"Peace Upon Honorable Terms"
The United States Ratification of the Treaty of Ghent
The War of 1812 was primarily fought over maritime issues.
The Treaty of Ghent, signed on December 24, 1814, was ratified by
the United States Senate on February 16, 1815 by a vote of 35 to 0. President
Madison ratified the treaty later that day, and the peace became official
when Secretary of State James Monroe exchanged ratifications with British
secretary Anthony Baker. 
to Madison's war message, delivered on June 1, 1812, the war had been
fought mainly over maritime issues. These included the seizure of persons
and property sailing under the United States' flag (impressment), pretended
blockades, British vessels harassing ships entering and leaving the United
States, and, overall, the right of neutral nations under international
law to trade freely. All of this represented an illegal extension of
British jurisdiction over an independent nation. Many "War Hawks" also
coveted Canadian territory, prompting a failed effort to invade that country
during the war.
Yet, while it addressed none of these issues, the American commissioners
at Ghent, the Secretary of State, the President, and the Senate all approved
the treaty. It was also widely praised at home as a victory for the United
States.  It is true that the treaty did not put an
end to the practice of impressment or blockades. It did not compensate
the United States for its losses. It did not add any territory to the
United States. It was, however, an honorable peace, which preserved the
independence and sovereignty of a nation that had reached beyond its grasp
in declaring war in 1812.
The treaty negotiations, though not covered by this essay, are key
to understanding why the treaty was so readily ratified by the United
States. For the American peace commissioners (John Quincy Adams, James
Bayard, Henry Clay, Albert Gallatin, and Jonathan Russell) the negotiations
had been immensely frustrating. British delay tactics seemed never ending,
and British demands were outrageous. Yet, the American ministers were
able to stand their ground.
Both countries were weary of the war, and Britain was distracted by
important events in Europe (including Napoleon's return and the Congress
of Vienna). These factors clearly played an important role in the United
States' getting an "honorable peace" out of the negotiations, but they
were not the only factors. The steadfastness and skill of the five American
commissioners cannot be overlooked. These men stood toe to toe with what
was then probably the world's greatest powerñBritain, the vanquisher of
Napoleonñand had not flinched. For each outrageous demand Britain put
on the table, the American ministers refused to give in, even at times,
risking the entire peace process. For a man like John Quincy Adams, there
would be an honorable peace, or there would be no peace at all.
Indeed, Adams eloquently expressed this sentiment in July 1814, and
he and his fellow commissioners stayed true to it:
The object upon which I was in the first instance directed to repair
to Gothenburg, and for which, by a subsequent proposal from the British
Government, and assented to by my Colleagues, I am with them in this city,
is as you justly observe of a nature to engage the wishes of every true
American, and the patriotic exertions of every person entrusted with a
charge so highly important to the community. Peace upon honorable terms,
would be a blessing of such inestimable value to our country, that I trust
that neither myself nor any one of my colleagues would deem his life or
mine a sacrifice too great to obtain it...Dearly as I value peace, and
much as I know it is needed and desired by our Country, I pledge myself
to you that you shall never see my name to a treaty, no, nor to any one
stipulation that shall give you cause to blush for your country or for
your friend. 
In light of all Britain's demands, this was accomplished. It is also
important to remember how badly the war had been going for the United
States. August, 1814 witnessed a number of major disasters, including
the collapse of U.S. credit, British occupation of Pensacola, the burning
of Washington, and Nantucket's declaration of neutrality.  Despite being in a weak position because of this, the American
delegation was able to hold their own. The treaty would not gain much
for the United States, but it did preserve the young nation's honor.
That, perhaps more than any other reason, is why the treaty was so readily
accepted and even praised at home and abroad.
However, one must acknowledge the skill of the British, and note
that Britain had been very successful in changing the focus of the negotiations.
Rather than discussing the American proposals, everything centered around
Britain's demands. If their goal had been to subjugate America, as Gallatin
suspected, they failed, for despite the burning of Washington, America
fought on, and would soon win a number of important victories, including
the Battle of Lake Champlain, depriving Great Britain control of the Great
Lakes (deemed vital by the Duke of Wellington).
Thus, Adams' theory that Britain was only out to delay, hoping for
more favorable circumstances, seems plausible. Clay, as far back as August
11, suspected that the British, desirous of peace and more concerned with
European affairs, were raising the new demands as a counterweight to America's
goals. He thought Britain would most likely pass over these issues if
America passed over impressment.
 Moreover, on October 18 he wrote that "there is much reason
to believe that the other party has aimed to protract the negotiation
here so as to make it subservient to his views at Vienna."
Thus, one could surmise that Britain's tactic prevailed, though they
actually gained nothing from the long delays and seemingly pointless demands.
Impressment, if it was still vital to the British, had been deemed a dead
and expendable cause by Madison, his cabinet, and the American commissioners.
European peace made it so. If nothing else, the treaty-making process
calls into question the sensibility of the United States' declaration
of war in 1812, a view that many Americans shared.
The American peace commission worked with titanic effort, courage,
and perseverance to save face for a country that had reached beyond its
grasp. The treaty was not honorable because of what it gained for America.
Rather, it was honorable because of what it prevented from happening to
America. Understanding this is absolutely vital to understanding why
the President of the United States, the United States Senate, and the
American people accepted a treaty that established status quo ante bellum
and did not so much as address America's main 1812 war aims.
Historians have viewed the treaty and its results in a number of
ways, but, viewed as a whole, they do not (either in part or in full)
take into account the importance of the American commissioners' stand;
the very real possibility that the terms could have been very much worse
for America; nor do they adequately explain the treaty's favorable reception.
Some claim that the United States had no choice but to ratify the treaty,
while others nearly ignore it, referring to the treaty as nothing but
a hollow document. Others explain the treaty's favorable reception in
terms of a rising tide of nationalism.
Frank Updyke, writing with the benefit of one hundred years of hindsight,
wrote: The United States secured from Great Britain a more complete
recognition of her political independence and power; the claims and demands
of Great Britain were rejected; the best usages of international law were
confirmed and developed; an enduring peace was secured.
He believed the treaty directly resulted in one hundred years of peace
between the two countries, and marked the United States' induction to
the world of major international players. The treaty garnered international
respect for the young nation. Of course, relations between the United
States and Great Britain from 1812 to 1914 were not always good. On several
occasionsñthe Oregon Question and the Trent Affairñthe two nations nearly
went to war for a third time. However, Updyke, though he greatly overstates
his case, is correct in that the two never again faced each other in battle.
Assuming the United States did gain something in international stature
after the war, it is a gross overstatement to say that the United States
was entering the field of major world players at this point (or for some
time to come).
A. T. Mahan and K. C. Babcock  agree that the war was a vital
component in the rise of American nationalism, but Donald Hickey comes
closest to delving into the treaty's true significance. He clearly states
that "the United States could not in good conscience claim to have won
the war. But...the nation could at least claim it won the peace."  For a time, until the War of 1812 became more familiar through
myth rather than legend, he also indicates that it was a sort of kick
in the pants to an overconfident United States. However, Hickey too believes
the myth contributed to nationalism and writes:
The War of 1812 thus passed into history not as a futile and costly
struggle in which the United States had barely escaped defeat and disunion
but as a glorious triumph in which the nation had single handedly defeated
the conqueror of Napoleon and the Mistress of the Seas. 
Hickey, though he gives short shrift to the Senate's and Madison's
ratifications of the treaty, at least credits the American commissioners
with struggling to craft a peace that did not spell disaster for the United
States. Still, he pays more attention to the mythic perceptions about
the war then the reality about the reception of the treaty.
Bradford Perkins also agrees that the war brought about a new birth
of nationalism, and he further agrees that, to a large extent, the resurgent
nationalism was due to myth rather than reality. He writes:
They [Americans] had escaped disaster by being militarily just efficient
enough to show Liverpool and his cabinet that half measures would not
succeed. As a result, they emerged from the morass into which Thomas
Jefferson had plunged them, and the very miseries of the prewar years
made the wartime record look better than it deserved. Thus the War of
1812 revived the nationalism born in the era of the American Revolution
and destroyed a sense of tentativeness about the Constitution that the
nation could ill afford. 
Perkins, however, like many other historians, views the treaty itself
as being rather empty, stating that it "essentially ignored all major
issues or simply restored the prewar status quo."
 He rather downplays the American commissioners' stand against
Britain's outrageous demands, claiming the treaty itself was received
well in the United States due to elation over Jackson's victory and the
failure of the Hartford Convention. These events silenced would be critics
and opened the door the Republican press to paint the treaty in a better
light. Though there is some truth to this, it does not tell the entire
Thus, there is some agreement among these historians as to the effects
of the war and the treaty. Others produce similar conclusions. Reginald
Horsman, offers useful insights. He, like Hickey, writes that, though
none of the American war aims were achieved, nothing was lost either.
Moreover, he generally agrees that the war and the peace succeeded in
drastically altering the course of American history. From 1815 on, he
argues, the United States would no longer have a reactionary foreign policy
and would become a major threat to any power with interests in North America.
 The United States had entered the war unprepared, but managed
to survive in war and peace. Twenty years of danger to the country's
national sovereignty ended with the Treaty of Ghent. 
Henry Adams, arguably one of America's greatest historians, takes
a similar view. Though he viewed the treaty itself as little more than
an end to hostilities, it represented the end of an era in American history.
This came in the form of a general repudiation of old republican values,
even among men such as Monroe, who now advocated a fairly large standing
army.  Standing armies require higher
taxes and higher taxes require more government. Thus, if one follows
Adams' logic, the war and the peace allowed the Democratic Republicans
to, once and for all, out federalize the Federalists, thus ending the
first American party system and opening the "Era of Good Feelings."
John Mahon argues that the treaty was less a result of anything the
United States did, but more a result of British woes. By the end of 1814,
negotiations at Vienna were going badly for them, and there was no guarantee
that European stability would remain intact. Moreover, the British people
would no longer suffer high taxes since the war in Europe was over. The
government would probably not have been able to continue high levels of
taxation for the war against America. Finally, the Duke of Wellington's
arguments against continued war and American victories at Baltimore, Lake
Erie, and Plattsburg made it nearly impossible for the ministry to continue
the war so that it could hold onto its major demands. Mahon, however,
also agrees that the United States' coming out of the war basically unharmed
increased its international stature, and led to an increase in federal
power at home. 
Finally, J. C. A. Stagg takes the most negative view of the war and
the treaty. He writes that "by 1815 the United States had done little
more than survive some of the most dangerous threats that had yet been
posed to its existence as a nation."  Stagg feels that no matter
what sort of satisfaction Americans may have felt after the war, the treaty
was nothing more than an "empty document," because none of the maritime
or trade issues that caused the war had been resolved, and tension between
the United States and Britain did not vanish as a result of the treaty.
Despite the quality and stature of their work, these historians all
seem to miss something about the treaty. Some grant that it was praised
at home and readily accepted by the President and the Senate, and some
see it as the beginning of a new nationalism. They, however, either treat
these issues (especially the ratification process) only superficially
or ascribe the treaty's favorable reception to secondary issues.
Far from being an empty document as Stagg describes it, the treaty
represents much more. Moreover, the treaty's reception, though influenced
by secondary events, had a great deal to do with its own merits, as the
treaty was widely circulated among country's leadership and the public.
It was, in fact, reprinted in nearly all of the nation's major newspapers.
Indeed, one is led to agree with Adams, Horsman, Babcock, and Hickey,
who argue that the treaty was, in some form, a victory for the United
States, which resulted in the rise of nationalism and federal power.
However, reception and ratification can only be understood in the
context of the American commissioner's outstanding work at Ghent. Moreover,
one must examine how five key groups--the commissioners, major American
political figures, foreign powers, the press, and the Senate itself--received
the treaty to gain the full perspective on whether or not it was more
than just "an empty document" as Stagg argues. Once done, it becomes
clear that the treaty was, indeed, much more. The question, however,
is how much more.
The fact that they had been unable to end impressment and other odious
maritime issues notwithstanding, the American commissioners, who had endured
so much during the negotiations, were universally pleased at the final
result. Adams, who had often been the most pessimistic, was basically
pleased with the treaty and wrote:
It [the treaty] is not such as under more propitious circumstances
might have been expected, and to be fairly estimated must be compared
not with or desires but with what the situation of both parties and of
the world at and during the negotiation made attainable. 
Adams approves, but does not sound overjoyed with the treaty. Fred
Engleman points out that the commissioners, in fact, had not been at all
pleased with the treaty immediately after the signing. However, he adds
that, as the bitterness of the past months began to fade, their moods
lightened. Engleman writes:
As each [commissioner] received the plaudits of the citizens of Ghent
and reflected on the real and potential disasters to his country, he came
to believe that the commission had acted with some courage and wisdom. 
This was among the most important reasons anyone had to praise the
treaty. Whatever else the Treaty of Ghent was, it could have been so
very much worse for the United States, and no one knew that better than
the American commissioners.
The other commissioners thoughtmuch like Adams. Henry Clay, the
old War Hawk, wrote to Monroe that:
Judged, however, by the actual condition of things, so far as it is
known to us, they [treaty terms] cannot be pronounced very unfavorable.
We lose no territory, I think no honor...judged of by another standard,
the pretensions of the enemy at the opening of the negotiation, the conditions
of the peace certainly reflect no dishonor on us.
Again, the same argument carries: Clay too thought that things could
have been much worse, had the commission not stood its ground against
the British. He also, like Adams, places the treaty in its proper context.
Bayard too agreed, and wrote that "the government no doubt will ratify
it [the treaty], for it is certainly as favorable as could be expected
under existing circumstances."
 More positive than either Adams or Clay, Bayard also believed
the treaty and the war raised the United States' reputation in Europe
because, the country and its commissioners "stood up so well."
 Gallatin too agreed on both counts, but complained that the
European powers had been indifferent toward the United States.
Overall, the commissioners were pleased with their work. Assuredly,
they would have been much happier had impressment and neutral rights been
included in the treaty, but they had to take what they could get. Everyone
knew the country narrowly escaped what could have been a great defeat.
Engleman agrees, and writes, "For a country that was internally divided,
militarily impotent, and nearly bankrupt, the good fortune of the peace
treaty was remarkable." 
Most everyone at home would also agree with this. However, as Gallatin
observed, the foreign powers were largely indifferent, since they were
preoccupied with troubles of their own.
A review of the diplomatic dispatches between United States ministers
and several of the major European powers quickly points to this fact.
For the German states, there simply are no dispatches available between
the years 1802-1834. In any event, one can be fairly safe in surmising
that Metternich and Austriañthe most powerful German state to emerge immediately
after the Napoleonic warsñhad more than enough to worry about with the
Congress of Vienna and establishing a new European order. In Spain, there
was scarcely a mention of the treaty. However, in his dispatch of January
6, 1815, Anthony Morris (the U.S. minister to Spain), forwarded a letter
to Madison from the Duke of Wellington, expressing that he found the news
of peace "very agreeable."  Indeed, the London Chronicle
later reported that on December 26, Wellington sent this letter to the
American Minister at Paris (Crawford), and, the next day, "called on him
personally to congratulate him on the occasion."  Dispatches from December,
1814 to May, 1815 show that Spain was mainly occupied with restoring the
monarchy, and, in Spring 1815, with Napoleon's return from Elba. If the
Spanish government (such as it was) had views on the treaty, they were
not expressed in the dispatches.
Continued on next page »
 Donald Hickey,
The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana: University of Illinois
Press, 1990), 298.
 This is largely
manifest in many American newspaper accounts. See pages 40-47 for a detailed
 There are a number
of good accounts of the peace negotiations, none of which, however, have
been written recently. In many general accounts of the War of 1812, the
negotiations and, more particularly, the ratification process has been
glossed over or ignored. Henry Adams provides a very detailed narrative
in his History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas
Jefferson and James Madison, 2 vols. New York: The Library of America,
1986. More recent, and perhaps less opinionated accounts are also readily
available, but there are only several book-length accounts that focus
on diplomacy. Frank Updyke's The Diplomacy of the War of 1812,
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983, covers the diplomatic
history for the entire war, but also gives ample attention to the treaty
itself. Fred Engleman's The Peace of Christmas Eve, New York:
Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962, is the only book length account that
deals exclusively with the treaty. Alfred Thayer Mahon's article, "The
Negotiations at Ghent in 1814," American Historical Review 11 (October,
1905): 68-87, is an older account, but is still a very useful concise
narrative. There are numerous, more general works that also contribute
to the literature on the treaty, though some of the general works on the
War of 1812 do so only superficially. These are dealt with in the next
section of this essay. Other notable, but more general works, would include
Bradford Perkins, Castlereagh and Adams: England and the United States,
1812-1823, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964, which is
an excellent work of diplomatic history; and Sir Charles Webster offers
a British perspective in The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh, 1815-1822,
London: G. Bell and Sons Ltd., 1947.
 "Adams to Charles
B. Cochran, 18th July, 1814, Ghent," American Historical Review
15.3 (April, 1910): 573. This letter is a reprint of an original owned
by a Mr. John V. Bacot of Morristown, New Jersey, a descendant of the
person to whom it is addressed.
 Donald Hickey,
The War of 1812: A Short History(Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 1990), 114-115.
 "Clay to Crawford,
11th August, 1814, Ghent," American Historical Review 20.1 (October,
 Clay to Crawford,
17th October, 1814, Ghent," The Papers of Henry Clay, ed. James
F. Hopkins. 10 vols. (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1959-1984),
 Frank A. Updyke,
"The Treaty of GhentñA Centenary Estimate," Proceedings of the American
Political Science Association10.10 (1913): 100.
 Kendric Charles
Babcock, The Rise of American Nationality, 1811-1819 (New
York: Harper and Row, 1906). As the title suggests, Babcock sees the
war and treaty as part of this overall theme. Both he and Mahan view
the war as something of a second war of independence, which is not an
altogether uncommon view, especially in older accounts of the war.
 Hickey, The
War of 1812: A Short History, 102.
 Ibid, 109.
 Donald Hickey,
The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana: University of Illinois
Press, 1990), 281. Hickey provides what is probably the best recent account
of the Ghent negotiations, though he virtually ignores the ratification
process and only briefly deals with the treaty's reception in the United
States. The book itself, however, is one of the best general works on
the war available, is meticulously documented, and provides an excellent
bibliography though the endnotes.
 Bradford Perkins,
The Creation of a Republican Empire, 1776-1865 (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1993), 146.
 Reginald Horsman,
The War of 1812 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), 268.
 Ibid., 269.
 Henry Adams,
History of the United States of America During the Administrations
of James Madison(New York: Library of America, 1986), 1218-1235.
 John K. Mahon,
The War of 1812 (Tallahassee: University of Florida Press, 1972),
 J. C. A. Stagg,
Mr. Madison's War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American
Republic, 1783-1830 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983),
 Ibid., 510.
 "Adams to Abigail
Adams, 24th December, 1814, Ghent," The Writings of John Quincy Adams,
ed. Worthington Chauncy Ford. 12 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1915), 5:248.
 Fred L. Engleman,
The Peace of Christmas Eve (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World,
 "Clay to Monroe,
25th December, 1814, Ghent," Hopkins, 1:1007.
 "Bayard to Andrew
Bayard, 24th December, 1814, Ghent," The Papers of James A. Bayard,
ed. Elizabeth Donnan (New York: DaCapo Press, 1971), 364.
 "Bayard to Richard
Henry Bayard, 26th December, 1814," Ibid., 366.
 "Gallatin to
Monroe, 25th December, 1814, Ghent," ed. Henry Adams. 3 vols. (New York,
Antiquarian Press, 1960), 1:645-646.
 Engleman, 285.
 "The Duke of
Wellington to William Henry Crawford, 26th December, 1814, forwarded along
with Morris' dispatch to Monroe, 6th January, 1815," Diplomatic Dispatches
from U. S. Ministers to Spain, 1792-1906. (Microform). Apparently,
Crawford sent this to Morris for some unknown reason, who in turn sent
it to Madison.
 The London
Chronicle, January 3, 1815.