of the volatile mood in England and present a convincing argument that such a war would be folly.
There is a great deal of fear on this side [of] the water that America & England will get into a war about Oregon & the territorial extensions desired by many of our people. What the devil ails them to be so crazy about adding more acres to our already over-large territory. England will surely fight, sooner than to let America take possession of any part of Oregon which England believes does not belong to her (America), and I hope in God that your views will lead you to deprecate and discourage that spirit in America which appears determined at all hazards to take possession of territory which if clearly ours, is yet a subject of dispute with other Powers. Let arbitration settle the matter or else let it rest 50 years unsettled, and by that time, no war will be necessary to have it all right. We have nothing to gain by war—on the contrary such an event would saddle us with a heavy public debt—cripple our commerce, and throw upon us a host of pensioners for the next fifty years. There is much more probability of war soon than is generally supposed in America–& the thing is to be deprecated.
Returning to Barnum’s letter to Philo, we find that his political views are also embedded in remarks about his half-brother’s prestigious new job. A previous letter indicated that Philo had been given the Bridgeport Postmaster position at least in part due to Barnum’s efforts, writing to people who could influence the decision. Barnum wrote,
I am glad to hear that you have got the P. Office. It’s rather more than I expected. But since you have got it—you are sure to keep it during Polk’s administration & I hope much longer. If the democratic party is true to itself and does not [commit] some great folly or some stupendous wrong, there is no reason why they should not hold the power in America for an age. It has a decided majority and nothing except its own folly can convert that majority into a minority.
As strong a proponent of the party as Barnum was at that time, less than ten years later he was thoroughly disillusioned by the Democrats’ stance on slavery, especially with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, allowing slavery in the new territories if the popular vote supported it. By 1860 Barnum had switched to the anti-slavery Republican party.
On the matter of calling in a favor from Philo, Barnum brought up the subject of a young man who was the son of English friends, and whom he had promised to help by finding employment in America. (See the December 16, 2020 blog.) Barnum said only to Philo that the young man’s parents wanted him to “see the world,” but a letter to Hitchcock revealed that the real reason was their disapproval of a love relationship their son was forming. They felt that separation, with an ocean between the two, would be for the best. Curiously, the young man’s name is not mentioned in the introductory information given to Philo, nor even the parents’ surname, which we know was Collins. Barnum only advised,
A family [in London] (friends of mine) are sending out their son to America to see the world and to work at his trade which is saddling. I have given him letters to you & Mr Miller & Hitchcock. He will arrive in N.Y. about the 20th Decr and will immediately call on Hitchcock. I hope you will not fail to get him a chance to work at his trade in Bridgeport. He is said to be a good workman, and he is a young man of intelligence and good habits. He is English but he speaks and writes French as well as English. His parents are of the first respectability and at their request I promised to use all influence in my power to get him a place.
Clarifying the timing and type of work the young man needed, Barnum added,
Will you try at once to secure him a situation and then write to Hitchcock, so that as soon as the young man arrives he may go to work. [I would] feel particularly obliged in your attending to this. He does not work at harness—but saddles. If he can earn a few dollars per week above his board, he will be satisfied at least for the commencement, till he gets acquainted. I understood [from] his parents that in London he earnt nearly £2. ($10.) per week beside his board—but they were particularly anxious he should spend a few years in America even if he could not earn half so much as in England.
Barnum concluded by asking Philo,
Do try and do the best you can for the young chap. He is about 18 years old—he does not go over without some money in his pocket—though probably not a great deal. He will doubtless be glad to board with you if you keep boarders and if you get him work.
The comment that the young man could speak and write in French as well as English is telling, since we’ve seen how dearly Barnum desired that skill for his daughter Caroline. Attaining fluency in French was something he regarded very highly and wished he himself had achieved. At the beginning of his letter to Philo he explained the circumstances of his months in France, and the discipline that had been necessary to learn to do business in a foreign language.
My labor has been double on account of not better understanding the language. However I have pretty well mastered that now for I have done the advertising for the General for four months—keeping always 10 or 12 days ahead of the company and thus being alone [I] was forced to learn and to speak the language. For the few first weeks I went every day with a big French and English Dictionary under my arm, so that if I called on the Mayor or any other person on business and they made use of a word which I did not fully understand, I begged them to hold up a minute till I found it in the dictionary! By this means, and by having more patience than I generally get credit for; I got along somehow–& now I can understand about all that is said to me & can make myself understood by any Frenchman—so that’s not very bad—although I should like it much better if I could speak the language fluently.
The undercurrent of Barnum’s description suggests he thought Philo was a stranger to exertion, and he needled him about failing to write as well. “I have not recd a letter from you in a dog’s age, which is not very strange since I know your antipathy to writing—especially long letters.” (His tone brings to mind a rather acid comment made to another correspondent about not having gotten a word of thanks from Philo when he was awarded the Postmaster position.) Pushing his point further, Barnum offers a comparison to himself, saying, “On the contrary I am scarcely ever so happy as when I have a pen or a book in my hand . . . [but I] have had pretty hard work in this country and have found but little time either to read or write.”
Fortunately for us, Barnum’s devotion to pen and ink continued throughout his life. He was a prolific letter-writer, as the copybook amply demonstrates, and an author as well. Communication was so central to his nature that he seems to have had difficulty understanding other people’s reluctance to write—we’ve seen chastising digressions in letters to his wife, sister, half-brother, and friend Moses Kimball. Barnum’s facility in expressing his opinions and observations of the world was probably daunting to those who were expected to write back! But for us, who have no such obligation, we can simply enjoy the richness of Barnum’s letters, and savor the discoveries of his views on everything from raising daughters to what draws visitors to his museum, and now, some insights into politics as well.
Barnum Museum Curator