Study Guide

Treaty of Ghent Analysis

By John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, J.A. Bayard, Jonathan Russell, Albert Gallatin, Henry Goulburn, William Adams, James Gambier

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  • Rhetoric


    The Treaty of Ghent isn't exactly a rousing locker-room speech. Who's going to start a slow-clap over a war that had no winners? When you read this document you're essentially reading a legal agreement—sort of like the page you have to click "accept" on before downloading something.

    The rhetoric of the treaty appeals largely to the authority of the people involved. The preamble section names each of the American and British ambassadors, or "Plenipotentiaries," stating that they are acting as legal representatives on behalf of their respective countries.

    (In our opinion, the Brits have the way classier titles)

    The most recurring word in the text is "shall," which makes sense since the document has the imperative weight of an official law. Keep in mind, this was a document intended for the governments of the two parties—it's not meant to rouse people to action, but to command them what to do.

    Notably, the last article of the treaty declares that it has to be ratified "without alteration" (XI.1). It had to be ratified in full, or not at all. This was a way of getting to peace more quickly, and assuring that the signatories would have final authority—rather than leaving things to be debated by Congress and Parliament.

    You know how that can go.

  • Structure


    The Treaty of Ghent is organized as a list of articles, each of which establishes particular requirements for the new peace between the two parties. The articles vary from super-general to hyper-detailed. Article Ten essentially states "we should abolish the slave trade," whereas Article Four exhaustively instructs on how to divvy up disputed island territory using an arbitration commission.

    Personally, we think the slave trade issue deserved a little more ink, but that wasn't an important point of disagreement in the war.

    How it Breaks Down


    The first paragraph of the Treaty declares its purpose: to end the war and restore "good Understanding" (Intro.1) between the U.S. and Britain. The rest of the intro is a shout-out list naming the authors of the text. Think of it like the beginning credits of a movie.

    Article 1

    The most important themes of the treaty are laid down right here. The first article restores all territory, property, and material taken during the war to its antebellum, or pre-war, status. It was like it never happened.

    Article 2

    This section sets parameters for how to get the message of peace out to everyone who needed to know. Since they couldn't just shoot out a text in 1814 (Thomas Jefferson couldn't invent everything), the second article states that "vessels and effects" (II.1) taken in North America within twelve days following the ratification of the treaty have to be given back. The number of days increases the farther you get from America.

    Article 3

    This section promises the return of all prisoners of war to each side. It also makes each side pay back the other for the cost of keeping those prisoners. All that bangers and mash was expensive.

    Article 4

    Even after agreeing to give conquered land back, the two sides disagree on who owns certain islands in the Bay of Fundy, between Nova Scotia and Maine. The treaty calls for two commissioners, one British and one American, to decide who owns which island. The commissioners get full and independent authority, and their decisions are final. If they can't come to terms on a particular subject, the issue gets referred to the judgment of "a friendly Sovereign of State" (IV.8).

    Study tip: the next two articles dealing with pairs of Commissioners refer back to the rules laid down in Article Four.

    Article 5

    Pretty much the same as Article Four. Two more commissioners are appointed to map the borderlands between the U.S. and Canada around where the Connecticut River meets Nova Scotia. Their ultimate task was to determine a firm international borderline. But why did Canada get the totally cooler side of Niagara Falls?

    Article 6

    Two more commissioners. This pair is tasked with surveying, mapping, and dividing up the area around the Great Lakes. In particular, they are supposed to decide what constitutes the "middle" of several lakes—and hence, which parts belong to either the U.S. or Britain.

    Article 7

    The two commissioners from Article Six return for a second performance. Their next task is to "fix and determine" an international border between the Great Lakes and the Lake of the Woods, which is mostly in modern-day Ontario but creeps into Minnesota. The U.S. is allowed to keep Minneapolis, because FX had just picked up Fargo for another season.

    Article 8

    This article deals with some of the nitty-gritty details concerning the commissioners. All the commissioners mentioned in the prior articles have permission to hire surveyors and secretaries to keep track of their reports. They are required to submit copies of all their reports to their home countries. The two sides agree to determine how to pay the commissioners after the treaty is signed and sealed, and to split costs evenly. If a commissioner dies, the country has to appoint another one to take his place. Finally, all land grants made prior to the treaty have to be honored.

    Article 9

    Both the United States and Britain agree to cease any wars with Native American tribes, provided that the tribes do the same.

    Article 10

    The two sides agree to do what they can to end the international slave trade. The U.S. had already outlawed the importation of slaves in 1807. Of course, that didn't stop southern states from sustaining a booming domestic slave trade.

    Article 11

    The cherry on top of this diplomatic sundae. Article Eleven states that the treaty will be binding on both countries once it's signed. It also requires that the treaty be ratified without any changes. We also get our place and date: Ghent, Belgium on Christmas Eve. The perfect gift for two war-weary countries.

  • Writing Style

    Technical Diplomacy

    Unlike, say, the Declaration of Independence, you won't see any flowery passages about the meaning of life in the Treaty of Ghent. This document is about hammering out a simple agreement, not declaring values or ideas. No "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" stuff.

    The Treaty uses direct and specific language to describe the conditions of a new peace between the United States and Britain. Its primary purpose is to create a legal document that's bullet-proof to reinterpretation. Aside from some niceties between the parties, who promise to be friends and equals (Intro.1), there isn't much poetry going on here.

    That's why you get rambling passages like the second Article: "It is reciprocally agreed that all vessels and effects which may be taken after the space of twelve days from the said Ratifications upon all parts of the Coast of North America from the Latitude of twenty three degrees North to the Latitude of fifty degrees North, and as far Eastward in the Atlantic Ocean as the thirty sixth degree of West Longitude from the Meridian of Greenwich, shall be restored on each side" (II.1).

    Riveting, right?

    Using specific latitudes and longitudes as reference points for the process is an example of specificity. You didn't want further arguments to erupt over something that was vague or open to interpretation, like the ending of Inception.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The Treaty of Ghent: It was a Treaty. It was negotiated in Ghent. What's to discuss?

    In American history, peace treaties were usually named after a place (where they were negotiated) or a person (who did the negotiating).

    There wasn't really a single mastermind behind the Treaty; the British ambassadors were basically just taking orders from their superiors. So instead of getting a real name, this treaty is remembered by the city where the negotiating (and Henry Clay's gambling) took place.

    A good comparison would be the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War. One advantage of using the city for the name is neutrality; it doesn't hint at who got the better deal. Britain never would have agreed to calling the Treaty of Paris "In Your Face, Cornwallis."

    Same with the Treaty of Ghent. The American plenipotentiaries might have been silently chanting "USA! USA!" but they kept a poker face.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America desirous of terminating the war which has unhappily subsisted between the two Countries, and of restoring upon principles of perfect reciprocity, Peace, Friendship, and good Understanding between them, have for that purpose appointed their respective Plenipotentiaries, that is to say, His Britannic Majesty on His part has appointed the Right Honourable James Lord Gambier, late Admiral of the White now Admiral of the Red Squadron of His Majesty's Fleet; Henry Goulburn Esquire, a Member of the Imperial Parliament and Under Secretary of State; and William Adams Esquire, Doctor of Civil Laws: (2) And the President of the United States, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate thereof, has appointed John Quincy Adams, James A. Bayard, Henry Clay, Jonathan Russell, and Albert Gallatin, Citizens of the United States; who, after a reciprocal communication of their respective Full Powers, have agreed upon the following Articles. (Intro.1-2)

    There's a lot of buddy-buddy talk going on in the first line of the Treaty of Ghent. Listen to all those happy words: friendship, perfect reciprocity, good understanding. From reading the opening lines you wouldn't suspect that, during negotiations, they were still killing each other in New Orleans and Baltimore.

    The opening is essentially a statement of purpose. Both countries want to end the war. Obviously that's the goal of most treaties. The tone of the opening here is very similar to the 1783 Treaty of Paris.  If you're ever writing a peace treaty, you could pretty much copy and paste this intro. Although, you'd want to reword some things to avoid plagiarism—and sounding like you live in the 19th century.

    The second part of the opening paragraph introduces our cast of characters: the ambassadors who hammered out this peace agreement. Our authors are referred to as "Plenipotentiaries," a word that basically means a diplomat who's given independent authority to make decisions on behalf of the government. They had to have that authority, because if they had to keep checking back with their superiors in America, say, the negotiations would have taken ten years.

    All the plenipotentiaries get their props here: their titles are listed, they're fully authorized to conduct these negotiations by the King and the Prez, and they've managed to agree on everything that follows.

    It's a promising intro, designed to win over any doubters and let everyone know that the British and Americans are pledging to be BFFs.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    This Treaty when the same shall have been ratified on both sides without alteration by either of the contracting parties, and the Ratifications mutually exchanged, shall be binding on both parties, and the Ratifications shall be exchanged at Washington in the space of four months from this day or sooner if practicable. In faith whereof, We the respective Plenipotentiaries have signed this Treaty, and have hereunto affixed our Seals. Done in triplicate at Ghent the twenty fourth day of December one thousand eight hundred and fourteen. (XI.1-3)

    Triplicate. Some paperwork things never change.

    There's a super-important idea lurking in all the restatements in Article Eleven, buried in all the official talk.

    All the obvious other stuff is there. The last lines give a note on the time and place that the treaty happened: Ghent, Belgium, in 1814. The conclusion also states that the treaty will be binding on both parties (seems pretty obvious) and should be ratified as soon as possible.

    But here's the key idea: once the treaty is ratified by both sides, it can't be altered in any way. No amending, tweaking, rewording, or changing the font (actually the original document was handwritten, but you get the idea). This provision was an attempt to speed the process along without letting domestic debates prolong the ratification process.

    In other words, by the end of negotiations this war just needed to be put out of its misery. Instead of pushing for demands or leaving open the possibility of future disagreements, both sides just said, "let's get a ceasefire, with no ifs ands or buts."

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (7) Snow Line

    At times, the Treaty of Ghent is so wordy that it feels like a maze. We're talking about multiple dependent clauses, a barrage of semi-colons, and a bombardment of looping lists. Yet, there's hope. The text is organized into neat sections, each with only one or two big ideas, and the vocabulary is nothing to panic about. There's also a lot of repetition in the text: Articles Five through Seven essentially restate the main idea of Article Four. Also, if you need to lighten your reading experience, just picture all the ambassadors in frocks, tight pants, and powdered wigs.

    And give yourself a piece of cheese for making it through the maze.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Historical and Political References

    • Treaty of Paris (IV.1), (IV.5), (V.1), (V.3), (VI.1), (VI.3), (VII.1)
    • King George III (Intro.1), (I.1), (IV.1-3), (IV. 7-8), (IV.10), (VI.1), (VIII.2), (IX.3-4)
    • Slave Trade (X.1)

    References to This Text

    Historical and Political References

    • James Madison, "Special Message to Congress on the Treaty of Ghent," February 18, 1815
    • "Decision of the Commissioners Under Article 4 of the Treaty of Ghent," November 24th, 1817
    • Convention of 1818 between the United States and Great Britain, October 20th, 1818
    • Webster-Ashburton Treaty, November 10,
    • John Quincy Adams, "Argument Before the Supreme Court of the United States," February 24, 1841
  • Trivia

    The Battle of New Orleans was fought after the Treaty of Ghent had already been signed, since it took weeks to get word of the peace across the Atlantic. Thanks for showing up almost two centuries later, Internet. (Source)

    While negotiations for the Treaty of Ghent were happening, New England Federalists gathered at the Hartford Convention, a secret meeting where they considered seceding from the Union over the unpopular war. News of the Treaty of Ghent reached American shores just after the convention. It was like they walked out of the movie theater with five minutes to go. (Source)

    John Quincy Adams, the head American negotiator at Ghent, used to leave his girlfriend's family dinner parties early because he didn't like to hear women singing. Not even Adele. Somehow, she still married him. (Source)

    Henry Clay, one of the American ambassadors, ran for President three times under three different political parties—and came up short three times. If presidencies were Super Bowls, he was the anti-Tom Brady. (Source)

    During the Ghent negotiations, the Duke of Wellington, Britain's most powerful military leader, told the Prime Minister, "I think you have no right, from the state of war, to demand any concession of territory from America." Thanks for the support, Duke. (Source)

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