The Treaty of Ghent was formally titled the “Treaty of Peace and Amity between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America.” It was signed on December 24, 1814.
The only American or British newspaper to have acknowledged the anniversary on the date in 2014, as far as I could determine, was the East Hampton Star.
Declaration of War, 1812
The Treaty formally ended a state of war between Britain and the United States. President James Madison initiated a declaration of war on Britain originally because British Orders in Council made it harder for the United States to trade with France.
In addition, the British Navy was seizing (“impressing”) sailors on colonial ships and putting them on Navy ships. The War Hawks in the House of Representatives were calling for war on Britain.
The British Government responded by repealing the Orders in Council, ending the curb on trading. However, impressment remained. If the British had given up the right to impress American sailors, Madison might have called off the war.
Russia's Czar Alexander I in March 1813 offered to host negotiations, but the British were winning and refused. In the fall of 1813, British foreign minister Lord Castlereagh, a Cambridge alum, offered to negotiate directly with the United States. The two countries picked Ghent in eastern Flanders as the venue because it was a neutral city, speaking both Dutch and French. Since the Dutch had settled New York, there were family connections to U.S. officials from that state. The goal of both the British and the United States was to end the fighting, which was far too costly for both countries.
The main issue addressed by the negotiators was how the spoils of war – territories that were captured during the war – would be divided.
- In this corner, for the Stars and Stripes – John Quincy Adams, chief negotiator, a Harvard graduate; Henry Clay, the hawk (the "bad cop"); Albert Gallatin, former Treasury Secretary, who grew up in Geneva, emigrated to the USA and settled south of Pittsburgh, teaching French at Harvard and elsewhere to earn a living before he became Secretary of the Treasury in 1801, remaining in that job until he went to Ghent in 1814; James A. Bayard, moderate anti-war Federalist; and Jonathan Russell, chargé d’affaires for Madison in Paris. It took the Americans six weeks or more to communicate with Washington, D.C. so they were negotiating largely on their own. The U.S. team wanted to restore territory to what it was before the war, the status quo ante bellum. They won.
- In this other corner, for the Union Jack – The central negotiator was a Cambridge graduate. The two senior members were more senior, and Oxonians, but it seems they didn't want to make the trip, thereby prompting the thought the idea that the Oxford men were more talented, but lazier; while Cambridge provided someone with less experience and talent, but more willing to make the effort. (1) The senior team was Lord Castlereagh, Britain's Foreign Secretary and an alumnus of St. John's College, Cambridge, and Henry Lord Bathurst, the Third Earl, Secretary for War and the Colonies and alum of Christ Church, Oxford. However, they stayed in London and did not dignify the talks with their presence. (2) Instead, they sent a less-skilled team: Admiralty lawyer William Adams, impressments expert Admiral Lord Gambier, and the real workhorse of the group, and a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, Henry Goulburn, Undersecretary for War and the Colonies. The British negotiators wanted uti possidetis, that each side could keep what it had won militarily, such as Detroit and Mackinac Island. They lost.
The Americans in Ghent understood they were too far from Washington to be able to get approval for their strategy. They were thus able to settle on a common goal, and take action on behalf of their country.
The outcome of the Treaty was favorable for the United States, perhaps because the war was going well for the Americans during the month before the Treaty was signed:
- News of two U.S. victories was the last information that negotiators in Ghent received. The Americans seemed to be losing early in the war, with the burning of the U.S. Capitol and other buildings in Washington. But: (1) Lieutenant General Sir George Prévost and a naval squadron under Captain George Downie engaged in Plattsburgh, N.Y., with New York and Vermont militia and U.S. Army regulars, under the command of Brigadier General Alexander Macomb. They were supported by ships commanded by Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough. The British failed to take Lake Champlain and fled north after the battle. (2) Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Md., withstood a severe attack, inspiring the National Anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner."
- The Americans therefore refused to let the British keep what they won. The British did not get what they wanted regarding the independence of Native lands in the state of Ohio, and in the Indiana and Michigan Territories. The British wanted this reserved land to be a buffer state to protect Canada from American annexation, but Clay would not give it up. The British did not get any territory in northern Maine, or demilitarization of the Great Lakes or navigation rights on the Mississippi. Lord Castlereagh asked the Duke of Wellington and his advice was for them to take the status quo ante bellum.
Although the United States didn't give up any territory, it had been the one that declared war, so presumably it was bent on expansion. That was not to be, and the Canadian border was left in place, which would have been the consolation for the British. Also, the United States never did get the British to promise not to impress American sailors, but as hostilities in Europe ended, this issue ceased to be such a concern.
The Treaty was signed by the British on December 30, but it took a month for word to get to Washington, D.C. Before the combatants got word of the Treaty, the British attacked New Orleans on January 8, 1815 with a large army. It was overwhelmed by a smaller and less experienced American force under General Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) in the greatest U.S. victory in the war. The news of the Treaty and the outcome of the Battle of New Orleans reached a celebratory American public at about the same time. (However, the Second Battle of Fort Bowyer was won by the British. For them, the news was mixed.)
The United States ratified the treaty in mid-February 1815 under President James Madison, who started it all, with a formal exchange of papers.
1. The United States won back in the Treaty what it had lost. As the Canadian historian and War of 1812 expert Donald E. Graves concludes: What Americans lost on the battlefield, "they made up for at the negotiating table.”
2. The Treaty of Ghent has held up for 205 years. However, the Treaty does not imply a "Special Relationship", just a cessation of hostilities. During the American Civil War, Britain (as Amanda Foreman has shown) came in mostly on the losing side, the South. This makes sense historically. The Pilgrims were led by Cambridge alumni fleeing to New England to avoid religious persecution at the hands of the Church of England. South of New York, however, was populated through friendly grants of land from the Crown to mostly Oxford alumni (Pennsylvania to William Penn of Christ Church, Oxford; Maryland to the Calverts of Trinity College, Oxford; see chart here: https://theoxbridgepursuivant.blogspot.com/2013/06/oxford-alumni-who-shaped-american.html).
3. Hitler brought the United States and Britain together. During World War I, many Irish Catholics opposed U.S. entry on the side of Britain. It was not until World War II that the Special Relationship was cemented. The threat of Hitler tied the United States and Britain, first with Lend-Lease in March 1941 and then with the U.S. declaration of war following the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941.
4. Relations have been good since World War II. Brexit will leave Britain more dependent on its relationship with the United States.