February, 1815: Treaty of Ghent Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Chances of a negotiated, honorable peace ending the War of 1812 appeared remote in the summer of 1814. The United States ostensibly had gone to war to protect its rights on the high seas. President James Madison and Secretary of State James Monroe had repeatedly stated that the recognition of such rights, and particularly an end to the practice of impressing U.S. sailors into the British Royal Navy, was essential to any settlement.

Chances of a negotiated, honorable peace ending the War of 1812 appeared remote in the summer of 1814. The United States ostensibly had gone to war to protect its rights on the high seas. President James Madison and Secretary of State James Monroe had repeatedly stated that the recognition of such rights, and particularly an end to the practice of impressing U.S. sailors into the British Royal Navy, was essential to any settlement.

The British had refused to abandon impressment, and the war continued. Militarily, the conflict had been inconclusive. In many ways, the British were in the stronger position at the outset of the talks. By the summer of 1814, they and their allies had defeated Napoleon; now Great Britain could turn its attention and energies to the war with its former colonies. With France subdued and veteran troops available for North American duty, Great Britain seemed in a position to end the war by military conquest. Moreover, the United States was divided over “Mr. Madison’s War.” The Federalist Party and New England generally had opposed the war from its beginning. The Republican administration faced the unpleasant prospects of political humiliation, military defeat, or both, should it continue to pursue its war aims.

Negotiations

Such were the circumstances when U.S. and British commissioners met in Ghent on August 9, 1814. The British had agreed to direct meetings as an alternative to mediation by Alexander I, czar of Russia, and evinced no haste to deal with the U.S. upstarts. Ghent was chosen as a convenient, easily accessible site—a pleasant, neutral city in what was then the Austrian Netherlands, soon to be part of the Kingdom of the United Netherlands and a major city in Belgium after that country’s independence in 1830.

The United States government dispatched five commissioners, representing a broad spectrum of backgrounds. John Quincy Adams, a Massachusetts Republican and nominally the head of the delegation, was a staunch nationalist. Henry Clay and Jonathan Russell were “war hawks” from Kentucky and Rhode Island, respectively. James A. Bayard, a Delaware Federalist, and Albert Gallatin, a Pennsylvania Republican, were moderates; the latter, because of his role as peacemaker among his colleagues, emerged as the functional leader of the U.S. delegation at Ghent. The representatives from the United States often quarreled among themselves, but they stood firmly together in the face of their British counterparts.

Adams and Russell arrived in Ghent on June 23 and the others, by July 6. Clearly, the talks were going to be protracted, and so the U.S. delegates moved out of their hotel and into the Lovendeghem House in the heart of the city. Far from being the “five lonely Americans” as they have been often described, they became active in local intellectual and cultural life.

Negotiations began in an atmosphere of distrust as a result of a month-long wait by the U.S. delegates for their British counterparts. The British delegation included Admiralty lawyer Dr. William Adams, Vice-Admiral Lord Gambier, and Henry Goulburn of the Colonial Office. Accompanied by a secretary, Anthony J. Baker, they took up residence in a former Carthusian monastery at Meerhem. Their principal role was not so much to negotiate as to act as the messengers of Viscount Castlereagh (Robert Stewart), the British foreign secretary.

British Proposals

Although the United States had always posed as the injured party in the conflict, the British dominated the early months of the conference. They proposed the establishment of an American Indian buffer state in the American Northwest and asked for a substantial cession of land along the border between Canada and the United States. The U.S. representatives refused. The British, anticipating the capture of New Orleans, then suggested that each party continue to occupy the territory it held at the conclusion of hostilities (uti possidetis). Again, the United States refused, holding to its principle of the restoration of territory as it was held prior to the outbreak of war (status quo ante bellum).

Finally, the constancy and apparent unanimity of the U.S. delegation bore fruit. Throughout the negotiations, the British cabinet had debated whether to conquer or conciliate the United States. Foreseeing greater good in Anglo-American friendship than in lasting enmity between the kindred nations, Castlereagh led the way toward compromise.

Several factors, some only vaguely relating to the war, confirmed Castlereagh’s judgment. The British were having difficulties at the Congress of Vienna with their recent allies in the Napoleonic Wars. It seemed for a time that war with Russia was imminent. France was restive, portending Napoleon’s return from Elba in 1815. At home, the British people were war-weary and growing resentful of taxation. To make matters worse, the United States won a timely victory at Plattsburg on September 11, 1814. The architect of the victory over Napoleon, the duke of Wellington, estimated that a conquest of the United States would come only at a heavy cost of men, money, and time. At this juncture, the British decided to compromise.

American Proposals

The commissioners at Ghent still bargained hard, but the stakes were no longer so great. On November 11, 1814, the United States presented a proposal that would maintain prewar boundaries. They agreed that the treaty would say nothing about impressment, which would be unnecessary in a post-Napoleonic Europe. The British abandoned their designs on U.S. territory and their desire for a buffer state. They still demanded the islands in Passamaquoddy Bay, the right of navigation on the Mississippi River, and prohibitions on U.S. rights to dry fish in Newfoundland.

In the end, the participants at Ghent delegated these matters to commissions to resolve after peace had been concluded. The Peace of Ghent provided for a return to the status quo ante bellum. The two sides signed the treaty on Christmas Eve, 1814. Given the slow communications of the era, the treaty only took effect on February 17, 1815, after ratification by the governments of both sides. In the meantime, the British had suffered a humiliating defeat in the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815.

Called America’s second war for independence, the War of 1812 had several important results. Spawning a legacy of bad feeling between Great Britain and the United States, which persisted for many years, the war gave the U.S. people a greater feeling of national identity, simultaneously paving the way for the decimation of native populations. The war stimulated the growth of manufacturers and turned the U.S. people increasingly toward domestic matters and away from foreign affairs.

Impact

The treaty had a major impact on U.S. relationships with both Canada and the American Indian nations. Future war was averted by the Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817, which limited armaments around the Great Lakes. Boundary commissions and subsequent treaties in 1818, 1842, and 1846 determined most of the border between the United States and British North America (Canada). The Red River Valley went to the United States; the borders of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan were moved south to 49° north latitude. Oregon Territory (Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia) was to be jointly administered by Great Britain and the United States. The United States agreed to exact no retribution and to take no land from the American Indians who had fought for the British. However, the defeat of the British and their American Indian allies helped to open the Old Northwest and Southwest to the waves of settlement that would lead to white domination east of the Mississippi and eventually beyond.

At the time, the treaty was, in many ways, a victory for neither side. Yet for the United States, there was cause for rejoicing. The United States had stood firm against a great power. Castlereagh and the British had recognized U.S. military potential and decided to court instead of conquer. Most important, the peace that both sides wanted and needed was secure. The treaty provided a steady foundation for an Anglo-American relationship that, over a century, would transform the two nations’ foreign policies from suspicious opposition to firm friendship.

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