Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 27

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The War of 1812

Francis F. Beirne

published by
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
New York, 1949

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]

Chapter Twenty‑Eight

 p374  Ghent, City of Peace

In May, 1813, three travelers set sail from the United States for Europe. One was a man of outstanding appearance: tall, handsome and reserved. One was short, bald-headed and large of feature; not particularly impressive at first glance. A casual observer might have remarked that he possessed a pleasant and intelligent face with more than a suggestion of kindliness and good humor. The last of the trio was a pink-cheeked youth with a somewhat cherubic countenance, still in his teens. Before very long he was to pose as Eros for an allegorical picture by the celebrated French artist, David.

A closer scrutiny of the party might have disclosed that the less distinguished of the two older men was actually the leader, for the other showed him a noticeable deference. Such was, in truth, the case. The handsome man was Senator James A. Bayard, of Delaware. The less distinguished in appearance was Albert Gallatin. The war had not yet passed its first birthday but, nevertheless, two gentlemen were going abroad to discuss a possible peace, having but a few weeks before been appointed commissioners by President Madison. Gallatin was taking his son along with him to show him something of the Old World. Besides, it would be an education for the boy to be present while such important negotiations were in progress. James had decided to make the most of the opportunity by setting down his impressions in a diary. It was a fortunate decision for posterity, since the diary was actually written and provides a record of interesting details such as no official state papers could ever have included.

Gallatin's spirits must have been more buoyant than usual for even though the mission with which he was entrusted was uncertain,  p375 he had left worse troubles behind him. At last he was free of puzzling how to raise money for the war, and faced the more congenial task of finding means to stop the war. His genius for finance and the jealousy of the less distinguished members of his political party had consigned him to the Treasury when his real ambition was to be Secretary of State. Now, at last, his longing for diplomacy was to be gratified. He did not know that, in a last gesture of pettiness, his enemies in the Senate had refused to ratify his appointment.

The third member of the mission was John Quincy Adams, United States Minister to Russia, and it was for St. Petersburg that Gallatin and Bayard were headed. St. Petersburg was a remote spot for the settlement of differences between Great Britain and the United States. The explanation was that the United States commissioners were assembling there in answer to an invitation from the Czar.

Coincident with the declaration of war by the United States Napoleon was launching his memorable campaign against Russia. As the imperial legions swept northward Czar Alexander I found himself in a desperate situation. His only ally was Great Britain and it was hardly to his advantage to have the attention of this ally distracted by a war elsewhere. But there were other equally compelling reasons for Russian intervention. The American war was interfering with quite a lucrative trade between Russia and the United States. Furthermore, the British policy of blockade, of which the United States complained, was equally irksome to Russia. In fact, Alexander's Chancellor, Romanzoff, was anti-British, and saw in the negotiations the opportunity to settle old accounts with England. Finally, and perhaps not the least important of the motives, there was Alexander's own conception of himself as the most enlightened prince of his day. Harassed as he then was by Napoleon, his vanity could not be entirely suppressed. He did not shrink from appearing in the popular role of peacemaker.

So it was that Romanzoff sounded out John Quincy Adams who did not discourage the proposal. Invitations were dispatched to London and Washington offering Russian mediation. The formal offer reached the American capital in March and found the President in a decidedly low state of mind. The invasion of Canada had failed; the expenses of the war were mounting and the Treasury was bare; the patriotic rush to join the colors had been disappointing and  p376 the ranks of the regular army could not be filled. The New England Federalists were more than ever opposed to the war. By the time the invitation arrived Napoleon had received his first setback; his army which had swept everything before it and entered Moscow had had to retreat and had been well-nigh annihilated. Should Napoleon fall, Great Britain would be free to throw her whole weight against the United States. Under the circumstances the Czar's invitation appeared to the President as the last ray of hope, dim though it was. Madison accepted with alacrity, not even waiting to learn how the invitation would be received by Great Britain.

Castlereagh, the British Foreign Minister, being well schooled in diplomacy, was immediately suspicious of the kind offices of the Czar. He therefore declined the invitation with almost as much alacrity as Madison had accepted it, on the ground that the war could not be settled by mediation since it was concerned with the domestic matter of impressment. On the other hand he did not feel that Great Britain could afford to take the position of declining an offer of peace. So, in spite of its apparent failure, the Russian invitation had the effect of forcing Castlereagh's hand and leading him to invite the United States to negotiate directly.

Of this the travelers knew nothing when at last they reached St. Petersburg on July 21. They were, however, conscious of a somewhat cold reception. John Quincy Adams was not of great help in making them feel at home. Even the meeting with compatriots in so remote a spot as St. Petersburg failed to break down his chilly reserve. "Mr. Adams is very civil but has a disagreeable manner," wrote young James Gallatin. A few days later he added, "Our position is a very embarrassing one. We plainly see we are not wanted."

There ensued a long period of uncertainty and inactivity that taxed even such patient men as Albert Gallatin and Senator Bayard. Unwanted though they were they stayed on at the Russian capital through the summer and autumn because they did not know what else to do. Romanzoff, who had first proposed mediation, now appeared to have lost favor with the Czar, while Count Nesselrode had become the favorite. Having got them to St. Petersburg the Czar treated the Americans with complete indifference. "Such weary waiting and all seems so hopeless," commented James.

 p377  Much more weary waiting would have to be endured before the negotiations got under way. At last, in November, Castlereagh's offer of direct negotiation reached Washington. The war was going no better for the Americans. The summer had witnessed the raids in Chesapeake Bay which more than outweighed the victory of Perry on Lake Erie and of Harrison at the battle of the Thames. The President was anxious as ever for peace, so he accepted Castlereagh's offer and strengthened the American mission by adding to it Henry Clay and Jonathan Russell, former Chargé d'Affaires in England. The Senate at long last was prevailed upon to ratify the appointment of Gallatin, but not until they had done the same to the other negotiators, so that Gallatin's name was at the bottom of the list and not at the top, as it deserved to be.

In January, 1814, Gallatin and Bayard said good‑bye to St. Petersburg, happy enough to be going. Through the good offices of his friend, Alexander Baring, the London banker, Gallatin obtained permission for himself and Bayard to enter England in the hope of speeding the negotiations. Castlereagh had proposed London as the scene of the conference, but Adams and Clay immediately objected. They were afraid, he said, of being snubbed and treated as colonists. The old Flemish city of Ghent was finally decided upon.

Gallatin's visit to London produced no results so far as hastening the negotiations was concerned. Castlereagh would discuss peace, but he was determined to take his own time. In the meanwhile, Paris fell and Napoleon went into exile at Elba. Government, press and public were too taken up with the victories to pay attention to the American emissaries.

In July Gallatin left London and joined the other American commissioners at Ghent. There they awaited the arrival of the British representatives and whiled away the time disputing among themselves. There could hardly have been a less congenial group. John Quincy Adams was the nominal head of the mission, but not one of the other members liked him. It was Gallatin who eventually assumed the leader­ship. Adams was particularly irritated by Clay who, though ten years Adams' junior, did not hesitate to take issue with him on every point. In his diary for July 15 James Gallatin made the entry, "Nothing to do. Mr. Adams in a very bad temper. Mr. Clay annoys him. Father pours oil on the troubled waters."

 p378  Adams did not like the habits of his colleagues, which were the very negation of his own ascetic life. The others did not appear to realize the solemnity of the occasion. "I dined again at the table d'hote, at one," he wrote. "The other gentlemen dined together at four. They sit after dinner and drink bad win and smoke cigars, which I cannot spare. I find it impossible, even with the most rigorous economy of time, to do half the writing that I ought."

If Adams disapproved of Clay's ideals he disapproved even more of that young statesman's morals. A man who, like Adams, made it a practice of rising at 5 A.M. and getting at once to work could have little respect for one who gambled the night away. "Just before rising," he reports, "I heard Mr. Clay's company retiring from his chamber. I had left them . . . at cards. They parted as I was about to rise." Gallatin was the peacemaker and so, too, was Bayard whose restraint throughout the whole of the negotiations won praise even from Adams. Bayard was a Federalist and had been selected primarily to give the mission the appearance of national unity. But he was not a die‑hard and, in spite of his politics, got on perfectly with his colleagues. In fact the ease with which he did aroused suspicions of his loyalty among the extremists of his own party. Jonathan Russell, the fifth member of the mission, was a New Englander but, in spite of his nativity, liked Clay much better than he liked Adams.

Not until the 8th of August, 1814, did the British commissioners reach Ghent. Castlereagh could not have selected a less distinguished or less competent group. Lord Gambier, who headed the mission, had had no experience whatever in diplomacy. His own countrymen were his severest critics. The London Morning Chronicle could see no reason for selecting a man who, the newspaper, said, "was a post-captain in 1794, and happened to fight the Defence decently in Lord Howe's actions; who slumbered for some time as a junior Lord of the Admiralty; who sang psalms, said prayers, and assisted in the burning of Copenhagen, for which he was made a lord."

Henry Goulburn, second on the list, was a young and officious undersecretary of state to Lord Bathurst, whose idea of diplomacy was showing his temper and sticking firmly to his opinions. Third  p379 and last was William Adams, a Doctor of Civil Law, who was supposed to supply technical knowledge to the mission. He took a subordinate part in the discussions.

It did not take Gallatin long to get the correct measure of his opponents. On the day of their arrival James Gallatin confided to his diary, "Father is not impressed with the British delegates — men who have not made any mark and have no influence or weight, but are puppets of Castlereagh and Liverpool. Father feels he is quite capable of dealing with them." As a matter of fact Castlereagh was saving his best talent for the approaching Congress of Vienna. In comparison with that meeting of all the European powers to settle the affairs of the Continent the negotiations at Ghent were of little importance. Gallatin, unfortunately, could not speak with equal confidence upon the handling of his colleagues of the American mission. "Clay," wrote James, "uses strong language to Adams and Adams returned the compliment. Father looks calmly on with a twinkle in his eye. Today there was a severe storm and Father said, 'Gentlemen, gentlemen, we must remain united or we fail.' "

Now that the commissioners were prepared to face each other the immediate problem was to find questions they could discuss, for each group appeared with positive and conflicting instructions. With from 15,000 to 20,000 trained soldiers already landing in America or on their way the British felt that they were in a position to dictate a peace. The London Times expressed the popular attitude bluntly. "Our demands may be couched in a single word — Submission!" The London Courier, official organ of the ministry, talked of depriving New England of her fishing rights in British waters, the return of Louisiana to Spain, and American concession of the right of impressment. These were mild in comparison with Canadian demands, made in the official Gazette, which included cession to Canada of northern New York and the south bank of the St. Lawrence, a guarantee of the Indian Territory from Sandusky, Ohio, to Kaskaskia in southern Illinois, withdrawal of American military posts in the Northwest, the cession of a part of Maine, and control of the Lakes, in addition to the claims previously made by the London Courier.

Quite the contrary were Secretary Monroe's hopes. He was for asking for the transfer to the United States of Upper Canada, or  p380 even the whole of it, on the ground that "Experience has shown that Great Britain cannot participate in the dominion and navigation of the Lakes without incurring the danger of an early renewal of the war."

The first conference was held on August 8 at the Hotel des Pays‑Bas. After the preliminary formalities had been disposed of, Goulburn, acting as spokesman for his colleagues, informed the American commissioners that the British commissioners were authorized to discuss impressment and allegiance; the Indians and their boundary, which their government considered to be a sine qua non; the Canadian boundary, and the privilege of landing and drying fish within British jurisdiction.

The commissioners then retired to allow the Americans time to study the British agenda. The two groups met again on the following day. Adams, speaking for his commission, stated that it had no authority to admit the Indian or the fishery questions into the discussions. He presented as the American topic the matter of blockades and indemnities. The British commissioners, notwithstanding, reverted to the subject of the Indians and revealed a plan to set up an Indian territory as a buffer between American and British possessions. The Americans refused to consider the proposal and the British commissioners withdrew to communicate with their government and obtain further instructions.

No other meeting was held until August 19. Goulburn then read the instructions he had received from Castlereagh. These were a second demand for the establishment of an Indian territory, a rectification of the Canadian boundary to include Fort Niagara and Sackett's Harbor and a promise from the Americans to erect no fortifications on the Lakes. Gallatin politely called attention to the fact that the territory to be handed over to the Indians included parts of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan. He inquired what was to become of the 100,000 Americans already living in the territory. "They will have to shift for themselves," replied Goulburn. The young man then added, by way of encouragement, that he had once known an Indian who was quite a decent fellow.

Such a ridiculous answer to a vital question convinced the American commissioners that, whatever might be Castlereagh's purpose in sending a man like Goulburn to the council table, he  p381 evidently had no serious intention of making a peace. That is, all the commissioners were convinced except Clay. The Kentuckian's instinct as a player of the game of "brag," an early form of poker, tolk him that the British were bluffing. And if they were bluffing, the way to beat them was to put up a bigger bluff.

The Americans retired to formulate a reply. It devolved upon Adams as the chairman to write it. When he read the draft to his colleagues all their animosity toward him was released. They ripped his work to pieces. If Adams rejoiced in heavy labor he now got his fill of it. From early afternoon until almost midnight the commissioners were engaged, as Adams said, "in sifting, erasing, patching and amending until we were all awearied, though none of us was yet satisfied with amendment." Impatient as they were with each other, separated though they might be by personal animosities, there was one point upon which they were unanimous, and that was to utter a defiant "No" to what they regarded as impossible demands. Little did they know that at the very moment they were drawing up a document which all of them, except the ebullient Clay, believed would be their last act as commissioners, the capitol in Washington was in flames and the President of the United States was a fugitive! It was perhaps as well for the future of the country that news then traveled so slowly.

The reply that was presented next day to the British commissioners gave no indication whatever of the discord that had attended its drafting. In conclusion it said of the terms offered, "They are, above all, dishonorable to the United States in demanding from them 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."

Having delivered their reply the American commissioners packed their belongings and gave every evidence of preparing to leave Ghent. Senator Bayard singled Goulburn out and warned him that the exacting terms insisted upon by the British would wreck the Federalist party in the United States and destroy the last vestige of sympathy for his country. Already Madison, who had received the British terms, had had the wisdom to make them public and the country rang with protests against their harshness. "Don't Give Up  p382 The Soil" became the war cry and even some of the Federalist newspapers expressed indignation over the demands. Goulburn, the budding diplomat, reported to his superiors that Bayard's argument "has not made the least impression upon me or my colleagues." It may not have impressed Goulburn, Gambier and Dr. Adams, but it made a profound impression upon Castlereagh, Liverpool and Bathurst. If the negotiations were permitted to end on this note Great Britain would be in the position of refusing a peace in order to engage in a war of conquest. The Americans must be kept at Ghent by whatever means possible. Gambier, Goulburn and Dr. Adams were rebuked by their superiors for their clumsy handling of the negotiations.

Castlereagh had now departed for Vienna and he left the conduct of affairs at Ghent to Lord Bathurst. The President of the Board of Trade lost no time in drawing up new instructions, though in order to keep the negotiations going he had to admit that the Indian territory was not a sine qua non, though it had first been described as such. He authorized his commissioners to abandon the demand for the Indian territory and control of the Lakes and merely to require that the Indians be included in the truce. This was a definite victory for the Americans, though Bathurst excused his retreat on the ground that he was merely marking time until the conquest of the United States should be more complete and the original demands could be revived.

Bathurst's policy was to keep the negotiations going by writing notes, confident that the Americans would reply to them. The news of the raid on Washington had reached Europe and increased the confidence of the British as much as it depressed the hopes of the American commissioners. Prevost was poised for his invasion of New York and his victory, which seemed assured, would place the British in a position to obtain anything they demanded.

While the British had surrendered in the matter of the Indians the United States had made a surrender that was of even greater importance in clearing the way toward an agreement. Their surrender concerned impressment. From the very outset the United States had insisted that Great Britain relinquish this right. Had she done so the war would have ended a few weeks after it commenced. But on this point Great Britain remained as firm as ever. In instructing  p383 the commissioners Monroe made impressment a sine qua non for, he said, quite logically, if this were abandoned "the United States have appealed to arms in vain." However, after the collapse of Napoleon's empire there was no longer a crying need for sailors for the British navy, and, consequently, while holding to the right the British had abandoned the practice. The result was, of course, to place impressment on a different footing. After considering the issue in the light of the altered circumstances, Madison's cabinet yielded the principle and instructions were sent to the commissioners at Ghent that they might withdraw this demand.

Elimination of the Indians and impressment now reduced the negotiations to a question of territory. Stimulated by the victory at Bladensburg, Bathurst instructed the British commission to negotiate on the principle of uti possidetis; that is to say, each country was to keep the territory it then had in its possession. This would have given Great Britain Mackinac Island, Fort Niagara with the territory surrounding it, and all of Maine north of the Aroostook River; while to the Americans would have gone Fort Erie and Fort Malden, at Amherstburg.

Here John Quincy Adams's value to the commission came into full play. In view of Massachusetts' recalcitrance the other members might have felt that loss of her territory was no more than she deserved. But, unpopular though he might be at home, Adams' jealous guardian­ship of the interests of his native state never flagged. His attitude stiffened the rest of the commission. Close, too, on the heels of the news of Bladensburg, came news of the British retirement from in front of Baltimore, Macdonough's brilliant victory on Lake Champlain, Prevost's retreat from Plattsburg not repulse of the attack on Fort Erie. This fortunate turn of affairs encouraged the American commissioners to reject the principle of uti possidetis and hold out for settlement on the basis of status quo ante bellum, or a return to the territorial division that existed prior to the war.

Once more the obstinacy of both sides appeared to obstruct the peace as effectively as the Indians and impressment had done. The war, incidentally, was beginning to be embarrassing to Castlereagh at Vienna. The Czar was making a bid for leader­ship in that assembly, and the reverses to British arms in America were affecting British prestige at the council table. The war, too, was  p384 becoming unpopular in England. The public was complaining of the taxes they were called upon to pay to support it; the price seemed too much to exact for a mere rectification of the Canadian frontier. Merchants were impatient to do business with their old customers in the United States, and the American privateers that still haunted the trade routes were a constant thorn in the flesh.

However, the British had one more trump card to play. The great Wellington, momentarily without a war to fight, was cooling his heels as British Ambassador in Paris. Now if he could be persuaded to go to America and take charge, the United States would surely succumb in short order to British arms. There would follow a dictated peace based upon the cherished principle of uti possidetis, and what the British would possess when the Iron Duke was through with the Americans could be left to the imagination.

A messenger was dispatched forthwith to Paris to put the proposition up to the Duke, while the British ministry and the British commissioners awaited his reply with keen anticipation. Surely the Duke would not refuse this opportunity to add new luster to his name. The Duke did not keep them waiting long. Liverpool's invitation was dated November 4. Wellington's reply was dated November 9.

"I have already told you and Lord Bathurst that I feel no objection to going to America," he began. This sounded encouraging indeed, but what followed made melancholy reading for Liverpool. The Duke's letter continued: ". . . though I don't promise to myself much success there." This was hardly the spirit in which to set out upon a campaign of conquest. "That which appears to me to be wanting in America is not a general, or a general officer and troops, but a naval superiority on the Lakes."

In spite of feeling "no objection," nothing could be clearer than the Duke's unwillingness to undertake the mission. From that subject Wellington turned to a discussion of the proceedings at Ghent:

"In regard to your negotiation, I confess that I think you have no right, from the state of the war, to demand any concession of territory 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  p385 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."

The Duke's letter fell like a thunderbolt on British pretensions. Appeal had been made by the ministry to the highest authority on military matters in King George IV's realm and the highest authority had rendered his decision against his own people and in favor of the Americans!

There should have been clear sailing after that. The British accepted the principle of the status quo, but they made one exception. They insisted that the United States relinquish her fishing rights in Canadian waters or exchange them for an equivalent. These rights were peculiarly precious in the eyes of John Quincy Adams, not only because Massachusetts chiefly made use of them, but because his own father had wrung them from Great Britain in the Treaty of 1783. The equivalent which the British proposed was their right to navigate the Mississippi. Such an arrangement was quite agreeable to John Quincy Adams, who knew little and cared less about that quarter of the globe. Not so, however, to Henry Clay, the champion of the people of the West.

Just when it appeared that peace between Great Britain and the United States might become a reality, war to the death was declared between the two ill‑mated members of the American mission. Adams belittled Clay's objection to the Mississippi concession. "The navigation principle," replied the Kentuckian scornfully, "is much too important to concede for the mere liberty of drying fish on a desert." Clay protested further that, if need be, he was ready to fight the war three years more to protect the Mississippi.

Gallatin found his hands full trying to appease the combatants. But there was a limit to what even he could stand. "Father can no longer support Mr. Adams," wrote James, "he has tried his patience too far." It was the British commission which eventually solved the problem by suggesting that the wilderness of the fisheries and the Mississippi be reserved for future discussion.

At last, on Christmas Eve, 1814, the treaty was ready for the formal signing. From August through December the negotiators  p386 had struggled; yet after five months of labor not a single disputed point found settlement in the finished document. Some of these disputed points were left for future commissions to tackle. Impressment, that bitterest bone of contention, was not mentioned. The treaty was, in substance, a mere agreement to let matters stand as they had stood before the war.

Fruitless though the treaty appeared to be, its signing was the cause of universal rejoicing. A few discordant notes in the British press did not conceal the general satisfaction of all classes in England that peace was once more restored. In the United States Madison breathed a sigh of relief while the public applauded the work of the American negotiators.

The ancient town of Ghent did itself proud in honor of the historic occasion. Prominent citizens who had followed the proceedings with sympathy and interest congratulated the American commissioners and made them all honorary members of the local society of arts and sciences. The bells of the town were rung, and a solemn and impressive service was held in the cathedral. The signing itself took place in the refectory of the monastery.

Next day being Christmas, the British commissioners graciously invited the Americans to dine with them on roast beef and plum pudding imported from England especially for the occasion. Healths were drunk to each other and toasts were proposed to "The King" and "The President" while a band played first "God Save the King" and then "Yankee Doodle." It was a scene to be remembered," wrote James Gallatin. "I never saw Father so cheerful; he was in high spirits and his witty conversion was much appreciated." Even John Quincy Adams for once forswore his custom of dining alone and risked his health and habits in an atmosphere of wine and cigars.

To that angular, quixotic son of New England went the honor, a few days later, of responding to a toast in which he expressed a pious wish that time has gratified — a toast that serves as a most fitting epilogue to the War of 1812.

"Ghent, the city of Peace; may the gates of the temple of Janus, here closed, not be opened again for a century!"

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 11 Oct 13