The Peace Of Christmas Eve


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.

For a document that was little more than an armistice, the Treaty of Ghent had far-reaching influence. It said nothing about impressment, which was already an archaic practice, and nothing about neutrals’ rights, which would never be respected to anyone’s satisfaction. Boundary problems, territorial claims—in fact, all other disputes—were to be settled later by joint commissions. The treaty was no more than an instrument that restored the status quo , but it raised the silly little American democracy to a new level of respect in European eyes, and it brought a delicate peace between Great Britain and the United States—a peace that would eventually become a firm partnership. Fenians, explorers, Confederates, Maine potato farmers, New Brunswick roughnecks, rumrunners, tourists—all of these would, from time to time, disturb the tranquillity of the U.S.-Canadian border, but that boundary would become the longest unguarded frontier in the world. And the two belligerents of 1812 would learn, through their joint commissions, an adult way of reconciling at least some of their differences. This would be the legacy of the document that was signed at Ghent on that December 24, 1814.

At four in the afternoon of that Christmas eve the American commission arrived at the British Chartreux, a former monastery where Napoleon had spent one of his honeymoons. In the courtyard, Baker’s carriage stood ready for the dash to Ostend, where he would take ship for London. The British greeting was almost warm, and for two hours the three Englishmen and the five Americans pored over the treaty copies and made corrections. At six, with darkness spreading over Ghent and the carillon of St. Bavon pealing its Christmas message, the eight gentlemen gathered about the long table and officially attested to a “Treaty of Peace and Amity Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America.” When all had signed, Lord Gambier presented the British copies to the Americans and said that he hoped the treaty would be permanent. Adams, in turn, handed over the American copies and replied that his government, too, wished that this would be the last Anglo-American treaty of peace. And at six thirty the Americans disappeared into the solemn night with peace in their pockets.