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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
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.
The American project crossed the Channel to a Cabinet still not sure of what it wanted. On Sunday, the thirteenth of November, Lord Liverpool sat brooding in Fife House—the American treaty draft and two letters from Wellington before him. The draft from Ghent, he reflected, was a studied insult, the product of beggars who did not know their own poverty. Yet from Paris—where Wellington, savior of England, was now minister to France—came an icy gust of candor. “You can get no territory,” he wrote, “indeed the state of your military operations, however creditable, does not entitle you to demand any; and you only afford the Americans a popular and creditable ground, which I believe their government are looking for, not to break off the negotiations, but to avoid to make peace.” If the Cabinet insisted, the Duke would, next year, go to America, where “I shall do you but little good”; for British claims rested with British sailors on the bottom of Plattsburg Bay.
October and November were months of misery for Liverpool. The budget watchers in Parliament were after his scalp, and taxes could go no higher. In Vienna, Castlereagh beseeched and threatened; Alexander smiled, and continued to ogle Poland; and all Europe, snickering at British reverses, softly applauded the Americans. Talleyrand wooed the Czar and glimpsed opportunity in Allied dissension. The Parisians spat at Louis, yearned for the return of Bonaparte, and cheered the American victory at Plattsburg and Prevost’s retreat into Canada.
Lord Liverpool was still digesting Wellington’s report of the cheering when the British press published the first month of the Ghent negotiations—information that the American Congress had thoughtfully provided. Englishmen were appalled and secretly admired the American resistance, and in Parliament the Opposition sharpened its knives and asked who would pay for this nonsense.
At Ghent a mortified Henry Goulburn slumped wearily into his desk chair and began his reply to Bathurst’s most recent instructions. “You know,” he wrote, bitterly, “that I was never much inclined to give way to the Americans: I am still less inclined to do so after the statement of our demands with which the negotiation opened, and which has in every point of view proved most unfortunate.” Nevertheless, he followed Bathurst’s orders directing him to oppose most of the American project, to press for navigation rights on the Mississippi, and to stay silent on the fisheries. But the hand that had reached out for American territory had been withdrawn, and Goulburn had a foreboding that another hand might appear to accept the offer of status quo ante bellum . On Sunday, November 27, Baker carried the news to the Americans.