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The War of 1812 (1809-1815)

Treaty of Ghent (December 1814)

Hartford Convention (1814)

New Orleans

Summary

From 1812 to 1814, Czar Alexander I of Russia was faced the threat of Napoleon's invasion of Russian soil. Alexander had no idea how much longer Napoleon would last, and was unsure of his ability to hold out against the French Emperor. As a result, Alexander did not want Britain distracted, fighting a far-off war against the US. Instead, he wanted Britain focused on helping him fight Napoleon. The Russians had already defeated Napoleon, however, by the time they finally convinced Britain and the US to come to the negotiating table in the Belgian city of Ghent in August, 1814.

John Quincy Adams led the US delegation, which also included Henry Clay, Albert Gallatin, James Bayard, and Jonathan Russell. By 1814, Britain's top negotiator, the Viscount Castlereagh, was too busy with the Congress of Vienna to attend negotiations in Ghent. Less senior diplomats represented Britain.

When the negotiations began, Britain had recently wiped out the American army at Bladensburg. Hopeful about the prospects of the planned invasion of New York and angry over continued American privateering that had resulted in the destruction or theft of massive amounts of British wealth, the British negotiators demanded advantageous terms: more territory for Canada (including a large chunk of Maine, which the British army now occupied anyway), control of the Great Lakes, and the creation of a neutral Indian state to act as a buffer between the US and Canada. US negotiators refused the terms. The Ghent negotiations seemed in vain when suddenly the tide began to turn, and the US won the Battles of Baltimore and Lake Champlain.

With the War now at stalemate, on Christmas Eve in 1814, the Treaty of Ghent two sides signed the Treat of Ghent. The treaty returned US-British relations to the status they had had before the war: neither side gained or lost territory. Issues like the Orders in Council and Impressment were never addressed. In the eleven articles of the treaty, no mention was made of free trade, and no mention was made of Sailor's rights. Albert Gallatin, who had been instructed to secure an end to impressment, wrote back to Madison that Britain's Navy being what it was, they would never agree to this. The Americans decided the return of the status quo was enough.

News of the Treaty of Ghent took a while to reach the US. As a result, Andrew Jackson's men fought the British at New Orleans unnecessarily, after the treaty had already been signed.

Commentary

The US delegation to Ghent, comprised of strong, conflicting personalities like John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, was bound to be plagued by disagreement and bickering. Henry Clay could be especially difficult to get along with. He had once said, "I would rather be right than President." Adams and Clay could hardly stand each other. Nonetheless, this group had to make peace soon, because despite the American military successes of September 1814, the war was crushing the American economy. Businesses throughout the country, especially in New England, were going bankrupt. Negotiations were not helped by comments in French newspapers in Ghent that described the British as barbarians for their burning of Washington.

At the Ghent peace talks, Britain was more willing to negotiate than would usually be expected; Britain had far bigger problems than the War of 1812 to worry about. As Britain was busy negotiating a balance of power in Europe at the Congress of Vienna, Napoleon suddenly escaped from his exile on Elba. Faced with the sudden prospect of a resurgent, militarist France, Britain wanted to withdraw its forces from the American entanglement and return them to Europe. Thus, although Americans proudly believed that their military valor and ability changed the course of the Ghent negotiations, Britain's decisions regarding the War of 1812 were as influenced by events in Europe as the outcomes of the Battles of Baltimore and Lake Champlain.

Although the Treaty of Ghent addressed none of the original grievances that started the War of 1812, most Americans considered it a success. This just goes to show how little the War Hawks really cared about these issues: they had just wanted an excuse to go to war. Having started the war in hopes of conquering Canada, the US now barely got out without serious damage. Although celebrated as a victory in the young US, the war really had been a draw, and one in which Britain had fought with one hand tied behind its back by Napoleon. The treaty gained none of the initial US goals. Yet in England, many people were impressed by American scrappiness. Not even Napoleon's Grand Navy had been able to stand up to the British Navy at Trafalgar, but the US had won several naval victories. In some sense, then, stalemate became victory: no matter the particulars, the US had once again stood toe to toe with Britain, and survived.

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