Treaty of Ghent Takes Effect Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After more than four months of negotiations, British and American delegates to the Ghent peace commission drafted a mutually acceptable treaty that concluded the unpopular War of 1812 and laid a basis for more amicable British-American relations. To allow time for news of the settlement to be communicated over vast distances, the treaty’s terms did not take final effect until nearly two months after they were settled.

Summary of Event

During the summer of 1814, the chances of the United States and Great Britain finding a negotiated, honorable peace that would end the War of 1812 appeared remote. 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 British practice of impressing U.S. sailors into the Royal Navy Royal Navy;and War of 1812[War of 1812] , was essential to any settlement. Ghent, Treaty of (1815) War of 1812 (1812-1814);Treaty of Ghent Foreign policy, U.S.;Treaty of Ghent Adams, John Quincy [p]Adams, John Quincy;and War of 1812[War of 1812] Great Britain;and United States[United States] [kw]Treaty of Ghent Takes Effect (Feb. 17, 1815) [kw]Ghent Takes Effect, Treaty of (Feb. 17, 1815) Ghent, Treaty of (1815) War of 1812 (1812-1814);Treaty of Ghent Foreign policy, U.S.;Treaty of Ghent Adams, John Quincy [p]Adams, John Quincy;and War of 1812[War of 1812] Great Britain;and United States[United States] [g]United States;Feb. 17, 1815: Treaty of Ghent Takes Effect[0780] [g]Great Britain;Feb. 17, 1815: Treaty of Ghent Takes Effect[0780] [g]Belgium;Feb. 17, 1815: Treaty of Ghent Takes Effect[0780] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Feb. 17, 1815: Treaty of Ghent Takes Effect[0780] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb. 17, 1815: Treaty of Ghent Takes Effect[0780] Bayard, James A. Clay, Henry [p]Clay, Henry;and War of 1812[War of 1812] Gallatin, Albert Russell, Jonathan Madison, James [p]Madison, James;and War of 1812[War of 1812] Monroe, James [p]Monroe, James;and War of 1812[War of 1812] Castlereagh, Viscount [p]Castlereagh, Viscount;and War of 1812[War of 1812]

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 peace talks. By the summer of 1814, they and their allies had defeated France’s Napoleon I. Great Britain could then turn its attention and energies to the war with its former North American colonies. With France subdued and battle-hardened British troops available for North American duty, Britain seemed in a position to end the war by military conquest. Moreover, Americans were divided over what was called “Mr. Madison’s Madison, James [p]Madison, James;and War of 1812[War of 1812] War.” The Federalist Party Federalist Party;and War of 1812[War of 1812] 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.

Such were the circumstances when U.S. and British commissioners finally met in Ghent on August 9, 1814. The British had agreed to direct meetings as an alternative to mediation by Alexander I, the czar of Russia, and showed 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 U.S. government dispatched five commissioners who represented a broad spectrum of backgrounds to Ghent. John Quincy Adams, a Massachusetts Republican and nominally the head of the delegation, was a staunch nationalist. Henry Clay Clay, Henry [p]Clay, Henry;and War of 1812[War of 1812] and Jonathan Russell Russell, Jonathan were “war hawks” from Kentucky and Rhode Island, respectively. James A. Bayard Bayard, James A. , a Delaware Federalist, and Albert Gallatin Gallatin, Albert , 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. The other U.S. delegates were there by July 6. Because the talks were clearly going to be protracted, 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.

Formal negotiations began in an atmosphere of distrust as a result of the U.S. delegates’ one-month wait for their British counterparts to arrive. 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, Castlereagh, Viscount [p]Castlereagh, Viscount;and War of 1812[War of 1812] the British foreign secretary.

Although the United States had always tried to pose as the injured party in the conflict, the British dominated the early months of the conference. They proposed the creation of an American Indian buffer state between British and U.S. territories in the American Northwest and asked for a substantial cession of land along the border Borders, U.S.;with Canada[Canada] between Canada and the United States. The U.S. representatives refused. Anticipating Britain’s imminent capture of New Orleans, the British delegates 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 territories each side 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 friendship with the United States than in lasting enmity between the kindred nations, Castlereagh Castlereagh, Viscount [p]Castlereagh, Viscount;and War of 1812[War of 1812] led the way toward compromise.

Several factors, some only vaguely relating to the war, confirmed Castlereagh’s judgment. While the Ghent negotiations were proceeding, the British were having difficulties at the Congress of Vienna Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) with their recent allies in the Napoleonic Wars. It seemed for a time that a new war with Russia might be imminent. France was restive, portending Napoleon’s return from Elba Elba in 1815. At home, the British people were war-weary and growing resentful of heavy taxation. To make matters worse for the British, 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 that juncture, the British decided to compromise.

The commissioners at Ghent still bargained hard, but the stakes were no longer as great as when the conference opened. On November 11, 1814, the United States presented a proposal that would restore prewar boundaries. They agreed that the treaty would say nothing about impressment, which they believe would be unnecessary in a post-Napoleonic Europe. The British abandoned their designs on U.S. territory and their desire for an Indian buffer state; however, they still demanded the islands in Passamaquoddy Bay on the coast of Maine Maine;in War of 1812[War of 1812] , the right of navigation on the Mississippi River, and prohibitions on U.S. rights to dry fish in Newfoundland. Newfoundland

In the end, the participants at Ghent delegated the detailed matters to commissions to resolve after peace had been concluded. The Peace of Ghent provided for a return to the status quo ante bellum. Both two sides signed the treaty on Christmas Eve, 1814. Because of the slow communications of the era, the treaty did not take effect until February 17, 1815, after ratification by the governments of both sides. Meanwhile, the British suffered a humiliating defeat in the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815.

Significance

Sometimes 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 Americans a greater feeling of national identity, simultaneously paving the way for the destruction of Native American populations. The war also stimulated the growth of manufacturing and turned Americans increasingly toward domestic matters and away from foreign affairs.

The Treaty of Ghent had a major impact on the relationships of the United States with both Canada and the Native American nations. Future wars between the United States and Britain were averted by the Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817 Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817[Rush Bagot Agreement of 1817] , which limited armaments to both sides around the Great Lakes Great Lakes region . Boundary commissions and subsequent treaties in 1818, 1842, and 1846 fixed most of the long border between the United States and British Canada Canada;and War of 1812[War of 1812] . The Red River Red River (Manitoba) Borders, U.S.;with Canada[Canada] Valley went to the United States; the borders of Alberta, Alberta;borders Manitoba, Manitoba;borders and Saskatchewan Saskatchewan;borders were moved south to 49 degrees north latitude. Oregon Territory Oregon Territory (Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia) British Columbia was to be jointly administered by Great Britain and the United States.

Under the terms of the treaty, the United States agreed to exact no retribution and to take no land from the 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, seen as a victory for neither side. However, for the United States, there was cause for rejoicing. The United States had stood firm against a great power. Castlereagh Castlereagh, Viscount [p]Castlereagh, Viscount;and War of 1812[War of 1812] 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 British-American relationship that, over a century, would transform the two nations’ foreign policies from suspicious opposition to firm friendship.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bartlett, Christopher J. “Castlereagh, 1812-1822.” In The Makers of British Policy: From Pitt to Thatcher, edited by T. G. Otte. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Essay about the diplomacy of the British foreign secretary who directed the British side of the negotiations at Ghent.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bemis, Samuel Flagg. John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949. A diplomatic historian presents Adams’s role at Ghent as part of a larger triumph in American statecraft.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Borneman, Walter. 1812: The War That Forged a Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Study of the War of 1812 that emphasizes the conflict’s diplomatic background and argues that despite the internal controversy over the necessity of the war, its prosecution ultimately united the American states into a national entity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coles, Harry. The War of 1812. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965. Brief but incisive narrative of the war that includes chapters on the treaty providing a penetrating summary of the negotiations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elting, John. Amateurs to Arms! A Military History of the War of 1812. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995. Detailed military history of the War of 1812, which the author sees as having been an unpopular, badly fought, and largely unnecessary war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Engelman, Fred. The Peace of Christmas Eve. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962. Written from a U.S. viewpoint, this excellent account of the negotiations and signing of the Treaty of Ghent contains much on the setting, personalities, and interaction related to the event.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gallatin, James. The Diary of James Gallatin. New ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. In this reprint of his diary, James Gallatin, secretary to and son of the U.S. delegate Albert Gallatin, observes the treaty negotiations from behind the scenes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horsman, Reginald. The War of 1812. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969. General history of the war that treats the Treaty of Ghent in its broader European context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perkins, Bradford. Castlereagh and Adams: England and the United States, 1812-1823. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964. Part of a three-volume study of early British-American diplomacy. More than half of this volume is devoted to the diplomacy surrounding the War of 1812.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vannieuwenhuyse, Johan. The Treaty of Ghent. Ghent: Museum Arnold Vander Haeghen-Stadsarchief, 1989. Excellent, brief overview of the Treaty of Ghent by a Belgian scholar who presents details and sources that are frequently overlooked.

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