Reciprocity, 1846-1911: A Review

D.C. Masters’ article, Reciprocity 1846-1911, presents an adequate description on the effects of Reciprocity on the evolution of Canada “from a group of colonies…to a mature and comparatively self-sufficient nation state”[1].  Masters, a native of Shelburne, Ontario and a graduate from the University of Toronto, believes that Canada has grown and matured between 1846-1911 in which the Reciprocity Agreement was a catalyst.  In order to develop his main idea into a believable thesis, Masters presents several sub sections exploring the different time periods and subjects.  Masters’ subsections are the Origins of the Movement, the Negotiations at Washington (1847-1854), The Terms of the Reciprocity Treaty (1854), Operation of the Reciprocity Treaty, the Abrogation of the Treaty (1866), and the overall attempts to restart the Reciprocity Agreement.
Each of these subsections present a simple overview of the various areas of study on the subject.  Masters chose to do this in the consideration of his audience.  Masters is writing to give the reader a simple understanding of the topic and how it fits into the Canadian historical context.  Therefore, D.C. Masters does not want to bog the reader down with too many details that would slow down the flow of the article and, thus, lose the reader’s attention. 
The first subsection of the article, ”Origins of the Movement”[2], presents an overall explanation of why the Reciprocity Agreement was required between the United States and Canada.  Masters argues on several points in which he explains that Canada required the agreement due to economic reasons as well as explaining who the main proponent was in the negotiation process.  The author claims that Canada required the treaty on the basis of political reasons because the British had repealed the Corn Laws.  Masters then goes onto explain that the Corn Laws meant that “Canadian breadstuffs had previously enjoyed a preference in competition with those of foreign countries entering the British market”[3].  Thus, the author has fully defined what the Corn Laws are in order to avoid confusing the reader with jargon.  Also, if the author was to loose the reader at this point, Master’s explanation that because of the repealing of the Corn Laws, Canada turned to the United States in the hopes “of securing free entry for their produce to the American Market”[4]. 


Masters then investigates the proponents of the reciprocity agreement by noting that W.H. Merritt led a group that wanted reciprocity on the basis that the agreement would both satisfy the Canadian farmers as well as the possibility of increasing export trade through the St. Lawrence Seaway.  However, Masters fails to mention the existence of the Erie Canal, the equivalent American route of the St. Lawrence Seaway.  The Erie Canal travels, in combination with other canals, from the Great Lakes to the port of New York City.  The Erie Canal, according to Michael Piva, a leading Union Period Historian at the University of Ottawa, provided a route that was far easier for merchants to ship their products than compared to the St. Lawrence system.  Piva reasons that the higher number of ship and cargo losses associated with the unusual wind conditions in the Bay of Fundy in comparison to a similar trip via the Erie Canal was the main reason many Canadian merchants chose to ship their products to Europe via the American route[5].  Therefore, the threat of reciprocity and the ultimate drain of Canadian products from the St. Lawrence area because of the easier conditions presented by the Erie Canal should not be overlooked. 
In Masters’ second section, titled “Negotiations at Washington 1847-1854”, he explores the process of negotiations that the British, acting on behalf of the Canadian colonies, and the American government took in order to formulate an agreement.  Masters explains that the American delegates were split on the issue of the reciprocity agreement.  The author explains that the delegates from the American south were reluctant to support the Reciprocity Agreement on the basis that it was an economic treaty that would ultimately “hasten the annexation of Canada and would thus increase the free-state territory of the United States”.[6] This reasoning presents a valid argument on why the American delegation was split on the issue.
Masters goes on further to explain why the two parties took so long to come to an agreement.  The author notes that the British could not afford trouble in the American colonies because of the fact the British required all their military resources due to their involvement in the Crimean War.  Also, Masters explains what helped to re-ignite the negotiations by fully explaining the fishing dispute and pointing out that the Americans wanted to solve the fishing dispute. Masters then describes how the Americans successfully ensure the passage of the bill despite ruminants of Southern opposition still in the air.  Overall, the author should be commended for fully describing to the reader, in understandable terms, the American and British positions during the negotiation process.
Masters goes onto explain the terms of treaty.  The author notes that the each side agreed that the treaty would last at least ten years and “could then be terminated by either party after twelve months’ notice”.[7]  Masters goes onto explain the terms of treaty in an easy to understand in an article-by-article fashion.  While describing each article, Masters explains how each side came to a compromise.  For example, in Articles I and II of the treaty the British agreed that they would not be taking shellfish from American coastal waters in order “to avoid opposition from Maryland”.[8] The author should be commended for simplifying a complex treaty in order to convey the required information to the reader. 
The author goes onto explain the operation of the treaty and its effects on the British Colonies of North America as well as to the United States.  The author conveys this information in two ways.  The first method is in chart form where the author displays trade between the colonies and the United States for each year in the millions of dollars.  The reader can thus draw from the chart that the Reciprocity agreement allowed trade to increase overtime.  The second method the author uses to convey the operation of the treaty and its effects is to explain what types of products where most often traded between the two states.  The author notes, for example, that American wheat crossed the Canadian border in southern Ontario coming from the western American States.  This wheat would then arrive, via the Canadian railway system, in Buffalo where it would be exported again.  This was done, as the author notes, for convenience of not having to go around the great lakes system via rail.  Thus the author has managed to explain to the reader what and why products were crossing the border.
Masters next section is to present the problems with the treaty.  The author explains the various problems that each government presented to the other when one side changed their tariff protection on certain goods.  Masters proves this when he explains that the Canadian government changed the tolls on the Welland Canal to be higher to ships going to American ports than to ships going through the St. Lawrence Seaway System.  However, Masters again fails to explain the existence of the Erie Canal system that was in competition against the St. Lawrence Seaway system.  The author would have provided a more understandable explanation in this section if he had made known to the reader the existence of the Erie Canal and, thus, would have further strengthened the reasoning behind why the American government was so worried about the Canadian changes made to the Welland Canal tolls.  Therefore, the author failed to strengthen his argument by explaining to the reader the huge competition between the American and Canadian canal systems in regards to how these affected trade.


Masters finally explains how the Reciprocity Treaty was revived after the American Civil War.  The author notes the reasons why several trips to Washington by the Canadian delegation did not produce any results.  The author explains that economic depressions, the increased pace of industrialization in the United States, and that an American economic report showed “that the treaty had not secured any important Canadian market for American goods”.[9]  The author also points out the various attempts made by both the American and the Canadian politicians in regards to commercial union and other ideas on how to achieve a new reciprocity agreement.  In the end, the author notes, that a new reciprocity agreement could not be reached because each side couldn’t make enough concessions.  The author successfully explains why each side in the strive for reciprocity demanded and why the other refused to budge from a certain position.  Therefore, the author explains to the reader in believable terms the positions of each side and how these positions ultimately lead to the failure of the renegotiation of new reciprocity agreement after the American Civil War.


The author’s subsections allow the reader to explore and understand the complexity of the reciprocity agreement in easy to understand terms.  This understanding stems from the easy to understand language used by the author to explain each subsection and the overall structure of the author’s argument explaining how the agreement came to be, the operation of the agreement, and how the agreement eventually ceased to exist.  Since the subsections are easy to understand in both language and structure, the reader will come to understand how the treaty helped in the evolution of the Canada from a colonial member to its own independent dominion.  Thus, Masters presents the reader with a well explained comprehensive study of the Reciprocity Agreement. 


About D.C. Masters

Masters has been a history professor at the University of Guelph, the University of Toronto, Oxford University, Queen’s University, United College, and Bishop’s University.  He has also written: The Rise of Toronto 1850-1890, A Short History of Canada, Canada in World Affairs: Volume VIII: 1953-1955, and Protestant Church Colleges in Canada: A History.



Masters, D.C. Reciprocity, 1846-1911.  Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1983.


Piva, Michael. “The Canals and the Railway.” University of Ottawa, Ottawa 13 February 2001.


[1] D.C. Masters.  Reciprocity, 1846-1911. (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1983): 3.


[2]Ibid 3.

[3]Masters 3.


[4]Ibid. 3.


[5]Michael Piva. “The Canals and the Railway.” University of Ottawa, Ottawa 13 February 2001.


[6]Masters 4.


[7]Ibid. 7.


[8]Ibid. 7.


[9]Masters 13.