This Week in History


Between Friends

For the week of Monday October 11, 2004

On October 15, 1854, the Reciprocity Treaty between British North America and the United States went into effect. The treaty was intended to create economic stability through the principle of equal duties on natural products on either side of the border.

Lord Elgin [photo of a lithograph by Theophile Hamel, ca. 1850]
© Archives of Ontario, S 158

Great Britain's decision to repeal the Corn Laws and the Navigation Acts during the 1840s had a negative impact on the British North American economy. Public opinion dictated that entering into an economic treaty with the United States could remedy the situation. In the past, Governor General Lord Elgin had tried in vain to have the United States to sign such a treaty. Relations between the United States and Britain were strained due to American fishermen's reluctance to respect the fishing boundaries of British North America.

Lord Elgin was appointed by the British government to represent the Canadian government in negotiations with the United States. He agreed to grant the United States permission to fish in the waters from Newfoundland to the 36th parallel, except for rivers. He also suggested that the United States agree to a reciprocal exchange of certain natural products such as wheat, vegetables, timber, and farm animals with British North America. Elgin's plan worked and the United States entered into a Reciprocity Treaty with British North America on June 6, 1854.

Engraving: "Canadian fishermen on the lookout for American intruders," drawn by Robert Harris, ca. 1888
© Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island, Acc.# 4045/6

The Reciprocity Treaty enabled forwarding agents to use the most cost-effective route for export shipments and encouraged new trade between the two countries. The years during which the treaty was in effect proved to be very prosperous; however, the treaty was not the only factor that helped to stimulate the economy. The railway boom was very lucrative on both sides of the border. Also, the demand for food from North America during the Crimean War (1854-56) helped the North American economy.

The anti-British sentiment of the American Civil War was a major factor in the United States' repeal of the treaty in 1866. The Americans also hoped that the economic consequences of the treaty's termination would cause British North America to join the United States. Instead, a nationalist fervor arose from the necessity of having to find new markets for Canadian goods, which later contributed to Canada's Confederation in 1867.

James Bruce (8th Earl of Elgin), who succeeded in bringing the Reciprocity Treaty to fruition in 1854, was designated as a person of National Historic Significance in 1953.

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