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54-40 or Fight: Slogan History & Significance

54-40 or Fight: Slogan History & Significance
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  • 0:30 A Bit of Context
  • 1:30 Looming War
  • 2:30 On the Brink
  • 3:10 Public Response
  • 4:10 Resolution
  • 5:00 Legacy
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

'54-40;' to fight, or not to fight? Learn about the history of the Oregon boundary dispute between the Americans and British and the effect it had on the future of the United States.

Introduction

The Oregon Territory dispute seems to have faded into relative obscurity in American history. Contemporary college-level history textbooks dedicate roughly a paragraph to the event. Yet, this event had an important impact in the period in which it happened, as well as to future events. It can be argued that the dispute over the Oregon Territory and its eventual resolution contributed to the sectional divide that evolved on the eve of the American Civil War.

A Bit of Context

The Oregon Territory has an extensive history but for the purposes of this lesson, we are going to only focus on the events prior to and following the War of 1812. The Oregon Territory was a large piece of land that spanned from the 42nd to 54th parallel in the northwest corner of the United States and what is now Canada. During the period between 1810 and 1818, the British and Americans both had important stakes in the disputed territory. The British had established the Hudson Bay Company for fur trading, while American settlers had acquired the deep sea ports located along the territory's western coast.

The two groups of settlers battled over the rights to the territory so much so that war was even threatened. Fortunately, a settlement was reached via the Treaty of 1818 , which arranged for a joint Anglo-American occupation of the territory for 10 years. The hope was that after the 10 years, a permanent settlement could be reached. This notion failed.

Looming War

From the 1820s to the early 1840s, American settlers expanded westward into the Oregon Territory. New lines of transportation developed, most famously, the Oregon and California Trails. This period was identified as the great emigration.

The ultimate goal of the settlers was to drive the British out of the Oregon territory and claim the land up to its northernmost demarcation line at the 54th parallel (or latitude 54 degrees, 40 minutes).

The British, however, proved to be unwilling to concede the territory without a potential fight. Britain still had the most powerful navy in the world and was willing to utilize its power to maintain the British Empire. General negotiations failed to end the dispute, and a permanent settlement was never reached. It was the surprise election of James K. Polk in 1844 (Henry Clay was expected to win handily, but lost due to his anti-expansion policies) and Polk's diplomatic maneuvering that proved to be the catalyst for a negotiated settlement.

On the Brink

President Polk's first political priority was the annexation of Texas. However, due to the expansionist outcry toward the Oregon Territory, he included the area in his inaugural address in 1845. Polk touted the idea of brinkmanship: that is, using any means necessary, including war, to remove the British from the Oregon Territory.

His saber-rattling threats were quickly met by a British response. Britain threatened to position its navy along the eastern seaboard of the United States and occupy the waters. Polk quickly retreated from his policy of brinkmanship in favor of a diplomatic solution.

Public Response

Unlike Polk, the American public, along with Democratic congressional leaders such as Senators Lewis Cass and William Allen, refused to concede any territory to the British. This movement of people believed that the United States had the right to all of the Oregon territory up to and including the 54th parallel.

This public outcry yielded the slogan wars. Newspapers expanded pro-expansionist and pro-war terminology that included phrases such as 'Manifest Destiny,' 'All of Oregon or None,' and the historically renowned '54-40 or Fight!' Remember, '54' was synonymous with the 54th parallel, the only boundary line expansionists were willing to accept.

As a very important side note: contrary to popular belief, the slogan '54-40 or Fight' was not used during the Polk campaign; this is a misconception. The slogan first appeared in Democratic-sponsored newspapers in 1846.

Resolution

The outcry for war with Britain over the Oregon Territory was largely ignored by the Polk administration. Tensions had grown with Mexico over its western territory, and Polk did not want to engage in a war with Britain for the third time in 70 years. Instead, Polk arranged for a negotiated settlement that retreated from the desired 54th parallel.

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