The Peace Of Christmas Eve

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I t was St. John’s Day, a gentle introduction to summer, and the road, Lowered by leafing elms and poplars and oaks, carved through lush grain fields and meticulous flower gardens. The two reluctant traveling companions had set out from Antwerp at nine that morning. For more than an hour they had been delayed at the River Scheldt, a crowded anchorage for British men-of-war, while petty officials bickered over their tolls, but by early afternoon they were hallway to Ghent, the old Flemish capital, where they were to seek peace with the British.

The older, squatter “Minister Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary of the United States” was John Ouincy Adams—minister to Russia, son of his nation’s second President, and a righteous pedant who was humorless to the point of exasperation. The younger commissioner possessed more humor but infinitely less virtue. He was Jonathan Russell, United States minister to Sweden, and he barely had been able to present his credentials in Stockholm before departing on the three-week journey. For Adams the trip was an unexpected delight, and now that he was back among the scenes of his early manhood he was moved almost to tears. At four o’clock on this June 24, 1814, their carriage came to a halt in Ghent’s Place d’Armes before the Hotel des Pays-Bas. Adams was gratified to find that they were the first commissioners to arrive.

In less than two weeks, three other United States ministers joined them. Three days after Adams and Russell had established themselves came James Asheton Bayard, a patrician senator from Delaware and the only Federalist on the commission. He was homesick and in chronic ill health, and he was provincially unable to accept European customs. In little more than a year he would die, just six days after reaching his home in Wilmington.

The day after Bayard’s arrival brought rain; it also brought Henry Clay, wearied by an “excessively unpleasant” trip from Gothcnburg, Sweden. Not yet the Henry Clay who engineered great sectional compromises and aspired endlessly to the Presidency, this lanky, carelessly dressed, lean-laced, bushy-haired young man of thirty-seven had been a United States senator from Kentucky, nnd a former Speaker of the House. He championed the interests of the trans-Appalachian West with the devotion of a guardian who well understands the potential of his ward. A prime instigator of the War of 1812, he was now in Ghent to aid in ellecting a happy conclusion to this great crusade, which had an unfortunate tendency to resemble comic opera, deadly and expensive though it was.

For as Clay sought the warmth and dryness of the Hotel des Pays-Bas, British troop transports nosed toward the mouth of the St. Lawrence. Their burden, four brigades strong, would, in little more than two months, be camped on the western shore of Lake Champlain in the sleepy New York State village of Plattsburgh. Here they would be but hours from almost certain victory and the probable dissolution of the United States.

But to Clay, as he watched the shadows of evening reflected in the puddles of the Place d’Armes, British military intentions were but a suspicion. It was enough to question British intentions for peace and to wait impatiently for the coming of their commissioners.

John Quincy Adams, the first man named to the American commission and consequently its titular head, had already instituted regular seminars for his charges when Albert Gallatin, the most astute member of the group, arrived from Paris. This scion of wealthy Swiss gentry had established and celebrated his maturity by emigrating to the American colonies, then in revolt against England. Continental manners and speech notwithstanding, he gained recognition in the bear pit of western Pennsylvania politics and soon rose to national eminence, serving for twelve years as Secretary of the Treasury under Jefferson and Madison. He was probably the most illustrious and dependable servant of the often-feeble Madison administration and, fortunately for his adopted country, he was to exert his tact, patience, humor, and brilliance throughout the trying months in Ghent.

Partly from inclination, but mostly because of British evasion, Gallatin and the other American commissioners had been meandering through northern Europe, like so many disgruntled and separated patrons of a misguided tour. More than a year before, Gallatin and Bayard had sailed from New Castle, Delaware, for St. Petersburg, Russia. There they intended, with Adams’ assistance, to treat with England under the benevolent mediation of Czar Alexander I. They arrived in St. Petersburg only to discover that Lord Liverpool’s government, on the grounds that the war was an internal affair, had rejected the Czar’s thoughtful but meddlesome overture, and that the Czar himself was somewhere in the wake of Napoleon’s retreat across Europe. Gallatin and Bayard spent six dreary and confining months in the frigid Russian capital before pushing on through Berlin and Amsterdam for London.