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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 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.”
When the British temporized and insisted on an American draft of a treaty, the United States commission was not surprised, but after months of total, unstinting defense they were flustered by the necessity for assuming the initiative. Clay, whose card-playing simile appeared to have been justified, was more depressed than elated. His 1812 speeches echoed in his ears, and he felt the demanding hands of his constituents on his shoulders. From his seldom-used pen came an article specifically calling for the temporary abandonment of impressment. Russell, of course, concurred, and Adams, after arguing both sides of the case, added his own vote and gave the Clay forces a three-to-two victory. Clay was loath to match the gesture, however, when Adams proposed status quo ante bellum —no boundary changes, no articles prohibiting impressment or clarifying neutral rights—as an alternative to be presented with the project. You could not, Clay pointed out, play “brag” after showing your hand.
Clay, of course, was yearning to try a little American finesse on the British, but he also quavered when he realized that 1815 might be nothing more than 1812 three years later—no American territory in Canada, no guarantee of neutral rights, just two or more years of running in place. One thing he would not do. He would not let the Mississippi become a British canal, as the British seemed to desire, simply to allow New England fishermen the privilege of “drying fish on a desert.” But it was Adams’ neighbors who did the fishing and Adams’ father who in 1783 had insured the right; the name of Adams would not appear on a treaty that surrendered it. Clay’s name would not be signed to a note that mentioned the Mississippi.
Adams sat tight. Clay scowled and paced the floor. The benign Gallatin quietly spoke to both of them. On the night of November 9, with Russell absent in pursuit of more pleasurable activities and with most of Ghent in bed, Gallatin, with Bayard’s judicious assistance, preached compromise. The next day, Adams and Clay, still grumbling, brought a precarious unanimity to the American treaty draft and an accompanying note that offered restoration of the status quo , said nothing of the Mississippi, and assumed openly that the fisheries right could not have been abrogated by the war.