From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
When warring countries Great Britain and the United States finally sat down to hammer out a peace treaty, it took nearly as long as the War of 1812.
After less than a year’s fighting, where Great Britain was fighting on two fronts: France and the United States, the first suggestion of a peace agreement came from, of all places, Russia, a country with no dogs in the fight, but losing out due to British and American commerce raiders.
At the time, American President James Madison was amenable, but the British foreign minister, Lord Castlereagh, wasn’t interested, especially after British troops had scored several victories. Less than a year later, however, with the toll of fighting both the French and the United States draining its economy, British officials agreed to talk peace with its former colony. After weeks of communications, it was decided in January 1814 the peace talks would take place at Ghent, a city in the neutral country of Belgium.
If Great Britain had gotten its way during the peace negotiations, residents of Detroit would now enjoy a spot of tea each afternoon and car factories would have ended up churning out cars with names like Mini, Phantom and Jaguar; folks in Ontario, Canada, wouldn’t be saying “eh” at the end of their sentences, although those in northern Maine, already loathe to unnecessary verbal excess, probably would be. There would be no Ohio, Michigan or Illinois, but one large Native American nation stretching from Ohio to Illinois in the west and to the Canadian border in the north.
Adams, 47 at the time, was a Harvard-educated Northerner and the son of the nation’s second president, John Adams. Madison had appointed Adams as the United States minister in Russia. Adams, an early riser, was so dedicated to his duties he complained attending Russian diplomatic events and parties that lasted well into the night a drain on his time.
Clay, who had been elected to Congress representing Kentucky, was 10 years younger and enjoyed playing cards late into the night on more than one occasion. Despite minimal early education, Clay graduated from The College of William and Mary and also became a lawyer. He was more aligned with the South and West, but most importantly, Clay was also a war hawk, those who supported Madison’s decision to declare war against Great Britain in 1812 after that country blatantly impressed American sailors into British service for nearly 10 years.
Rounding out the negotiation team were Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, James A. Bayard, and Jonathan Russell, Madison’s representative in Paris. While the studious and precise Adams would oft be irritated by Clay’s late-night activities of gambling and drinking, the team presented a united front when it came to negotiations.
The British, however, sent their JV squad, since the location for the negotiations at Ghent was much closer to London. Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign minister and Secretary for War and the Colonies Lord Bathurst sent William Adams, the admiralty lawyer, Lord Gambier, impressments expert and admiral, and Undersecretary for War and the Colonies Henry Goulburn.
While war continued between the two countries, the battle would be no less tense between both sides once negotiations began in Aug. 8, 1814. The United States was facing bankruptcy and Great Britain’s economy was also faltering under the weight of fighting both the French and United States.
The first few weeks were spent determining the topics up for negotiation: impressment of sailors, border disputes between Canada and the U.S., fishing rights and lands for Native Americans who had sided with the British. It would take up to three weeks to communicate information back to the United States, while just a week for the British. The two teams spent their days haggling over details, but spent their considerable spare time in the evening playing cards, socializing and attending cultural events and activities. Well, except for early-to-bed Adams.
By the time the topics were hashed out, British troops had marched into Washington, D.C. having met little resistance, burning the White House and the Washington Navy Yard. The Battle for Baltimore was less a victory for the Brits, however, as the Royal Navy failed to take that important port city.
So it was October already when negotiations got down to the nitty-gritty of demands. The American team chose not to lead with Madison’s request for Great Britain to give up Canada and stop all impressments of sailors onto their ships. Perhaps the gambler in Clay chose to let their British counterparts play their cards first.
Great Britain started large with “uti possidetis,” meaning each side would keep what they won in the war. And for good reason. At the time of the negotiations, Great Britain had four invasions already in the works: 10,000 British troops were in parts of Maine and northern New York; British ships successfully blockaded commerce along the New England states; another fleet with troops had burned Washington, D.C. in retaliation for the American burning of York (now Toronto), the capital of Canada. The fourth invasion of was headed to New Orleans.
Great Britain had also captured 10 million acres of the American Northwest Territories (Native American lands in Ohio and Michigan and Illinois Territories) and demanded it be given to the Native Americans as their own state, thereby providing a buffer to block U.S. expansion into British-held Canada.
The British, while grateful to the Native Americans who sided with Great Britain in the war, cared little as to what happened with that buffer state. “The Indians are but a secondary object,” Golburn noted in a letter. “But when the boundary is once defined it is immaterial whether Indians are upon it or not. Let it be a desert. But we shall know that you cannot come upon us to attack us without crossing it.”
And there was more. The British wanted to keep the portion of Maine they had occupied and for the United States to withdraw its naval forces from the Great Lakes. They also wanted transit rights for the Mississippi River in exchange for allowing American fishing rights off Newfoundland.
The Americans, however, were having none of that, particularly Clay, who was adamant they would not give up the Northwest Territories. They argued “status quo ante bellum,” which was to keep the borders as they were before the war began.
As the talks continued, the British team would hear about fresh defeats in their former colony, and unrest at home about a prolonged and expensive war affecting that country’s economy. Back in the United States, as the British negotiation demands were published, even the Federalists agreed to fight against “uti possidetis.”
It was the Duke of Wellington, however, who got the British to back off any attempts to take American territory. Since the British armies had been unable to sustain holding onto the territories they won earlier in the war, Wellington stated in a letter to Robert Jenkinson, the British Prime Minister and Earl of Liverpool: “I think you have no right, from the state of war, to demand any concession of territory from America….indeed the state of your military operations, however creditable, does not entitle you to demand any.” Lord Liverpool agreed.
Once notified of the change of heart, the British team backed off “uti possidetis” on Nov. 27 and capitulated to “status quo ante bellum.” Prisoners would be exchanged, ships and territory would return to each country as it was before the war and captured slaves returned to the United States or paid for by Britain. Both countries agreed to end international slave trade. While not gaining any land from Great Britain, the United States did gain property from Spain, i.e. Florida. Native Americans lost everything.
By Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1814, the 3,000-word Treaty of Ghent with its 11 articles was signed by the negotiators. The Treaty wouldn’t be official until ratified by each of the governments. Great Britain received the document and ratified it three days later, Dec. 27, 1814.
It took a bit longer for the United States to receive word, as well as the British fleet and troops from that fourth invasion. On Jan. 8, 1815, the Battle of New Orleans began and ended with an American victory.
After the treaty documents arrived in Washington, D.C., Congress ratified it Feb. 16 and turned it over to a British diplomat. On Feb. 18, 1815, the treaty was proclaimed official and the war was over. After the United States mostly returned to its pre-1812 status, however, there were some 15,000 fewer in the young nation to celebrate it. Of that number, only 2,200 Americans were killed in action, the rest died from disease and illness.
Ironically, the issue that began the War of 1812 – the impressment of American sailors into British service – was never addressed in the Treaty, because Great Britain was no longer at war with France. Yet peace would last all of eight days. On Feb. 26, 1815, former French Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte escaped from Elba, and war would begin again in Europe.
The relationship developed between Adams and Clay lasted beyond their time in Ghent. Both Adams and Clay ran for president in 1824. Adams fell behind Gen. Andrew Jackson, the Battle of New Orleans hero, in both popular and Electoral College votes, but had more than Clay and a fourth candidate, William Crawford. Since no one had the majority of Electoral College votes for a win, the decision would be made by the House of Representatives. Clay threw the support of his War Hawks behind Adams rather than Jackson, ignoring the direction given to him from the Kentucky legislature. Adams won the presidency, appointing Clay his Secretary of State, a position he held during Adams’ tenure as president.