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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 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.
Bayard joined Adams in his nocturnal walks about Ghent and talked to him like a kindly Dutch uncle. Gallatin, who in every respect was now the American leader, reasoned with both Adams and Clay. He offered suggestions; he teased Adams out of some of his obstinacy; he told Clay to stop acting like a little boy; he turned their acid to humor; in despair, he shouted back at them. By December 14 Adams stood alone. His colleagues would make one more attempt, but whatever its success they would sign a treaty with or without him. Finally, at 3:30 that afternoon, they sent their note, which all had signed. Moose Island could be excepted from the article on territorial restoration—today it is part of Eastport, Maine—but the conflicting claims must be settled soon after the war ended. Mention of the Mississippi and the fisheries was to be omitted from the treaty. These claims, too, would be decided after the war.
A week and a day later, Bayard hurried through the streets of Ghent in search of the perambulating Adams. The British had accepted. Peace was but a detail.
The details were composed the next day, Friday, December 23, at the American house. The two commissions met at noon and arranged the procedure for the following day. At three o’clock they separated to draw up copies for signing. The Americans were not sure what to think. Clay was sullen. Gallatin said that all treaty commissions were unpopular. Adams was sure that they would be “censured and reproached” at home. Yet the five of them felt relief.
And in a few months they would be heroes. The treaty would reach Washington on February 14; two days later the Senate would vote unanimously for ratification; and on the eighteenth, President Madison would call it “highly honorable to the nation,” as, with thanks and joy, he read his proclamation. Post riders, who had already carried the news of Andrew Jackson’s glorious victory at New Orleans, would ride night and day throughout the country. They would gallop into Philadelphia on a Sunday morning as congregations streamed from their churches and steeple bells made a New Year’s Eve of the Sabbath. In rebellious Boston, school children would delight in an unexpected holiday from classes. New York would be ablaze with torchlight parades and nearly deafened by the barrage of cannon fired in gleeful celebration.