Demilitarizing the U.S./Canadian Border

Once the Treaty of Ghent was signed to end the War of 1812, U.S./British relations began to warm. There were several reasons. One was that the men who led both countries in two bitter wars were passing from the scene, either through retirement, being voted out of power, or death.

Another was that both countries realized that there was more to be gained by cooperation than conflict. By 1817, Napoleon had been defeated and exiled to the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.

Despite restrictions on both sides, trade between the two countries grew during the French Revolutionary and Napoleon Wars. Now that Europe was at peace, they began to increase at an even faster rate.

Last, there was a grudging acceptance in the U.K. that the United States was here to stay. We were not going to fall on our faces and need a king, or queen, or duke, or duchess to lead us. Add in that the U.S. was growing in population (we already had the land mass through the 1783 Treaty of Paris and the Louisiana Purchase), and in economic and industrial power.

Militarily, the U.S. was still a pigmy compared to the U.K. but didn’t need a large standing army because we didn’t have an empire to protect. The largest military threat to the U.S. was internal, not external. We needed an army that could protect the settlers moving west from the Native Americans. Even with the Napoleonic Wars over, we needed a navy to protect our ships traveling overseas.

Which brings us back to North America. The U.S. and the U.K. agreed something about the U.S./Canadian border had to be done.

During the American Revolution and during the War of 1812, the U.S. invaded Canada. Both times, the invasions failed, and during both wars, the major naval battles were fought on Lake Champlain and Lake Erie.

In 1817, Canada was not an independent country so any decisions about the colony’s borders had to be made in England. In a series of letters exchanged by the U.S. Secretary of State Richard Rush and the British Ambassador to the U.S., Sir Charles Bagot, in April 1817, the two men worked out an agreement that was submitted to both country’s legislatures.

On April 16th, 1818, the U.S. Congress ratified what is known as the Rush-Bago Treaty. In it, both countries agreed not to station armed naval vessels on any of the Great Lakes or Lake Champlain. The treaty also established the border as the geographic mid-point of the lakes. In addition, we agreed to joint control of the Oregon Territory and both countries agreed not to construct military or defensive fortifications on the U.S./Canadian border. This made our northern border – all 5,525 miles – the longest unfortified border in the world.

What is most interesting about the Rush-Bagot Treaty is that it has passed the test of time. Even during the American Civil War, when relations with the U.K. were tense over it selling weapons to the Confederacy, both sides honored the treaty.

One of the first acts of the New Canadian Parliament after the country became independent on July 1st, 1867, was to confirm that it would honor the provisions of Rush-Bagot. During World War II, the U.S. Navy had training vessels on the Great Lakes, something it notified Canada that it was doing. The Canadian Navy also had and still has bases on the Great Lakes for training.

Rush-Bagot is still in force. As late as 2004, the U.S. notified Canada that it would like to arm its Coast Guard boats that patrol the Great Lakes with machine guns due to an increase in smuggling. The Canadians agreed and said it would do the same.

What is interesting is that Rush-Bagot came together in just a few weeks. Transit times back and forth across the Atlantic is what delayed its ratification by Congress and the British Parliament. The agreement has had and continues to have far-reaching effects on the U.S. and Canadian National Security.

Image is of a plaque to the Rush-Bagot Treaty at the Royal Military College of Canada, Kingston, ON


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