Satire on the escalation of tensions during the Maine-New Brunswick border conflict in February and March 1839. The dispute involved the claim to valuable, timber-rich territory in the Aroostook region. The area was occupied in 1838 by timber interests from Maine and Massachusetts. Canadian troops were summoned to eject them, and the state militia was called out in their defense. Maine governor John Fairfield pressed for federal military action against the Canadians.
The artist here ridicules the bellicose elements on both sides. Van Buren sits astride an ox with Fairfield's head, wielding a sword and a shield emblazoned with a cabbage. The ox confronts a dog with the head of the Duke of Wellington, ridden by England's Queen Victoria, also armed with sword and shield. In the background British and American troops face each other across an open plain, while men fell timber in between.
Victoria: "O fie Brother Jonathan, to threaten a young woman with a war about a few sticks of timber. If I have your property make it appear & I will pay for the value: do not compel me to quarrel when we ought to be friends."
Wellington: "My Royal Mistress let us give them a touch of Waterloo, by so doing we can turn out the Whig Ministers."
Van Buren: "I must make a flourish to please my Loco Foco friends, but in truth I don't relish committing myself in favor of war;--They may think I am not exactly the man to carry it on & call for Clay the never failing pacificator; but I must make a flourish."
Fairfield: "Go ahead Matty I want to be elected Governer again. Make them retreat, or pay for the timber. Maine wants money & must have it."
The ox's tail is pulled by Virginia Congressman Henry A. Wise. He argues, "Come Matty be Wise, don't be so very warlike, it won't do to fight about the timber, let them pay the value to brother Jonathan & he will be satisfied."
Marked stylistic similarities between "The Main Question" and two other 1839 prints by HD, "The Cut Direct" and "The Meeting at Saratoga" (nos. 1839-3 and -4), strongly suggest common authorship.