This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections
It is the time of year when people talk most of “Peace on Earth.” A bit of peace of the worldly sort emerged 200 years ago this week when the United States and Great Britain came to terms ending the two and a half years of fighting the War of 1812 and foreshadowing the centuries of peaceful relations between the two countries. The hard work of diplomacy was hammered out in the city of Ghent, Belgium where the American and British finally signed a treaty on December 24, 1814.
The delegation of American peace commissioners that finally found themselves at Ghent was a distinguished lot, but not congenial either in personality or regional bias: it comprised the irritable (as he described himself) New Englander John Quincy
Adams, the frontier war hawk and House Speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky, Federalist James A. Bayard, politically ambitious diplomat Jonathan Russell, and the longtime Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin. The historian Henry Adams and grandson of J.Q. Adams, would go so far
as to write of this delegation, “The negotiation with the British commissioners was, however, much more simple than the negotiation with one another.” John Quincy
Adams, in particular, glumly complained about Clay, a bad influence whose desultory work habits included indulgences such as staying up late and drinking. The Swiss-born Gallatin, with a broader national outlook and what Adams would admit in his diary was a “playfulness of disposition,” kept them all on message. But, in the end, it was the card-playing Clay who knew when to call the British commissioners’ bluff.
The negotiations had been a hard slog: The British commissioners refused to formally concede on the principles of free trade and the impressment of American sailors, even as the ending of the Napoleonic wars made these matters far less urgent. At the same time the British diplomats brought new—or rather, unresolved—issues to the table: the border of Canada, rights to the Mississippi, American fishing privileges in Newfoundland, and protection of their American Indian allies. At one point, eager to make the protracted war worthwhile, they sought to bring the Duke of Wellington, fresh from his victory over Napoleon, to the Atlantic theater. While willing to follow orders, Wellington seemed to want none of it, and, like many influential Britons, urged his government to settle for limited war aims. Meanwhile, the relatively easy victory the British had had in Washington in August was followed by their being forestalled at Lake Champlain and Baltimore and presaged more costly war ahead.
As a result, the final terms were the status quo ante bellum (a return to the conditions before war broke out) and a vague agreement to negotiate other issues through joint commissions. In reporting the results to Secretary of State James Monroe in his December 25 letter, Gallatin added that America’s ability to withstand the “very formidable military power of England, and our having been able, without any foreign assistance , and after she made such an effort, to obtain peace on equal terms, will raise our character and consequence in Europe.”
Americans may remember only one thing from their school days about the War of 1812: that Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815 came about after the Treat of Ghent had been signed. Actually, fighting continued after that, and the war did not officially end until the Treaty reached the United States and was ratified on February 17, 1815.
To the British public, the disappointing war and its outcome were always overshadowed in memory by the great victory over Napoleon that was cemented at Waterloo in 1815. For Americans, it took longer for the conflict to become the “forgotten war;” indeed its heroes and lore shaped American politics and nationalism for some decades.
Canadians would eventually come to celebrate the War of 1812 as a victory over a rapacious neighbor that allowed them to form a national identity. There seemed, however, no way that Native Americans in the United States could see a bright side to the War of 1812, as their losses in deaths, land, and autonomy had enduring consequences. For them, this “Christmas Eve Peace” on this piece of earth was indeed a costly one.
We hope for more peace and justice ahead as we send you and yours greetings of the Season.