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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
The Americans were stunned. Bayard called the terms those of a conqueror to the conquered. Posterity might raise questions, but in that summer of 1814 the government of Lord Liverpool saw no reason to doubt the wisdom or justice of its demands. For most of Henry Goulburn’s lifetime his nation had been locked in a sometimes lonely world struggle with France. The British could not countenance the claims and complaints of a semicolonial neutral when their fate was in the grasping hands of Napoleon. In 1812, he had already penetrated Russia when the English Cabinet received the bitter news that the Americans had treacherously declared war on them. For a year and a half the British were much too busy in Europe to worry about proper punishment for the transatlantic upstarts, but at Fontainebleau, in April of 1814, a forlorn ex-emperor of France waved farewell to his troops and commenced his humiliating journey to Elba. Now it was possible to deal with the would-be invaders of Canada, the distant cousins who brazenly embarrassed the world’s greatest naval power, those noisy colonials who kept insisting they were independent and equal. For the first time in twenty years, all Europe was at peace, and the British lion roared in triumph. “There is no public feeling in the country stronger than that of indignation against the Americans,” said the London Times of April 15, and on English and continental docksides ominous lines of Wellington’s seasoned veterans, the potent symbols of this indignation, waited to board their America-bound transports.
T he five highly independent Americans who composed the uneasy family of “Bachelors’ Hall” on the Rue des Champs were stung but not altogether taken unaware by the severity of the British demands. Yet even the shrewd and usually imperturbable Gallatin was upset by the apparent evidence that the British government was entranced by its own propaganda. He had anticipated lip service to popular demands, but Lords Liverpool, Castlereagh, and Bathurst, the real English negotiators, seemed to be in earnest. And Gallatin’s discomfiture increased when he considered the now seemingly absurd terms so fervently expressed in the instructions to the American commission.
A sorely tried, peaceable James Madison had signed the declaration of war on June 18, 1812, because he sincerely believed that this was the only way to gain respect for neutral rights and to teach the English that they could not with impunity whisk English-speaking mariners, many of them American citizens, oil American ships—on the often debatable grounds that they were deserters from His Majesty’s Navy. Ostensibly, Americans had taken up arms for freedom of the seas.
Not all their aspirations, though, had been maritime. The largely Federalist coastal states, willing for the sake of profit to suffer restrictions on their commerce and to swallow insults to national pride, were almost unanimously opposed to an open rupture with Great Britain. It was this attitude that lay behind New England’s refusal to co-operate in the war. The narrow margin of votes in favor of war came from the West and the South, states that for the most part had neither ships to sail nor oceans to sail upon. One had to be deaf to miss the westerners in Congress, Henry Clay very notable among them, who clearly spelled out the West’s reason for going to war: greedy appreciation of Canadian real estate. The motto of the day became “On to Canada!” and the march had begun even before the care-worn James Madison could put his pen to the war document. Sadly, however, the invasion of Canada became a sort of Gilbert and Sullivan fiasco, and as Adams and his colleagues faced their adversaries at Ghent in the summer of 1814, the military initiative had passed to the British. Yet hope lingered painfully in the battered American breast: the hunger for Canada and the sincere but impracticable desire for a guarantee of the rights of neutrals.
The delay in the start of the negotiations, and the great time lag in communications, made most of the instructions to the American peace mission irrelevant by the time the commissioners received them. The basis for a sizable portion of the American neutral rights objective was removed less than a week after the American declaration of war, when Lord Liverpool’s government revoked the Orders in Council—its legal justification for interference with American ships on the high seas. This left impressment the sole ostensible reason for prosecuting the war, for only incompetent generals and uninhibited politicians could publicly avow American designs on Canada.
In some of his instructions (which, for good reason, were never published) James Monroe, Secretary of State and sometime gratuitous adviser to the War Department, did go so far as to include the desirability of the cession of Canada. He suffered from the delusion that Canada, like an overripe fruit, would drop into the American basket anyway; so England might as well face facts and get it over with. Monroe also wrote to his ministers of the necessity for getting some meaningful definition of a blockade and of neutral rights in general. In addition, he covered other, less significant points, but the bulk of his prose was lavished on impressment.
For assurances that this evil alone would cease, the American commissioners were authorized to sign a peace treaty, but if they failed on this point “all further negotiations will cease, and you will return home without delay.”