Wednesday, December 24, 2014

OXONIANS AT WORK: 201 Years Ago, US-UK Peace (Updated Dec. 14, 2015)

A Celebratory Poster of the Treaty, 1814.
Off to Belgium they went,
To work on the Treaty of Ghent.
The Brits wanted uti possidetis
Meaning after-capture status.
The Yanks sought a total recante,
Way back to their status quo ante.
- JT Marlin, 2014
December 24, 2014 – At a visit earlier this month to New York, Oxford University Vice Chancellor Andrew Hamilton began his remarks with a celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the Treaty of Ghent.

The “Treaty of Peace and Amity between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America” was signed on December 24, 1814.

(The only American or British newspaper to have acknowledged the anniversary on the date was, to my knowledge, the East Hampton Star, which published my story on the event.)

Declaration of War, 1812

President James Madison initiated a declaration of war on Britain originally because British Orders in Council made it harder for the United States to trade with France.

In addition, the British Navy was seizing (“impressing”) sailors on colonial ships and putting them on Navy ships. The War Hawks in the House of Representatives were calling for war on Britain.

The British Government responded by repealing the Orders in Council, ending the curb on trading. However,  impressment remained. If the British had given up the right to impress American sailors, Madison might have called off the war.


Russia's Czar Alexander I in March 1813 offered to host negotiations, but the British were winning and refused. In the fall of 1813, British foreign minister Lord Castlereagh, a Cambridge alum, offered to negotiate directly with the United States. The two countries picked Ghent in eastern Flanders as the venue because it was a neutral city. Everyone's goal was to end the fighting, which was much too expensive for both countries.

The main issue before the negotiators was - what, if any, territories that are captured during the war are kept by the captor?

Here were the two negotiating teams -
  • For the Stars and Stripes - John Quincy Adams, chief negotiator, a Harvard graduate; Henry Clay, the hawk (the "bad cop"); Albert Gallatin, former Treasury Secretary, who grew up in Geneva, emigrated to the USA and settled south of Pittsburgh, teaching French at Harvard and elsewhere to earn a living before he became Secretary of the Treasury in 1801, remaining in that job until he went to Ghent in 1814; James A. Bayard, moderate anti-war Federalist; and Jonathan Russell, chargĂ© d’affaires for Madison in Paris. It took the Americans six weeks or more to communicate with Washington, D.C. so they were negotiating largely on their own. The U.S. team wanted to restore territory to what it was before the war, the status quo ante vellum
  • For the Union Jack - The negotiators on the British side nominally included both Cambridge and Oxford men, but the central negotiator was a Cambridge graduate. The two senior members were Lord Castlereagh, Britain's Foreign Secretary and an alumnus of St. John's College, Cambridge, and Henry Lord Bathurst, the Third Earl, Secretary for War and the Colonies and an alumnus of Christ Church, Oxford. However, neither of them chose to attend the talks personally. Instead, they sent a less-skilled team - Admiralty lawyer William Adams; impressments expert Admiral Lord Gambier; and - the real workhorse of the group and a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge - Henry Goulburn, Undersecretary for War and the Colonies. The British negotiators wanted uti possidetis, that each side could keep what it had won militarily, such as Detroit and Mackinac Island.
Admiral of the Fleet James Gambier (L, with Treaty) shakes hands with the
U.S. Ambassador to Russia and son of the second U.S. President, John
Quincy Adams, as the British Undersecretary of State for War and the
Colonies, Henry Goulburn (R, with red folder), and others look on.
The fact that the British were closer to home turned out not to have been much of an advantage. It gave time for the Americans to settle on a common goal, while the British were spending their time sending telegrams to try to get approvals from London.

The outcome of the Treaty was favorable for the United States, perhaps because the war was going well for the Americans at the time the Treaty was signed:
  • The Americans seemed to be losing early in the war with the burning of Washington. But Lieutenant General Sir George PrĂ©vost and a naval squadron under Captain George Downie engaged in Plattsburgh with New York and Vermont militia and U.S. Army regulars, under the command of Brigadier General Alexander Macomb. They were supported by ships commanded by Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough. The British failed to take Lake Champlain and fled north after the battle. Next, Fort McHenry in Baltimore withstood a severe attack and inspired the National Anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner".  News of these two battles was the last information that negotiators in Ghent received. 
  • The British did not get what they wanted regarding the independence of Native lands in the state of Ohio, and in the Indiana and Michigan Territories. The British wanted this reserved land to be a buffer state to protect Canada from American annexation, but Clay would not give it up. The British did not get any territory in northern Maine, or demilitarization of the Great Lakes or navigation rights on the Mississippi. Lord Castlereagh asked the Duke of Wellington and his advice was for them to take the status quo ante bellum
On December 24 the negotiators agreed on the 3,000-word Treaty. After approval by the two governments, hostilities ended and “all territory, places and possessions whatsoever, taken by either party from the other during the war” were restored to what they were before the war.

Although the United States didn't give up any territory, it was the one that declared war, so presumably it was bent on expansion. That was not to be, and the Canadian border was left in place. Also, the United States never did get the British to promise not to impress American sailors, but as hostilities in Europe ended, this issue ceased to be such a concern.

After the signing of the Treaty and before the combatants got word, the British attacked New Orleans on January 8, 1815 with a large army. It was overwhelmed by a smaller and less experienced American force under General Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) in the greatest U.S. victory in the war. The news of the Treaty and the outcome in New Orleans reached a celebratory American public at about the same time. Formal exchange of papers acknowledging the treaty were not completed until mid-February 1815.


1. The United States won back in the Treaty what it had lost.
As the Canadian historian and War of 1812 expert Donald E. Graves concludes:  What Americans lost on the battlefield, "they made up for at the negotiating table.”

2. The Treaty of Ghent has held up for 200 years. But the Treaty does not imply a  "Special Relationship", just a cessation of hostilities. During the American Civil War, Britain (as Amanda Foreman has shown), came in mostly on the losing side, the South, which makes sense historically because the South was populated through grants of land from the Crown whereas the Pilgrims were fleeing to New England to avoid religious persecution at the hands of the Church of England.

3. Hitler brought the United States and Britain together. During World War I, many Irish Catholics opposed the U.S. entry on the side of Britain. It was not until World War II that the Special Relationship was cemented. The threat of Hitler tied the United States and Britain, first with Lend-Lease in March 1941 and then with the U.S. declaration of war following the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941.

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