December 24, 2014

Peace, Friendship, and good Understanding – The Treaty of Ghent

By late 1813, President Madison accepted a British offer to begin peace negotiations. The Americans decided on a delegation of five men, mostly prominent politicians representing key regions in the U.S. The American peace delegation consisted of some of the best while the British delegation was less talented. For the British, three commissioners were sent, with the best diplomats being sent to Vienna to negotiate an end to the Napoleonic War.

Both countries began the peace conference in early August 1814 in Ghent, Belgium with hard-line proposals. For the U.S., the Madison administration instructed their delegates to end British impressment, a proposal that was denied outright by the British. Monroe said that the act of impressment was a “degrading practice [that] must cease; our flag must protect the crew; or the United States, cannot consider themselves an independent Nation.” The American delegation was also instructed to get the British to surrender Canada, a difficult proposal since the British possessed more American territory that the U.S. possessed of Canada.

With the defeat of Napoleon in the spring of 1814, the British sent thousands of troops to Canada and the U.S., satisfying public opinion in Britain as many wanted to punish and humble the Americans as aggressors who indirectly supported Napoleon. With news of British reinforcements, Madison instructed the peace delegation to abandon the acquisition of Canada and a stop to impressment; the delegation was instructed to end the war and restore the prewar boundaries.

As the Americans reduced their demands, the British increased theirs. The British sought border adjustments to improve Canada’s defence and they sought the creation of a native buffer zone to include most of the American land between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes. British commanders pushed hard for a native buffer zone since they pledged its creation to gain native allies. 

Negotiations got off to a rough start with both sides refusing to agree to each other’s hard-line proposals. The creation of a native buffer zone proved to be very difficult as the Americans refused outright to its creation. The Americans insisted that there could be no peace until the British abandoned this proposal. One American delegate said that no treaty could restrain the swelling tide of American settlement: “It was opposing a feather to a torrent.”

During the negotiations both sides were overjoyed or saddened when receiving the latest news from North America. Upon reading that Washington was captured by the British, American delegate Henry Clay reported “I tremble, indeed, whenever I take up a late News paper. Hope alone sustains me.” Thankfully for Clay news soon reached him that Baltimore repulsed a British attack and Prevost retreated from Plattsburgh.

Eventually the British dropped their harsh demands in the treaty as negotiations broke down in Vienna. With a potential dangerous situation about to erupt in Europe, the British sought to end the war in North American as quickly as possible. The British abandoned the proposed native buffer zone for vague language that was to protect native rights. The British also abandoned their proposal for American territory and instead settled on status quo ante bellum, which restored prewar boundaries.

On December 24, 1814, the British and American delegations signed the Treaty of Ghent. Both delegations quickly sent the treaty to their respective governments for ratification. Fighting continued into the early months of 1815 and although the treaty did not solve all of the issues that started the War of 1812, it did bring about the beginning of 200 years of peace between nations.

The treaty’s first article states that both countries desire a termination to the war and wish to restore the “principles of perfect reciprocity, Peace, Friendship, and good Understanding;” a principle that continues to this day.

If you want to find out more about the Treaty of Ghent, you can read the full text of the treaty by clicking here