The War of 1812 is often one of the most overlooked wars in US history, along with the treaty bringing it to an end. From a historical perspective, why is the Treaty of Ghent important and what long term results did it bring?
Early on in the War of 1812 the United States struggled militarily and organizationally against the British, Canadians, and their Native American allies. As the war dragged on their financial struggles compounded the issues and the entire US war effort looked bleak.
By 1814 national unity was at stake as war support waned and multiple states entertained brokering a separate peace with Britain. Discontented Federalist party members held the Hartford Convention of 1814 to address these grievances, though secession was not proposed.
President James Madison knew that peace with Britain was needed, though not until American complaints were addressed. In August 1814 five US delegates, including political heavyweights John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, met their British counterparts in the neutral Dutch city of Ghent.
After months of negotiations the two sides were finally able to reach a peace agreement.
The Treaty of Ghent is largely overlooked in American history given that it primarily consisted of a simple peace treaty. No territory was exchanged and conditions virtually returned to as they were prior to the war.
Nevertheless, the Treaty of Ghent was extremely important as it helped the United States to restore its national honor and helped lead to mainly peaceful relations with Britain over the next several decades.
The War of 1812
At the beginning of the war the United States was ill-prepared and extremely disorganized from a military standpoint. The devastating defeats early on in the war attested to that fact and left the Americans reeling.
Even more discouragingly, the British were preoccupied fighting Napoleon and the French in Europe and had scant troops to spare in the War of 1812. The war was going very poorly for the United States indeed.
Almost immediately after the war declaration President James Madison sought a peaceful resolution. If the British would revoke the Orders in Council and their policy of impressment the war could end peacefully.
Britain complied on the first condition, repealing the Orders in Council in 1812, but refused to end their policy of impressment. From the British standpoint, British sailors deserting the navy would spell doom to their war aims.
Impressment of these stowaways was tantamount to victory, even if some American sailors were mistakenly impressed in the process.1
The Russians offered to first mediate a peace agreement in 1813, but the British declined. The Czar of Russia was known to favor the American stance and Britain balked over negotiations on the Russian mainland.1
Instead, Britain offered to directly negotiate with the United States at the neutral city of Ghent in 1814.
By this time, the course of the war left the United States desperate to maintain its national integrity. With Napoleon forced into exile and the European war seemingly over, Britain could bear its full military might on the United States.2
The US was in an extremely poor bargaining position if a peace treaty could even be struck.
Why Was the Treaty of Ghent Important?
The Treaty of Ghent was important as the document formally ended the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. The Americans were able to sign the treaty and end the war at status quo ante bellum, or on terms as it was before the war.
No territory changed hands, no economic agreements were struck, and the militaries returned home. The British did not even disavow their policy of impressment, a key war aim of the United States.
While ending the war at pre-war conditions seems like a loss, it actually was a major achievement. The US could not sustain the war for much longer given its weak strategic, military, and financial positions. Returning to pre-war conditions was the best the country could hope for.2
Initially such an achievement appeared unlikely. Great Britain was in a far superior bargaining position when negotiations at Ghent began in August 1814. British troops had just burned Washington, DC and planned a major offensive from Canada into the Lake Champlain region.
As such, the British opened negotiations by demanding military control of the entirety of the Great Lakes, annexation of a portion of northern Maine, and the creation of a Native American buffer state in the Midwest between the US and Canada.1
The US diplomats balked at the demand, knowing their national identity could not survive a peace treaty on such terms.
Fortunately for the United States, the tide of the war quickly changed, leading the British to drop their firm demands. In quick succession the US won decisively at the Battle of Plattsburgh halting the British offensive from Canada and then repulsed the attackers at the Battle of Baltimore.
Furthermore Andrew Jackson scored a major victory over Britain’s Creek allies at the 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend.
The losses showed that the British could expect a more spirited American defense, and a costly escalation of the war. With Napoleon’s return from exile appearing increasingly likely, Britain decided to abandon its firm demands and met the American position for peace at status quo ante bellum.2
Major Issues Resolved in the Treaty of Ghent
A striking feature of the important Treaty of Ghent is that few, if any, major issues were resolved between Great Britain and the United States. The treaty did not even mention the maritime disputes such as the Orders in Council and impressment of sailors that helped lead to the War of 1812.3
However, one major issue resolved by the Treaty of Ghent was the further British recognition of US political independence. Going into negotiations Britain expected to dictate terms of the treaty, as a nation would do to an inferior foe.
The American diplomats presented a strong case that an unequal treaty as such would “sow the seeds of permanent hatred and lay the foundations of hostilities for an indefinite period.” Eventually the British begrudgingly relented and met the US position to strike a peace arrangement.4
Both sides were eager to complete the treaty, though still less than trusting of each other. The two sides agreed to include a ratification clause that stated the treaty was effective the moment it was ratified by both parties.
The British were wary of US intentions and suspected it may try to modify portions of the Treaty of Ghent as it did so in prior treaties such as the significant 1794 Jay’s Treaty.2
The speed in which both nations ratified the treaty showed the expediency with which the two sides wanted the war to end.
Great Britain ratified the treaty on December 27, 1814, just three days after signing the Treaty of Ghent. Bad weather delayed the voyage across the Atlantic resulting in President Madison receiving the treaty on February 14, 1815.4
Three days later on February 17, 1815, the Treaty of Ghent was formally ratified by the United States.
The Result of the Treaty of Ghent
The most important result of the Treaty of Ghent was peace between the United States and Great Britain that has ultimately lasted over 200 years to the present day.
Though the United States did not achieve virtually any of its war aims, the Treaty of Ghent opened the door to future treaties such as the Rush-Bagot Treaty of 1817 that helped de-escalate tensions between the two nations in the immediate aftermath.
The United States displayed great hubris believing it were capable of defeating the full might of the British Empire. The nation learned many lessons in the war and implemented several changes following the Treaty of Ghent.
The United States recognized the need for financial and military preparedness in the event of war. The leading Jeffersonian Democrats resurrected the Hamiltonian-designed national banking system with a charter for the Second Bank of the United States in 1816.3
The banking system helped to lend the capital necessary to build fortifications along the eastern seaboard, and the federal government encouraged the building of miles of roads, bridges, and canals. These transportation improvements not only aided militarily but economically as seen via the economic impacts of the Erie Canal.
One other result of the Treaty of Ghent was a postwar surge of nationalism that gripped the nation. The late victories over the British at Plattsburgh, Baltimore, and the legendary Battle of New Orleans obscured the United States’ poor early war performance and levied national pride.
Overall, the 1815 Treaty of Ghent was extremely important to help unify the United States in in the aftermath of a second war with Britain in the nation’s early years.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Mahan, A. T. “The Negotiations at Ghent in 1814.” The American Historical Review, vol. 11, no. 1, [Oxford University Press, American Historical Association], 1905, pp. 68–87, https://doi.org/10.2307/1832365.
2) CARR, JAMES A. “The Battle of New Orleans and the Treaty of Ghent.” Diplomatic History, vol. 3, no. 3, Oxford University Press, 1979, pp. 273–82, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24910113.
3) Hickey, Donald R. “Small War, Big Consequences: Why 1812 Still Matters.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 91, no. 6, Council on Foreign Relations, 2012, pp. 150–55, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41720943.
4) Updyke, Frank A. “The Treaty of Ghent–A Centenary Estimate.” Proceedings of the American Political Science Association, vol. 10, American Political Science Association, 1913, pp. 94–104, https://doi.org/10.2307/3038419.