Dec. 24, 1814—The “Second War of American Independence” ended on a far less triumphant note than the first, but given all that had happened since the start of hostilities, the United States was fortunate that its five-man delegation, led by John Quincy Adams (pictured here in a portrait by Gilbert Stuart), signed a peace treaty in Ghent, Belgium on the basis of status quo ante bellum (a return to the conditions before war broke out).
I put the word “ends” in quotes in the headline for this reason: because of still comparatively primitive communications, word of the “Christmas Peace” (i.e., the Treaty of Ghent) did not reach New York City until February 11, 1815. The newly two-month lag not only allowed the Battle of New Orleans to occur, but also other smaller engagements before the War of 1812 actually concluded.
It might be said that the British lost at the negotiating table what they had gained on the battlefield. The Americans, particularly Adams and fellow negotiator Henry Clay, might have felt annoyed with each other behind closed doors, but they preserved a united front before the British and held on grimly until circumstances turned more favorable. In addition, they represented a variety of regions and political interests (even a moderate Federalist, James Bayard, was present), and President James Madison gave them more or less maximum freedom to maneuver.
In contrast, the British government handicapped itself even from the start by repeating the same mistake they had done in dealing with Adams’ father and his fellow envoys in peace negotiations to end the American Revolution 30 years before: It sent inexperienced, lackluster negotiators, this time including an admiralty lawyer, an admiral and a young Undersecretary for War and the Colonies). Furthermore, unlike the American team (trusted by Madison by necessity because of the ocean between them), His Majesty’s government insisted that its team consult with them continually before agreeing to any terms.
For much of the five-month period of the negotiations, Madison was probably sorry that he had not gone back to Congress in 1812 and asked it to rescind its declaration of war once news reached it that one of the stated war causes, interference with American trade with France, had been eliminated as a result of Britain ending its Orders in Council curbing neutrals’ shipping to France and its continental allies. Thereafter, much of the war had gone badly indeed for the Americans—particularly on land, where the British had captured Detroit and, in late August 1814, even invaded Washington and burned the White House.
As a result, the British were initially in no mood to give anything away. In fact, their backs stiffened considerably, as they demanded territory in northern Maine, demilitarization of the Great Lakes and navigation rights on the Mississippi.
The reserved, intense Adams might have been dismayed by Clay’s late-night carousing, but one of the Kentuckian’s pastimes, gambling, proved helpful in the talks. As an aficionado of the game “Brag,” Clay excelled at bluffing. And so, at a particularly thorny point in the negotiations, he let it be known that he would be packing his bags and going home. The British team’s tone then moderated, at least somewhat.
What strengthened the American position the most, however, as I noted in a prior post, was Thomas Macdonough’s victory at Plattsburgh in September, which forced an end to the invasion of New York. That, coupled with Americans’ unexpectedly staff resistance at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, led the British to contemplate with growing dismay the prospect of a war thousands of miles away that would increasingly drain the treasury’s coffers.
The turning point on the British side came when the government asked for the advice of its victor in the Peninsular campaign in Spain against Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington. Though the “Iron Duke” would later show, as Prime Minister, his reactionary tendencies, on this occasion his military background allowed him to speak credibly and realistically. He not only expressed reluctance to lead a strengthened military force in Canada when the British couldn’t even control the Great Lakes, but pointed out that the British government could not insist on its stance of uti possidetis (right of possession of what was taken in battle): “You can get no territory; indeed, the state of your military operations, however creditable, does not entitle you to demand any.”
At that point, the British agreed to the American terms of status quo ante bellum. In the end, both the Americans and the British (with their Canadian colonists) could claim to have gotten something, though it hardly justified the lives lost to this point.
The British and the Canadians had turned back American attempts to seize Canada and could now concentrate on repairing the damage left by the Napoleonic Wars (along with stamping out the French emperor’s return to power by finally defeating him at Waterloo the following year). The Americans had not won a single concession on any of the stated war causes—including the impressment of U.S. sailors and the rights of neutral U.S. vessels—but they retained the Great Lakes, allowing them to continue their expansion into the Midwest and their rise as a continental power, with the threat of any future British resort to force now removed. Moreover, the U.S. had extricated itself from a conflict that one of the negotiators, Albert Gallatin, had recently been forced to tell Madison would have to be continued without any financial assistance from any European power.
The one group that lost at the negotiating table were Britain's Native-American allies. Even before the final phase of the talks, one British negotiator, Henry Goulburn, indicated that they were “but a secondary object…As the Allies of Great Britain she must include them in the peace…But when the boundary [for Britain’s proposed buffer state along the Great Lakes] 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.”
But Clay, the leader of the trans-Allegheny faction that had formed the backbone of the Congressional “war hawks,” dug in his heels on ceding any part of the Northwest Territories. In the end, all that the Native-Americans could come away with in the treaty was language entitling them to “all possessions, rights and privileges which they may have enjoyed, or been entitled to in 1811”—a clause that was nonenforceable without a clearly-drawn map of their land reserves.
The Massachusetts Historical Society is in the midst of an extraordinary project: putting on Twitter the voluminous diaries of Adams. I have used those Twitter posts to recreate the account by perhaps the greatest diplomat in American history of how the treaty was concluded:
“Peace, between the United States and Great Britain, signed at the house of the British Plenipotentiaries. A few mistakes in the Copies were rectified & then the six Copies were signed and sealed by the… British & the… American Plenipotentiaries. Lord Gambier delivered to me the three British Copies [of the treaty]… which he said he hoped would be permanent; and I told him [Lord Gambier] I hoped it would be the last Treaty of Peace between Great-Britain and the United States.”
And so it has been.