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Jefferson and his Colleagues, A Chronicle of the Virginia Dynasty
Chapter XII. The Peacemakers
by Johnson, Allen


On a May afternoon in the year 1813, a little three-hundred-ton ship, the Neptune, put out from New Castle down Delaware Bay. Before she could clear the Capes she fell in with a British frigate, one of the blockading squadron which was already drawing its fatal cordon around the seaboard States. The captain of the Neptune boarded the frigate and presented his passport, from which it appeared that he carried two distinguished passengers, Albert Gallatin and James A. Bayard, Envoys Extraordinary to Russia. The passport duly viseed, the Neptune resumed her course out into the open sea, by grace of the British navy.

One of these envoys watched the coast disappear in the haze of evening with mingled feelings of regret and relief. For twelve weary years Gallatin had labored disinterestedly for the land of his adoption and now he was recrossing the ocean to the home of his ancestors with the taunts of his enemies ringing in his ears. Would the Federalists never forget that he was a "foreigner"? He reflected with a sad, ironic smile that as a "foreigner with a French accent" he would have distinct advantages in the world of European diplomacy upon which he was entering. He counted many distinguished personages among his friends, from Madame de Stael to Alexander Baring of the famous London banking house. Unlike many native Americans he did not need to learn the ways of European courts, because he was to the manner born: he had no provincial habits which he must slough off or conceal. Also he knew himself and the happy qualities with which Nature had endowed him--patience, philosophic composure, unfailing good humor. All these qualities were to be laid under heavy requisition in the work ahead of him.

James Bayard, Gallatin's fellow passenger, had never been taunted as a foreigner, because several generations had intervened since the first of his family had come to New Amsterdam with Peter Stuyvesant. Nothing but his name could ever suggest that he was not of that stock commonly referred to as native American. Bayard had graduated at Princeton, studied law in Philadelphia, and had just opened a law office in Wilmington when he was elected to represent Delaware in Congress. As the sole representative of his State in the House of Representatives and as a Federalist, he had exerted a powerful influence in the disputed election of 1800, and he was credited with having finally made possible the election of Jefferson over Burr. Subsequently he was sent to the Senate, where he was serving when he was asked by President Madison to accompany Gallatin on this mission to the court of the Czar. Granting that a Federalist must be selected, Gallatin could not have found a colleague more to his liking, for Bayard was a good companion and perhaps the least partisan of the Federalist leaders.

It was midsummer when the Neptune dropped anchor in the harbor of Kronstadt. There Gallatin and Bayard were joined by John Quincy Adams, Minister to Russia, who had been appointed the third member of the commission. Here was a pureblooded American by all the accepted canons. John Quincy Adams was the son of his father and gloried secretly in his lineage: a Puritan of the Puritans in his outlook upon human life and destiny. Something of the rigid quality of rock-bound New England entered into his composition. He was a foe to all compromise--even with himself; to him Duty was the stern daughter of the voice of God, who admonished him daily and hourly of his obligations. No character in American public life has unbosomed himself so completely as this son of Massachusetts in the pages of his diary. There are no half tones in the pictures which he has drawn of himself, no winsome graces of mind or heart, only the rigid outlines of a soul buffeted by Destiny. Gallatin--the urbane, cosmopolitan Gallatin--must have derived much quiet amusement from his association with this robust New Englander who took himself so seriously. Two natures could not have been more unlike, yet the superior flexibility of Gallatin's temperament made their association not only possible but exceedingly profitable. We may not call their intimacy a friendship--Adams had few, if any friendships; but it contained the essential foundation for friendship--complete mutual confidence.

Adams brought disheartening news to the travel-weary passengers on the Neptune: England had declined the offer of mediation. Yes; he had the information from the lips of Count Roumanzoff, the Chancellor and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Apparently, said Adams with pursed lips, England regarded the differences with America as a sort of family quarrel in which it would not allow an outside neutral nation to interfere. Roumanzoff, however, had renewed the offer of mediation. What the motives of the Count were, he would not presume to say: Russian diplomacy was unfathomable.

The American commissioners were in a most embarrassing position. Courtesy required that they should make no move until they knew what response the second offer of mediation would evoke. The Czar was their only friend in all Europe, so far as they knew, and they were none too sure of him. They were condemned to anxious inactivity, while in middle Europe the fortunes of the Czar rose and fell. In August the combined armies of Russia, Austria, and Prussia were beaten by the fresh levies of Napoleon; in September, the fighting favored the allies; in October, Napoleon was brought to bay on the plains of Leipzig. Yet the imminent fall of the Napoleonic Empire only deepened the anxiety of the forlorn American envoys, for it was likely to multiply the difficulties of securing reasonable terms from his conqueror.

At the same time with news of the Battle of Leipzig came letters from home which informed Gallatin that his nomination as envoy had been rejected by the Senate. This was the last straw. To remain inactive as an envoy was bad enough; to stay on unaccredited seemed impossible. He determined to take advantage of a hint dropped by his friend Baring that the British Ministry, while declining mediation, was not unwilling to treat directly with the American commissioners. He would go to London in an unofficial capacity and smooth the way to negotiations. But Adams and Bayard demurred and persuaded him to defer his departure. A month later came assurances that Lord Castlereagh had offered to negotiate with the Americans either at London or at Gothenburg.

Late in January, 1814, Gallatin and Bayard set off for Amsterdam: the one to bide his chance to visit London, the other to await further instructions. There they learned that in response to Castlereagh's overtures, the President had appointed a new commission, on which Gallatin's name did not appear. Notwithstanding this disappointment, Gallatin secured the desired permission to visit London through the friendly offices of Alexander Baring. Hardly had the Americans established themselves in London when word came that the two new commissioners, Henry Clay and Jonathan Russell, had landed at Gothenburg bearing a commission for Gallatin. It seems that Gallatin was believed to be on his way home and had therefore been left off the commission; on learning of his whereabouts, the President had immediately added his name. So it happened that Gallatin stood last on the list when every consideration dictated his choice as head of the commission. The incident illustrates the difficulties that beset communication one hundred years ago. Diplomacy was a game of chance in which wind and waves often turned the score. Here were five American envoys duly accredited, one keeping his stern vigil in Russia, two on the coast of Sweden, and two in hostile London. Where would they meet? With whom were they to negotiate?

After vexatious delays Ghent was fixed upon as the place where peace negotiations should begin, and there the Americans rendezvoused during the first week in July. Further delay followed, for in spite of the assurances of Lord Castlereagh the British representatives did not make their appearance for a month. Meantime the American commissioners made themselves at home among the hospitable Flemish townspeople, with whom they became prime favorites. In the concert halls they were always greeted with enthusiasm. The musicians soon discovered that British tunes were not in favor and endeavored to learn some American airs. Had the Americans no national airs of their own, they asked. "Oh, yes!" they were assured. "There was Hail Columbia." Would not one of the gentlemen be good enough to play or sing it? An embarrassing request, for musical talent was not conspicuous in the delegation; but Peter, Gallatin's black servant, rose to the occasion. He whistled the air; and then one of the attaches scraped out the melody on a fiddle, so that the quick-witted orchestra speedily composed l'air national des Americains a grand orchestre, and thereafter always played it as a counterbalance to God save the King.

The diversions of Ghent, however, were not numerous, and time hung heavy on the hands of the Americans while they waited for the British commissioners. "We dine together at four," Adams records, "and sit usually at table until six. We then disperse to our several amusements and avocations." Clay preferred cards or billiards and the mild excitement of rather high stakes. Gallatin and his young son James preferred the theater; and all but Adams became intimately acquainted with the members of a French troupe of players whom Adams describes as the worst he ever saw. As for Adams himself, his diversion was a solitary walk of two or three hours, and then to bed.

On the 6th of August the British commissioners arrived in Ghent--Admiral Lord Gambier, Henry Goulburn, Esq., and Dr. William Adams. They were not an impressive trio. Gambier was an elderly man whom a writer in the Morning Chronicle described as a man "who slumbered for some time as a Junior Lord of Admiralty; who sung psalms, said prayers, and assisted in the burning of Copenhagen, for which he was made a lord." Goulburn was a young man who had served as an undersecretary of state. Adams was a doctor of laws who was expected perhaps to assist negotiations by his legal lore. Gallatin described them not unfairly as "men who have not made any mark, puppets of Lords Castlereagh and Liverpool." Perhaps, in justification of this choice of representatives, it should be said that the best diplomatic talent had been drafted into service at Vienna and that the British Ministry expected in this smaller conference to keep the threads of diplomacy in its own hands.

The first meeting of the negotiators was amicable enough. The Americans found their opponents courteous and well-bred; and both sides evinced a desire to avoid in word and manner, as Bayard put it, "everything of an inflammable nature." Throughout this memorable meeting at Ghent, indeed, even when difficult situations arose and nerves became taut, personal relations continued friendly. "We still keep personally upon eating and drinking terms with them," Adams wrote at a tense moment. Speaking for his superiors and his colleagues, Admiral Gambier assured the Americans of their earnest desire to end hostilities on terms honorable to both parties. Adams replied that he and his associates reciprocated this sentiment. And then, without further formalities, Goulburn stated in blunt and business-like fashion the matters on which they had been instructed: impressment, fisheries, boundaries, the pacification of the Indians, and the demarkation of an Indian territory. The last was to be regarded as a sine qua non for the conclusion of any treaty. Would the Americans be good enough to state the purport of their instructions?

The American commissioners seem to have been startled out of their composure by this sine qua non. They had no instructions on this latter point nor on the fisheries; they could only ask for a more specific statement. What had His Majesty's Government in mind when it referred to an Indian territory? With evident reluctance the British commissioners admitted that the proposed Indian territory was to serve as a buffer state between the United States and Canada. Pressed for more details, they intimated that this area thus neutralized might include the entire Northwest.

A second conference only served to show the want of any common basis for negotiation. The Americans had come to Ghent to settle two outstanding problems--blockades and indemnities for attacks on neutral commerce--and to insist on the abandonment of impressments as a sine qua non. Both commissions then agreed to appeal to their respective Governments for further instructions. Within a week, Lord Castlereagh sent precise instructions which confirmed the worst fears of the Americans. The Indian boundary line was to follow the line of the Treaty of Greenville and beyond it neither nation was to acquire land. The United States was asked, in short, to set apart for the Indians in perpetuity an area which comprised the present States of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois, four-fifths of Indiana, and a third of Ohio. But, remonstrated Gallatin, this area included States and Territories settled by more than a hundred thousand American citizens. What was to be done with them? "They must look after themselves," was the blunt answer.

In comparison with this astounding proposal, Lord Castlereagh's further suggestion of a "rectification" of the frontier by the cession of Fort Niagara and Sackett's Harbor and by the exclusion of the Americans from the Lakes, seemed of little importance. The purpose of His Majesty's Government, the commissioners hastened to add, was not aggrandizement but the protection of the North American provinces. In view of the avowed aim of the United States to conquer Canada, the control of the Lakes must rest with Great Britain. Indeed, taking the weakness of Canada into account, His Majesty's Government might have reasonably demanded the cession of the lands adjacent to the Lakes; and should these moderate terms not be accepted, His Majesty's Government would feel itself at liberty to enlarge its demands, if the war continued to favor British arms. The American commissioners asked if these proposals relating to the control of the Lakes were also a sine qua non. "We have given you one sine qua non already," was the reply, "and we should suppose one sine qua non at a time was enough."

The Americans returned to their hotel of one mind: they could view the proposals just made no other light than as a deliberate attempt to dismember the United States. They could differ only as to the form in which they should couch their positive rejection. As titular head of the commission, Adams set promptly to work upon a draft of an answer which he soon set before his colleagues. At once all appearance of unanimity vanished. To the enemy they could present a united front; in the privacy of their apartment, they were five headstrong men. They promptly fell upon Adams's draft tooth and nail. Adams described the scene with pardonable resentment

"Mr. Gallatin is for striking out any expression that may be offensive to the feelings of the adverse Party. Mr. Clay is displeased with figurative language which he thinks improper for a state paper. Mr. Russell, agreeing in the objections of the two other gentlemen, will be further for amending the construction of every sentence; and Mr. Bayard, even when agreeing to say precisely the same thing, chooses to say it only in his own language."

Sharp encounters took place between Adams and Clay. "You dare not," shouted Clay in a passion on one occasion, "you CANNOT, you SHALL not insinuate that there has been a cabal of three members against you!" "Gentlemen! Gentlemen!" Gallatin would expostulate with a twinkle in his eye, "We must remain united or we will fail." It was his good temper and tact that saved this and many similar situations. When Bayard had essayed a draft of his own and had failed to win support, it was Gallatin who took up Adams's draft and put it into acceptable form. On the third day, after hours of "sifting, erasing, patching, and amending, until we were all wearied, though none of us satisfied," Gallatin's revision was accepted. From this moment, Gallatin's virtual leadership was unquestioned.

The American note of the 24th of August was a vigorous but even-tempered protest against the British demands as contrary to precedent and dishonorable to the United States. The American States would never consent "to abandon territory and a portion of their citizens, to admit a foreign interference in their domestic concerns, and to cease to exercise their natural rights on their own shores and in their own waters." "A treaty concluded on such terms would be but an armistice." But after the note had been prepared and dispatched, profound discouragement reigned in the American hotel. Even Gallatin, usually hopeful and philosophically serene, grew despondent. "Our negotiations may be considered at an end," he wrote to Monroe; "Great Britain wants war in order to cripple us. She wants aggrandizement at our expense . . . . I do not expect to be longer than three weeks in Europe." The commissioners notified their landlord that they would give up their quarters on the 1st of October; yet they lingered on week after week, waiting for the word which would close negotiations and send them home.

Meantime the British Ministry was quite as little pleased at the prospect. It would not do to let the impression go abroad that Great Britain was prepared to continue the war for territorial gains. If a rupture of the negotiations must come, Lord Castlereagh preferred to let the Americans shoulder the responsibility. He therefore instructed Gambier not to insist on the independent Indian territory and the control of the Lakes. These points were no longer to be "ultimata" but only matters for discussion. The British commissioners were to insist, however, on articles providing for the pacification of the Indians.

Should the Americans yield this sine qua non, now that the first had been withdrawn? Adams thought not, decidedly not; he would rather break off negotiations than admit the right of Great Britain to interfere with the Indians dwelling within the limits of the United States. Gallatin remarked that after all it was a very small point to insist on, when a slight concession would win much more important points. "Then, said I [Adams], with a movement of impatience and an angry tone, it is a good point to admit the British as the sovereigns and protectors of our Indians? Gallatin's face brightened, and he said in a tone of perfect good-humor, 'That's a non-sequitur.' This turned the edge of the argument into jocularity. I laughed, and insisted that it was a sequitur, and the conversation easily changed to another point." Gallatin had his way with the rest of the commission and drafted the note of the 26th of September, which, while refusing to recognize the Indians as sovereign nations in the treaty, proposed a stipulation that would leave them in possession of their former lands and rights. This solution of a perplexing problem was finally accepted after another exchange of notes and another earnest discussion at the American hotel, where Gallatin again poured oil on the troubled waters. Concession begat concession. New instructions from President Madison now permitted the commissioners to drop the demand for the abolition of impressments and blockades; and, with these difficult matters swept away, the path to peace was much easier to travel.

Such was the outlook for peace when news reached Ghent of the humiliating rout at Bladensburg. The British newspapers were full of jubilant comments; the five crestfallen American envoys took what cold comfort they could out of the very general condemnation of the burning of the Capitol. Then, on the heels of this intelligence, came rumors that the British invasion of New York had failed and that Prevost's army was in full retreat to Canada. The Americans could hardly grasp the full significance of this British reversal: it was too good to be true. But true it was, and their spirits rebounded.

It was at this juncture that the British commissioners presented a note, on the 21st of October, which for the first time went to the heart of the negotiations. War had been waged; territory had been overrun; conquests had been made--not the anticipated conquests on either side, to be sure, but conquests nevertheless. These were the plain facts. Now the practical question was this: Was the treaty to be drafted on the basis of the existing state of possession or on the basis of the status before the war? The British note stated their case in plain unvarnished fashion; it insisted on the status uti possidetis--the possession of territory won by arms.

In the minds of the Americans, buoyed up by the victory at Plattsburg, there was not the shadow of doubt as to what their answer should be; they declined for an instant to consider any other basis for peace than the restoration of gains on both sides. Their note was prompt, emphatic, even blunt, and it nearly shattered the nerves of the gentlemen in Downing Street. Had these stiffnecked Yankees no sense? Could they not perceive the studied moderation of the terms proposed--an island or two and a small strip of Maine--when half of Maine and the south bank of the St. Lawrence from Plattsburg to Sackett's Harbor might have been demanded as the price of peace?

The prospect of another year of war simply to secure a frontier which nine out of ten Englishmen could not have identified was most disquieting, especially in view of the prodigious cost of military operations in North America. The Ministry was both hot and cold. At one moment it favored continued war; at another it shrank from the consequences; and in the end it confessed its own want of decision by appealing to the Duke of Wellington and trying to shift the responsibility to his broad shoulders. Would the Duke take command of the forces in Canada? He should be invested with full diplomatic and military powers to bring the war to an honorable conclusion.

The reply of the Iron Duke gave the Ministry another shock. He would go to America, but he did not promise himself much success there, and he was reluctant to leave Europe at this critical time. To speak frankly, he had no high opinion of the diplomatic game which the Ministry was playing at Ghent. "I confess," said he, "that I think you have no right from the state of the war to demand any concession from America. . . You have not been able to carry it into the enemy's territory, notwithstanding your military success, and now undoubted military superiority, and have not even cleared your own territory on the point of attack. You cannot on any principle of equality in negotiation claim a cession of territory excepting in exchange for other advantages which you have in your power . . . . Then if this reasoning be true, why stipulate for the uti possidetis? You can get no territory; indeed, the state of your military operations, however creditable, does not entitle you to demand any."

As Lord Liverpool perused this dispatch, the will to conquer oozed away. "I think we have determined," he wrote a few days later to Castlereagh, "if all other points can be satisfactorily settled, not to continue the war for the purpose of obtaining or securing any acquisition of territory." He set forth his reasons for this decision succinctly: the unsatisfactory state of the negotiations at Vienna, the alarming condition of France, the deplorable financial outlook in England. But Lord Liverpool omitted to mention a still more potent factor in his calculations--the growing impatience of the country. The American war had ceased to be popular; it had become the graveyard of military reputations; it promised no glory to either sailor or soldier. Now that the correspondence of the negotiators at Ghent was made public, the reading public might very easily draw the conclusion that the Ministry was prolonging the war by setting up pretensions which it could not sustain. No Ministry could afford to continue a war out of mere stubbornness.

Meantime, wholly in the dark as to the forces which were working in their favor, the American commissioners set to work upon a draft of a treaty which should be their answer to the British offer of peace on the basis of uti possidetis. Almost at once dissensions occurred. Protracted negotiations and enforced idleness had set their nerves on edge, and old personal and sectional differences appeared. The two matters which caused most trouble were the fisheries and the navigation of the Mississippi. Adams could not forget how stubbornly his father had fought for that article in the treaty of 1783 which had conceded to New England fishermen, as a natural right, freedom to fish in British waters. To a certain extent this concession had been offset by yielding to the British the right of navigation of the Mississippi, but the latter right seemed unimportant in the days when the Alleghanies marked the limit of western settlement. In the quarter of a century which had elapsed, however, the West had come into its own. It was now a powerful section with an intensely alert consciousness of its rights and wrongs; and among its rights it counted the exclusive control of the Father of Waters. Feeling himself as much the champion of Western interests as Adams did of New England fisheries, Clay refused indignantly to consent to a renewal of the treaty provisions of 1783. But when the matter came to a vote, he found himself with Russell in a minority. Veryreluctantly he then agreed to Gallatin's proposal, to insert in a note, rather than in the draft itself, a paragraph to the effect that the commissioners were not instructed to discuss the rights hitherto enjoyed in the fisheries, since no further stipulation was deemed necessary to entitle them to rights which were recognized by the treaty of 1783.

When the British reply to the American project was read, Adams noted with quiet satisfaction that the reservation as to the fisheries was passed over in silence--silence, he thought, gave consent--but Clay flew into a towering passion when he learned that the old right of navigating the Mississippi was reasserted. Adams was prepared to accept the British proposals; Clay refused point blank; and Gallatin sided this time with Clay. Could a compromise be effected between these stubborn representatives of East and West? Gallatin tried once more. Why not accept the British right of navigation--surely an unimportant point after all--and ask for an express affirmation of fishery rights? Clay replied hotly that if they were going to sacrifice the West to Massachusetts, he would not sign the treaty. With infinite patience Gallatin continued to play the role of peacemaker and finally brought both these self-willed men to agree to offer a renewal of both rights.

Instead of accepting this eminently fair adjustment, the British representatives proposed that the two disputed rights be left to future negotiation. The suggestion caused another explosion in the ranks of the Americans. Adams would not admit even by implication that the rights for which his sire fought could be forfeited by war and become the subject of negotiation. But all save Adams were ready to yield. Again Gallatin came to the rescue. He penned a note rejecting the British offer, because it seemed to imply the abandonment of a right; but in turn he offered to omit in the treaty all reference to the fisheries and the Mississippi or to include a general reference to further negotiation of all matters still in dispute, in such a way as not to relinquish any rights. To this solution of the difficulty all agreed, though Adams was still torn by doubts and Clay believed that the treaty was bound to be "damned bad" anyway.

An anxious week of waiting followed. On the 22d of December came the British reply--a grudging acceptance of Gallatin's first proposal to omit all reference to the fisheries and the Mississippi. Two days later the treaty was signed in the refectory of the Carthusian monastery where the British commissioners were quartered. Let the tired seventeen-year-old boy who had been his father's scribe through these long weary months describe the events of Christmas Day, 1814. "The British delegates very civilly asked us to dinner," wrote James Gallatin in his diary. "The roast beef and plum pudding was from England, and everybody drank everybody else's health. The band played first God Save the King, to the toast of the King, and Yankee Doodle, to the toast of the President. Congratulations on all sides and a general atmosphere of serenity; it was a scene to be remembered. God grant there may be always peace between the two nations. I never saw father so cheerful; he was in high spirits, and his witty conversation was much appreciated."[*]

[* "A Great Peace Maker: The Dairy of James Gallatin" (1914). p. 36.]

Peace! That was the outstanding achievement of the American commissioners at Ghent. Measured by the purposes of the war-hawks of 1812, measured by the more temperate purposes of President Madison, the Treaty of Ghent was a confession of national weakness and humiliating failure. Clay, whose voice had been loudest for war and whose kindling fancy had pictured American armies dictating terms of surrender at Quebec, set his signature to a document which redressed not a single grievance and added not a foot of territory to the United States. Adams, who had denounced Great Britain for the crime of "man-stealing," accepted a treaty of peace which contained not a syllable about impressment. President Madison, who had reluctantly accepted war as the last means of escape from the blockade of American ports and the ruin of neutral trade, recommended the ratification of a convention which did not so much as mention maritime questions and the rights of neutrals.

Peace--and nothing more? Much more, indeed, than appears in rubrics on parchment. The Treaty of Ghent must be interpreted in the light of more than a hundred years of peace between the two great branches of the English-speaking race. More conscious of their differences than anything else, no doubt, these eight peacemakers at Ghent nevertheless spoke a common tongue and shared a common English trait: they laid firm hold on realities. Like practical men they faced the year 1815 and not 1812. In a pacified Europe rid of the Corsican, questions of maritime practice seemed dead issues. Let the dead past bury its dead! To remove possible causes of future controversy seemed wiser statesmanship than to rake over the embers of quarrels which might never be rekindled. So it was that in prosaic articles they provided for three commissions to arbitrate boundary controversies at critical points in the far-flung frontier between Canada and the United States, and thus laid the foundations of an international accord which has survived a hundred years.

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