Some Notes on the Treaty of Ghent
by David M. Grabitske
In the Summer of 1992 the world was astonished by the "Dream Team" of professional National Basketball Association players inflicting humiliating defeats on Europeans. This was brought on by the American public's perception of a loss of face from their collegians' defeat in the games by the Soviets. This however was not the first fabulous five to visit a staggering defeat on their European counterparts, nor has it been the last. Forgive my latent patriotism.
In early 1814 John Quincy Adams led Albert Gallatin, James Bayard, Jonathan Russell, and Henry Clay, as the American commission to negotiate a Peace Treaty with the British. The first site selected to host negotiations was Gothenburg, Sweden, as it was midway between Britain and the Tsar, Alexander I, of Russia. The Tsar had pretensions of mediating between the Anglophonic nations to gain status with both for future trade concessions. Unfortunately for them, Britain and the rest of Europe was too consumed by the final stages of the war with Napoleon I of the French to pay much attention. Once Napoleon signed his first abdication on April 6, 1814, movement toward a settlement with the Americans became possible.
In May the Tsar of all the Russias arrived in London as a part of the victory celebrations. Since he was the principal cohesive in the negotiations, Gallatin suggested a move to Ghent, Belgium to facilitate the talks, as that would be more central currently.
Meanwhile, the British press screamed for blood. They very much considered the American declaration of war on them at Napoleon's greatest height of power in June of 1812 as cultural treason. America, despite its recent history with Great Britain, spoke the same language, adhered to the same judicial system, followed the same customs, and enjoyed the same volume of commercial trade. The two were linked economically and through the "mystic chords of memory." The Gentleman's Magazine considered the conflict as annoying, and therefore "forbearance" on the nation's part, which was scorned by the Americans. The London Times was more bellicose: "Strike! Chastise the savages, for such they are." Relatively few in the ministry desired peace with the Americans. Chastisement was on their minds. If things went as well as they had recently in France, Britain expected to depose President James Madison and either execute him or at least exile him to an island. Mr. Madison was very much regarded as another "ogre," as an ally of Napoleon in essence.
To carry out the ministry's desires, Lord Castlereagh selected Lord James Gambier (Royal Navy), Henry Goulburn (Undersecretary of the Colonial Office), and Dr. William Adams. The team was weak intellectually and impotent by restriction. They merely relayed decisions and offers made by the Foreign Office in London, and were not allowed any initiative of their own. The purpose in that was to allow British forces in North America time to inflict a crushing defeat on the United States that Britain might press her demands to her satisfaction.
Among her demands, most centered on commerce, the fur trade in particular. The region in which the fur trade principally took place for the British was also the area in which they had been most successful; namely, the Old Northwest. Early in the war they captured Detroit, Mackinaw, and Fort Dearborn. They failed to dislodge William Henry Harrison from Fort Meigs (twice) and George Croghan from Fort Stephenson in Ohio. They had also lost any semblance of control on Lake Erie, and had an impasse on Lake Ontario. However, in 1814, they defeated the Americans at Prairie du Chien and at Credit Island on the Upper Mississippi. As this was the case, they considered two of their claims as just.
First was the case of the right of navigation for the entire length of the Mississippi River. The right was granted to them in the Peace of Paris in 1783, at the conclusion of the War for Independence. Based on John Mitchell's 1755 map of North America, the great river appeared to reach far into Canada. Since then, the Pike expedition of 1805 demonstrated the likelihood of the source being somewhere south of the Lake of the Woods. With the purchase of Louisiana from Napoleon in 1803, this coopted Britain's access to her right. Second was the fur trade, which very well may have been the primary objective for pushing for affirmation of and access to her right. They proposed an Indian buffer state with the Greenville Treaty (1795) Line as the border. All military posts in this area were to be garrisoned by the British. In this way the Americans could not provoke an Indian conflict, nor be provoked into one. The area would comprise all of the Old Northwest, except for some portions of Ohio. Naturally, it was completely unexceptable to the Americans. Nevertheless, these two objectives have commerce at their heart. There were other concerns, but on the basis of these, the "Dream Team" flatly rejected the offer, threatening to end the negotiations.
With the burning of Washington City, the British delegation was permitted by their London masters to bring up issue after issue. They questioned whether America still had the right to dry fish on British Canadian shores. That upset New Englander John Quincy Adams. They further pressed the issue of access to the Mississippi. Westerner Henry Clay was likewise upset. However, Clay and Adams did not get along therefore no combined effort could be expected from the American delegation. Fortunately Albert Gallatin held them together. Despite the success of British arms in Maryland, the ministry knew it could not press the Americans too hard. The prolonged twenty years of fighting with France strained British finances. The Parliament resorted to "interior" taxes, excises on goods and services, as "exterior" taxes (tariffs) failed to meet wartime expenses. With France seemingly defeated, the public had little desire to continue paying excises. Businessmen pressed the government to settle with the Americans as the war with them crippled their prosperous trade. American marauding off the coast of Great Britain inflated insurance rates. Even in 1813, American privateers were trouble, intercepting much needed supplies for the Duke of Wellington's forces in Spain.
More ominously, Bourbon France was not as stable to the British liking. Thousands of newly unemployed soldiers were disgruntled. The post war economy crashed, and those soldiers could not find work. The situation reminded many of the conditions just prior to the revolution in 1789. Ominous indeed.
Despite consideration for the fur trade and Indians, the issue of a buffer state was settled first. America also dropped its demand for a settlement to impressment. That issue was dead since the Napoleonic wars were over, ending the grave need for sailors in wartime fleets.
News arrived in Europe on October 17 that Major General Robert Ross had been killed in action at the Battle of North Point, and the Royal Navy had likewise failed in the operation to take and burn Baltimore. Included in the news were the details of the repulse of the British Peninsular veterans outside Plattsburg, New York. The ministry now realized that Wellington had been right all along. When asked for his opinion as to the direction British strategic goals and operational objectives should take, he urged a quick settlement with the Americans. He well understood that conventional Napoleonic operations were impossible in an underdeveloped and highly rural nation like the United States. He also knew that during the War for American Independence while the coastal areas and major towns night be vulnerable, inflicting heavy defeats on the broader population was impossible. Burgoyne discovered that very fact at Saratoga when a large American force materialized. The thought of an armed populace terrified and puzzled British commanders. Wellington realized that those forces could tip the military advantage to the Americans in their own country. He also knew that those forces were nothing to be concerned about in regards to losing Canada. Therefore, any further fighting was pointless. The two commissions reconvened after not facing each other for more than three months. They worked quickly. They assigned all outstanding issues to postwar commissions to work out, such as defining the United StatesCanadian border. They also ignored all of the reasons the United States stated as the reasons for declaring war. However, the British ministry had misgivings about trusting the Madison Administration. They assumed that since they could not force him to leave office, and that he had committed cultural treason, he very well may have ulterior motives for settlement. Therefore, they insisted that the war would not end until the Senateratified treaty was exchanged with a British diplomatic dignitary in Washington.
If there are two things which every student seems to know about the War of 1812, it is that they war stared in 1812 and that the Battle of New Orleans was fought needlessly after the peace treaty was signed. True, a treaty had been signed. It was not a peace treaty, though. It was a cessation of hostilities with a promise to negotiate a settlement to issues at a later date. And, the war would not end until ratified copies were exchanged. The treaty did not reach America until February 16, 1815. It was unanimously ratified three days later by the United States Senate, and exchanged the next day. The Battles of New Orleans occurred more than a month previous. Legally, the campaign was not needless. Morally, to say those British soldiers fought and died needlessly is a disservice to their memory.
Treaties ending hostilities with the Indians continued to be negotiated well into 1817 (see Rich Williams' Northwestern Frontier Indian Warfare in the December 1997 Mudduck). Scholars often try to divine who the real winners and losers of the War of 1812 were. Some say it was a draw, others say the Indians lost, or the French lost, and so forth. Many simply state that the war proved that the United States could not capture Canada, and the British could not recapture America. Others merely contend that the war made Canada. What the war seems to have done for the United States was to provide reason enough for an active, standing army. That army would have traditions and memories which provided élan and the beginnings of positive reasons for Americans to join their armed forces.
Ghent did not resolve anything, other than ending the active fighting. Later AngloAmerican commissions would determine the northern border of the United States. Between 1816 and 1842, scientists, surveyors, engineers, soldiers and diplomats wrangled over a nearcontinentally wide border. America continues to enjoy fishing rights in the Grand Banks. What it did, though, beyond all else, was provide a frame work for AngloAmerican relations which exist until today. For that reason, this agreement can be regarded as an important one.
For more on this topic, please read John K. Mahan's The War of 1812 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972): 375386, Walter Lord's The Dawn's Early Light (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1972): 301321, Dr. William E. Lass's Minnesota's Boundary with Canada (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1980): 349, and Robin Reilly's The British at the Gates (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1974): 237247.