Study Guide

Treaty of Ghent Themes

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

  • Equality

    No war is fought half-heartedly, but the War of 1812 came pretty close. The British were more concerned with taking on Napoleon in Europe than kicking the young United States in the butt. Their attempts to fully squash the Americans were frustrated by America's persistence. The same applied at the negotiating table, where American ambassadors stood pat on giving up any territory.

    Given all this, the Brits were willing to concede quite a lot of points in the Treaty of Ghent. Ultimately the two sides settled on an equal exchange. By resetting all territory to its "antebellum," or prewar status, the war ended with each country acknowledging the equal rights of the other.

    Americans no longer felt treated like children by their former colonial masters. Great Britain even caved to Henry Clay's insistence that the Americans would be allowed to have the same bedtime as the British, and agreed to permit live-streaming of Fawlty Towers and Brideshead Revisited as long as they brushed their teeth first.

    Questions About Equality

    1. Does the Treaty of Ghent present any advantages for one country over the other?
    2. What mechanisms does the Treaty of Ghent provide to ensure its fair enforcement?
    3. Which country benefitted more from the war ending in a draw?
    4. What key components of the peace agreement illustrate an even exchange between the two sides?

    Chew on This

    The Treaty of Ghent shows two countries reconciling in the aftermath of a war that had ambiguous objectives.

    The Treaty of Ghent's peace was essentially a ceasefire, with both sides acknowledging a tie.

  • Contrasting Regions: Britain and America

    Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I want to take ya
    to Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama…

    Well, actually Aruba was a Dutch colony, but all those other islands were part of the British empire in 1812. Which brings up the question: couldn't the Americans have tried to get their hands on one of those hot spring break destinations instead of Canada, where it's barely above freezing in March?

    At the end of the Revolutionary War, a lot of Americans thought that the United States should try to add parts of Canada to the spoils of war. It was just to the north, after all. Plus, the U.S. already owned a tiny piece of British territory up there that was included in the Louisiana Purchase. But the British ultimately hung on to their massive northern colony, and the Treaty of Ghent guaranteed it would stay that way.

    The result? A lot of lingering questions about borders. There were two hotspots where the countries weren't sure who controlled what: the Bay of Fundy and the area around the Great Lakes. It's hard to determine national boundaries when there are bodies of water in the way, and the Treaty of Ghent created mechanisms for conclusively deciding what land was British/Canadian and what land was American.

    The Canadians eventually got back at the U.S. by infiltrating the cast of Saturday Night Live and gradually taking over the American comedy landscape in what came to be a permanent occupying force.

    But we still own Detroit.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions: Britain and America

    1. Why were the British so intent on trying to limit the expansion of the United States westward?
    2. How did the Treaty of Ghent resolve questions about the borders between the two nations?
    3. Why didn't the United States push to gain parts of Canada in the peace negotiations at Ghent?
    4. What method did the treaty provide to decide upon which islands were British and which islands were American?

    Chew on This

    The United States was more interested in preserving its sea-trading rights and Northwestern
    Territory than conquering Canada. Maybe if L.L. Bean Baxter State Parkas were around back then it would have been a different story.

    The Treaty of Ghent effectively allowed the United States to expand west indefinitely, even though it technically required peace with Native Americans. Technically is the operative word here for Native American tribes.

  • Politics

    The American public and Congress were divided on whether to enter the War of 1812. Henry Clay, a House representative from Kentucky, led the so-called War Hawks, who were eager to kick Britain's butt and march into Canada.

    On the other side, a good chunk of citizens in New England, represented by the Federalist party, didn't want to get involved in the war in the first place. They liked exporting their manufactured goods to Britain and opposed embargoes and other trade restrictions that war would bring. They even convened in Hartford, Connecticut where there were whisperings of the "s" word: secession.

    (And you always thought it was only the south that was obsessed with secession.)

    The peace negotiations also proved politically controversial. Americans love being winners, and when news of the Treaty of Ghent first reached American shores, some people complained that it was too much of a tie. When Andrew Jackson and company crushed it at the Battle of New Orleans, more people became convinced—contrary to the evidence in the treaty—that America had won the war.

    The pride and patriotic feeling that swept the nation after the War spelled doom for the Federalists. As the saying goes, they were on the wrong side of history. For the next decade there was really only one functioning political party and the nation got a respite from partisan bickering.

    We can't even imagine that.

    Questions About Politics

    1. How would you characterize the political relationship between the United States and Britain illustrated in the Treaty?
    2. If you were an American citizen in 1814, and you heard about the Treaty of Ghent, would you be satisfied with its outcome?
    3. How did the Treaty of Ghent set the stage for future political developments on the American frontier?
    4. Based on the content of the Treaty of Ghent, who appeared to be more influential in the negotiations—the War Hawks, or the Federalist faction of American government?

    Chew on This

    The Treaty of Ghent ultimately proved a political victory for the War Hawks and Republicans, and the Federalists were toast.

    Something about the Treaty worked for both sides. We're still on great political terms with Britain, despite them insisting on calling soccer "football" and eating this.

  • Power

    Wars are fought because one country wants to gain an advantage over the other, whether it's in territory, resources, or simply self-esteem. The U.S. went to war because they were tired of British trying to dictate their maritime policies since the the Revolutionary War. Plus, they'd tried daily affirmations of "We are special just as we are," and it didn't work.

    Many in the United States saw the war as a point of national pride. We'd show the Brits that the American victory in the Revolution was no accident.

    The British went to war to force the U.S. to stop challenging their maritime policies and to use Native American tribes as allies to limit America's westward expansion.

    When the dust settled and thousands of soldiers and sailors were dead, the balance of power remained just about the same. You can see this pretty clearly in the Treaty of Ghent's continual emphasis on reciprocity, and resetting things to prewar conditions.

    So who won the power struggle? Nobody, really. But the Americans felt they'd stood up to a world power and held their own. What's a burned-down government building or two when you can get Big Bad Britain to sign a treaty saying that you're their equal?

    Questions About Power

    1. What are some reasons that neither side succeeded in gaining major advantages in the Treaty of Ghent negotiations?
    2. Even though both sides settled the war on equal terms, what are some ways that the United States might have benefitted more from the Treaty of Ghent?
    3. The Treaty of Ghent didn't change many tangibles. What intangible things might each side have gained in the final agreement?

    Chew on This

    Although no land changed sides after the War of 1812, the United States experienced a surge in national confidence due to the perception that America won the war. Power is in the eyes of the beholder.

    The Treaty of Ghent delegated significant power to groups of commissioners in order to streamline negotiations over disputed lands and quickly reach a peace. This showed some serious trust on both sides.