- Historic Sites
The Peace Of Christmas Eve
At Ghent five Americans—divided and far from home—held firm for a treaty that won their nation new respect, and began a lasting alliance
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
B ut before arriving there, Gallatin and Bayard received confirmation that President Madison had accepted the British proposal for direct negotiations in Gothenburg, Sweden, and that Henry Clay and Jonathan Russell were sailing from New York to join the original commission of three. Clay and Russell had scarcely unpacked their bags in Sweden—and Adams, a dour and self-pursuing Elixa, was still battling Baltic ice floes—when Gallatin and Bayard assented to, and to some extent encouraged, a British proposal to make Ghent, not Gothenburg, the scene of their discussions. Ghent was a mere Channel crossing from London, and Gallatin and Bayard hoped that this proximity would enable the British commission to act with greater dispatch.
By July 6, 1814, the entire American mission was assembled. They were to wait a month for their British counterparts to arrive, and this added delay did little to invigorate their waning faith in the success of their enterprise. Adams, true to his nature, was especially gloomy, but the others disagreed with his prediction that the negotiations for peace would be of short duration and that their sojourn in Ghent would be brief. To occupy their time they held preparatory meetings, wrote letters to all who might provide news or influence, recalled their young messengers and secretaries from the dubious pleasures of Paris, witnessed the mass marriage of twenty-six “ugly” brides to their younger-looking grooms, and went house-hunting. Lacking their real enemy to squabble with, they disputed with their prospective landlord. A shaky compromise was eventually reached, and the Americans moved into their own house on the Rue des Champs, reluctantly agreeing to pay their host, in addition to room and board, one franc each time he popped the cork from a bottle of wine.
Not until late evening of the first Saturday in August did the British mission arrive in Ghent. Two days later, after fifteen months of fruitless inquiries and travel, the Americans for the first time met their adversaries—Lord Gambier, a churchgoing, armchair admiral who was approaching senescence; Henry Goulbtirn, the thirty-year-old Under Secretary for War and the Colonies, who in lime was to be Chancellor of the Exchequer; and Br. William Adams, an obscure Admiralty lawyer who was destined to justify his obscurity.
It was symptomatic oi London’s attitude toward the United States that the government had briefly considcred naming Lord Bathurst, Colonial Secretary, head of the commission to Ghent but decided that the settlement of this contemptible uprising did not rate a ranking cabinet minister. They sent instead a commission whose members were unknown even to the populace of Great Britain and at its head placed a man who had gained his peerage for participating, on one of his infrequent seagoing excursions, in the bombardment of defenseless Copenhagen. At Ghent, Lord Gambier was never more than a polite, impressive-looking, usually silent figurehead. Dr. William Adams did his best to make up for Gambler’s taciturnity, but he was no Demosthenes, in his most uncontrollable moments he was a sputtering old fool who talked himself and the British cause into impossible corners. His family, he told the American Adams, was on the downgrade, and John Quincy, quite willing to agree, was much relieved to discover that they probably were not cousins.
Early in the afternoon on the eighth day of August, Lord Gambier, alter he and Adams had exchanged pious hopes for peace, turned the meeting over to Goulburn, who promptly rattled off the British terms. Il the Americans insisted, the British would discuss the impressment of American seamen—one of the major published reasons the United States had gone to war—but Goulburn suggested that this was about all they would do about the problem. The British would require some revisions along the Canadian boundary. They would not renew the privilege—written into the Treaty of Paris in 1783—that allowed the Americans to dry fish on Canadian coasts. And most important, as an indispensable condition to be accepted before any other matters could be discussed, the treaty must embrace terms of peace and suitable boundaries for Britain’s “Indian allies.” In later verbal and written communications, the English commissioners were to admit that this would mean a buffer state between the United States and Canada, which in extent would swallow most of the present stales of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan—more, when the boundary “revisions” were added, than the land mass of the British Isles. Another stipulation, prohibiting American arms on or near the Great Lakes, was added less than two weeks later, along with British reaffirmation of their right to sail the Mississippi.