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n April 4, 1841, Vice President John Tyler of Virginia became the nation’s tenth president following the death of President William Henry Harrison. President Tyler was immediately confronted with the possibility of war with Great Britain, a prospect he and his secretary of state, Daniel Webster, hoped to avoid. A war would mark the third conflict between the two nations within a little over sixty years.
Throughout the 1830s a simmering boundary dispute between Americans living in northern Maine and the province of New Brunswick in British Canada had soured relations between the United States, British Canada, and Great Britain. The United States claimed its boundary extended to the banks of the St. Lawrence River; Great Britain contended that the line should be drawn much farther south. Tensions flared during the “Aroostook War” of 1838–39, although no actual combat occurred (militias were called to duty but did not fight), yet hostilities seemed inevitable. Casualties on both sides during the nominal war were limited to those felled by disease or accidental deaths, perhaps some thirty-eight Americans in total. In February 1839 Congress passed legislation granting President Martin Van Buren “additional powers for the defense of the United States” and funding for 50,000 soldiers if necessary.
The prospect of fighting yet another war with the world’s greatest superpower— and in a remote corner of northern Maine—was hardly a top priority for “His Accidency” John Tyler during his first year in office. But standing up to Great Britain was important to the people of Maine and to many other Americans who continued to view the British Empire with suspicion. Groping for a way out of the impasse, Tyler and Webster settled on a remarkable scheme whose details were kept concealed until 1970.
The essence of the scheme was to run a covert operation designed to moderate American public opinion and open the way to a negotiated settlement. Secretary Webster recruited a former congressman from Maine, Francis O. J. Smith, to run this sensitive—in fact, illegal—operation. It was illegal because the money for the operation came out of the president’s Secret Service Fund, which was designed for confidential foreign operations, not domestic ones. Yet Tyler and Webster decided that avoiding conflict with Great Britain was so critical that extraordinary measures were required to secure the peace.
Francis Smith and his operatives targeted opinion shapers in Maine, including journalists, clergymen, lawyers, and political figures, suggesting that they reconsider the idea of going to war. In some cases, Smith wrote anonymous newspaper editorials urging a peaceful solution, with many of these pieces published throughout the nation. Some of the money designated for this operation may have involved bribing these opinion shapers, to the point that the Secret Service Fund was drained. At this point, Secretary Webster turned to Lord Ashburton (1774–1848), a British diplomat, to provide supplemental funds from the British Secret Service. Ashburton delivered $14,500 (approximately $441,000 today) to Webster to continue the covert propaganda campaign against American citizens. The administration hoped that if the tide of public opinion turned in Maine, the rest of the nation would follow suit, which is precisely what happened. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty was signed on August 9, 1842, resolving most of the issues that almost triggered a war.
This collusion between the American and British governments was an extraordinary event in early American history, and it reveals the potential dangers of placing clandestine resources at the disposal of government officials, no matter how well intentioned. By opting to manipulate domestic public opinion through secret means, the U.S. government ran roughshod over the nation’s core principle of self-government. As Americans would discover in the twentieth century, the notion that “if the president does it, it is not illegal” opens the door to a wide array of abuses that undermine the rule of law. In the letter reprinted below, Smith outlined his plan to Webster regarding “divesting” the Maine border dispute of its “belligerent spirit.”
The Papers of Daniel Webster, digital edition (Charlottesville: University of Virginia
Press, 2018), https://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/WBST-03-01-02-0003-0032.
I have revolved the boundary question still further in my own mind. . . .
The dispute, in reality . . . has not been so much with the federal government and the British government, as with the people of Maine and the people of the British provinces. . . .
Now my plan is to prepare public sentiment in Maine for a compromise of the matter. . . .
. . .[P]ublic sentiment upon this matter can be brought into right shape in Maine, by enlisting certain leading men of both political parties (yet not politically) and through them, at a proper time hereafter, guiding aright the public press.
Having obtained the favorable opinion of the leading political men of Maine, through regular and successive approaches, . . . (all of which is feasible by a few months’ steady and well directed correspondence and the active agency of a very select few) and drawing after this an appropriate expression of the public press, the same work could be accomplished in much less time among the citizens of the interested provinces—and the whole may be combined into corresponding and reciprocal resolutions of the legislative assemblies of the two local governments, at their next winter sessions, in ample season for Congress to confirm all at its next regular session.
A few thousand dollars expended upon such an agency will accomplish more than hundreds of thousands expended through the formalities and delays of ordinary diplomatic negotiations & surveys and more than millions would, if the parties shall be brought into belligerent attitudes on the subject—and what is more—it would avert all occasion for such a national calamity as the latter event would certainly be, however thrice-armed in justice our quarrel might be.
The whole proceeding must be conducted with system and prudence. I would have it commence with the proper enlistment of the services of a few judicious cooperators at different points in Maine, and extending their circle gradually, without display or the betrayal of official authority as opportunity might be created—drawing silently in the voluntary and patriotic men of influence of both political parties—carefully ripening the whole into a compact before the supposed interests or prejudices of any class should be excited in relation to it on account of the credit it might reflect upon the administration which had accomplished it.
So confident am I that this proceeding would prove effectual and most honorable to all concerned that I am extremely solicitous for the honor of your own and President Tyler’s administration, and for the interest and quiet of Maine, that it should be attempted. In the worst view, the hazard will be of comparatively small amount in expenses before some developments will be made to you of its progress, such as would enable you and the president to judge of the propriety of pursuing it. But persons immediately engaged in it should feel if it was a subject worthy of their whole time and effort to accomplish it, both in a personal, political, and national point of view . . .
My own compensation I should expect to be definitively fixed at the rate of $3,500 per annum. . . . Success would warrant almost any expenditure. . . .