February 16, 1815
On February 16, 1815, the day President James Madison sent the Treaty of Ghent to the Senate, senators approved it unanimously. With ratification of this treaty, the War of 1812 came to an end. Senators were relieved that the conflict was over, even though the treaty accomplished none of the war’s original objectives, which included an end to the British impressment of American sailors and the annexation of Canada.
U.S. forces had suffered some embarrassing defeats along the Canadian border during the war, but what was lost on the battlefield was redeemed by the diplomatic negotiations that took place in the Belgian city of Ghent. American diplomats Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, both former senators, backed by Treasury secretary Albert Gallatin, Senator James Bayard, and diplomat Jonathan Russell, faced British negotiators who gave little ground. When a new war in Europe seemed imminent, however, the British government grew more anxious to end the “inconvenience” of war with its former American colony. Consequently, British negotiators were instructed to abandon some of their original demands and agree to restore prewar boundaries between the United States and Canada. The American peace negotiators seized on these terms, considering them the best they could achieve.
The treaty was signed in Ghent on December 24, 1814, and was soon approved by the British Parliament, but it took six weeks for the news to travel by sea to the U.S. On January 8, 1815, unaware of the Ghent agreement, American forces commanded by General Andrew Jackson defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans. Americans simultaneously received reports of the military triumph and the peace treaty, prompting great public celebrations.
Because the Battle of New Orleans took place after the peace treaty had been negotiated, that battle has sometimes been dismissed as inconsequential. In fact, the war would not end until the United States Senate approved the peace treaty. As part of the negotiations, the British had insisted that the Senate approve or reject the treaty without amendment. Such a stipulation might have offended the Senate, but the Battle of New Orleans provided a psychological boost that propelled senators to approve the treaty immediately and unanimously. The next day, February 17, 1815, Secretary of State James Monroe presented the signed treaty to the British minister in Washington and the War of 1812 officially ended.
There are still many reminders of the War of 1812 within the U.S. Capitol. Over the Senate stairwell hangs a monumental painting depicting the Battle of Lake Erie and showing Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry being rowed under fire from his disabled flagship to another vessel in 1813. Elsewhere in the Capitol there are physical signs of the damage that British troops inflicted when they burned the building in 1814.