Celebrating 17 years

"Peace Upon Honorable Terms"

The United States Ratification of the Treaty of Ghent

Britain's Seizure of US Sailor Ends With Treat 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. [1]

According 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. [2] 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. [3]

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. [4]

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. [5] 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. [6] 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." [7]

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. [8]

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 [9] 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." [10] 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. [11]

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. [12]

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. [13]

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." [14] 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 story.

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. [15] 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. [16]

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. [17] 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. [18]

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." [19] 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. [20]

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. [21]

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. [22]

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. [23]

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." [24] 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." [25] Gallatin too agreed on both counts, but complained that the European powers had been indifferent toward the United States. [26]

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." [27] 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." [28] 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." [29] 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.

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[1] Donald Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 298.

[2] This is largely manifest in many American newspaper accounts. See pages 40-47 for a detailed account.

[3] 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.

[4] "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.

[5] Donald Hickey, The War of 1812: A Short History(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 114-115.

[6] "Clay to Crawford, 11th August, 1814, Ghent," American Historical Review 20.1 (October, 1914): 116.

[7] 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), 1:989.

[8] Frank A. Updyke, "The Treaty of GhentñA Centenary Estimate," Proceedings of the American Political Science Association10.10 (1913): 100.

[9] 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.

[10] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Short History, 102.

[11] Ibid, 109.

[12] 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.

[13] Bradford Perkins, The Creation of a Republican Empire, 1776-1865 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 146.

[14] Ibid., 145.

[15] Reginald Horsman, The War of 1812 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), 268.

[16] Ibid., 269.

[17] Henry Adams, History of the United States of America During the Administrations of James Madison(New York: Library of America, 1986), 1218-1235.

[18] John K. Mahon, The War of 1812 (Tallahassee: University of Florida Press, 1972), 381-385.

[19] J. C. A. Stagg, Mr. Madison's War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783-1830 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 501.

[20] Ibid., 510.

[21] "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.

[22] Fred L. Engleman, The Peace of Christmas Eve (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), 283.

[23] "Clay to Monroe, 25th December, 1814, Ghent," Hopkins, 1:1007.

[24] "Bayard to Andrew Bayard, 24th December, 1814, Ghent," The Papers of James A. Bayard, ed. Elizabeth Donnan (New York: DaCapo Press, 1971), 364.

[25] "Bayard to Richard Henry Bayard, 26th December, 1814," Ibid., 366.

[26] "Gallatin to Monroe, 25th December, 1814, Ghent," ed. Henry Adams. 3 vols. (New York, Antiquarian Press, 1960), 1:645-646.

[27] Engleman, 285.

[28] "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.

[29] The London Chronicle, January 3, 1815.