Study Guide

Treaty of Ghent Historical Context

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

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Historical Context

Let's Start at the Very Beginning

Queen Elizabeth I first had the idea to settle North America and sent Sir Walter Raleigh to present-day North Carolina, where he founded the Roanoke Colony in 1585. The idea, like all novel colonization ideas, was to plunder the riches and resources of the colony and ship them back to England. And if they could shoot up some Spanish ships while they were there, well, that would be a plus.

The first colonists in the Roanoke Colony packed up and went home after a year, tired of starvation and Indian attacks. A later Roanoke settlement was a failure, too; a few years after the second group landed in Roanoke, a supply ship found the place abandoned.

A second attempt at colonization in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia, was more successful, paving the way for additional British colonies and, ultimately, a march of American progress culminating in Facebook and the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem attraction at Universal Studios.

Encouraged by the success of the Jamestown colony, the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts in 1620, resulting in 400 years of parents having to sit through kindergarten Thanksgiving plays and finding room on the fridge for those drawings of turkeys you make by tracing your hand.

Connecticut and Rhode Island followed in 1636, and by 1700, there were about 250,000 English settlers and slaves (yes, slaves were brought from Africa way back in 1619 in Jamestown). By 1775, there were almost 2.5 million people in thirteen colonies, and if you finished 4th grade, you already knew that.

Fighting with the Parents

The early colonists considered themselves very much English subjects; they were completely dependent on England for cash, supplies, and defense. Out of loyalty to the Crown, they spelled "color" and "honor" with an extra "u," and hung portraits of Hugh Grant in their libraries.  They didn't mind having to play by the king's rules, and they fought on the side of the British against the French and the Native American tribes in the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

But there was growing talk of independence from Britain because of "taxation without representation" when Britain levied heavy taxes to pay off their war debt. Taxes became more onerous and frequent—and on tea, no less—and it frosted the Americans that they didn't even have a say in Parliament about it.

Patriots like Patrick "Give me liberty or give me death" Henry began to talk of freedom from the tyranny of King George, and colonists began stockpiling weapons.

Y'know, just in case.

After Sam Adams and friends pulled off the Boston Tea Party, Britain passed a series of acts called the Intolerable Acts, intended to let the colonies, Boston in particular, know who's boss. But hey, we're Americans, and instead of being intimidated, rebellion against Britain spread even further throughout the colonies.

Yadda yadda, by 1776, the Americans had, signed a Declaration of Independence from Britain and the war for independence began. The rebellious colonies and their motley crew of citizen soldiers pulled off the upset of the (eighteenth) century. The Treaty of Paris ended the rebellion in 1783 and established the United States of America as its own independent nation.

Then they drew up a Constitution and elected a President. The first act of the new nation was to establish an annual fourth of July hot dog eating contest in New York City, a tradition which continues to this very day.

Teenage Angst

Gaining independence didn't automatically win the United States the respect of Britain. The U.S. may have moved out of Britain's basement, but, leading up to the War of 1812 the mother country was still treating its former colony like a kid, trying to dictate its trade policies and refusing to go along with the unlimited data plan the U.S. was begging for.

The main source of tension was international trade. In the first decade of the 1800s the U.S. was caught in a global power struggle between Britain and France. The two European powers had been at war on-and-off with each other since 1793. The U.S., as a neutral country, wanted the right to keep trading with both of them.

Britain and France basically told America to roll over, ignoring U.S. economic sovereignty by intercepting U.S. cargo ships (source) and selling their merchandise on eBay. The British navy also developed the nasty habit of impressment: capturing sailors on American ships and forcing them to work for the Royal Navy. It was a way of, um, "recruiting" the necessary manpower to take on Napoleon.

One particularly infuriating example: On June 22, 1807, the British ship Leopard stopped the USS Chesapeake off the Virginia coast, looking for deserters. The captain of the Chesapeake refused to let them board, so the Leopard fired on the ship (killing 23 sailors), and forcibly boarded the Chesapeake, taking two British and two American prisoners.

Britain's bullying-by-impressment caused public outrage in America, fueling anti-British sentiment and causing the networks to cancel future episodes of The British Baking Show. Under the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the U.S. pursued a policy of economic retaliation. Jefferson banned all overseas trade with the Embargo Act of 1807, then replaced the embargo with the Non-Intercourse Act in 1809, which banned all trade with Britain and France specifically.

Neither Act did much to hurt America's foes. Instead, it was the U.S. economy that suffered the most. Turns out the U.S. couldn't have a thriving economy if they couldn't sell their stuff.

The turning point came with a third trade act, Macon's Bill No. 2, in 1810. Under this bill, President James Madison essentially offered Britain and France exclusive trading rights with the United States, on one condition: if one country agreed to stop harassing U.S. ships, the U.S. would respond with a trade blockade against the other.

When Napoleon agreed by letter to lift French trade restrictions on the U.S., Madison put the British on notice: No soup for you.

North v. Northwest

At the same time that Jefferson and Madison were waging a trade-war with the British, U.S. settlers in the Northwest Territory were pushing America's western boundary farther into Native American lands. The Northwest at the time was a chunk of land that now encompasses Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and the upper Midwest. Sorry Washington and Oregon; you didn't get to be the northwest until much later.

In response to people coming in and settling and stealing their ancestral lands, several tribes formed an alliance, led by the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh. Americans suspected the British of supplying the Indians with weapons in an effort to keep America out of the Great Lakes region and prevent the U.S. from threatening the Canadian border (source). Nobody trusted anyone on the frontier, making it a powder keg.

In 1811, Indiana Governor William Henry Harrison led American forces to a victory over Tecumseh's alliance at the Battle of Tippecanoe. The victory made American settlers' suspicions a self-fulfilling prophecy: now, the tribes became convinced that their only hope for protecting their homelands was to join forces with the British. In the ensuing War of 1812, most tribes fought against the U.S.

A War with No Outcome

For the deets on the military campaigns of the war, check out Shmoop's War of 1812 Learning Guide. If you're the hands-on learning type, you can even visit the USS Constitution—the ship that won the battle off Nova Scotia—next time you're in town. It's docked in Boston, at the Charleston Navy Yard.

Let's go to the highlight reel.

This war had more lead changes than Game 7 between the Spurs and the Clippers in the first-round 2015 NBA playoffs. Each side won key battles only to be pounded by the other in the next one.

After a few years of bloodshed, a victory at Detroit, Fort Niagara and the burning of Washington, D.C. (wins for Team Britain); huge naval battles on Lake Erie and in Nova Scotia (Team U.S.A.); the successful U.S. defense of Ft. McHenry; and a power struggle on the American frontier, the War of 1812 ended with a resounding victory for…


By 1814, both sides were broke and tired of fighting. Madison was down to his last $5 million in the Treasury. Plus, word reached the U.S. that Napoleon was being run out of Russia and back to France with defeats in Germany along the way. He abdicated in April of 1814; a month later France signed the Treaty of Paris ending the conflict with Britain and its allies.

This was great news for Britain, but the Americans could read the writing on the wall. All those troops tied down fighting in Europe—about 250,000— were suddenly freed up for fighting in North America. They gave it some thought and said, "Let's talk."

The British About-Face

The British didn't enter negotiations planning to settle things on equal terms. Initially, they presented a laundry list of demands: annexation of northern Maine, control of the Great Lakes navigation rights on the Mississippi River, and the creation of a Native American barrier state between Canada and the northwestern U.S. That's not just a shopping list: they wanted to buy the whole department store.

In August of 1814, when negotiations began, the British looked like they were in a position to make all those demands. That month, British forces captured and sacked Washington D.C.

As the war dragged on, however, the prospect of a decisive victory waned. Americans dug in their heels and won key victories at Baltimore and Lake Champlain. The British Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, started to fret about the tens of millions of pounds it was going to cost to keep the war going.

The Duke of Wellington, hero of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, told his government that, based on the military stalemate on the American continent, gaining new territory just wasn't gonna happen, so they should quit asking.

When even your rock star generals don't want to keep fighting, you know it's time to call it quits.

Developments in Europe also caused the British to soften their demands. Napoleon had been defeated, but there was widespread unrest in France which contributed to fear that war would break out in Europe again. In mid-November, Liverpool wrote to his Secretary for War and Colonies that "by the consideration of the alarming situation of the interior of France [...] it has appeared to us desirable to bring the American war, if possible, to a conclusion."

Takin' Care of Business

The Treaty of Ghent, signed in December of 1814 and ratified a few months later, was pretty much just a ceasefire order. Under the terms of the treaty, neither side kept any of the territory it won during the war. Unresolved disagreements on borders were to be referred to several arbitration commissions.

Both sides decided it was worth it to walk away with no gains just to end the bloodshed, settling for the status quo antebellum—essentially a rewind to 1812. In fact, the United States and Britain would continue to argue about the very things that caused the War of 1812 for the next decade.

But did anything in the Treaty of Ghent address the original causes of the war? Noooooo. Impressment? Neutral shipping rights?

Nope and nope.

The negotiators knew that trying to work out those issues would be impossible because neither side would be willing to cave and everyone might start arguing again and risk scuttling the negotiations. Plus, the defeat of Napoleon meant that Britain would no longer have to rely on forced recruiting, anyway.

So the plenipotentiaries stuck to territorial matters, setting boundaries between the U.S. and Canada and promising to do virtuous things like ending the slave trade and being nice to the Native American tribes.

The American negotiators had snatched a tie from the jaws of defeat—like hitting a buzzer beater to tie the game, but skipping overtime.

Some historians believe that the U.S had the advantage in the treaty talks because the best British negotiators were tied down in Europe with other leaders figuring out what to do with Europe after the defeat of Napoleon. The U.S., OTOH, sent Henry "The Great Compromiser" Clay and The Notorious J.Q.A—who, although being referred to in the Treaty only as "citizens of the United States," were crack statesmen called from their posts to hammer out the terms of the peace.

The result, in American public opinion, was a moral victory. By not "losing" a war fought on its own shores, the U.S. had sort of won. One of the American negotiators, Albert Gallatin, wrote, "The war has renewed and reinstated the national feelings and character which the Revolution had given, and which were daily lessening."

A war that had been fought largely over insults to America's pride ended with a surge of patriotism. Sure, the U.S. lost the White House and Capitol and failed to achieve any of its diplomatic objectives. But the Battle of New Orleans sealed the deal of making Americans giddy about proving they could stand their ground against a world power.


We admit it— that's not a word. Shmoop looked it up and can tell you that the anonym of antebellum is not postbellum. It's postwar. Don't ask us why.

Anyway, after the War of 1812, Americans had momentum and energy that would begin to evolve into a sense of destiny—Manifest Destiny, to be exact. And regardless what the Treaty of Ghent said about the Indian tribes, the war would be the last time they could advocate for their own territorial interests before white settlement pushed them out of their lands once and for all.

Not so fun fact: It would be the Hero of New Orleans himself who, as president, signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. It did just what its name said: removed five tribes off their land in the south to federally-governed territory west of the Mississippi River. That land was too attractive to southern slave-owners, who, once the Indian Removal Act removed the Indians, moved in and built plantations.

In other words, it was all downhill from 1814 for the Native Americans.

For everyone except the original inhabitants of the U.S., the postwar years ushered in the "Era of Good Feelings," where people got a breather from partisan bickering. Don't get any ideas about bipartisanship, though. The reason there was no bickering is that the Federalists Party collapsed due to their antiwar stance, and there was really only one functioning political party for about a decade.

History's never seen a less-productive war. Less was accomplished in this war than during the last day of school before summer.

Still, we've been at peace with Britain since 1814 and we're good buddies with Canada. Although in 2004, we did force the Montreal Expos to move to D.C. and become the Washington Nationals, partly as punishment for helping burn down the White House.

Now that's payback.

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