December 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 8
Battle-weary and convinced there was nothing to be gained from continuing to fight, Great Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, ending the War of 1812. It had been a tense year for the American peace mission. Albert Gallatin, the American Secretary of the Treasury, and the Federalist senator James Bayard of Delaware had pined John Quincy Adams in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1813 only to learn that Britain had refused Czar Alexander’s mediation. It would be August of 1814 before the British would come to the table, in Flanders, where Jonathan Russell and Henry Clay joined the American delegation.
The United States had declared war while the British were struggling with Napoleon in Europe, and now, with the French emperor vanquished and exiled, England was in the mood to punish its remaining enemy. “There is no public feeling in the country stronger than that of indignation against the Americans,” reported the London Times . As veterans of the Napoleonic wars boarded vessels bound for North America, British conditions for peace included a revision of the Canadian border and an independent state for their Indian allies at America’s northwest frontier. The shocked American delegation, which had been instructed to accept no treaty that did not abolish impressment of American sailors by the Royal Navy and had even hoped to persuade the British to give up Canada, rejected the proposal.
Cramped living conditions only compounded the frustrations the five Americans shared at the negotiation table. Clay smoked vile cigars, emptied countless bottles of wine, and gambled until daybreak, just as John Quincy Adams was rising in the adjoining room for his daily Bible study. Bayard, who found the commissioner from Massachusetts “singularly cold and repulsive,” was probably the best friend Adams had in Ghent. Still, Henry Adams wrote later, “the whole British public service, including Lords and Commons, could not at that day have produced four men competent to meet Gallatin, J. Q. Adams, Bayard and Clay on the ground of American interests.”
While the American negotiators held firm through the autumn of 1814, the London government was losing interest in the war. Continuing to fight would require an extension of the hated British property tax, which was due to expire in a few months. As Continental powers maneuvered to fill the power vacuum left by Napoleon’s abdication, the British government began to feel uneasy about having its best regiments in a stalemated war an ocean away.
By November members of Parliament routinely condemned the war, and the Americans had decided to set aside all grievances and seek a peace that simply preserved the existing borders. With impressment off the table, the British agreed, and the two nations signed the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve. Though the agreement left the remaining disputes to be settled by joint commissions in later years, it initiated a new relationship with Great Britain that would make the U.S.-Canadian border the longest unguarded frontier in the world.