By late 1814, the fledgling United States had reached its lowest point since the early days of the Revolution, 40 years before. The national government was bankrupt. Trade had been halted by hundreds of British ships of war. Even Baltimore clippers that could outsail anything afloat were risky propositions if they tried to run the tight blockade.
Washington was in ashes, the White House burned by crack British troopers, the government was in disarray and New England was muttering of secession from the South and Middle Atlantic states. There was no real guarantee that the British wouldn't come back soon and hit the populous, prosperous Middle Atlantic and its vulnerable bays.
In far-off Ghent, Belgium, American commissioners in early December 1814 were playing a cat-and-mouse game with British government treaty representatives. Both sides had pressures of different sorts toward settlement. The British were tired of the halfhearted and ineffectual results of its defense of Canada. The Americans were discouraged by reports of the August firing of their capital city.
The British had the advantage. The fact was that the American treaty representatives (including Henry Clay, Albert Gallatin and John Quincy Adams) had no idea of what was on the mind of their opposite numbers in the negotiation. They didn't know that the successful defense of Baltimore, plus the U.S. naval victory on Lake Champlain and the defeat of the redcoats at Plattsburgh, N.Y., all coming at once soon after the Washington debacle, had actually made British interests almost desperate for a settlement.
The Duke of Wellington, the man who beat Napoleon, kept telling the British Cabinet that they hadn't a prayer of gouging territory out of the United States at a treaty table.
On Oct. 24, the Americans at Ghent had handed over an influential new proposal to the British commissioners, one that balked at giving up any advantages, especially territorial, that Britain was claiming. The U.S. stance baffled and at once horrified London, afraid that any prolonged dickering with the Americans would upset the czar and weaken plans to carve up European spheres of interest now that Napoleon was apparently tucked away safely.
Only the fact that the Belgians liked the Americans, especially elegant Gallatin and jovial Clay, and distrusted the British was a cheery note. But sweeping under the rug some hot issues (like Canada or the impressment or seizure of American sailors on U.S. ships), the American negotiators were able to hammer out something the British could swallow.
Nothing decided at Ghent would be affected by the greatest U.S. victory of the war, when Andrew Jackson and a pickup army half the size of a British assault would drive off Wellington's red-coated veterans on Jan. 17 at the gates of New Orleans.
The treaty that had emerged a month earlier was almost as if a war had never been fought. It called for a sort of status-quo settlement on both sides with pre-war boundaries respected, no territorial cessions or concessions on either side. On Christmas Eve, copies of the treaty were duly exchanged and signed. As it was done, Lord Gambier for the British and John Quincy Adams for the nation both expressed the hope that this would be the last Anglo-American treaty of peace, as the years ahead would dictate.
"At six thirty the Americans disappeared into the solemn night with peace in their pockets," writes Fred L. Engleman in his definitive volume on the Ghent treaty ("The Peace of Christmas Eve," Harcourt Brace World, 1960).
Christmas Eve came on a happy, international note. As the commissioners prepared to leave Ghent that evening, the carillon tower of the cathedral church of St. Bavon pealed out thunderous notes, not for peace but for the Prince of Peace.