How did the United States and Great Britain eliminate their dueling navies on the Great Lakes and establish their borders in 1818?
The Rush-Bagot Pact was an agreement between the United States and Great Britain to eliminate their fleets from the Great Lakes, excepting small patrol vessels. The Convention of 1818 set the boundary between the Missouri Territory in the United States and British North America (later Canada) at the forty-ninth parallel. Both agreements reflected the easing of diplomatic tensions that had led to the War of 1812 and marked the beginning of Anglo-American cooperation.
U.S. political leaders had long expressed interest in disarming the Great Lakes and had proposed such a measure during negotiations that led to the 1794 Jay Treaty, but British officials had rejected this proposal. During the War of 1812, both Great Britain and the United States had built fleets of ships on lakes Erie and Ontario, and fought many battles in the region. Near the end of the war, U.S. forces had achieved dominance over the Lakes.
After the war, both powers were wary of one another’s military strength and a postwar shipbuilding race ensued. However, both countries also wished to reduce their military expenditures. Unfortunately, the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, contained no disarmament provisions. However, it did establish commissions to resolve contested areas along the border (as determined by the 1783 Treaty of Paris) between the United States and British North America.
Relations improve between US and Britain after War of 1812
Although tensions between Great Britain and the United States remained high along the Great Lakes, overall relations improved. Postwar trade rebounded, and British political leaders increasingly viewed the United States as a valuable trading partner, while also realizing that British North America would be expensive and difficult to defend should another war break out. When U.S. Minister to Great Britain, John Quincy Adams, proposed disarmament on January 25, 1816, British Foreign Secretary Viscount Castlereagh responded favorably. The British Government had already dispatched Charles Bagot as Minister to the United States with the intention of improving relations between the two countries.
Bagot met with Secretary of State James Monroe informally, and finally reached an agreement with his successor, Acting Secretary Richard Rush. The agreement limited military navigation on the Great Lakes to one to two vessels per country on each lake. The U.S. Senate ratified the agreement on April 28, 1818. The British Government considered a diplomatic exchange of letters between Rush and Bagot sufficient to make the agreement effective.
Negotiating borders between US and Britain in North America
In addition to the issue of military navigation of the Great Lakes, the British Government was also open to negotiations regarding a number of other points of contention that had not been resolved by the Treaty of Ghent. Several commissions met to settle border disputes along the U.S. border with British North America. One of these commissions awarded several islands off the coasts of Maine to New Brunswick. However, negotiators deadlocked over other parts of the northern borders of Maine and New Hampshire. That issue would not be resolved until the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which also resolved the border between Canada and northeastern Minnesota.
Several other separate committees determined other stretches of border that negotiators at the 1783 Treaty of Paris had drawn with faulty maps. The commissions divided the St. Lawrence and other rivers connecting the Great Lakes to allow both countries navigable channels, and handed Wolfe Island near Kingston, Ontario to the British and Grosse Île near Detroit to the United States. British and U.S. negotiators also agreed to make present-day Angle Inlet, Minnesota the end point of the 1783 border and to allow the Convention of 1818, concluded by Rush and Albert Gallatin, to determine the border to the west of that point.
While these commissions debated border issues, Rush and Gallatin concluded the Anglo-American Convention of 1818 that, among other things, confirmed permanent U.S. rights to fish off Newfoundland and Labrador. The Convention also made provisions for Russian mediation over the issue of escaped slaves in British hands (U.S. slaveowners were eventually provided monetary compensation) and also determined that the border from Angle Inlet would run south to the forty-ninth parallel, and then due west to the Rocky Mountains. The Oregon Country would remain open to both countries for ten years.
Although the agreements did not completely settle border disputes and trade arrangements, the Rush-Bagot agreement and the Convention of 1818 marked an important turning point in Anglo-American and American-Canadian relations.
- Republished from Office of the Historian, United States Department of State
- Article: Rush-Bagot Pact, 1817 and Convention of 1818