In the mid-1840s, the U.S. and Britain fought over an expanse of land in western North America.
In Canada (controlled by Britain at the time) the region was known as the Columbia District. In the U.S., it was known as the Oregon Territory.
Many people in the U.S. wanted the northern boundary of the Oregon Territory set as high as 54º 40′ N. (Today, this is the southernmost boundary between Alaska and British Colombia.)
They were so adamant about the United States’ claim to the land that they called for war with Britain. The slogan “fifty-four forty or fight!” became popular around this time, as did the concept of manifest destiny.
A compromise was finally reached with the 1846 Oregon Treaty, which fixed the boundary at the 49th parallel (excluding Vancouver).
Several years later, in June of 1854, senator John M. Clayton of Delaware addressed the Senate.
He claimed that while the debate over the border was still raging, “the canal-boats, and even some babies, it was said, were christened 54º 40′.”
I am dying to know if this is true.
I haven’t found any proof yet, but I’m always on the lookout…
- Page 1,000 of the Appendix to the Congressional Globe, 33rd Congress, 1st Session, via
- Thornton, Richard H. An American Glossary. Vol. 1. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1912, via
- Mencken, H. L. The American Language. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921.