Feb. 17, 2022

James Monroe Delivers the Treaty of Ghent

James Monroe Delivers the Treaty of Ghent

February 17, 1815. Secretary of State James Monroe presents the Treaty of Ghent to the British, bringing a ceremonial end to the War of 1812.

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Cold Open

It’s just before dawn on August 16th, 1812, at Fort Detroit in the US Michigan Territory.

In his room in the officer’s quarters, General William Hull reads dispatches by candlelight. He hasn’t slept for days.

Busy launching the first campaign and what will come to be known as "The War of 1812."

Tensions between the US and Britain have been simmering ever since America defeated the British in the revolutionary war of 1776.

After earning its independence from Britain, America focused on establishing its new government. Britain focused on its decades-long conflict with France. But the open wounds of the revolution never fully healed. And in recent years, the tension between America and Britain has given way to open conflict on the high seas as the US and British ships began to skirmish.

The growing conflict has finally compelled President Madison to ask Congress for a declaration of war, which Congress delivered in June; the first time in the young country's history.

Not long after, President Madison sent General William Hull and over 2000 troops into Canada, a poorly defended British territory, expecting a swift victory.

But the British with the help of their Canadian and native American allies mounted a surprising defense. Hull and his men were forced to retreat and hunker down at the fort on the banks of the Detroit river, the border between the US and Canada.

The British don't pursue Hull across the river. Instead, they stay on the Canadian side but fire cannons onto the town of Detroit forcing civilians there to flee.

Now, as Hull sits in the officers' quarters, he wonders how long it will be before the British cross the river and attack the fort.

Then as dawn breaks, Hull hears the distant war cries of hundreds of Shawnee tribesmen advancing on the fort, backed by British and Canadian troops.

British artillery sounds off from across the river. And before he has time to react…

One of the shells crashes into the quarters not far from his room.

As Hull steps out into the common area, he sees only dust and smoke. His ears ring with the sounds of officers screaming in pain. As the British fire on the fort relentlessly, the war cries get louder and closer.

Hull knows his men likely outnumber the invading force outside. But he does not have the supplies, or the ammunition, to withstand a prolonged siege. So with little hesitation, Hull orders his men to raise the white flag.

The incident, known as the “Surrender of Detroit”, all but puts an end to President Madison's Canadian campaign and puts America on its heels. After this embarrassing defeat at Fort Detroit, a veteran of the revolutionary war and a future President, Secretary of State James Monroe will turn the tide of the conflict, help bring an end to the war, and then, finally, deliver peace on February 17th, 1815.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is February 17th: James Monroe Delivers the Treaty of Ghent.

Act One

It’s August 1812 in Washington DC, less than three years before the end of the war.

Secretary of State James Monroe sits at his desk writing a letter to a friend in Congress.

Monroe is frustrated by America’s recent defeat at Fort Detroit, and with General Hull, a man he calls “weak, indecisive and pusillanimous.” But Monroe is frustrated by something else: his current job as Secretary of State.

America is at war. And in Monroe’s eyes, the real power in the president’s cabinet is the War Department. Monroe has his sights on becoming president one day and he knows that defeating the British as the Secretary of War would certainly help his electoral prospects. But, as it stands now, he fears he may never get a chance at the office.

America is a new republic and is ill-equipped to defeat the mighty British Empire. The young nation has no central bank and no reserves to pay for troops or supplies. Many of President Madison’s political enemies oppose “Mr. Madison’s War”, an expensive conflict they feel is unwinnable.

But Secretary of State Monroe disagrees, and he’s eager to get out from behind his desk and into the fight. Today, as Monroe puts pen to paper, he vents his wish that… ”the president could dispose of me at this juncture in the military line. “

And not long after the Surrender of Detroit, Monroe goes to Madison and asks for a military command so that he might recover ground lost by General Hull, but President Madison denies him insisting that he needs Monroe in the cabinet. Monroe is left frustrated but there is little he can do. Madison is the president, and Monroe his loyal servant.

But then, a few months later, Madison’s Secretary of War resigns, and President Madison names James Monroe the interim Secretary. But for Monroe to become the official War Secretary, Monroe must first be confirmed by the United States Senate.

Even though Madison’s party, the Democratic-Republicans, hold the balance of power, many Senators are sick and tired of the so-called “Virginia Dynasty”, started by Thomas Jefferson in 1801 and carried forward through his successor, the current president and Virginia native, James Madison.

In January of 1813, one Federalist politician gives voice to this frustration saying it is a “curious fact… that for these… twelve years past the whole affairs of the country have been managed… [by] two Virginians…”

Like Jefferson and Madison, Monroe too was also born in Virginia. And as a result of this “Virginia Fatigue”, it soon becomes clear that the Senate will never confirm Monroe as War Secretary. So instead, Madison puts forward another option: a Pennsylvania statesman named John Armstrong. Monroe watches with frustration as Armstrong is confirmed with little pushback.

As a consolation, President Madison promises to make Monroe Lieutenant General in command of the northern army. But the newly appointed War Secretary, John Armstrong, has other plans in mind.

Like Monroe, Armstrong has presidential ambitions. And in an attempt to deny Monroe any further glory, Armstrong convinces Madison to leave his promise to Monroe unfulfilled. Monroe is stuck in the State Department, forced to watch John Armstrong lead the country in a time of war, and he fears, down a path of ruin.


It’s August 9th, 1814 on the Potomac River, just off the shores of Virginia, and the War of 1812 has been raging for over two years.

An American diplomat named John Stuart Skinner stands on the deck of a British warship, lorded over by its Commanding Officer: the British Rear Admiral George Cockburn. The papers call him “The Great Bandit.” But American sailors call him by another name: “Atilla the Hun”.

As Admiral Cockburn hands Skinner a dispatch intended for Secretary Monroe, the British officer makes gentlemanly small talk and tries to be polite.

Peace negotiations between the US and Britain are currently underway in the Belgian city of Ghent, where ministers from both countries have convened to try to agree to terms. But Cockburn is skeptical of these peace talks. He thinks they won't amount to much more than just talk. 

Cockburn asks Skinner if he’s heard from the American ministers in Ghent about what they think about the prospects for peace. Skinner replies that there's been no recent news from US ministers there

Hearing this, Cockburn flashes a devilish grin, replying, “I believe, Mr. Skinner, that Mr. Madison will have to put on his armor and fight it out… I see nothing else left.”

Cockburn was initially deployed into the Chesapeake Bay as part of a plan to draw US troops away from the Canadian front to the north. But once there, Cockburn saw an even greater opportunity; a chance to put a swift end to the war by sacking the US capitol.

Act Two

It’s August of 1814, and the British fleet has just sailed into Chesapeake Bay and landed thousands of troops on US soil, less than fifty miles southeast of the capital, Washington DC.

In response, Secretary of State James Monroe sends an urgent message to Secretary of War John Armstrong, urging Armstrong to remove all essential documents and personnel from the capitol.

But Armstrong rejects Monroe’s recommendation. He doesn’t believe the British will attack the capitol, but rather the city of Baltimore, located 40 miles northeast of Washington DC.

Monore is dumbfounded by Armstrong’s thinking. To attack Baltimore, the British will have to march right past Washington, but Monroe’s many attempts to change Armstrong’s mind are in vain. Instead of defending the capitol, Armstrong redeploys the bulk of the capitol’s defenses to Fort Washington, a dozen miles to the south with the rest of his men sent to Bladensberg, Maryland, ten miles to the east.

But Monroe isn’t taking any chances. He quickly puts his family on a coach and sends them to safety in Loudon County, many miles to the west. He then procures a small fleet of boats and loads them up with State Department Documents, as well as his personal effects. Then he orders the captains to sail the boats north as far away from Washington as they can get. Lastly, Monroe takes up arms himself, rounds up a few dozen cavalrymen, and rides off into the night to gather intelligence on the enemy.

He soon sends President Madison a dire message: 5000 British troops are marching on Washington. Monroe urges the President to call up troops from Virginia to defend the capitol. The President orders his Secretary of War, Armstrong, to comply with Monroe’s recommendation but Armstrong ignores the order.

President Madison cannot tolerate the insubordination. He relieves Armstrong of his duty and names James Monroe “first in command.”

Monroe gets right to work. He quickly orders more troops to Bladensburg to shore up the minuscule force of 250 men. But it’s too late. In a humiliating defeat, the American forces are routed and flee to the capitol where Monroe forces them back into formation. But Monroe knows this meager force is no match for the thousands of British troops marching on the capitol. So he orders what’s left of his men to Baltimore fearing the capitol is lost. He urges President Madison to evacuate Washington of all valuable documents and public records.

But he himself stays in Washington until the last possible moment; at around 8 o'clock that night when the British begin to enter the capitol. Monroe flees the city on horseback finding sanctuary at a nearby house where the president’s wife Dolley Madison has also taken refuge. From there, James Monroe and Mrs. Madison watch the sky glow orange and red as Washington begins to burn.


It’s August 28th, 1814, just a few days after the British marched into Washington and set fire to the US Capitol.

Not long after, a storm blew through bringing heavy winds that sent flames in all directions. The resulting inferno forced the British to abandon the capitol… but only for the moment.

So today, President Madison takes the opportunity to walk the streets and survey the damage. By his side is James Monroe, Secretary of State. Madison has also just appointed Monroe his War Secretary pro tem; making him the only official in US history to serve two cabinet posts at the same time.

Soon, the two men are recognized by civilians and quickly surround the president and his war secretary. One of them, a local doctor, steps forward begging the president to dispatch a delegation of citizens to speak with the British commander and offer up their surrender.

Hearing this, James Monroe flies into a rage, saying “if any deputation [of citizens] moves toward the enemy, it will be repelled by the bayonet.” He implores the citizens to help him defend the capitol, or die doing it. And inspired, the civilians rally to his side.

Monroe repositions some 7,000 militiamen and places cannons at strategic defensive points around the city. He calls up militia from other states, lines the Potomac River with artillery, and sets up a system of gathering and transmitting information in and out of the city. Soon, Monroe’s defense of Washington forces the British to abandon their hopes of taking back the capitol.

Victorious, Monroe pushes Congress to give him the resources to create a proper army, but Congress resists. So Monroe borrows millions of dollars on his own signature. He raises an army himself and uses it to beat back the British. Soon, the invading forces are forced to abandon Chesapeake Bay. But they then set their sights on New Orleans, a port city located at the mouth of the Mississippi river, critical for shipping, trade, and the transportation of troops and supplies.

Monroe knows whoever controls New Orleans will control the Mississippi river, and therefore, the war. So in December of 1814, Monroe sends another future president to defend that city.


In January 1815, James Monroe calls an emergency meeting of Congress at the Patent Office Building, the only public structure the British did not burn. There, Monroe delivers the news: General Andrew Jackson has prevailed at the Battle of New Orleans.

The room erupts with cheers as members from both political parties embrace in a rare moment of national unity. Monroe explains that the victory was total and absolute; thousands of British troops were wounded, captured, or killed, including the British commander; any British survivors fled to their ships in the harbor.

As Monroe and the members of Congress celebrate, many in the room wonder if this victory will finally bring an end to a long, costly war.

But the war has already ended. Weeks ago, on Christmas Eve, United States and British ministers in Ghent had already signed a peace treaty that will bring an end to the conflict. But it will take six weeks for the treaty to make its way across the Atlantic before reaching the desk of the president to be signed.

Act Three

It’s February 16th, 1815 in Washington DC, and President Madison has just sent the Treaty of Ghent to the Senate for a vote.

Weeks ago, the treaty was signed by representatives from both countries and quickly approved by the British Parliament. But Madison knows the war is not officially over until the treaty is ratified by the United States Senate and delivered to British authorities.

But Madison is worried that one of the stipulations in the treaty might offend the Senate. Article 11 states that the Treaty of Ghent must be ratified as is, without any changes, meaning the Senators will have to take it or leave it. And the terms of the treaty are far from the resounding victory many in the Senate are craving. The British will be required to return to the US-captured territories near Lakes Superior and Michigan and in Maine. But the US will also be required to return to British lands it captured in Canada. The stipulations of the treaty make one thing clear: the war was a stalemate.

Luckily for Madison, the recent victory at the Battle of New Orleans helps the Senators swallow their pride. While the language of the treaty indicates a stalemate, the Americans know it was a true victory. And soon Madison is relieved to learn that the Senate approved the treaty unanimously.

But there is still one final step in the process. Madison must deliver the signed, approved treaty to the British. It's only fitting, and proper, that he leaves the job to his top diplomat; the same man who helped turn the tide of the war.

The next day, on February 17th, 1815, James Monroe performs his final act of the War of 1812. He meets with the British minister in Washington and presents him with the signed treaty, bringing a ceremonial end to the war. 

For the British, the American War of 1812, as they called it, was a minor conflict compared to the great Napoleonic Wars being waged at the same time. But for America, it was significant and costly. Nearly 2,000 Americans were killed and 4,000 wounded. The war cost millions of dollars in materials, millions more in lost trade. After the war, US economy collapsed, and the nation spiraled into bankruptcy.

But the biggest victims of the war were the Native Americans, like the Shawnee Tribe. After the war, the British largely abandoned their Native American allies, leaving them at the mercy of the American government. And in the coming years, the Native American Tribes will be overwhelmed by waves of American settlers and government policies forcing “Indian Removal,” the bitter consequence of the nationalist pride many Americans feel after victory in what they call the “Second War of Independence”. Secretary James Monroe will ride this wave of national fervor all the way to the White House, just as he hoped, and his landslide victory in the presidential election of 1816 ushers in what will come to be known as “The Era of Good Feelings”, a period of national unity in America that was already germinating when James Monroe delivered the signed treaty of Ghent on February 17th, 1815.


Next on History Daily. February 18th, 1943. Members of an anti-Nazi resistance movement, called the White Rose, are arrested by the Gestapo.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Steven Walters.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.