Peace treaty between the United States and Great Britain ending the War of 1812. Signed on December 24, 1814, in Ghent, Belgium, the treaty essentially restored relations between the two countries to the status quo ante bellum but did not meaningfully address any of the problems that had led to the declaration of war in June 1812.
The War of 1812 had grown out of the fighting that occurred between Britain and France beginning in 1792. U.S. presidents tried to stay neutral in the European conflict while maintaining good trade relations with both countries, as they were the leading trading partners for the United States. However, both Britain and France violated contemporary maritime laws by attacking neutral ships trading with the other country. With its much larger navy, Britain routinely harassed American merchant ships in the Atlantic Ocean, while French customs officials seized American cargoes if the ships had first stopped at a British port. Additionally, after 1805, because of the growing demand for sailors and rising desertion rates among British sailors, British warships began seizing deserters and American seaman alike from American merchant vessels for service in the Royal Navy (impressment); by mid-1812, as many as 6,000 had been captured. These aggressive actions infuriated the American public, and, combined with the growing restraint of trade and the attack on the American frigate Chesapeake in 1807, the U.S. Congress responded by declaring war on Britain in June 1812.
The actual victories and defeats of the war were fairly well split between the two belligerents. The U.S. Army failed to conquer Canada early in the conflict and could not keep the British Army from burning Washington, D.C., in 1814. On the other hand, the U.S. Navy won the Battles of Lake Erie and Lake Champlain that secured the northern border of the United States and also won a number of well-publicized individual ship-to-ship engagements in the Atlantic Ocean that diverted British warships to seek out the American frigates. The U.S. Army and various state militia units also quelled Native American tribes in the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River; some of these tribes had sided with the British.
Almost as soon as war was declared, the U.S. minister to Britain proposed an armistice if Britain would renounce impressment, but the British refused. Later in 1812 after the British had captured Detroit and news of the repeal of the Orders in Council had reached Washington, the British arranged an armistice with Major General Henry Dearborn; however, President James Madison repudiated the agreement and decided to continue the war. In 1813 Russia offered to mediate a settlement, but London rejected the overture because it might have compromised British interests in Europe. In January 1814 Britain and the United States finally agreed to begin peace negotiations, but the talks were delayed.
With the war against Napoleon winding down, it looked as if Britain would now turn its full attention to the United States. Fortunately, the British people were weary of warfare that had continued with little intermission since 1793. In August 1814 the two countries opened formal peace negotiations in Ghent, Belgium. Dr. William Adams, James Lord Gambier, and Colonial Office undersecretary Henry Goulburn comprised the British delegation. The American delegation consisted of John Quincy Adams, James A. Bayard Sr., Henry Clay, Albert Gallatin, and Jonathan Russell.
Because the British diplomats lacked the power to negotiate directly, they had to relay any American proposals to London and then wait for orders on how to proceed, causing delays of often a week or more. On the other hand, the American delegation had full authority to negotiate directly.
Because Britain was not now in any danger of defeat by Napoleon or the United States, the British delegation opened the negotiations with harsh terms: the establishment of a neutral zone around the Great Lakes south to the Ohio River, the elimination of American fishing rights off Newfoundland established by the 1783 Treaty of Paris, free British access to the Mississippi River, and the annexation of portions of Maine to provide a land corridor to Quebec from the maritime colonies. Refusing these initial terms, the U.S. delegation countered with demands for compensation for the impressment of American sailors and captured American ships, cessions of Canadian territory, and guaranteed fishing rights off Newfoundland.
After months of negotiations against the backdrop of military victories, defeats, and stalemates, both sides finally realized that their respective peoples wanted peace and that there was no real reason to continue fighting. With overseas trade all but paralyzed except for smuggling and with British victories over Napoleon in Europe, the Royal Navy no longer needed to harass American shipping or impress American seamen. Concurrently, Britain was preoccupied with events closer to home, namely recasting Europe after the defeat of Napoleon and preventing disagreement at the ongoing Congress of Vienna from breaking out into open conflict between former allies.
Both nations agreed to essentially return to the status quo ante bellum, probably upon the urging of Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh, who sought to end this American diversion quickly. The Treaty of Ghent released all prisoners of war and restored all territory held by the other (about 10 million acres of American territory near Lakes Superior and Michigan, in Maine, and on the Pacific coast). Britain promised to return captured slaves but ultimately did not. Instead Britain elected to pay the United States £250,000 a few years later as compensation. The British proposed creation of an Indian buffer zone in Ohio and Michigan. However, that proposal came to naught with the collapse of the Native American coalition, and the United States ignored Article IX regarding American treatment of the Native Americans. Ironically, the final treaty, signed on December 24, 1814, made no mention of the causes of the war: freedom of the seas, the seizure of American merchant shipping, and the impressment of American citizens.
Because the news of the treaty signing had to cross the Atlantic Ocean by sailing ship, it did not reach the United States until February 1815. On January 8, 1815, unaware that the war had legally ended, American forces defeated British forces in the Battle of New Orleans. British forces captured Fort Bowyer, Alabama, on February 11 and were preparing to lay siege to Mobile, Alabama, when news of the peace treaty finally arrived.
The U.S. Senate unanimously approved the treaty on February 16, 1815, and President James Madison exchanged ratification papers with a British diplomat in Washington on February 17. On March 1, Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba off the Italian coast, which restarted the fighting in Europe and forced Britain to concentrate on the new threat that he posed.
Although the Treaty of Ghent did not officially secure freedom of the seas for the United States, in the century of relative peace overseas until 1914, this freedom was not seriously threatened. Then, the offending power was Germany, not Britain. Britain stopped impressing seamen and never again pursued its disputes with the United States to the point of war. The war also ended the Native American threat east of the Mississippi River and set the stage for their removal to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). The most important result of the war and the treaty was perhaps the burst of nationalism throughout the United States that followed as many Americans came to believe that they had (again) successfully defended themselves from an overbearing Britain. By 1917, the year the United States entered World War I, U.S. relations with Britain had dramatically improved, and the Americans fought on Britain's side. Far from mutual antagonism, a very special relationship was in the making.
Adams, John Quincy; Bayard, James Asheton; Canning, George; Clay, Henry; Continental System; Embargo Act of 1807; Gallatin, Albert; Gambier, James, First Baron Gambier; Goulburn, Henry; Impressment; Jefferson, Thomas; Macon's Bill No. 2; Madison, James; Native Americans; Non-Intercourse Act; Orders in Council; Russell, Jonathan
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