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Lord Elgin
Chapter IX - Canada and the United States


In a long letter which he wrote to Earl Grey in August, 1850, Lord Elgin used these significant words: "To render annexation by violence impossible, or by any other means improbable as may be, is, as I have often ventured to repeat, the polar star of my policy." To understand the full significance of this language it is only necessary to refer to the history of the difficulties with which the governor-general had to contend from the first hour he came to the province and began his efforts to allay the feeling of disaffection then too prevalent throughout the country--especially among the commercial classes--and to give encouragement to that loyal sentiment which had been severely shaken by the indifference or ignorance shown by British statesmen and people with respect to the conditions and interests of the Canadas. He was quite conscious that, if the province was to remain a contented portion of the British empire, it could be best done by giving full play to the principles of self-government among both nationalities who had been so long struggling to obtain the application of the parliamentary system of England in the fullest sense to the operation of their own internal affairs, and by giving to the industrial and commercial classes adequate compensation for the great losses which they had sustained by the sudden abolition of the privileges which England had so long extended to Canadian products--notably, flour, wheat and lumber--in the British market.

Lord Elgin knew perfectly well that, while this discontent existed, the party which favoured annexation would not fail to find sympathy and encouragement in the neighbouring republic. He recalled the fact that both Papineau and Mackenzie, after the outbreak of their abortive rebellion, had many abettors across the border, as the infamous raids into Canada clearly proved. Many people in the United States, no doubt, saw some analogy between the grievances of Canadians and those which had led to the American revolution. "The mass of the American people," said Lord Durham, "had judged of the quarrel from a distance; they had been obliged to form their judgment on the apparent grounds of the controversy; and were thus deceived, as all those are apt to be who judge under such circumstances, and on such grounds. The contest bore some resemblance to that great struggle of their own forefathers, which they regard with the highest pride. Like that, they believed it to be the contest of a colony against the empire, whose misconduct alienated their own country; they considered it to be a contest undertaken by a people professing to seek independence of distant control, and extension of popular privileges." More than that, the striking contrast which was presented between Canada and the United States "in respect to every sign of productive industry, increasing wealth, and progressive civilization" was considered by the people of the latter country to be among the results of the absence of a political system which would give expansion to the energies of the colonists and make them self-reliant in every sense. Lord Durham's picture of the condition of things in 1838-9 was very painful to Canadians, although it was truthful in every particular. "On the British side of the line," he wrote, "with the exception of a few favoured spots, where some approach to American prosperity is apparent, all seems waste and desolate." But it was not only "in the difference between the larger towns on the two sides" that we could see "the best evidence of our own inferiority." That "painful and undeniable truth was most manifest in the country districts through which the line of national separation passes for one thousand miles." Mrs. Jameson in her "Winter Studies and Summer Rambles," written only a year or two before Lord Durham's report, gives an equally unfavourable comparison between the Canadian and United States sides of the western country. As she floated on the Detroit river in a little canoe made of a hollow tree, and saw on one side "a city with its towers, and spires, and animated population," and on the other "a little straggling hamlet with all the symptoms of apathy, indolence, mistrust, hopelessness," she could not help wondering at this "incredible difference between the two shores," and hoping that some of the colonial officials across the Atlantic would be soon sent "to behold and solve the difficulty."

But while Lord Durham was bound to emphasize this unsatisfactory state of things he had not lost his confidence in the loyalty of the mass of the Canadian people, notwithstanding the severe strain to which they had been subject on account of the supineness of the British government to deal vigorously and promptly with grievances of which they had so long complained as seriously affecting their connection with the parent state and the development of their material resources. It was only necessary, he felt, to remove the causes of discontent to bring out to the fullest extent the latent affection which the mass of French and English Canadians had been feeling for British connection ever since the days when the former obtained guarantees for the protection of their dearest institutions and the Loyalists of the American Revolution crossed the frontier for the sake of Crown and empire. "We must not take every rash expression of disappointment," wrote Lord Durham, "as an indication of a settled aversion to the existing constitution; and my own observation convinces me that the predominant feeling of all the British population of the North American colonies is that of devoted attachment to the mother country. I believe that neither the interests nor the feelings of the people are incompatible with a colonial government, wisely and popularly administered." His strong conviction then was that if connection with Great Britain was to be continuous, if every cause of discontent was to be removed, if every excuse for interference "by violence on the part of the United States" was to be taken away, if Canadian annexationists were no longer to look for sympathy and aid among their republican neighbours, the Canadian people must be given the full control of their own internal affairs, while the British government on their part should cease that constant interference which only irritated and offended the colony. "It is not by weakening," he said, "but strengthening the influence of the people on the government; by confining within much narrower bounds than those hitherto allotted to it, and not by extending the interference of the imperial authorities in the details of colonial affairs, that I believe that harmony is to be restored, where dissension has so long prevailed; and a regularity and vigour hitherto unknown, introduced into the administration of these provinces." And he added that if the internal struggle for complete self-government were renewed "the sympathy from without would at some time or other re-assume its former strength."

Lord Elgin appeared on the scene at the very time when there was some reason for a repetition of that very struggle, and a renewal of that very "sympathy from without" which Lord Durham imagined. The political irritation, which had been smouldering among the great mass of Reformers since the days of Lord Metcalfe, was seriously aggravated by the discontent created by commercial ruin and industrial paralysis throughout Canada as a natural result of Great Britain's ruthless fiscal policy. The annexation party once more came to the surface, and contrasts were again made between Canada and the United States seriously to the discredit of the imperial state. "The plea of self-interest," wrote Lord Elgin in 1849, "the most powerful weapon, perhaps, which the friends of British connection have wielded in times past, has not only been wrested from my hands but transferred since 1846 to those of the adversary." He then proceeded to contrast the condition of things on the two sides of the Niagara, only "spanned by a narrow bridge, which it takes a foot passenger about three minutes to cross." The inhabitants on the Canadian side were "for the most part United Empire Loyalists" and differed little in habits or modes of thought and expression from their neighbours. Wheat, their staple product, grown on the Canadian side of the line, "fetched at that time in the market from 9d. to 1s. less than the same article grown on the other." These people had protested against the Montreal annexation movement, but Lord Elgin was nevertheless confident that the large majority firmly believed "that their annexation to the United States would add one-fourth to the value of the produce of their farms." In dealing with the causes of discontent Lord Elgin came to exactly the same conclusion which, as I have just shown, was accepted by Lord Durham after a close study of the political and material conditions of the country. He completed the work of which his eminent predecessor had been able only to formulate the plan. By giving adequate scope to the practice of responsible government, he was able to remove all causes for irritation against the British government, and prevent annexationists from obtaining any sympathy from that body of American people who were always looking for an excuse for a movement--such a violent movement as suggested by Lord Elgin in the paragraph given above--which would force Canada into the states of the union. Having laid this foundation for a firm and popular government, he proceeded to remove the commercial embarrassment by giving a stimulus to Canadian trade by the repeal of the navigation laws, and the adoption of reciprocity with the United States. The results of his efforts were soon seen in the confidence which all nationalities and classes of the Canadian people felt in the working of their system of government, in the strengthening of the ties between the imperial state and the dependency, and in the decided stimulus given to the shipping and trade throughout the provinces of British North America.

I have already in the previous chapters of this book dwelt on the methods which Lord Elgin so successfully adopted to establish responsible government in accordance with the wishes of the Canadian people, and it is now only necessary to refer to his strenuous efforts during six years to obtain reciprocal trade between Canada and the United States. It was impossible at the outset of his negotiations to arouse any active interest among the politicians of the republic as long as they were unable to see that the proposed treaty would be to the advantage of their particular party or of the nation at large. No party in congress was ready to take it up as a political question and give it that impulse which could be best given by a strong partisan organization. The Canadian and British governments could not get up a "lobby" to press the matter in the ways peculiar to professional politicians, party managers, and great commercial or financial corporations. Mr. Hincks brought the powers of his persuasive tongue and ingenious intellect to bear on the politicians at Washington, but even he with all his commercial acuteness and financial knowledge was unable to accomplish anything. It was not until Lord Elgin himself went to the national capital and made use of his diplomatic tact and amenity of demeanour that a successful result was reached. No governor-general who ever visited the United States made so deep an impression on its statesmen and people as was made by Lord Elgin during this mission to Washington, and also in the course of the visits he paid to Boston and Portland where he spoke with great effect on several occasions. He won the confidence and esteem of statesmen and politicians by his urbanity, dignity, and capacity for business. He carried away his audiences by his exhibition of a high order of eloquence, which evoked the admiration of those who had been accustomed to hear Webster, Everett, Wendell, Philipps, Choate, and other noted masters of oratory in America.

He spoke at Portland after his success in negotiating the treaty, and was able to congratulate both Canada and the United States on the settlement of many questions which had too long alienated peoples who ought to be on the most friendly terms with each other. He was now near the close of his Canadian administration and was able to sum up the results of his labours. The discontent with which the people of the United States so often sympathized had been brought to an end "by granting to Canadians what they desired--the great principle of self-government" "The inhabitants of Canada at this moment," he went on to say, "exercise as much influence over their own destinies and government as do the people of the United States. This is the only  cause of misunderstanding that ever existed; and this cannot arise when the circumstances which made them at variance have ceased to exist."

The treaty was signed on June 5th, 1854, by Lord Elgin on the part of Great Britain, and by the Honourable W.L. Marcy, secretary of state, on behalf of the United States, but it did not legally come into force until it had been formally ratified by the parliament of Great Britain, the congress of the United States, and the several legislatures of the British provinces. It exempted from customs duties on both sides of the line certain articles which were the growth and produce of the British colonies and of the United States--the principal being grain, flour, breadstuffs, animals, fresh, smoked, and salted meats, fish, lumber of all kinds, poultry, cotton, wool, hides, ores of metal, pitch, tar, ashes, flax, hemp, rice, and unmanufactured tobacco. The people of the United States and of the British provinces were given an equal right to navigate the St. Lawrence river, the Canadian canals and Lake Michigan. No export duty could be levied on lumber cut in Maine and passing down the St. John or other streams in New Brunswick. The most important question temporarily settled by the treaty was the fishery dispute which had been assuming a troublesome aspect for some years previously. The government at Washington then began to raise the issue that the three mile limit to which their fishermen could be confined should follow the sinuosities of the coasts, including bays; the object being to obtain access to the valuable mackerel fisheries of the Bay of Chaleurs and other waters claimed to be exclusively within the territorial jurisdiction of the maritime provinces. The imperial government generally sustained the contention of the provinces--a contention practically supported by the American authorities in the case of Delaware, Chesapeake, and other bays on the coasts of the United States--that the three mile limit should be measured from a line drawn from headland to headland of all bays, harbours, and creeks. In the case of the Bay of Fundy, however, the imperial government allowed a departure from this general principle when it was urged by the Washington government that one of its headlands was in the territory of the United States, and that it was an arm of the sea rather than a bay. The result was that foreign fishing vessels were shut out only from the bays on the coasts of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick within the Bay of Fundy. All these questions were, however, placed in abeyance, for twelve years, by the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854, which provided that the inhabitants of the United States could take fish of any kind, except shell fish, on the sea coasts, and shores, in the bays, harbours, and creeks of any British province, without any restriction as to distance, and had also permission to land on these coasts and shores for the purpose of drying their nets and curing their fish. The same privileges were extended to British citizens on the eastern sea coasts and shores of the United States, north of the 36th parallel of north latitude--privileges of no practical value to the people of British North America compared with those they gave up in their own prolific waters. The farmers of the agricultural west accepted with great satisfaction a treaty which gave their products free access to their natural market, but the fishermen and seamen of the maritime provinces, especially of Nova Scotia, were for some time dissatisfied with provisions which gave away their most valuable fisheries without adequate compensation, and at the same time refused them the privilege--a great advantage to a ship-building, ship-owning province--of the coasting trade of the United States on the same terms which were allowed to American and British vessels on the coasts of British North America. On the whole, however, the treaty eventually proved of benefit to all the provinces at a time when trade required just such a stimulus as it gave in the markets of the United States. The aggregate interchange of commodities between the two countries rose from an annual average of $14,230,763 in the years previous to 1854 to $33,492,754 gold currency, in the first year of its existence; to $42,944,754 gold currency, in the second year; to $50,339,770 gold currency in the third year; and to no less a sum than $84,070,955 at war prices, in the thirteenth year when it was terminated by the United States in accordance with the provision, which allowed either party to bring it to an end after a due notice of twelve months at the expiration of ten years or of any longer time it might remain in force. Not only was a large and remunerative trade secured between the United States and the provinces, but the social and friendly intercourse of the two countries necessarily increased with the expansion of commercial relations and the creation of common interests between them. Old antipathies and misunderstandings disappeared under the influence of conditions which brought these communities together and made each of them place a higher estimate on the other's good qualities. In short, the treaty in all respects fully realized the expectations of Lord Elgin in working so earnestly to bring it to a successful conclusion.

However, it pleased the politicians of the United States, in a moment of temper, to repeal a treaty which, during its existence, gave a balance in favour of the commercial and industrial interests of the republic, to the value of over $95,000,000 without taking into account the value of the provincial fisheries from which the fishermen of New England annually derived so large a profit. Temper, no doubt, had much to do with the action of the United States government at a time when it was irritated by the sympathy extended to the Confederate States by many persons in the provinces as well as in Great Britain--notably by Mr. Gladstone himself. No doubt it was thought that the repeal of the treaty would be a sort of punishment to the people of British North America. It was even felt--as much was actually said in congress--that the result of the sudden repeal of the treaty would be the growth of discontent among those classes in Canada who had begun to depend upon its continuance, and that sooner or later there would arise a cry for annexation with a country from which they could derive such large commercial advantages. Canadians now know that the results have been very different from those anticipated by statesmen and journalists on the other side of the border. Instead of starving Canada and forcing her into annexation, they have, by the repeal of the Reciprocity Treaty, and by their commercial policy ever since, materially helped to stimulate her self-reliance, increase her commerce with other countries, and make her largely a self-sustaining, independent country. Canadians depend on themselves--on a self-reliant, enterprising policy of trade--not on the favour or caprice of any particular nation. They are always quite prepared to have the most liberal commercial relations with the United States, but at the same time feel that a reciprocity treaty is no longer absolutely essential to their prosperity, and cannot under any circumstances have any particular effect on the political destiny of the Canadian confederation whose strength and unity are at length so well assured.


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