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‘Everlasting bickering and matters delayed’: the American delegation and the 1814 Ghent peace negotiations.

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Signing_of_Treaty_of_Ghent_(1812)

Amedee Forstier, The Signing of the Treaty of Ghent, Christmas Eve, 1814 [John Quincy Adams (5th from left), Albert Gallatin (6th from left), and Henry Clay (10th from left, seated)].

Wednesday marks the bicentenary of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, the agreement that ended the War of 1812, the last open conflict between the US and Great Britain. The war was fought between the two countries over north Atlantic trading rights and territory in the North American interior. In celebration of this anniversary, this blog entry will examine the peace negotiations of 1813-1814 through the eyes of 17-year-old James Gallatin, the son of the chief American delegate during the negotiations and serving Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin. James accompanied his father to Europe and recorded the day-to-day challenges faced by the Americans in their dealing with the British and, perhaps more interestingly, in their attempts to arrive at a consensus strategy among themselves.  James Gallatin’s diary reveals the human side of nineteenth-century diplomacy as a process of negotiation, not only between delegations representing rival nations, but also within each peace commission, where clashing egos among friends sometimes threatened to derail talks.

The Madison Administration sent several key members of the government to negotiate the end of the war alongside Albert Gallatin, including John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), James A. Bayard (1767-1815), Jonathan Russell (1771-1832) and Henry Clay (1777-1852). Adams, the future president of the US, was then serving as the US envoy to the Russian court. Bayard was a prominent Federalist senator from Delaware and Russell was the US envoy to Sweden. Finally, Henry clay was the Speaker of the House of Representatives and would later become Secretary of State during the Adams Administration.

The American delegation was beset with problems from the beginning, many of which were of their own making. The three men fought among themselves and with their British counterparts throughout the peace talks. James Gallatin recorded the first meeting between his father and John Quincy Adams in St. Petersburg during the unsuccessful Russian-backed peace talks of October 2013. The two men had different thoughts about how to best advance the American position. James remembered: ‘After a stormy interview with Mr. Adams (Adams was the storm) father has decided to take his own course’ (12).  To his frustration Albert Gallatin found himself marginalized by two of his compatriots. He, for example, wanted the negotiations to take place in London, thereby allowing the Americans direct contact with the British Foreign Minister, Lord Castlereagh. In this he was overruled by Clay and Adams who refused the suggestion ‘point blank’ arguing that, unlike Gallatin, they were ‘plain Americans and that in England they would only be treated as colonists.’ Geneva-born Gallatin did not understand their position. ‘You are a foreigner,’ they told him ‘which places you on an entirely different footing’ (21). From this moment onward the US delegation descended into regular bouts of in-fighting. Clay and Adams did not get along and often disagreed over how the negotiations should proceed. To make matters worse the Americans arrived in Ghent a month before their British counterpoints, leaving plenty of time for competing egos to clash and resentment to fester. James recorded these episodes in his diary. On 15 July he wrote: ‘Nothing to do. Mr. Adams in a very bad temper. Mr. Clay annoys him. Father pours oil on the troubled waters’ (27).

The situation worsened after the British delegation arrived in August. As Gallatin had feared when he objected to Ghent as the location for negotiations, the British, who had always viewed the American war as a sideshow in the larger conflict with France, sent relatively low level representation to Low Countries. Soon after their arrival Lord Gambier (1756-1833), an Admiral of the Fleet, and Henry Goulburn (1784-1856), Undersecretary of State for War and the Colonies, presented the Americans with a set of demands that they could not possibly accept. The British position regarding the North-Western Territory was utterly unreasonable from the American perspective. It required that the sovereignty of the region – which would eventually encompass the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois along with portions Indiana and Ohio – be returned to Native American control under the Guarantee of the British Crown. This would require the evacuation and repatriation of thousands of US citizens. A few days after this initial meeting, James recorded the despondency and frustration of the US delegation in his diary. ‘Father finds greater difficulty with his own colleagues’ he wrote ‘Clay uses strong language to Adams, and Adams returns the compliment’ (28).  Gallatin clearly feared that both Clay and Adams could undermine the negotiations by making brash demands or by venting their tempers in the presence of the British. By late October the Americans began developing a treaty proposal among themselves. James’s diary reveals that this was, like everything else to that point, a tortured and exasperating process. ‘It is a most difficult task’ he claimed ‘both Mr. Adams and Mr. Clay object to everything except what they suggest themselves’ (32).

By November it appeared that negotiations were on the verge of collapse. At this point of despair for the Americans, Gallatin received a confidential letter from the Duke of Wellington, a man close to both the British Prime Minister and Lord Castlereagh. In it he reassured Gallatin that peace was attainable despite mistakes made on both sides. He informed Gallatin that the British ministry held him in high regard. The Foreign minister identified Gallatin as the senior member of the American delegation. ‘As I gather’, Wellington wrote:

Mr. Madison as well as Mr. Monroe [Secretary of State and future President] gave you full power to act, without even consulting your colleagues on points you considered of importance. I now feel that peace is shortly in view. Mr. Goulburn has made grave errors and Lord Castlereagh has read him a sharp lesson (34).

Two weeks later Gallatin received another letter from Wellington again stressing the Ministry’s faith in him: ‘I hear on all sides that your moderation and sense of justice, together with you good common sense, places you above all other delegates, not excepting ours.’ ‘I have always had the greatest admiration for the country of your birth,’ Wellington continued, ‘you are a foreigner with all the traditions of one fighting for the peace and welfare of the country of your adoption.’ Gallatin’s political opponents regularly questioned his suitability for office on the grounds that he was an immigrant and therefore harbored residual attachments to the land of his birth. He had been thrown out of Congress for this reason in 1793. James noted his father’s reaction to Wellington’s compliment: ‘Father, I think, was pleased. He is a foreigner and is proud of it’ (35).

Peace terms were agreed shortly after Gallatin received Wellington’s letters. Both sides agreed to the immediate cessation of hostilities and the establishment of the status quo antebellum. The treaty also stipulated that all border disputes be referred to territorial commissions (for Gallatin’s role in later border dispute see the blog). Having concluded the peace talks after several long months of stressful negotiation, the British and US representatives then sat together for Christmas dinner. This act initiated a period of peace and friendship between the US, Canada and the UK that holds to this day.

All citations are taken from: James Gallatin, A Great Peace Maker, the diary of James Gallatin secretary to Albert Gallatin, ed. Count Gallatin (London, 1914).

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