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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
That answer spewed forth a torrent of words on the subject of Indians, but the British mandate on Indian pacification was accepted, however ungraciously. It was, said the American commissioners, similar to their own suggestions on the matter (suggestions which had been made, strangely enough, in September by the same John Quincy Adams who went livid when he saw the words in British handwriting). In conclusion, the Americans asked for a complete treaty project from the British, to which they would respond with one of their own. “May it please God,” intoned Adams, after the note had been sent, “to forgive our enemies, and to turn their hearts!”
What the Lord did to British hearts will remain a celestial mystery. In any event, on October 17, while the British commissioners were considering their rejoinder, it was their turn to receive bad news from America. On September 11, Thomas Macdonough, working his ships as if they were water-borne carrousels, had outlasted a superior British naval force in Plattsburg Bay, and Sir George Prévost, who was to have severed New England from the not-so-United States, had sunk in spirit as his naval brothers were sinking in fact and promptly marched his intimidating horde back to Canada. A few days later, Robert Ross, the general who had put the torch to Washington, lay dying near unconquered Baltimore, listening to the same bomb bursts that provoked patriotic verse in Francis Scott Key.
The discouraging news did not, however, noticeably temper the next British note to the American commission. It insisted that the Americans accede to the principle of hold-what-you-have, specifying that a good part of Maine and some forts and islands should be given to Canada, and repeating the prohibition against the drying of fish on Canadian shores. On the matter of a treaty project, the British demurred. Their terms were clear, they said; it was up to the Americans to produce a plan. The American answer was prompt and negative, and it gave Lord Liverpool the queasy sensation of balancing on a seesaw that could not touch ground at either end. He wanted to break off the negotiations and fight, but he thought of the Czar, of Talleyrand, of the British budget, and wept. On the last day of October Anthony St. John Baker, secretary to the British mission at Ghent, trotted across town with a note that was brief, terse, and only too familiar. The British had given their terms. They had nothing more to say. They awaited the American project. They were, they neglected to say, stalling.
The American commissioners had in fact been discussing and composing a treaty project for two days when Baker surrendered his blunt message and a packet of London newspapers to four sober men, three of them the restless audience for an Adams monologue. Only Russell was missing; it was perhaps one of his greatest contributions to the progress of peace.
An occasional merchant, lawyer, and unlikely diplomat from Rhode Island, Jonathan Russell was a perverse and bristling mixture of acute self-adoration and gelatinous principle. Like a sulky little boy, he fumed when Gallatin forgot to tell him of a Ghent social invitation, and at the end of September he moved away from his condescending peers and back to the more appreciative companionship of the secretaries and messengers at the Hotel des Pays-Bas. Adams he hated. Gallatin he suspected. Bayard he dismissed. Clay, the man in whom “all the nobler passions have found their home,” was his idol and, Russell hoped, his viaduct to a political future. In Ghent Russell’s course was that of a wayward carriage, but in November he latched on to Clay and, usually, whenever the latter raised his hand two votes were counted.
Clay would have snickered had he known of Russell’s praise. Clay was the epitome of crude, calculating, dice-throwing western ambition, and in him lay the source of the overstatement of American attitudes at Ghent. The British, he maintained, were nothing more than card players, faking a flush when they held a pair of deuces. At a time when his companions floundered in a vale of pessimism and made sounds like departing tourists, Clay blandly asked the British for his passport and sent Goulburn’s spirits surging. But Clay was playing “brag.” He later asked Adams if he knew how to play. John Quincy most surely did not. It is, said Clay, the art of “holding your hand, with a solemn and confident phiz …” Adams, however, could not put on such a “phiz.”