- 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
Gallatin, Adams, and company were not to hear of the shame of Washington until October 1. But the negotiations did not come to an untimely end for the simple reason that the British did not want them to end. In early September there was another exchange of notes between the two commissions, and then for ten days there was silence while the Americans awaited the next British move. It was the morning of September 20 when the third British note was delivered to John Quincy Adams. The Americans answered it a week later and once again settled back impatiently to bide their time. They were at dinner when the fourth British note arrived on October 8; coming two months after the negotiations commenced, it represented the first dramatic break in the British demands.
The British had, in fact, been softening their diplomatic blows for a month, but the Americans were so accustomed to saying “no” with vehemence and frequency that their vision was blurred when they read prose that had originated in Whitehall, and they failed fully to perceive the changes. Even Goulburn and his companions were not certain of their government’s intentions.
The true spokesman of the British commission and the one who handled the correspondence with the ruling triumvirate of Prime Minister Liverpool, Foreign Minister Castlereagh, and Colonial Secretary Bathurst, was Henry Goulburn. He was an honest, devoted, undiplomatic diplomat who smarted from surplus zeal. He was convinced, not without reason, that his mission was to rub Yankee noses in the dirt. Not that he had anything against the American commissioners, but they would give in or Goulburn would send them packing. He heaped unwanted advice and mistaken notions on his superiors, and, to their chagrin, he gleefully wrote to them when he thought the Americans were about to go home. He ached to apply the coup de grâce . He was to ache unrelievedly.
To some extent, Goulburn and his companions can be forgiven for mistaking their government’s somewhat uncertain aims. Neglectfully, but sometimes intentionally, the British Cabinet largely failed to correct their messenger boys’ illusions. Both Liverpool and Castlereagh complained that the three lonely gentlemen had “taken an erroneous view of the line to be adopted,” but as late as September 16 Goulburn wrote a sarcastic letter to Bathurst, saying that he could not thank him enough “for so clearly explaining what are the views and objects of the government.”
In fact, the most important of these objects was delay. Lord Liverpool and his advisers were not altruistically devoted to the interests of the North American Indians, but they did mean to put up a geographical barrier between Canada and the obstreperous American filibusters; what they failed to accomplish by diplomacy they serenely expected to gain on the bloody field of glory—after which they could dictate a peace. You cannot skin a cat, however, once he has fled captivity, and Goulburn’s diligent reports that the Americans, despairing of any real progress, were about to go home finally caused concern in London.
In truth, the British government had been sorely vexed by the unyielding stand of the American commission. The nearly bankrupt American government was disintegrating under the dual pressures of English arms and New England’s tendencies toward disunion, and yet the men at Ghent would not budge. Furthermore, although the ordinary Englishman wanted to wallop the American, he would not much longer be disposed to pay for the pleasure.
And all was not well in Europe. The mad Bonaparte appeared to be safely tucked away on Elba, but Paris was chafing under the yoke of fat Louis, and Alexander of Russia was casting covetous glances toward Poland’s territory. Liverpool, who thought the Czar was “half an American” and therefore not altogether rational, hastened Castlereagh to the Congress of Vienna to see what could be done about the mystical despot’s ambitions, but for a time the British were to have visions of a Slavic Napoleon.
With pressures mounting, the British government slightly reduced its demands in its notes of September 4 and 19, but the notes were ambiguously worded, and after the British commissioners got through with them they were contradictory as well, in tenor if not in fact. London had sternly advised its representatives at Ghent to constrain their editing so that it did not alter intent, but neither they nor the Americans fully understood what the intent really was, and Goulburn did not mean to lose face even if his government did. To both notes, the Americans returned their usual exasperating retorts. These upset and infuriated the British Cabinet, but the annoyance of the transatlantic war itself was becoming politically unbearable and economically prohibitive. On October 1, Liverpool wrote to Castlereagh in Vienna of the Cabinet’s “anxious desire to put an end to the war. … I feel too strongly,” he continued, “the inconvenience of a continuance of the war not to make me desirous of concluding it at the expense of some popularity.” To accomplish this, the ultimatum with regard to the Indians was scaled down. The note delivered to the American dinner table just a week later no longer demanded an Indian state in the American backyard; it was simply necessary that peace with the Indians be part of the British-American peace treaty. The British also had omitted entirely any pretension of maintaining unilateral armaments on the shores and waters of the Great Lakes, a claim which they had already begun to soft-pedal in a previous note.