Treaty of Washington (1871)

Treaty of Washington (1871)

, 1871L. to R.: Robert C. Schenck, Ebenezer R. Hoar, Hamilton Fish, George H. Williams, Samuel Nelson, Bancroft Davis ] The Treaty of Washington was a treaty concluded in 1871 between the United Kingdom and the United States for settling various differences between the two governments, but chiefly those with regard to the Alabama claims. [] In the beginning of 1871 the British government sent Sir John Rose to the United States to ascertain whether negotiations looking towards the settlement of the question in dispute would be acceptable to the President. The United States government received his advances with cordiality and on the 26th of January Sir Edward Thornton, the British Minister at Washington, formally proposed the appointment of a joint high commission to meet at Washington for the purpose of devising means for settling the matters at issue. [] The United States readily consented to the proposal, provided the differences growing out of the Civil War should be included among the subjects to be considered. [http://en.wikipedia.0rg/wiki/New_International_Encyclopedia] The British government promptly accepted the American proviso and the President appointed commissioners.

The British government selected as its Commissioners Earl de Grey (Marquess of Ripon), Sir Stafford Northcote, Sir Edward Thornton, Mountague Bernard, and Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald. Although the treaty was signed in the name of the British Empire, Macdonald's presence established that the newly-formed Dominion of Canada would at least take part in settling foreign matters that affected it directly, especially with respect to dealings with the U.S.

The joint commission entered at once upon its task and on the 8th of May concluded a treaty which received the prompt approval of the two governments. Aside from the settlement of the dispute growing out of the so-called "Alabama" claims, provision was made for the adjustment of the differences with regard to the Northeastern fisheries by the appointment of a mixed commission to meet at Halifax and pass upon the relative value of certain reciprocal privileges granted each of the contracting parties. Finally, provision was made for submitting to the arbitration of the Emperor of Germany the dispute concerning the Northwest boundary. [] Thus, the treaty made an important impact on International Law including effects on the 1878 Congress of Berlin.

At Geneva, in 1872, the U.S. was awarded $15,500,000 pursuant to the terms of the treaty, and the British apologized for the destruction caused by the British-built Confederate ships, while admitting no guilt.
Lord Tenterden, Sir John A. Macdonald, Montague Bernard. Seated: L. to R.: Sir Stafford Northcote, Earl de Grey & Ripon, Sir Edward Thornton] Compensation for the Fenian raids was not included, and American fishermen were given rights to fish in Canadian water. This greatly irritated Macdonald, but he nonetheless signed the treaty under the argument that he must as a junior member of the British delegation. The treaty was published in the Canadian press to widespread condemnation, but Macdonald remained silent on the issue. When it came time to debate the treaty in the Canadian House of Commons, he revealed that he had been secretly negotiating for a better deal, and had obtained a cash payment from the Americans for the use of Canadian fishing grounds, and in lieu of any claim against the US over the Fenians, the British had agreed to guarantee Canadian loans for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. This masterstroke of diplomacy and statecraft allowed an otherwise deeply unpopular treaty to be ratified by Parliament.

The scholar of international law John Bassett Moore has called this treaty "the greatest treaty of actual and immediate arbitration the world has ever seen."

Impact on International Law

The so-called rules of Washington agreed upon by the contracting parties for the guidance of the tribunal in the interpretation of certain terms used in the treaty, and of certain principles of international law governing the obligations of neutrals, are:
# That due diligence "ought to be exercised by neutral governments in exact proportion to the risks to which either of the belligerents may be exposed, from a failure to fulfill the obligations of neutrality on their part."
# "The effects of a violation of neutrality committed by means of the construction, equipment, and armament of a vessel are not done away with by any commission which the government of the belligerent power benefited by the violation of neutrality may afterward have granted to that vessel; and the ultimate step by which the offense is completed cannot be admissible as a ground for the absolution of the, nor can the consummation of his fraud become the means of establishing his innocence."
# "The principle of extraterritoriality has been admitted into the laws of nations, not as an absolute right, but solely as a proceeding founded on the principle of courtesy and mutual deference between different nations, and therefore can never be appealed to for the protection of acts done in violation of neutrality." [New International Encyclopedia]

Those rules impacted the 1878 Congress of Berlin.


The Treaty of Washington had a significant effect on the United States' long term relationship with Canada, and the United Kingdom. With the demilitarization (Rush-Bagot Treaty) of the U.S-Canadian border, the resolution of outstanding issues (Treaty of Washington), and the industrialization of the Great Lakes region, war between the United States, and Canada and the United Kingdom became highly unattractive. This would lay the foundation for the alliance of the United States and British Empire, see The Great Rapprochement.

In agreeing to Macdonald's inclusion to the British delegation as well as his title of Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada, the Treaty also had the effect of "de facto" recognition by the United States of the Dominion. Eventually it would lead to better relations as well.


* [ Treaty text]
*James C. Bennett. "The Anglosphere Challenge" (2004).

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