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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
With the end of hostilities in Europe, the British no longer found it necessary to recruit their Navy by wholesale kidnapping, but they would sooner have given London to the Turks than surrender their “right” to impressment. The Americans in Ghent were keenly aware of this. None of them seriously nourished the hope that the British could be convinced of the pernicious and unlawful effects of impressment, and Gallatin had written as much to Monroe several times over. But as a hot August sun warmed the Flemish canals, the abolition of impressment was still the primary goal the five Americans were expected to achieve. Regarding the proposed cession of Canada as patently insupportable, they had quietly put it to rest before the peace talks began, although Adams, in a moment of madness, would later try but fail to revive the subject.
Jonathan Russell, the weakest link in the American peace chain, was off visiting Dunkirk at the time his colleagues were absorbing the harsh British terms of the first conference on August 8. That evening after dinner, Adams, Bayard, Clay, and Gallatin were discussing their brief for the morrow when a messenger arrived from Paris with more recent instructions from Monroe. By one o’clock the next morning they had deciphered the code and were able to read, much to their relief, “you may omit any stipulation on the subject of impressment, if found indispensably necessary …” The four men needed little more to convince them of the indispensable necessity. One of the principal causes of the war was now an all-but-forgotten resolution, and Adams had a rather trivial case to present to the British later that day.
He carefully explained to them that he and his colleagues were not instructed on Indians or fisheries, but that they would like to reach some definition of the respective rights of neutrals and belligerents, and that they intended to put forward claims of indemnity for British seizure of United States shipping before and during the first six months of the war. These American terms, however, were dwarfed by the enormity of the British ultimatum.
Actually, it made scant difference what case the Americans presented. The triumphant British held the initiative, and far from pressing for Canada, the American commissioners would need all their wits to preserve the United States.
Wit, skill, and determination they had. However dissonant their private councils might be, they wrote firm, trenchant notes, the propaganda value of which was to influence the British government in a way it did not anticipate. In conference they were admirable courtroom lawyers who bettered the third-rate British commission at almost every step. To the horror of their superiors in London, the three Englishmen virtually admitted that the Indian buffer state and the propositions for Canadian boundary rectifications were ill-disguised efforts to chew off hunks of American territory. Gallatin, at one point, asked what would happen to the thousands of American citizens who lived in the projected Indian Utopia that the British demanded, and William Adams brusquely answered that they would have to shift for themselves. His careless words were to gain notoriety in the United States.
Whatever the personal advantages the American commission held over their immediate adversaries, however, there was no escaping the fact that the British government held the high military cards. Their crack European veterans were already ravaging the American coast, and Sir George Prévost was coming down the western shore of Lake Champlain at the head of an imposing army that was to be used, in the words of a British colonel, “to give Jonathan a good drubbing.” The British in Ghent happily informed their American opposites of British doings across the Atlantic, and a successful peace seemed hopelessly elusive when on August si, after several inconclusive British-American meetings, John Adams sat down at his desk to draft the first written American answer to all the British demands so far. His despair was not lifted when his companions examined his efforts. Gallatin thought some of his expressions were “offensive”; Clay was sarcastic about his “figurative” eighteenth-century language; Russell, who had returned from Dunkirk, set about improving John Quincy’s grammar; and Bayard thought everything should be stated somewhat differently. For four days they dismembered each other’s offerings, and at 11 P.M. on August 24 they had combined the remnants into a note that none of them really liked. It would, Adams predicted, “bring the negotiation very shortly to a close.”
When they broke up their meeting to retire it was still early evening in Washington. The five Americans in Ghent had no way of knowing that Dolley Madison would spend the night in a tent; that her husband, leader of the American people, would ignominiously ride through most of the darkness along a Virginia road choked with refugees; that when dawn came to Washington, the Capitol, symbol of American majesty and dreams, would be hardly more than smoldering ruins at the feet of the enemy.