In the aftermath of the War of 1812 considerable tensions still existed between the United States and Great Britain. Just what is the Rush-Bagot Treaty of 1817 and how did it help lead to peaceful relations between the two nations?
The United States and Great Britain had a tumultuous relationship following the American Revolution, eventually leading to the War of 1812. The important Treaty of Ghent ended the war in 1815 and largely returned conditions back to how they were pre-war.
This uneasy peace led many to believe that a future war with Great Britain was inevitable. British-Americans in Canada were especially wary given their vulnerability to an American attack due to the wide disparity in population size and industrial capacity and output.
The Great Lakes featured prominently in the War of 1812 as the two sides participated in a naval arms race to control the vital waters. Post-war these massive navies cost a great deal to maintain, with both sides finding it difficult to justify such costs during peacetime.
Finally, the United States and Great Britain agreed to the Rush-Bagot Treaty of 1817 which accomplished its stated purpose in limiting naval armaments on the Great Lakes following the War of 1812.
The smaller navies on the Great Lakes helped to diffuse tensions between the two nations. Along with the Convention of 1818 that helped define the boundary line, the Rush-Bagot treaty is largely credited with beginning two centuries of mainly peaceful relations between the two nations.
US Relations with Great Britain Post-War of 1812
The Treaty of Ghent did little to resolve the outstanding quarrels between the United States and Great Britain. There was reason to believe that a future war could break out between the two nations at a moment’s notice.
Both nations immediately implemented plans to improve defensive networks throughout the Americas.
The British began an extensive canal-building effort to improve military communications and transportation while simultaneously encouraging settlers to avoid large tracts of wilderness along the border. This untamed land would help serve as a buffer against any American aggression.1
The United States also moved to fortify defenses, though not where you might think. The battles of the War of 1812 showed that the US was most vulnerable along its long Atlantic seaboard, not at its northern border. Most military expenditures post-war were directed towards improving coastal forts, while little was given to forts along the border.
The United States concluded that should war break out again, the British-Canadians posed little offensive threat and was one that could be easily countered given the population and industrial advantage.1
Both nations’ actions post-war can be summed up by the popular expression “to secure peace, prepare for war.”2
One area where both the US and Great Britain had significant forces was in the Great Lakes region. The war saw the expansion of naval forces on both sides as the two nations fought for control of the vital waterways.
Both nations reduced their forces after the war, though both were left with a large force of some twenty-five wooden vessels each. The American also had two ships in the dockyards being built that would likely have become the largest ships in existence at the time.1,3
When the United States received word that Britain intended to increase the size and efficacy of their lake fleets, it became alarmed at the escalation of armaments in the region.
What is the Rush-Bagot Treaty of 1817?
The Rush-Bagot treaty of 1817 was a landmark agreement between the United States and Great Britain to limit the number of naval vessels each nation could employ on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain. The treaty helped form the basis of the later agreements to demilitarize the entire boundary.
The terms of the treaty stated that both nations were limited to one vessel on Lake Champlain and Lake Ontario and two vessels on the remaining upper Great Lakes such as Lakes Huron, Superior, and Michigan. The vessels were not to exceed 100 tons burden and were armed with no more than an 18-pound cannon.3
The Rush-Bagot treaty is named after American diplomat and then-Acting Secretary of State Richard Rush and then-British Minister to Washington Sir Charles Bagot. Both men interestingly agreed to negotiations over the issue via exchange of notes, forgoing in-person diplomacy.3
The terms were agreed to on April 28, 1817, and both nations effectively began enforcement even though the treaty was still pending ratification by the Senate. The Senate would ultimately unanimously ratify it on April 16, 1818.
The Rush-Bagot treaty was favorable to both the United States and Great Britain, helping both lower naval maintenance costs during peacetime. However, it must be noted that the US derived possibly greater benefits while the British conceded on many items.
The British knew it would be more difficult to once again increase the size of their naval force as quickly as the United States in the event of a future war. By limiting their naval armament, they were giving up a key strategic defense initiative against American aggression.
However, British Commodore James Yeo said it best when he wrote, “The preservation of Canada by means of a naval force on the lakes, will, in my opinion, be an endless if not futile undertaking.”1
The British were better served in hoping that disarmament would lead to an enduring peace and take advantage of the lower military maintenance costs in the region in the short term.
Rush-Bagot Treaty and Myth of the Unguarded Frontier
Many journalists and historians claim that the Rush-Bagot treaty marked the beginning of the demilitarized and undefended border between the United States and Great Britain/Canada. However, prior to 1872 it is largely a myth that the border was undefended and only peaceful relations occurred between the two nations.
The benefit of hindsight shows us that there were very few crises at the border following the Rush-Bagot treaty. However, during the over half century between 1817-1871, war between the two nations was very possible, if not probable to occur.1
Both Great Britain and the United States blatantly violated the agreement at times while simultaneously preparing for a future war by means other than naval armaments.
In order to help offset the loss of naval power on the Great Lakes, the British invested heavily in a series of canals and forts across Canada to improve communications and defensive capabilities.1
The Rush-Bagot treaty also importantly did not require dockyards or the existing ships to be destroyed. The US and British simply disarmed many of the ships and housed them in dockyards ready to be outfitted at a moment’s notice if required.
During the 1838 Canadian Revolution, the British blatantly increased the size of the naval forces on the lakes to deal with the revolutionaries. After the crisis had largely passed, the British did not disarm the additional vessels per the treaty terms.
In response, the United States built and launched the USS Michigan on the Great Lakes, the nation’s first iron-hulled warship. Weighing in at 498 tons and boasting four 32-pound cannons, the ship was clearly over the limits imposed by the treaty.3
Despite the blatant violations of the treaty, the two nations did not escalate armaments and handled these situations via diplomacy.
What did the Rush-Bagot Treaty Accomplish?
The primary accomplishment of the Rush-Bagot treaty was the disarmament of the British and American naval fleets on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain. De-escalation along the border helped to secure a peace between the two nations that would ultimately last over two hundred years.
The Treaty of Ghent that ended the important War of 1812 solved little with many disputes remaining and tensions still high. It appeared destined to simply lead to more conflict between Great Britain and the United States, just as the original Treaty of Paris (1783) did following the American Revolution.
Without the combining effects of the Rush-Bagot treaty and the subsequent Convention of 1818 that resolved several important boundary issues, a future war was all but probable. These two events were instrumental in building a new peaceful relationship between the two nations among the backdrop of the Era of Good Feelings.
While the Rush-Bagot treaty is often mistakenly referred to as the beginning of the undefended border, it cannot be denied that the language and intent of the treaty was the foundation of the modern undefended border between the United States and Canada.
The true unguarded, undefended American-Canadian border would not arise until the Treaty of Washington in 1871 that resolved future outstanding disputes and began the modern era of peace without worry of war.
The Rush-Bagot agreement is often cited as the beginning of what Winston Churchill called the “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain.4
While this may not necessarily be true, it cannot be denied how successful the treaty was at reducing tensions and building the foundations of a lasting peace.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Stacey, C. P. “The Myth of the Unguarded Frontier 1815-1871.” The American Historical Review, vol. 56, no. 1, [Oxford University Press, American Historical Association], 1950, pp. 1–18, https://doi.org/10.2307/1840618.
2) POWERS, MABEL. “The Disarmament Pact Between the United States and Canada.” Current History (1916-1940), vol. 32, no. 2, University of California Press, 1930, pp. 273–76, http://www.jstor.org/stable/45333288.
3) Boutell, Henry Sherman. “Is the Rush-Bagot Convention Immortal?” The North American Review, vol. 173, no. 538, University of Northern Iowa, 1901, pp. 331–48, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25105212.
4) DRAKE, JAMES D. “The Defining Relationship.” Diplomatic History, vol. 36, no. 2, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 427–29, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44376158.