American Negotiator Jonathan Russell Reports From Ghent That the British Have Dropped Key Demands in the Peace Talks

Britain continues to insist as a condition of peace that the U.S. make unacceptable concessions to the Indians, such as agreeing to place limitations on land Americans could purchase from them

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“She will not therefore sign a treaty of peace unless the Indians ‘be included in it, and restored to all the rights, privileges and territories’ which they enjoyed in the year 1811, previous to their commencement of the war, by virtue of the Treaty of Greenville and the treaties subsequently concluded between...

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American Negotiator Jonathan Russell Reports From Ghent That the British Have Dropped Key Demands in the Peace Talks

Britain continues to insist as a condition of peace that the U.S. make unacceptable concessions to the Indians, such as agreeing to place limitations on land Americans could purchase from them

“She will not therefore sign a treaty of peace unless the Indians ‘be included in it, and restored to all the rights, privileges and territories’ which they enjoyed in the year 1811, previous to their commencement of the war, by virtue of the Treaty of Greenville and the treaties subsequently concluded between them & the United States. From this point the British plenipotentiaries cannot depart…They shall make a final proposition on the subject of Canadian boundaries, so moderate & just that they are sure it cannot be rejected.”

The U.S. was unprepared for the War of 1812, and the fortunes of war proved vacillating. There were successes, such as William Henry Harrison’s victory in the Battle of the Thames, in which Tecumseh was killed, and Oliver H. Perry’s victory on Lake Erie. But there were also failures, such as a winter expedition against Montreal; also, Fort Niagara was lost, Black Rock and Buffalo were burned, and great quantities of provisions and stores destroyed. The American hope of conquering Canada began to look like a dream, and the threat remained that the British and their Indian allies might yet gain a hold over territory in the American west in order to create an Indian buffer state between the U.S. and the Mississippi River. The British blockade of the U.S. eastern seaboard was constantly growing more rigid; not a single American man-of-war was on the open sea. Meanwhile the discontent with the war prevailing in New England, which was destined to culminate in the Hartford Convention, continued to be active and to threaten rebellious outbreaks. But the most ominous event was the downfall of Napoleon’s prospects, the likely conclusion of peace in Europe, and, in consequence, the liberation of the military, naval, and financial resources of Great Britain for a vigorous prosecution of the war in America. The Americans initially agreed to mediation to end the war, but instead in early 1814 the British offered direct peace talks to be held at Ghent in Belgium. The U.S. accepted that offer.

The head of the American negotiating team was John Quincy Adams, the U.S.’s most experienced diplomat. The four men who served with him were carefully selected by President Madison to reflect the varieties of political sentiment in the United States. Foremost among them was Henry Clay, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and a noted War Hawk. Albert Gallatin had served as Secretary of the Treasury for both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. James Bayard was a U.S. Senator belonging to the Federalist Party who had been an opponent of the war, and was one of the 13 Senators to vote against declaring it. However, once the war began he supported the war effort. Jonathan Russell was acting U.S. ambassador to Britain when war was declared. Sent to Ghent as a negotiator, he was also serving as ambassador to Sweden and Norway. He proved instrumental in achieving the final peace terms.

William H. Crawford was U.S. ambassador to France during the negotiations, and was responsible for superintending the American consuls in Europe and keeping them informed of developments. More than that, he was an advisor to the President on the happenings on the Continent. As Ambassador to the Court of one of the two major adversaries in the conflicts in Europe, he was also actively involved in the Ghent negotiation process, advising the negotiators and responding to their confidential communiqués. He would later serve as Secretary of War and Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Madison and Monroe.

The Congress of Vienna was the peace conference called to decide the future of Europe after the fall of Napoleon in April 1814, and it was set to commence in late September. The main allies – Austria, Great Britain, Prussia and Russia – were joined by other nations affected by the Napoleonic Wars, such as Spain, Portugal and Sweden. The four main powers intended to dictate the peace, after which, if it desired, Britain could turn its full attention to the American war. Some felt the Ghent talks were being purposely stalled until the Vienna Congress was concluded and Britain’s hand thus strengthened.

The negotiations at Ghent did not get underway until August 8. At the opening session the British demanded that the country now occupied by the states of Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin, the larger part of Indiana, and about one third of Ohio, should be set apart for the Indians, to constitute a sort of Indian sovereignty under British guaranty, and to serve as a “buffer,” a perpetual protection of the British possessions against American ambition. They demanded also that the United States should relinquish the right of keeping any armed vessels on the Great Lakes; and, in addition to all this, they asked for the cession of a piece of Maine, and for the right of navigating the Mississippi. This all added up to a surrender of American independence and was a painful shock to the U.S. envoys. All they could do was promptly reject the conditions. President Madison had in the meantime sent instructions authorizing the U.S. negotiators to treat on the basis of the status ante-bellum – substantially, to restore things to the state in which the war had found them. The British answer to the American was to send what John Quincy Adams called “a long Note, so ambiguous in its tenor, as to leave it doubtful whether they meant to abandon their indispensable preliminary, or to adhere to it, and attempting to put upon us, in this state of equivocation, the responsibility of breaking off the Conferences”. On September 7 the U.S. negotiators responded to this with, as Adams wrote, “A Note equally long, adhering to our rejection of their preliminary, but renewing the offer, and repeating the wish to negotiate upon all the differences which had existed between the two Countries before they had brought forward their new pretensions…”

Meanwhile, at Vienna, matters were not going well for Britain and its three major allies. As the delegations arrived, it was clear that the French, led by Foreign Minister Talleyrand, would oppose their plans. The core four were much disturbed by this, knowing that the smaller powers would support Talleyrand if they gave him the chance of appealing to them. So the core four refused to summon an official meeting of all the representatives, and in fact the Congress would be postponed. Uncertainties about Vienna aided the American cause, as it strengthened the position of those in Britain, including the influential Duke of Wellington, who wanted an end to the American war.

On September 20, 1814, the British negotiators at Ghent gave the Americans a response that showed flexibility on some key issues, and pointed a way to a complete treaty. Specifically, Britain dropped its insistence on a large number of non-negotiable demands, and focused on just one – the fate of their Indian allies and their lands.

Autograph report signed, Ghent, September 21, 1814, to Crawford, giving him a detailed update on the talks and the newly received British response. “I wrote you on the 12th instant undercover to M. Bottinguer [Bottinguer & Co. were bankers in Paris that worked with the United States] give you a correct general outline of the conduct of the adverse party & of the character & aspect of the negotiation. To the note which we delivered on the 7th we received no answer until yesterday. We had, indeed, already learnt that it had, like the former, been submitted to the British ministry, & of course were not surprised at the delay. We are told that no notice is taken of the greatest part of our last note in order to avoid imitation. A spirit of aggrandizement and an intention of conquering Canada is again charged upon us & and proof of these has been discovered in our wish to preserve the right of purchasing Indian lands and in the proclamations of those miserables, Genls. Hall and Smythe. These proclamations are supposed to clinch the point & copies of them have been very formally enclosed & referred to in the note. This spirit and intention being thus proved, it becomes Great Britain to be upon her guard & to demand security for her American possessions. After three or four pages of pitiful quibbling & most unhanded misrepresentations the note proceeds with professions of a sincere desire for peace but in making it, it is totally inconsistent with the practices and principles of Great Britain to abandon those who have cooperated with her in the war.

“She will not therefore sign a treaty of peace unless the Indians ‘be included in it, and restored to all the rights, privileges and territories’ which they enjoyed in the year 1811, previous to their commencement of the war, by virtue of the Treaty of Greenville and the treaties subsequently concluded between them & the United States. From this point the British plenipotentiaries cannot depart. This point is all that is now presented as a sine qua non or which is insisted on as an ultimatum. An article however is to be offered for discussion by which the contracting parties are to agree on boundaries within which neither is to purchase lands of the Indians; this article is to be subject to revision after the expiration of a certain period. The the British plenipotentiaries say that the demand of the exclusive military possession of the lakes was never brought forward as a sine qua non, but that whenever the question relative to Indian pacification shall be adjusted, which is a sine qua non, they shall make a final proposition on the subject of Canadian boundaries, so moderate & just that they are sure it cannot be rejected. ‘This proposition will be distinctly stated upon receiving from the American plenipotentiaries an assurance that they consider themselves authorized to conclude a provisional article on the subject and upon their previously consenting to include the Indian nations in the treaty as above described’.

“Such is the present state of the negotiation. I fear, & have feared from the beginning, that its protraction was & would be exclusively to our disadvantage. The grounds of a final rupture will be either so narrowed or obscured as to authorize doubt and dissatisfaction. We cannot expect to make peace. The sine qua non even in its present shape cannot I think be acceded by us. We cannot discuss a relinquishment of the right of purchasing lands of the Indians – or Canadian boundaries. We have the questions of the navigation of the Mississippi, & of the fisheries, & of the boundary of Maine hanging over us, & the question of impressment still untouched. The adverse party appears to me, indeed, to act with a view to gain time in reference to the Congress of Vienna and to make as plausible a case for themselves as possible in the event of a rupture.”

In the end, as signaled by the British response set forth in Russell’s report, the Treaty of Ghent removed points in contention and left a number of important issues for future good will arbitration, leaving only the problem of the Indians remaining. As for the Indians, the American team had four attorneys – Adams, Clay, Russell and Bayard – and they had no trouble in coming up with a final text that paraphrased the British ministry’s own words regarding them, making the British appear to be taking the Indians into account, while leaving the Americans to do as they wanted in the west. They added the key word “may”, as the article awarded the Indians the “possessions, rights, and privileges which they may have enjoyed or been entitled to” in 1811. Since each side could bring its own interpretation of the meaning of “may”, it was the perfect lawyer’s solution. The British accepted this, and it became Article 9 of the treaty. The United States gave up its designs on Canada, which left Britain free to cease looking over its shoulder at North America. It could concentrate its efforts elsewhere. In return, Britain stopped supporting the Indians in their fight against the encroaching Americans. This withdrawal of support was the death knell to the Indian’s efforts; and they were the true losers in the war. The way to the American west was now open, the great impediment removed.

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