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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 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.
When they finished reading the British reaction to their project, even Adams, the eternal pessimist, thought peace was “probable.” The others were sure of it, and Clay wagered his life that the British earnestly desired a speedy conclusion. A ban on impressment and the article on indemnities for maritime spoilage were dead matters, but it is questionable that they ever really lived. There was still unfinished business, however, which, in the absence of any real obstacles, loomed large. The Americans answered on the thirtieth. On December 1, the two commissions met in their first conference since August 10. Two more meetings followed—on the tenth of December and on the twelfth.
The five Americans, more than ever, became unrelenting lawyers. They drove Goulburn and Dr. Adams, already wretched with their country’s shame, into whorls of rage. They demanded explanations which the three embarrassed Britishers were unable to provide, and messengers shuttled back and forth across the Channel. But by the beginning of the third week in December most of the points had been settled. Only three remained. The British held, claimed, and intended to keep Moose Island, a speck off the Massachusetts coast. Both sides denied the other’s rights set forth in the treaty of 1783 but demanded their own—the British their privilege of navigating the Mississippi, the Americans their fish-drying franchise. The latter two were connected in thought if not in fact, and both the fisheries and Moose Island were particular problems of Massachusetts, the home of John Quincy Adams. As Adams fought and pleaded for the rights and property of his neighbors, his neighbors were trudging to Hartford, where they intended to reform the American government or perhaps leave it.
In those first weeks of December Adams was alone to a degree that was intense even for his lifetime. He admitted that he contended for objects “so trifling and insignificant that neither of the two nations would tolerate a war for them,” but he could not go home without them. Clay, on the other hand, gagged at the thought of British ships on the Mississippi. He and Adams shouted at one another. They would not listen to compromise. They would not sign the treaty.