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The Treaty of Ghent (8 Stat. 218), signed on December 24, 1814 in the Flemish city of Ghent, was the peace treaty that ended the War of 1812 between the United States of America and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The treaty restored relations between the two nations to status quo ante bellum — that is, it restored the borders of the two countries to the line before the commencement of hostilities.[note 1] The Treaty was ratified by Parliament on December 30, 1814 and signed into law by the Prince Regent (the future King George IV). Because of the era's lack of telecommunications, it took weeks for news of the peace treaty to reach the United States. American forces under Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. The Treaty of Ghent was not in effect until it was ratified by the U.S. Senate unanimously on February 18, 1815.
After the abdication of Napoleon in April 1814 British public opinion demanded major gains in the war against the United States. The senior American representative in London told Secretary of State James Monroe:
However the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, aware of growing opposition to wartime taxation and the demands of Liverpool and Bristol merchants to reopen trade with America, realized Britain had little to gain and much to lose from prolonged warfare.
After rejecting Russian proposals to broker peace negotiations, Britain reversed course in 1814. With the defeat of Napoleon the main British goals of stopping American trade with France and impressment of sailors from American ships were dead letters. Negotiations were held in Ghent, Kingdom of the Netherlands, starting in August, 1814. The Americans sent top leaders, including Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams and Albert Gallatin, while the British sent minor officials who kept in close touch with their (much closer) superiors in London.
At last in August 1814, peace discussions began in the neutral city of Ghent. As the peace talks opened American diplomats decided not to present President Madison's demands for the end of impressment and suggestion that Britain turn Canada over to the U.S. They were quiet and instead the British opened with their demands, chief of which was the creation of an Indian barrier state in the American Northwest Territory (the area from Ohio to Wisconsin). It was understood the British would sponsor this Indian state. The British strategy for decades had been to create a buffer state to block American expansion. The Americans refused to consider a buffer state and the proposal was dropped. Article IX of the treaty included provisions to restore to Natives "all possessions, rights and privileges which they may have enjoyed, or been entitled to in 1811", but the provisions were unenforceable and in any case Britain ended its practice of supporting or encouraging tribes living in American territory.
The British—assuming their planned invasion of New York state would go well—also demanded that Americans not have any naval forces on the Great Lakes and that the British get certain transit rights to the Mississippi River in exchange for continuation of American fishing rights off Newfoundland. The U.S. rejected the demands and there was an impasse. American public opinion was so outraged when Madison published the demands that even the Federalists were willing to fight on.
During the negotiations the British had four invasions underway. One force carried out a burning of Washington, but the main mission failed in its goal of capturing Baltimore . The British fleet sailed away when the army commander was killed. A small force invaded the District of Maine from New Brunswick, capturing parts of northeastern Maine and several smuggling towns on the seacoast. Much more important were two major invasions. In northern New York State, 10,000 British troops marched south to cut off New England until a decisive defeat at the Battle of Plattsburgh forced them back to Canada. The defeat was a humiliation that called for a court martial of the commander. Nothing was known at the time of the fate of the other major invasion force that had been sent to capture New Orleans and control the Mississippi River.
The British Prime Minister wanted the Duke of Wellington to go to command in Canada with the assignment of winning the War. Wellington replied that he would go to America, but he believed that he was needed in Europe. He also stated:
I think you have no right, from the state of war, to demand any concession of territory from America... You have not been able to carry it into the enemy's territory, notwithstanding your military success, and now undoubted military superiority, and have not even cleared your own territory on the point of attack. You cannot on any principle of equality in negotiation claim a cession of territory except in exchange for other advantages which you have in your power... Then if this reasoning be true, why stipulate for the uti possidetis? You can get no territory: indeed, the state of your military operations, however creditable, does not entitle you to demand any.
The government had no choice but to agree with Wellington. Prime Minister Liverpool informed Foreign Secretary Castlereagh, who was at Vienna: "I think we have determined, if all other points can be satisfactorily settled, not to continue the war for the purpose of obtaining, or securing any acquisition of territory." Liverpool cited several reasons, especially the unsatisfactory negotiations underway at Vienna, the alarming reports from France that it might resume the war, and the weak financial condition of the government. He did not need to tell Castlereagh that the war was very unpopular; Britons wanted peace and a return to normal trade. The war with America had ruined many reputations and promised no gain.
After months of negotiations, against the background of changing military victories, defeats and losses, the parties finally realized that their nations wanted peace and there was no real reason to continue the war. Now each side was tired of the war. Export trade was all but paralyzed and after Napoleon fell in 1814 France was no longer an enemy of Britain, so the Royal Navy no longer needed to stop American shipments to France, and it no longer needed more seamen. The British were preoccupied in rebuilding Europe after the apparent final defeat of Napoleon. After British negotiators were urged by lord Liverpool to offer a status quo which was desired since the beginning of the war by the British government. British diplomats immediately offered this to the US negotiators, who dropped their demands for an end to British maritime practices and Canadian territory ignoring their war aims and agreed . Prisoners would be exchanged, and captured slaves returned to the United States or be paid for by Britain.
On December 24, 1814, the members of the British and American negotiating teams signed and affixed their individual seals to the document. It didn't end the war itself—that required formal ratification by their governments, which came in February 1815. The treaty released all prisoners and restored all captured lands and ships. Returned to the United States were approximately 10,000,000 acres (40,000 km2) of territory, near Lakes Superior and Michigan, and in Maine. American-held areas of Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) were returned to British control. The treaty thus made no significant changes to the prewar boundaries, although the U.S. did gain territory from Spain. Britain promised to return the freed black slaves that they had taken. In actuality, a few years later Britain instead paid the United States $1,204,960 for them. Both nations also promised to work towards an ending of the international slave trade.
Pierre Berton wrote of the treaty, "It was as if no war had been fought, or to put it more bluntly, as if the war that was fought was fought for no good reason. For nothing has changed; everything is as it was in the beginning save for the graves of those who, it now appears, have fought for a trifle:...Lake Erie and Fort McHenry will go into the American history books, Queenston Heights and Crysler's Farm into the Canadian, but without the gore, the stench, the disease, the terror, the conniving, and the imbecilities that march with every army."
The Treaty of Ghent failed to secure official British acknowledgment of American maritime rights, and Britain had already stopped its policy of impressing seamen off American ships. In the century of peace among the naval powers from 1815 until World War I American rights were not seriously violated. The course of the war resolved and ended all of the original issues, especially since the American Indians had been defeated and the Americans scored enough victories (especially at New Orleans) to satisfy honor and the sense of becoming fully independent from Britain.
On receiving news of the treaty, the British forces near New Orleans immediately departed.
James Carr argues that Britain negotiated the Treaty of Ghent with the goal of ending the war, even though it knew a major British expedition had been ordered to seize New Orleans. Carr says that Britain had no intention of repudiating the treaty and continuing the war had victory been theirs at the Battle of New Orleans.
News of the treaty finally reached the United States after the major American victory in the Battle of New Orleans; it won immediate wide approval from all sides. The U.S. Senate unanimously approved the treaty on February 16, 1815, and President James Madison exchanged ratification papers with a British diplomat in Washington on February 17; the treaty was proclaimed on February 18. Eight days later, on February 26, Napoleon escaped from Elba, starting the war in Europe again, and forcing the British to concentrate on the threat he posed.
The Peace Arch, dedicated in September 1921, stands 20.5 metres (67 ft) tall and straddles the US-Canada border at the Douglas/Blaine border crossing. In 1922, the Fountain of Time was dedicated in Washington Park, Chicago, commemorating 110 years of peace between the United States and Britain. The Peace Bridge between Buffalo, New York, and Fort Erie, Ontario, opened in 1927 to commemorate a century of peace between the United States and Canada.
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