Celebrating 17 years

"Peace Upon Honorable Terms"

The United States Ratification of the Treaty of Ghent
Page 3

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One week later, the paper announced several celebrations in Providence to honor the return of peace, but not specifically the treaty. In America's first capitol — Philadelphia — peace was announced with an enormous headline, which was rather unusual for papers of this period. The Mayor, Robert Wharston, issued a proclamation in this issue "permitting that this city be illuminated" in celebration (again for the peace, not the actual treaty). [61] Smaller papers also announced the peace. The Shamrock of New York, not being a weekly paper, commented on the peace in its September 2 issue, declaring, "a peace, an honorable peace, was the happy result of virtue and bravery." [62]

In Wilmington, Delaware, the American Watchman announced peace on February 15. The paper reported that the treaty was "highly honorable to our country," and this seems to be confirmed by the London Times, a paper which "during the war has shown a most malignant spirit of enmity toward the United States." [63]

The Boston Gazette announced the news on February 16, as it had been reported in the February 11 New York Mercantile Advisor. The news was "great and joyful," and one can assume this was largely due to the understanding that "the treaty is highly honorable to our country." Celebrations were reported as "business of every kind was suspended and the whole population devoted itself to expressions of joy." [64] Orders were given for a parade and a general illumination of the city. Illuminations also took place in New York, New Haven, New London, and Providence. The Boston Gazette's February 20 edition announced further celebrations, designating February 23 as a day of rejoicing (all of this, again, not specifically for the treaty). Finally, the full treaty was printed on the 27th. However, a small element of disaffection accompanied it. A list of representatives who voted for war was also published, along with the following caption:

The following is a list of the members of Congress who voted for the war — Let them not be forgot — for, if the principles which actuated their conduct, in this instance, were not corrupt and wicked, they must stand condemned as weak, ignorant, and impolitic men. [65]

This was the only criticism. One must note that it was not directed at the treaty itself or the commissioners. Rather, the criticism (coming from a Federalist area) lashes out at the Republicans who began the war. In their view, the war was unwarranted and bungled from the start. The treaty would represent salvation for them too, but, for them, it was salvation from the bunglers who had gotten the country into the war.

The Centinel of Freedom (Newark) reported the news of peace on February 14 with the usual enthusiasm. However, on March 7, an article entitled "All the Points Gained" appeared as it had been printed in the National Intelligencer. It appeared in several other papers as well, including the March 4 American Watchman. Unlike many of the reports, this specifically dealt with the treaty's provisions. The article argued that the war had been fought to gain four objects: First, to end "unretaliated spoliations of our commerce;" second, to resist the Orders in Council; third, to oppose the practice of impressment; and fourth, for the nation's honor.

The author then shows how each of these four points had actually been gained. "Unretaliated spoliations," ended as soon as the United States declared war and began fighting back. The Orders in Council were revoked before the war even began. On impressment, the author wrote that "as long as that practice continued, the American government refused to make peace." Now, the practice having ceased, there was no need for a treaty stipulation on the subject. The author goes out of his way to defend the treaty, even amid the many celebrations for the return of peace.

The Columbian of New York agreed with this view, as one author wrote, "it is certain that the offensive orders, blockades, and impressments are discontinued, and, as this is all we wanted on those subjects, we have no cause of complaint." [66] Finally, the nation's honor had been maintained by its many victories. [67] This article was, by far, the clearest and most precise defense of the treaty. It presented arguments made by both the government and the commissioners themselves. Obviously, it was printed too late to influence the ratification process, but it certainly demonstrates the treaty had very able defenders. However, one has to wonder if this tract was not the product of or response to criticisms of the treaty (or at least questions about the silence on impressment). In any case, the author provided an able reply.

Such questions arose in the February 23 Maryland Gazette. That issue contained the full treaty, but also contained several articles that, while not overtly critical of the treaty or the commissioners, raised some questions. One article stated that "as it [treaty] relieved us from the embarrassment of war and enables every class of our citizens to return to their usual occupations, it is certainly admirable." However, the author goes on, speculating about why impressment and neutral rights had not found their way into the treaty: "Perhaps these subjects have been omitted with a view to wait the result of the deliberation in Vienna." [68] This view, according to what transpired at Ghent, was incorrect, but it is important to note that the author, while somewhat critical, gives the commissioners the benefit of the doubt. It does, however, seem clear that the author was not familiar with the actual negotiations, or he might have known the trouble this issue had caused during the negotiations.

Another article, appearing on the same day, is more critical. It's author identifies himself as "Peace-Man," and is obviously an opponent of the war. Again, this criticism is directed more toward those who got the United States involved in the war, rather than at the peace process itself. He writes that "the time must come...when our people must begin...to calculate the cost and profit of this war, to consider whether what was promised by its authors had been performed." In considering this, he concludes that "by the treaty, we have lost much and gained nothing." What could one expect from a treaty that ended a useless and foolish war? In that vein, he declares that "the friends of peace, however, have real cause for joy. They rejoice that a wicked and unnecessary war is terminated, and now the people will be at leisure to bring the cruel authors of it to an account." [69]

One must, however, keep in mind that the newspaper reports were almost universally positive. The Richmond Enquirer printed the treaty on February 22, and wrote:

When we compare the terms of the treaty with those the arrogant people of England were determined to impose upon us, how mortifying must the contrast prove to Mr. Bull!...American's then rejoice! Thank your warriors who have given you glory and your ministers who have given you peace." [70]

This argument is key, and is most likely the one that swayed people. The commissioners themselves expressed this view: Perhaps the treaty was not all the United States desired, but, given the course of the war and the British demands, it could have been worse beyond the imagination of most Americans.

There does seem to be an overall pattern here: Peace itself was universally lauded. The nation was war weary, fear of disunion was a major concern, and Jackson's victory must have led many to believe that peace was just around the corner and would be favorable. Vague news of peace proceeded news of the treaty, which, when printed in all of these papers, was examined in this highly elated atmosphere. There was no huge let down. There were no wild swings from jubilation to indignation. The peace was proclaimed honorable. Surely, the relief felt from the initial news of peace must have contributed to the treaty's favorable reception.

As the relief and joy from the peace calmed, many did turn a critical eye to the treaty. Some did wonder why it seemed to have gained so little for the United States. However, not one single account in any newspaper questioned the honorable nature of the peace. No one accused the commissioners of having performed poorly. In fact, early reports of the treaty being favorable accompanied the initial reports of peace that sparked the celebrations. When there was criticism, it generally came from Federalists who were condemning Republicans for having gotten the country into the conflagration in the first place. The response to the peace and the response to the treaty were not entirely one in the same, but that in no way means the treaty itself was not received favorably by the public or the press. One must again take note that if the American commissioners had given into Britain's demands, there doubtless would have been no illuminations, no celebrations, and no mentions of an honorable peace.

Viewed as a whole, the papers, through their articles and reports of celebrations, present a fairly good register of public opinion. However, they also demonstrate several key points. First, the treaty's terms had become widely known. Second, the proceedings at Ghent, at least to an extent, and Britain's original demands, were also known. Madison sent communications from the commissioners to Congress on October 10, and he sent instructions they had been given on October 13 and December 1. [71] Thus, it was readily possible to view the treaty in its proper context — the negotiations described earlier in this paper. It was also possible to see, had the American commissioners not stood up to the British, what kind of treaty they might have been reading instead.

Those making the harshest criticisms (such as they were), failed to place the treaty in its proper context. Keeping these points in mind, the vast majority of Americans probably supported the treaty. What criticism there was came mainly from the Federalists, and, as Bradford Perkins argues, "above all, Federalists argued the terms of the treaty proved the futility of the war they had all along opposed." [72] Thus, criticism was more directed against Madison and the Republicans than at the treaty itself or the American commissioners. In the United States Senate — Federalist and Republican alike — members would certainly be able to come to many of the same conclusions as the American people, and they too would come to overwhelmingly support the treaty.

The Treaty of Ghent was signed by the American and British commissioners on December 24, 1814. Two days later, the treaty, along with all related correspondence, dispatches, and protocols (not already sent), were sent to the United States for review and ratification. Henry Carroll, one of the American secretaries, boarded the British sloop of war Favorite and left for New York on January 2, 1815. [73] Mr. Anthony Baker, secretary of the British delegation, sailed with Carroll carrying Britain's ratification. He took the treaty to London immediately after the signing to get the monarch's ratification, and was instructed to exchange ratifications with the Americans at Washington. [74]

Furthermore, the instructions stated that hostilities would not end until ratifications were exchanged. In case the United States refused to ratify the treaty, Baker was to do his best to publicize the American refusal (to place blame for continued war on them), and then sail to Halifax, remaining there until he received further instructions. [75] However, Lord Bathurst also warned Baker not to accept any changes in the treaty, any conditional ratification, or any comment on issues omitted from the treaty. [76] It was to be all or nothing. Thus, from these rather strict and specific instructions, it did not seem perfectly sure to Britain that the United States would ratify the treaty, and they must have questioned whether it would be favorably received.

Christopher Hughes, another of the American secretaries, sailed for the Chesapeake, at about the same time, with another copy of the treaty. [77] The Favorite arrived in New York on February 11, but Hughes was able to reach Washington first, arriving on February 14 with an unratified copy of the treaty. Baker, and the ratified copy, did not arrive until February 17. Still, the President received the treaty the night of the fourteenth, approved it, and sent it on to the Senate the next day. [78]

At this point, a brief analysis of who sat in the United States Senate during the 13th Congress would be in order. During the third session, there were only thirty-five senators, since one seat from North Carolina remained vacant. As a group (a full listing is provided in Appendix I), one can make some general observations (refer to Table 1 on the following page).

The Senate was more Republican than Federalist, but they did not control an overwhelming majority. This is vital, because, by themselves, the Republicans did not have enough votes to ratify the treaty (2/3 vote required). They would need at least one of eleven Federalists or one of the two non-affiliated Senators. As seen in the newspapers, Federalists were most critical of the treaty. Also, most Senators were highly educated and familiar with legal work and proceedings (note the high percentage that were lawyers). Sixteen served in previous congresses, so they must have had a good deal of familiarity with legislative proceedings and legal documents.

Table 1
The Senate in 1815

 

Republicans *

Federalists*

Lawyers*

Formal
Higher Education*

Voted for War**

Senators

22

11

23

17

10

Percent

63%

31%

66%

49%

29%

*Information gathered from individual biographies collected in Kathryn Armstrong Jacob and Bruce A. Ragsdale, eds., Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-1989 (Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1989.
**Information gathered from Leland R. Johnson, "The Suspense Was Hell: The Senate Vote for War in 1812," in The United States Congress in a Transitional Era, 1800-1841: The Interplay of Party, Faction, an Section. (New York, Carlson Publishing, 1991), 1:265.

These were not men who would have difficulty understanding a treaty and its related documents. Essentially, these were men with political training and critical minds, who knew exactly what they were doing when they voted on the treaty. They were not the sort of men who would casually skim though a document, and make an uninformed decision. Moreover, having a high degree of formal education, they were even more likely to have the kind of critical minds that would question a seemingly questionable treaty. The fact that the three federalists who had voted against the war now voted for the treaty indicates this. Their natural political inclinations should have been against the treaty, since failing it would have seriously damaged Madison and the Republicans (the "perpetrators" of the failed war and the seemingly meaningless outcome / treaty).

All ten members who had served in the 12th Congress and had voted for the war also voted for the treaty. One would think that those who supported a war to stop British violations of American "free trade and sailor's rights," would have voted against a treaty that made little progress on either of these issues. If any two groups in the Senate would be likely to be critical of the treaty (and vote against it), it would be these. The fact that they did not seems to, first, reflect well on the treaty, and, second, show that these men, being most likely to closely scrutinize the treaty, knew what they were voting for and did so without dissent. Their awareness of the circumstances surrounding the treaty-making process also probably influenced their thinking. They would have seen just how much worse the peace settlement could have been, had the American commissioners not stood their ground against the British demands. In any case, they were able to see beyond the apparent nature of the treaty and give it their unanimous support. [79]

When one carefully examines each individual Senator, one also finds reasons beyond those already mentioned why they might have been inclined to vote for peace. Within the Republican faction, most senators were either from the South (12) or New England (6). Trade and commerce, which had been hindered by the war, were vital to both areas. Voting against the treaty would mean voting against restoring regular trade and commerce, which might not have sat well with the Senators' constituents. Among the Federalists, the largest number were from New England (6). Again, trade and commerce would be vital issues.

However, the disunion reflected by the Hartford Convention may also have been a consideration. The treaty would put an end to the disunion by eliminating its cause — the war. This would have been more vital to the Federalists because of their strong central government leanings and because they, as members of a generally anti-war party, would become suspect if they voted against ending the war that was threatening to rip the Union apart. [80] Thus, no matter what party or what section a Senator came from, each had one good reason or another to support an honorable treaty and end the war. This is, of course, exactly what they did.

The Senate received the treaty, along with a letter from the American commissioners on February 15, and Madison's message accompanying the treaty made it very clear that "the termination of hostilities depends upon the time of ratification by both parties." [81] Ralston Hayden observes that the procedure the Senate would follow in considering the treaty did not significantly deviate from the procedure for treaties that had been in operation since 1805. The only deviation was the treaty's immediate consideration by the entire Senate, rather than going to the Committee on Foreign Relations first. [82] Furthermore, Hayden notes that "it seems not unlikely that the necessity of speedy action led the Senate to deal with the question directly, and without the assistance of a committee." [83]

However, despite Madison's message, the treaty would not have died if not immediately ratified. The treaty itself stipulated it should be ratified within four months (by April) of the signing or earlier, if at all possible. Even if Madison did not specify this, the treaty, which was available to the entire Senate, did. Also, given the victory at New Orleans, the military situation was no longer so desperate.

Thus, "speedy action," seems more likely to have occurred for one of two reasons: First, there was genuine eagerness to end the hostilities immediately. Second, there was enough initial support for the treaty itself that no committee consideration was needed. Given the general course of and lack of overwhelming support for the war, and the threat of disunion from New England, the first proposition is certainly plausible. The nearly universally positive reception of the treaty and the readily available information regarding its negotiation, taken together with the "speedy action" and, as shall be seen, the lack of dissent or even debate in the Senate on the treaty, the second proposition seems equally plausible.

Indeed, the "world's most deliberative body" deliberated very sparingly over the treaty. The President's message and the treaty were read for the first time in the Senate already on the fifteenth. The Senate went into executive session and formed itself into a committee of the whole. In compliance with a motion from the floor, approved by unanimous consent, the treaty was given its second reading. Immediately following the second reading, Senator Samuel Smith (R-Maryland), moved that "the Senate do advise and consent to the ratification of the Treaty of peace and amity between the United States and Great Britain." [84] However, Senator Rufus King (F-New York) objected and offered another motion requesting that all instructions given to the American commissioners, all correspondence related to the negotiations, and all correspondence and protocols between the American and British commissioners be forwarded by the President to the Senate. The motion passed, so consideration of the treaty was postponed until the next day.

That same day the requested items were sent over, and presented to the Senate without objection on the 16th. [85] However, Perkins notes that Senator King and the Federalists used this as a tactical opening. First, the requested papers would clearly show how unreachable the original war aims had been. Second, this allowed King to attack the Republicans without attacking the idea of peace or the treaty itself. Reportedly, he "poured forty minutes of sarcastic oratory on the war and its backers." [86] According to Robert Ernst, King lambasted those responsible for the war by pointing out its many "blessings." However, Madison was his main target, as "every sentence was Cantharides to the already blistered feelings of the administration." [87] Once again the same pattern emerges: No one criticized the treaty itself or the commissioners, but rather, if they criticized anything, directed it at those who started the war.

Finally, on February 16, the Senate resumed consideration. The treaty and the ratification motion were given their third and final reading. Following this, the thirty-five Senators unanimously approved the following resolution:

Resolved, (two thirds of the Senators present concurring therein) That the Senate do advise and consent to the ratification of the treaty of peace and amity between the United States and his Britannic Majesty, concluded on the 24th day of December, 1814, at Ghent. [88]

The Senate then ordered the resolution sent to the President, who promptly ratified it himself. Unfortunately, there remains no record of the actual debate (if there even was any formal debate). Neither the Senate Journals nor the Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States contain one word of debate on the treaty. The Senate did consider the treaty in executive session (closed from the public), but even the executive journal contains no record of any debate. Thus, the treaty was ratified and the War of 1812 came to an end.

In the end, as Perkins writes, "no Federalist could vote against the termination of a detested war, and no war hawk insisted on fighting for conquest." [89] The war, though not long, had been tremendously hard on the United States. The country was divided at home, and, as it had during the Revolution, found that republican principles were not conducive to fighting a war. However, the new republic had stood its ground, maintained control of the Great Lakes, and finally defeated the British Army at New Orleans. Peace was surely welcome, but not, as Adams believed, at any price.

The United States had sent five of its ablest men to negotiate a treaty. Under less than ideal circumstances, they stood up to one of the world's most powerful nations and would not give in to its odious demands. Though the product of their labors — the Treaty of Ghent — did not give the United States all it had originally wanted from the war, it did no harm to the republic and preserved the foolish young nation's honor. Indeed, the young republic had been quite foolish in declaring war on a major power that it was not prepared to fight. The honorable treaty, however, provided the means by which the nation could back away from its mistake.

The treaty may not have fulfilled everyone's original expectations, but, from the war's course alone or from the record of the negotiations, it was very clear that the final outcome--Adam's "peace upon honorable terms"--could have been so much worse. It was, in fact, the salvation of a republic that had nearly destroyed itself by foolishly jumping into a war it was not prepared to fight.

There were no great illuminations for the treaty, but neither did its terms produce outrage. In truth, the war's greatest battle had been waged at Ghent. The American commissioners' efforts opened the door through which America could exit the war with its honor intact. Such a thing is not bound to have people dancing in the streets, but that does not reduce its significance for a nation that was nearly prostrated before its old colonial master.

 

[61] Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia), 15th February, 1815.

[62] The Shamrock (New York), 2nd September, 1815.

[63] The American Watchman (Wilmington), 15th February, 1815.

[64] Boston Gazette (Boston), 16th February, 1815.

[65] Ibid., 27th February, 1815.

[66] The Columbian (New York City), 20th February, 1815.

[67] "All the Points Gained," Centinel of Freedom (Newark), 7th March, 1815.

[68] Boston Gazette (Boston), 23rd February, 1815.

[69] "Peace-Man," Boston Gazette (Boston), 23rd February, 1815.

[70] Richmond Enquirer (Richmond), 22nd February, 1815.

[71] Richardson, 551-552.

[72] Bradford Perkins, Castlereagh and Adams: England and the United States, 1812-1823 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964), 145.

[73] The Weekly Recorder (Chillicothe, Ohio), 23rd February, 1815.

[74] Frank Updyke, The Diplomacy of the War of 1812 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1915), 360-361.

[75] James Carr, "The Battle of New Orleans and the Treaty of Ghent," Diplomatic History 3.2 (Summer 1979), 278.

[76] Perkins, Castlereagh and Adams, 130-131.

[77] The Weekly Recorder (Chillicothe, Ohio), 23rd February, 1815.

[78] Updyke, The Diplomacy of the War of 1812, 361-362.

[79] Kathryn Armstrong Jacob and Bruce A. Ragsdale, eds., Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-1989. (Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1989). (Information on Senators compiled from individual biographies); Leland R. Johnson, "The Suspense Was Hell: The Senate Vote for War in 1812," in The United States Congress in a Transitional Era, 1800-1841: The Interplay of Party, Faction, and Section. (New York: Carlson Publishing, 1991), 1:267.

[80] Jacob and Ragsdale (information on senators compiled from individual biographies); Johnson, 267.

[81] Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate(Washington: Duff Green, 1828), 8:618-619.

[82] Ralston Hayden, The Senate and Treaties, 1789-1817 (New York: Macmillan Company, 1920), 196.

[83] Ibid., 197.

[84] Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate, 619.

[85] Ibid., 619-620.

[86] Perkins, Castlereagh and Adams, 143-144.

[87] Robert Ernst, Rufus King: American Federalist (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968), 339. One must note, however, that had King and the Federalists really wanted to delay ratification for any non-legitimate reason, they could have organized a filibuster. In a committee of the whole, there are no limits on debate. King and his fellow Federalists could have drawn the process out by refusing to give up the floor. This tactic has been used many times. Thus, it seems Senator King could have easily tied things up for a much longer period had the chosen to do so.

[88] Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate, 620.

[89] Perkins, Castlereagh and Adams, 144.