Skip to content

The Aroostook War of 1838

Van Buren and his foreign policy team, led by Gen. Winfield Scott and Secretary of State John Forsyth, had done an effective job of snuffing out the fires along the border between western New York and Canada, but the feuds with our northern neighbors were about to escalate dangerously when Maine and New Brunswick clashed over a boundary dispute dating back to the Revolution.

Weeks after the skirmishes in Upper Canada more or less ceased, the government of Maine sent an expedition into the Aroostook River valley to rid it of Canadian “trespassers,” and a flare-up ensued, resulting in the leader of the effort landing in jail. The Canadians didn’t stop there. Lieutenant Governor John Harvey of New Brunswick threatened Americans that any incursions would result in an greater show of force. The governor of Maine, Van Buren’s close friend John Fairfield, responded in kind, sending 300 militiamen into the Aroostook and assembled another 1,000. Fairfield would prove to be a troublemaker in this affair. He delivered a fiery speech invoking the “spirit of ’76” in sending men to battle up north.

Not tampering with an effective formula, Van Buren once again sent Scott to the border. Van Buren held a Cabinet meeting and sent a message to Congress about the Aroostook affair. His message was astonishing in its diplomacy in even-handedness. He defended the Americans’ right to the territory and thought Fairfield was justified in expelling a “band of lawless and desperate men,” but he also criticized the Maine governor for occupying a territory “by force while the settlement is a subject of negotiation.” He warned Fairfield that the federal government would not countenance this occupation nor would it come to the aid of the state if incidents arose because of it. Van Buren called on both parties to withdraw troops and release all prisoners. Fairfield didn’t care for the reprimand. He shot off an angry and impertinent letter to the president, warning him that if he should “go against us upon this occasion … God only knows what the result would be politically.”

Lucky for all concerned, passions cooled and the diplomats worked out a solution. On 27 February, 1838,  British minister Henry S. Fox and Forsyth signed a memorandum calling for the withdrawal of troops from the area. Van Buren was still concerned that the hot-headed Fairfield might round up forces again, so he passed a bill in Congress granting him $10 million and the power to take control of local militias should hostilities erupt again. It was not needed, however, as Scott once again used his brilliant diplomatic skills to get Fairfield to back off for good. Lord Palmerston lauded Van Buren’s “wise and enlightened course.” Andrew Jackson, it should be noted, was calling for war, even promising to use his own “feeble arm … to chastise the temerity of British insolence.”

The Aroostook War ended without a shot being fired. A neutral area was established, and it was not until the next administration that the boundaries were settled in an official treaty between the United States and Great Britain.