After Napoleon fell in April of 1814, British public opinion demanded major gains in the War of 1812 against the United States.
The senior American diplomat in London at the time told Secretary of State James Monroe:
There are so many who delight in War that I have less hope than ever of our being able to make peace. You will perceive by the newspapers that a very great force is to be sent from Bordeaux to the United States; and the order of the day is division of the States and conquest. The more moderate think that when our Seaboard is laid waste and we are made to agree to a line which shall exclude us from the lakes; to give up a part of our claim on Louisiana and the privilege of fishing on the banks, etc. peace may be made with us.
However British Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, aware of growing opposition to wartime taxation and the demands of Liverpool and Bristol merchants to reopen trade with America, realized Britain had little to gain and much to lose from prolonged warfare.
After rejecting Russian proposals to broker peace negotiations, Britain suddenly reversed course in 1814.
With the defeat of Napoleon the British goals of stopping American trade with France and impressment of sailors from American ships were no longer vital.
Negotiations were set to be held in Ghent, the Belgium Kingdom of the Netherlands, starting in August of 1814.
American President James Madison sent Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams and Albert Gallatin, while the British sent minor officials who kept in close touch with their superiors in London.
Negotiations for Peace
As the peace talks opened, the British demanded the creation of an Indian barrier state in the American Northwest Territory (the area from Ohio to Wisconsin). They also demanded that Americans not have any naval forces on the Great Lakes and that the British get certain transit rights to the Mississippi River in exchange for continuation of American fishing rights off Newfoundland.
The U.S. rejected these demands which led to an impasse.
American public opinion was so outraged when President Madison published Britain’s demands that even the anti-war Federalists were willing to fight on.
During these continuing peace talks the British launched three invasions.
One force carried out the burning of Washington, D.C., however the British troops and fleet failed to capture Baltimore during the Battle of Baltimore. The British fleet was forced to sail away when the army commander was killed.
Secondly, in northern New York State, 10,000 British troops marched south until a decisive defeat at the Battle of Plattsburgh forced them back to Canada.
Nothing was known then of the fate of the third large British invasion force that intended to capture New Orleans.
The British Prime Minister wanted Arthur Wellesly, the Duke of Wellington, to assume command in Canada and with the assignment of winning the War.
Wellesley replied that he would go to America, but he believed that he was needed in Europe. He also stated:
I think you have no right, from the state of war, to demand any concession of territory from America… You have not been able to carry it into the enemy’s territory, notwithstanding your military success, and now undoubted military superiority, and have not even cleared your own territory on the point of attack. You cannot on any principle of equality in negotiation claim a cession of territory except in exchange for other advantages which you have in your power… Then if this reasoning be true, why stipulate for the uti possidetis? You can get no territory: indeed, the state of your military operations, however creditable, does not entitle you to demand any.
As a result, the British Government dropped all of its demands, and the negotiators agreed to a treaty that called for no change in territory. Prisoners would be exchanged, and captured slaves returned to the United States or be paid for by Britain.
On December 24, 1814, the members of the British and American negotiating teams signed and affixed their individual seals to the document history refers to as the Treaty of Ghent.
It didn’t end the War of 1912 itself — that required formal ratification by both governments.
The Treaty was ratified by British Parliament on December 30, 1814 and signed into law by the Prince Regent (the future King George IV).
Then the U.S. Senate unanimously ratified the treaty on February 18, 1815.
The Treaty of Ghent released all prisoners and restored all captured lands and ships. Returned to the United States were approximately 10,000,000 acres of territory, near Lakes Superior and Michigan, as well as in the state of Maine.
American-held areas of Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) were returned to British control.
The Treaty of Ghent thus made no significant changes to the prewar boundaries, although the U.S. did gain territory from Spain.
Britain promised to return the freed black slaves that they had taken. In actuality, a few years later Britain instead paid the United States $1,204,960 for the captured former slaves.
And ironically, both nations also promised to work towards an ending of the international slave trade.
Battle of New Orleans
Due to the era’s lack of telecommunications, it took weeks for news of the peace treaty to reach the United States.
Thus, without knowledge of the peace treaty, an American army under Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815.
Some historians continue to argue that Britain negotiated the Treaty of Ghent even though it knew a major British expedition had been ordered to seize New Orleans. These historians feel that Britain had no intention of repudiating the treaty and would have continued the war had victory been theirs at the Battle of New Orleans.
News of the treaty finally reached the United States after the British victory in the Second Battle of Fort Bowyer, but before the British assault on Mobile, Alabama.
President James Madison exchanged ratification papers with a British diplomat in Washington, D.C. on February 17, 1815; the treaty was then proclaimed on February 18th.
Eight days later, on February 26, Napoleon escaped from Elba, starting war in Europe again, and forcing the British to concentrate once again on the threat he posed.
Skirmishes continued to occur between U.S. troops and British-allied Indians along the Mississippi River frontier for months after the treaty, including the Battle of the Sink Hole in May of 1815. Fighting also continued sporadically in and near Spanish Florida, leading to the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819.
American negotiators of the Treaty of Ghent
John Quincy Adams was the son of former President John Adams and as Secretary of State negotiated with the United Kingdom over the United States northern border with Canada and negotiated the annexation of Florida with Spain. John Quincy Adams also went on to become the sixth President of the United States in 1825. Today, most historians agree he was one of the greatest diplomats and secretaries of state in American history.
Henry Clay, Sr. went on to represent Kentucky in both the United States Senate and House of Representatives. He also served three different terms as Speaker of the House and served as Secretary of State from 1825 to 1829.
Abraham Alfonse Albert Gallatin was the longest serving U.S. Secretary of the Treasury before resigning to head the negotiations for the Treaty of Ghent. He also went on to found the University of the City of New York, now known as New York University. For the rest of his life, he referred to this treaty as his “special and peculiar triumph.”
Pierre Berton later wrote of the Treaty of Ghent;
“It was as if no war had been fought, or to put it more bluntly, as if the war that was fought was fought for no good reason. For nothing has changed; everything is as it was in the beginning save for the graves of those who, it now appears, have fought for a trifle:…Lake Erie and Fort McHenry will go into the American history books, Queenston Heights and Crysler’s Farm into the Canadian, but without the gore, the stench, the disease, the terror, the conniving, and the imbecilities that march with every army.”
Now WE know em