The Oregon Question
for Elihu Burritt, the Learned Blacksmith (1810-1879)
1 “Fifty-four Forty or Fight!”
You’re sitting in your bare-bones room in Worcester,
Massachusetts, a continent away from all those settlers
from Kansas and Ohio stirring up dust on the Oregon Trail 400 miles south of you, in Congress, the talk is Manifest
Destiny, the Stars and Stripes over Vancouver Island.
Such a small, intricately laced world! This morning’s post
brings a packet from a stranger across the sea: a letter
from the plain folk of Edinburgh, Scotland, to unknown
friends in Washington City They beg for reason and
goodwill: a Motherland at peace with her distant child.
And here’s a letter to the citizens of Philadelphia
with the same urgent message, signed by the good people
of Manchester, England You’ll accept the mission,
carry these letters to the Capitol and the City of Brotherly
Love: each single voice louder than slogans for war.
2 A Ship Goes Aground off Nantucket
from “A Child’s Question” by Elihu Burritt
“Fifty-four Forty or Fight!” It looks like war,
United States against the Motherland And off the coast of Massachusetts, Mother Nature
brews a storm.
Against the wind, English seamen
wrestle down their sails But still, their solid British ship
wrecks on the shoals off Nantucket.
Merchants and whalers, good Nantucketeers
rope themselves in, throw themselves
into the waves to save seafarers
from a common foe and friend, the Sea.
Observe this English mariner
shivering and drenched,
wrapped in Yankee
comforters and warmed with tea
as a small child asks
her father, isn’t this the enemy
we wish to go to war
3 On Board the Hibernia, May 1846
Here you are, Connecticut New Britain son
of a dead shoemaker who could have guessed
you’d be riding the same ocean waves
that tide so many storms between your New World
and old Motherland? This steamer ship
christened Hibernia sails today with blessed
tidings for Britain some might call it
Serendipity bearing you east so far beyond
your berth and birth-land, a vessel that holds
your hopes, and answers all your letters
Its news: the Oregon Question is settled
yes, settled peaceably