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A Good and Wise Measure: the Search for the Canadian-American Boundary, 1783-1842.

by Francis M. Carroll. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2001.

xxiii, 462 pp. $75.00 US (cloth), $29.95 US (paper).

As a graduate student, I wrote a paper about the disputed Maine-New Brunswick boundary. A kindly supervisor urged me to move on. It was not, he remarked, the most interesting border in the world. This was an example of a historian judging the significance of an issue in terms of the body count. Thus the frontier between Russia and Germany is hugely fascinating because it bas been the scene of millions of deaths. By comparison, the Aroostook "War" of 1839 is amusingly unimpressive: State and colonial militia forces defiantly avoided each other, and the worst violence was a fist-fight between fraternizing troops in a Houlton bar. Francis M. Carroll was initially drawn to the Canadian-American boundary by the realization that his birthplace in northern Minnesota almost became part of the British empire. He too put aside early research on the subject in 1977 when Howard Jones published his study of the Ashburton-Webster treaty of 1842, which largely resolved the eastern half of the transcontinental boundary. Happily, Carroll later returned to the subject, to examine the subject in a much longer time frame. The rose-tinted spectacles of hindsight would expect us to find a story with a happy ending. Of course, the world's longest undefended border ought to have been the product of uncontested negotiation. After all, at one point, William Pitt Preble was an American negotiator while William Pitt Adams was a member of the British delegation. Children of a common mother, as Vancouver's Peace Arch proclaims astride the forty-ninth parallel, how could the two countries have quarrelled over a line in the trees? Yet, as Carroll points out, the significance of the story lies in precisely the fact that the question perennially triggered disagreement, sometimes provoked talk of open conflict, and might well have led to war. Rather, the boundary between the United States and Canada was determined by an innovation in modern international relations, the use of arbitration. Moreover, it was not simply a once-off invocation of a single form of arbitration. Britain and America experimented with joint commissions, mixed commissions and a neutral umpire. The world is, just marginally, a safer place today as a result of forty years of dogged perseverance in pursuit of an equitable solution. That makes the Canadian-American boundary a very interesting border indeed, the more so as Carroll's book often combines the atmosphere of a travelogue with the elements of a detective story.

The negotiators of 1783 defined some highly precise but unluckily often imaginary boundaries. They probably worked from an inaccurate map, but did not append a marked copy to the treaty. What probably began as a convenient blurring of issues generated a host of problems. Where was the St. Croix river? Which, of a myriad of streams, constituted the headwaters of the Connecticut? Did Mars Hill exist? Was there a "north-west angle" to Nova Scotia? Even where lines had been marked out, there was scope for error. The boundary of New York ran along the forty-fifth parallel, but a survey in the 1770s had drawn the line about a kilometre too far to the north. In all innocence, the United States had built a fort to guard Lake Champlain inside British territory. Between 1816 and 1827, a series of commissions settled much of the boundary from the Atlantic to the head of Lake Superior. Their achievement was remarkable. They worked in virgin territory, carrying out highly technical operations despite sickness, death and perennial difficulties with supplies. Despite mutual suspicion and cultural clashes, the survey teams worked together remarkably well, not least in engaging in low-level diplomacy so that the Americans gained islands safeguarding access to the Detroit River, while the British held on to Campobello and Grand Manan, to which Maine arguably had a stronger claim, and secured Wolfe Island as a screen for Kingston.

By 1827, it was no longer possible to pretend that the two governments were simply searching for a boundary that already existed. The basis for a deal had been sketched by John Quincy Adams rive years earlier: American concessions to give the British a military road from New Brunswick to the St Lawrence (a route they well knew they could cut in wartime) in exchange for flexibility elsewhere. In 1828, it was agreed to refer the dispute to the King of the Netherlands. The arbitration came unstuck. In 1828, William I ruled the whole of the Low Countries. By the time he reported, in 1831, Belgium had broken free. Was he the same monarch? Had he fallen into the pocket of the British, who pulled some Dutch chestnuts out of the European tire, without in fact earning themselves much gratitude in the process? Had he been asked to determine the line of 1783, or given the authority to split the difference? Political discourse in Maine held that the state's claims were indisputable and hence Washington could not surrender any part of its sovereignty. Political abuse in Maine invited the Dutch king to confine his activities to dykes and polders and abstain from pronouncing upon mountain ridges. As Maine and New Brunswick confronted each other, an element of farce was injected by a comic duo of British surveyors, Featherstonhaugh and Mudge, who persuaded the belligerent foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, that previous imperial claims had been, if anything, too modest. In the circumstances, it is remarkable that a settlement was reached in 1842 between Palmerston's peaceable successor, Lord Aberdeen, and a politically isolated President John Tyler, through Secretary of State Daniel Webster and the British negotiator, Lord Ashburton. It is Ashburton's description of his "capitulation" that forms the title of the book.

A study of this kind can never have too many maps. Fifteen have been scattered through the text. They might have better confined to a separate section, and they would have been more useful had the scale been added. Endnotes and (a rare feature nowadays) bibliography take up 120 pages, more than a quarter of the book. The references are comprehensive. Many supply supplementary information, but they are not discursive.

In October 2002, a citizen of Pohenegamook, Quebec, Michel Jalbert, fell foul of American law when he crossed into the doppelganger village of Estcourt Station, Maine. Somehow the main drag, Border Street, had become detached from the international boundary, so that the local gas station sits on American soil (and charges US prices) but can only be accessed from Canada. Jalbert was arrested as an illegal immigrant, and his problems worsened when federal prosecutors round he was threatening the American way of life by carrying a gun. He would surely agree with Francis M. Carroll that the story of Canadian-American border is worth telling once again.

Ged Martin

Shanacoole, West Waterford, Ireland
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Author:Martin, Ged
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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