Two hundred years ago American and British delegates signed a treaty in the Flemish town of Ghent to end a two-and-a-half-year conflict between the former colonies and mother country. Overshadowed by the American Revolution and Napoleonic Wars in the two nations’ historical memories, the War of 1812 has been somewhat rehabilitated during its bicentennial. Yet arguing for the importance of a status quo antebellum treaty that concluded a war in which neither belligerent achieved its war aims, no territory was exchanged, and no victor formally declared can be a tough sell. Compared to the final defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, fought a just a few months later and forty odd miles down the road from Ghent, the end of the War of 1812 admittedly lacked cinema-worthy drama.
But the Treaty of Ghent mattered enormously (and not just to historians interested in the War of 1812). The war it ended saw relatively light casualties, measured in the thousands compared to the millions who died in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars that raged across the rest of the globe. Nevertheless, for the indigenous and colonizing peoples that inhabited the borderlands surrounding the United States, the conflict had proved devastating. Because the American and British economies were intertwined, the war had also wreaked havoc on American agriculture and British manufacturing, and wrecked each other’s merchant navies. Moreover, public support for the war in the British Empire and the United States had been lukewarm with plenty of outspoken opposition who had worked tirelessly to prevent and then quickly end the war.
Not surprisingly, peace resulted in widespread celebration across the Atlantic. The Leeds Mercury, many of whose readers were connected to the manufacturing industries that had relied on American markets, even compared the news with that of the Biblical account of the angelic chorus’s announcement of the birth of Jesus: “This Country, thanks to the good Providence of God, is now at Peace with Europe, with America, and with the World. . . . There is at length ‘Peace on Earth,’ and we trust the revival of ‘Good-will among men’ will quickly follow the close of national hostilities.” When the treaty reached Washington for ratification, President James Madison and Congress fell over themselves in a rush to sign it.
Far more interesting than what the relatively brief Treaty of Ghent includes is what was left out. When the British delegation arrived at Ghent in August 1814, they had every possible advantage. Britain had won the naval war, the United States was on brink of bankruptcy, and the end of Britain’s war with France meant that hardened veterans were being deployed for an imminent invasion of the United States. Later that month British troops would humiliatingly burn Washington. Even Ghent itself was a home field advantage, as it was occupied by British troops and within a couple of days of communication with ministers in London.
In consequence, Britain’s initial demands were severe. If the United States wanted peace, it had to cede 250,000 square miles of its northwestern lands (amounting to more than 15% of US territory, including all or parts of the modern states of Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota). These lands would be used to create an independent American Indian state—promises of which the British had used to recruit wary Indian allies. Britain also demanded a new border for Canada, which included the southern shores of the Great Lakes and a chunk of British-occupied Maine—changes that would have given Canada considerable natural defenses. The Americans, claimed the British, were “aggrandizers”, and these measures would ensure that such ambitions would be forever thwarted.
The significance of the terms is difficult to underestimate. Western expansion would have ground to a halt in the face of a powerful British-led alliance with the Spanish Empire and new American Indian state. The humiliation would likely have resulted in the collapse of the United States. The long-marginalized New England Federalists had been outspoken in their opposition to the war and President James Madison’s Southern-dominated Republican Party, with some of their leaders openly threatening secession. The Island of Nantucket had already signed a separate peace with Britain, and many inhabitants of British-occupied Maine had signed oaths of allegiance to Britain. The Governor of Massachusetts had even sent an agent to Canada to discuss terms of British support for his state’s secession, which included a request for British troops. The counterfactuals of a New England secession are too great to explore here, but the implications are epic—not least because, unlike in 1861, the US government in 1814 was in no position to stop one. In the end, a combination of the American delegates’ obstinacy and a rapidly fading British desire to keep the nation on an expensive war footing solely to fight the Americans led the British to abandon their harsh terms.
In consequence, the Treaty of Ghent cemented the United States rather than destroyed it. Historians have long debated who truly won the war. However, what mattered most was that neither side managed a decisive victory. The Americans lacked the organization and national unity to win; the British lacked the will to wage an expensive, offensive war in North America. American inadequacy ensured that all of Canada would prosper as part of the British Empire, even though Upper Canada (now Ontario) had arguably closer links to the United States and was populated largely by economic migrants from the United States. British desire to avoid further confrontation enabled the Americans to focus its attentions on eliminating the other, and considerably weaker, obstacles to continental supremacy: the American Indians and the remnants of the Spanish Empire, who proved to be the real losers of the War of 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent.
Featured image: The Signing of the Treaty of Ghent, Christmas Eve, 1814, Amédée Forestier (1814). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.