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The Treaty of Ghent, skillfully negotiated in 1814 by John Quincy Adams (center), ended the War of 1812 with Britain, preserved American rights and territories, and opened the West to expansion.

During the more than two decades of almost constant warfare in Europe that followed the French Revolution, Britain and France formed and realigned alliances, and the United States became entangled between them. Admiral Nelson’s decisive victory over the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805 had forced Napoleon to abandon his dream of invading the British Isles,but the French emperor had retaliated—setting out to destroy the British economy by cutting off its vital import-export trade with the Continent.

Britain also took action. Deploying its 900-ship navy, it cordoned off Europe with a blockade that severed France from its overseas empire. The United States, asserting the doctrine of neutral rights, developed the second largest merchant fleet in the world as it absorbed the French Caribbean trade. Between 1792 and 1807, the American carrying trade with both combatants expanded five fold.

It was helped along by the many seamen who deserted the Royal Navy, exchanging brutal, lifelong discipline for more lenient, limited tours of service at higher pay on U.S. ships.British naval historian Brian Arthur estimates that by 1807,of the 55,000 American sailors involved in overseas trade,fully 40 percent had been born in England and Ireland. The Royal Navy, seeking to maintain full complements aboard its blockading ships, stopped and searched some 400 American vessels, scouring them for deserters. Between 1796 and 1812the British impressed 9,991 American sailors.

The War of 1812 came on by decrees. After Napoleon achieved a brilliant military victory at Jena in 1806, he inaugurated his Continental System with the Berlin Decree, a blockade in reverse that closed all European ports to Britain and subjected all goods of British origin to French confiscation. After his victory at Friedland in 1807, he extended the system to include Russia and the Baltic states.

In January Britain had responded to Napoleon by issuing Orders in Council that expanded its own blockade. The first of 14 such orders in 1807, it allowed the Royal Navy to control the European coastal trade by banning direct neutral trading with the ports of Britain’s enemies. A subsequent order allowed neutral ships to call at British ports, unload for inspection, pay customs duties of 25 percent, and purchase a license before going on to enemy ports. Napoleon retaliated with his Milan Decree, extending to neutrals the embargo on goods destined for the ports of Britain and her allies, Spain and Portugal.He also ordered confiscation of any ship obeying Britain’s Orders in Council.

Britain insisted that it had no desire to stop all trade to the Continent but merely to recapture the lion’s share from the predominant neutral nation, the United States. But in tightening its blockade of Napoleon-controlled Europe, the British were seizing all ships bound to or from the Continent and destroying or seizing neutral ships on the Baltic and North Seas, including many Russian vessels.

President Thomas Jefferson believed he could coerce Britain and France into abandoning their arbitrary decrees without going to war. An American nonimportation act of 1806 had barely taken effect when he imposed the more drastic Embargo Act of 1807, prohibiting maritime commerce with foreign states.The embargo did not exactly bring London and Paris to their knees. Instead, in one year the act destroyed 80 percent of U.S.import-export trade and brought on the worst depression since the Revolution. The net tonnage of foreign vessels entering U.S. ports dropped by 50 percent. Jefferson’s measure slashed imports from $144 million in 1807 to $58 million in 1808 and commensurately slashed customs duties, the main source of the government’s revenues. A few days before Jefferson’s presidency ended, Congress repealed the hated Embargo Act.

James Madison, Jefferson’s protégé and the architect of the embargo, succeeded him. Two days after his inauguration, Madison appointed the first American minister plenipotentiary to Russia. With his own ships affected by the European blockade, Tsar Alexander understood that his government had common interests with the Americans and had approached them to establish diplomatic relations. Madison chose the best-qualified American as minister to Russia—the 41-year-old John Quincy Adams. The second president’s son, Adams had spent nearly half his life as a diplomat to the courts of Europe or in the U.S. Congress, where he had distinguished himself for nonpartisan, independent thinking. Once in Russia, he worked carefully to cultivate relations with the extroverted young tsar and emerged as the dean of foreign diplomats. The scholarly Adams seemed able to open many doors, in part because of his relationship with Alexander; in St. Petersburg the two could be observed conversing, sometimes during long walks along the broad, tree-lined road to Tsarskoye Selo, the tsar’s country residence, sometimes as they rode together along the Neva River. At his first meeting with Adams, the tsar had praised the U.S. “system” as “wise and just” and criticized the “obstinate adherence of England to a system of maritime pretensions which was neither liberal nor just.”

By 1811 war fever was sweeping through the United States, brought on not only by incessant British impressment but by fear of Indian warfare on the western frontier. Native American leader and strategist Tecumseh, traveling widely, was winning over supporters to a tribal confederation aimed at stopping further white expansion westward. A deadly attack on Tippecanoe,his capital, had only driven Tecumseh closer to the British,who were arming the Indians.As panic swept the frontier, a war hawk faction swept off-year congressional elections, and its leading spokesman, Kentuckian Henry Clay, became speaker of the house. The upshot was a declaration of war against Britain on June 18, 1812; it passed the Senate 19 to 13, the closest war vote in American history, with Federalist New England dissenting. Meanwhile,in Britain, the Privy Council had rescinded its more odious Orders in Council. Hostilities had already broken out along the Canadian frontier by the time British Admiral John Borlase Warren sailed from London with the news of the Crown’s about-face. Poor communications would dog American and British leaders throughout the war.

On September 21, 1812, with Napoleon’s victorious army in Moscow, Count Nikolai Rumiantsev, the Russian foreign minister, summoned Adams. Adams wrote in his diary that the tsar, who had made a recent alliance with Britain,was “much concerned and disappointed” that “the whole benefit” of his “having made peace and reestablished relations” with England was being “lost by the new war” between the United States and Britain.Alexander detected “on both sides a reluctance at engaging and prosecuting this war,” and thought“perhaps an amicable arrangement of the differences” could be accomplished by “indirect rather than by a direct negotiation.” Adams still had not received official communication of the declaration of war from Washington, but he assured the tsar that, in his opinion, America was acting with “extreme reluctance.” Adams also transmitted to Washington the tsar’s offer to mediate.

When Madison received the Russian offer—fully five months later—he accepted before ascertaining British concurrence to the negotiations. By then Napoleon had retreated from Moscow, his failure there portending a future British onslaught against the United States by veteran troops now freed from Europe to fight elsewhere. Madison hurriedly selected peace commissioners: Adams; Jonathan Russell, chargé d’affaires in London; and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin. A Swiss-born minor noble, Gallatin was intimately familiar with European trade, politics, and diplomacy. Madison also recruited Henry Clay, leader of the pro-war faction in Congress, and added Federalist senator James Bayard of Delaware to balance the delegation politically. The tsar had proposed Gothenberg, Sweden, as the site for the peace talks, but the British, wary of the tsar’s pro-American proclivities, refused.They insisted the Americans choose between London and Ghent, once the medieval capital of Flanders. The Americans would not negotiate in the enemy’s capital, so Ghent became the de facto choice.

The 19th-century realities of long-distance communication and travel by sea being what they were, the American delegates did not actually converge in Ghent until the summer of 1814,taking up close quarters in Lovendeghem, a rented mansion.Before they could hope to achieve peace with Britain, they had to make peace among themselves. After they dined together for the first time, Adams, head of the delegation, vowed to eat alone. “They sit after dinner and drink bad wine and smoke cigars, which neither suits my habits nor my health, and absorbs time which I cannot spare.” Adams preferred to write while his colleagues relaxed. After a few choice words of unsolicited advice from the gregarious Henry Clay, Adams consented to rejoin the group, but he refused to share their nightly excursions to the city’s revelries. When the puritanical Adams arose at4:30 in the morning to study his Bible, Henry Clay’s all-night gambling parties in the next room were just breaking up.

On August 7, 1814, as a British invasion armada approached the North Carolina coast, the British negotiators finally arrived. They summoned the Americans to meet them at the Hôtel des Pays-Bas, a former Carthusian monastery. Adams balked at this “offensive pretension to superiority.” He preferred a neutral location, but he nonetheless went along with his fellow commissioners to meet the British delegation.

The lead British negotiator, Lord James Gambier, was a former Lord of the Admiralty who had destroyed the Danishfleet and shelled Copenhagen in 1807, earning him the peerage. Henry Goulburn, a member of Parliament and career bureaucrat, had served as undersecretary of state for war and the colonies. The third delegate, Dr. William Adams, was an Oxford-educated admiralty lawyer. John Quincy Adams, no relation and a lawyer himself, considered the doctor a “blunderbuss of the law.”

The peace talks commenced to a drumbeat of dismal battlefield news for the Americans, from bloody stalemate on the Niagara frontier to British pillaging in the Chesapeake.Goulburn confidently announced British demands: American surrender of the Maine district of Massachusetts and creation of a 250,000-square-mile Indian buffer state in the Old Northwest that would encompass present-day Indiana,Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and much of Ohio and Minnesota; this was intended to block American settlement in the vast Louisiana Purchase. In addition, the British demanded the abrogation of American rights to dry codfish on Canadian shores, a privilege hard-won by John Adams in the 1783 Treaty of Paris and considered indispensable to New England’s vital cod fisheries.

Between carving out a vast Indian buffer state and dropping the international boundary line by at least 100 miles, these demands meant that the United States stood to lose about one-third of its land, a territory the size of Great Britain. For the British, the Indian reserve was a sine qua non in the treaty negotiations. Moreover, the British refused to discuss impressment yet insisted that the United States be open to British traders. Ten days later they also demanded demilitarizing the Great Lakes and gaining access to the Mississippi River.

Adams indignantly protested that the American delegation had not been instructed to discuss Indian territorial claims or fishing rights. And an Indian buffer zone, he argued, would impinge on United States sovereignty and dispossess 100,000settlers already living in the Old Northwest. Bayard objected as well, claiming that the British terms sounded like those of a conqueror to a conquered nation.

In secret communiqués from emissaries in London and Paris, Secretary of State James Monroe had gained advance intelligence of even more extravagant British demands: U.S. renunciation of its fishing rights off Newfoundland, cession of Louisiana to Spain, abandonment of all trade with the British West Indies, and exclusion of all American shipping from the Great Lakes.

The negotiations were on the point of collapsing when instructions arrived from Madison: The commissioners had permission to omit any stipulation on impressment if it became absolutely necessary. Madison was now convinced that, since Napoleon had capitulated, the Royal Navy would no longer need to impress American seaman, and he was eager to speed the peace talks along by eliminating its thorniest issue. The major cause of the War of 1812 had disappeared.

On August 9, 1814, Adams laid out what remained of the American position: mutually agreed-upon definitions of blockade and neutral rights and compensation to individuals for captures and seizures before and during the war. Gallatin tried to counter the British demand for an Indian buffer zone by arguing that the United States already intended to negotiate treaties with warring Indians. And what was to be done with the Americans already settled in the Old Northwest? the U.S.commissioners asked again. British negotiator Adams retorted that “undoubtedly they must shift for themselves.” Bayard also inquired whether the British wanted “to restrict the Indians from selling their lands.” Goulburn countered that “it was not to restrict the Indians from selling their lands” but “to restrict the United States from purchasing them.” Even as the British commissioners transmitted the Americans’ answers to London,a 50-ship British armada was sailing into the Chesapeake Bay.

When the ministry’s response to the negotiations came back in 10 days, it was obvious the British were becoming more confident that war news from the United States gave them greater leverage for a diplomatic victory. Thus, they insisted that if the United States did not agree to the Indian reserve and sign a provisional article, subject to ratification by Washington and London, the treaty talks would be suspended. They also accused the Americans of harboring “the design of conquering Canada.” The United States would have to agree to maintain no naval forces on the Great Lakes and tear down its forts and build no more. Further, the British reiterated their demand for “a small corner” of Maine for a“mere road” from Halifax to Quebec. At this point, Quincy Adams demanded a written statement of the British agenda. It would be another month before the American commissioners read in a London newspaper that the British had routed the U.S. army and burned Washington.

Yet in London, that news had not been received with universal approval. Opposition leader Samuel Whitbread, a leading reformer, condemned British commanders for a deed that even “the Goths refused to do at Rome.” Apart from “sullying the British name,” the British commanders had accomplished nothing, in Whitbread’s view. But it would be more weeks before the American diplomats heard that the war news was also unsettling the British administration. In early October they learned that the British attack on Baltimore had been repulsed after the futile, all-night shelling of Fort McHenry. At the same time, the main British army-navy invasion from Canada had been reversed by an American naval squadron on Lake Champlain. The British Army had turned back to Canada. The Duke of Wellington, asked to take over the American war, declined. Yet Lord Bathurst, secretary for war and the colonies, wrote to Goulburn that there was no change in the ministry’s diplomatic posture. The treaty must be based on uti possidetis, keeping territory already taken.

Bathurst was not being completely candid. Public resistance in Britain was mounting over hated taxes to cover war expenses.In only two years the navy’s payroll had exploded from 145,000men to 207,000 men. And to the cost of blockading the entire American and European seacoasts had been added the cost of providing escort vessels for merchant ships forced to sail in convoys to ward off attacks by some 1,500 American privateers.

From Paris Wellington reported that crowds were cheering American victories while spitting on the restored King Louis XVIII and clamoring for the return of Napoleon from exile on Elba. The British prime minister, Lord Liverpool, writing to Lord Wellington and to foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh(in Vienna for a pan-European Congress), fretted that the tsar, “half an American,” was openly sympathizing with the United States and refusing to remove his armies from Poland.

Liverpool also sent off to Ghent a drastically reduced peace proposal. The members of the Privy Council, jettisoning their assurances to safeguard their Indian allies, were scrapping the insistence on an Indian buffer state,on demilitarizing the Great Lakes, and on holding occupied Maine; they would settle instead for a corridor to ease communications between Halifax and Quebec Province.

Adams was suspicious. The tone of the British note was “arrogant, overbearing and offensive.” He suspected they were stalling. Their mention of utipossidetis proved that, despite their military failures, they still intended to seize more territory to buttress their negotiating position. For five days, Adams, Clay, and Gallatin worked over an answer before rejecting the British call for uti possidetis,again stating that they were not authorized to cede any territory.

Incredulous, Goulburn dashed off a letter to the ministry:Did London want the talks to go on? A courier sped to London, carrying both the American response to the British and Goulburn’s query. Liverpool wondered whether the Americans were fully rational. He wrote to Castlereagh in Vienna that the war “will probably now be of some duration.” To Wellington,Goulburn complained bitterly of the Americans’ “extravagant doctrines…they would never cede any part of their dominions,even though they should have been conquered.”

The British were not the only ones worrying about the cost of the war dragging on. Early in November 1814 the United States defaulted on its loans. The treasury was empty. Smugglers,after all, didn’t pay customs duties, and between April and October, only 18 customs-paying ships from neutral nations had reached American customs houses.

Despite the good military news from Baltimore and Lake Champlain, the effects of the British blockade caused one Federalist to lament to the Massachusetts legislature, “We are in a deplorable situation, our commerce dead; our revenue Gone; our ships rotting at the wharves…Our Treasury drained—we are Bankrupts.”

On October 31 the British delegation informed the American mission that unless they accepted British terms or proposed terms of their own, the war would continue. For the first time the Americans were allowed to put forth an agenda. Most of the original issues were already off the table: impressment,neutral rights, indemnities for seized ships and cargoes. The negotiations had come down to British refusal to honor American cod-drying rights off the Canadian Maritimes and free passage of British ships on the Mississippi.

Adams’s father, John, had once deadlocked negotiations for American independence until New England’s mainstay fishing industry was protected. Clay, leader of the war hawks whose constituents had contributed the most troops to the conflict, now fulminated about British ships on western waters,pacing and cursing the notion of swapping the Mississippi for“drying fish.” The British were still insisting on holding captured Moose Island, between Maine and New Brunswick.Adams objected to giving up any American territory whatsoever. Bayard favored giving up the island. “Mr. Bayard,”Adams asked, “if it belonged to Delaware, would you?” Bayard laughed and replied that Delaware couldn’t afford to give up any territory. Gallatin worried that his fellow commissioners would sacrifice the interests of New England. Already the Massachusetts General Court had called a convention of all the New England states to consider forming a confederacy,seceding from the Union, and negotiating a separate peace.There was only one treaty clause over which there seemed no disagreement: Prisoners of war, including the more than 21,000luckless American privateers captured by the British, were to be released and repatriated.

By November 10 the American delegates, aware that their continued silence could be interpreted as tacit acceptance of British terms, were still divided. Adams, in an impassioned speech, suggested they ignore British demands and propose a peace treaty based on the principle of status quo ante bellum—to return conditions to the way they were in the United States before the war and to resolve any unsettled questions by forming postwar commissions to negotiate them. Finally, Adams declared that he would “cheerfully give [his] life for peace on this basis.” Unmoved, Clay suggested that the war should go on. According to Adams’s later memoir, Clay felt that “three years more of war would make us a warlike people, and that then we should come out of the war with honor.” Yet Clay finally agreed to decide later whether he would sign the actual treaty. That night the Americans sent their sixth diplomatic note in two months to the British legation. It arrived just as Wellington was warning that continued unrest in France made it impossible for him to meet the ministry’s request to take command in the United States. If renewed warfare broke out in Europe, “there is nobody but myself in whom either yourselves or the country, or your Allies, would feel any confidence,” he wrote. A peace treaty “might as well be signed now.”

On December 1, for the first joint meeting since August 19, the Americans drove to the Hôtel des Pays-Bas. For three hours the delegations sat across from each other at a great oval table, and, as servants stoked the fire, they debated the articles one by one. Ultimately, the treaty stipulated that peace would bring a return to the status quo ante bellum if both parties ratified the document within four months. Meanwhile,there would be no armistice, and the fighting could continue.After ratification, all places and property, public and private,would be restored to their prewar status. All POWs were to be repatriated as soon as they paid any debts. All unresolved issues would be mediated by postwar commissions composed of one representative of each nation with a friendly sovereign as mediator.Boundary disputes, including the question of Moose Island, would be mediated. (The Canadian-American border would later be extended from the southwest corner of the Lake of the Woods in present-day western Ontario, along the 49th parallel to the Stony Mountains, now Rocky Mountains.) Both nations were to restrain their Indian populations from further cross-border hostilities. With the treaty, the Indians became the greatest casualties of the war,any hint of an Indian reserve gone.

On Thursday, December 22, as he waited for the draft treaty to be approved in London, Adams paced the streets of Ghent.Turning the corner toward the Lovendeghem, he saw Bayard rushing toward him, waving his arms. The British had accepted! Adams sent a courier to Bordeaux to delay the dispatch ship Transit, so that it could carry a copy of the treaty to America.In Adams’s chamber that evening, Clay still raged against signing the document, but when Gallatin called for a vote,Clay was outvoted. On December 23 each side accommodated petty changes in wording proposed by the other. After three hours, the commissioners agreed they should meet the next day, December 24, at the Hôtel des Pays-Bas to sign the treaty.

At 4 in the afternoon of Christmas Eve, 1814, the five Americans climbed into their carriages, pulled up their lap robes,and rode off to the Hôtel des Pays-Bas for the last time. In the great oval hall, both delegations made small corrections.

At 6, as the carillon of St. Bavo’s Cathedral tolled the Angelus, the eight diplomats signed the Treaty of Peace and Amity between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America. After five months of tempestuous negotiations,Gambier and Quincy Adams exchanged the signed copies.Gambier wished that the peace would be permanent; Adams wrote in his diary, “I hoped it would be the last treaty of peace between Great Britain and the United States.” At 6:30 the peace commissioners of both nations climbed into their carriages and rode to a Te Deum Mass in the Gothic immensity of St.Bavo. To his wife, the future president John Quincy Adams wrote, “I consider the day on which I signed [the treaty] as the happiest of my life, because it was the day on which I had my share in restoring peace to the world.”

By midafternoon on December 26, British envoy Anthony Baker had reached London. Three days later the cabinet and the prince regent, the future King George IV, ratified the treaty. Henry Clay’s secretary, Henry Carroll, sailed for the United States with the treaty in hand on January 2, 1815, with Baker accompanying him. They reached New York City after a stormy 40-day crossing of the North Atlantic.

Just as the delegates had been signing the treaty in Ghent,an army composed of Wellington’s “Invincibles” had sailed from Bermuda. While Carroll was at sea, that army arrived off New Orleans. On January 8, 1815, Andrew Jackson’s frontiersmen and pirates mowed down some 2,000 of them. Among the mounds of the dead was their commander, Wellington’s brother-in-law, Sir Edward Pakenham.

News of Jackson’s stunning victory reached Washington before Carroll and Baker arrived in the capital on February17. Shortly before midnight, Baker and Monroe exchanged ratified copies. Madison proclaimed the nation at peace the next day. In Vienna, at the peace conference for all Europe,Castlereagh was ecstatic: He wrote Lord Liverpool, “I wish you joy of being released from the millstone of an American war.”

About two weeks later Napoleon landed in the south of France, bound for Waterloo and a rendezvous 100 days later with the Duke of Wellington.


Willard Sterne Randall has written biographies of Founding Fathers and major figures of the American Revolution. His most recent is Ethan Allen, His Life and Times. He teaches American history at Champlain College.

Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.