John Quincy Adams on the Day He Arrives for Peace Talks with the British: “We are expecting the arrival of Messrs. Gallatin and Hughes, and of the British Commissioners.”

Despite Napoleon’s exile to Elba, he is rightly unconvinced that the Napoleonic Wars are yet over

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“The Revolution is complete. The wheel has turned to the position from which it started, though it is not, and probably never will be, on exactly the same ground…The calm of the present moment is not a natural one, and the Elements of Discord are by no means exhausted.”

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John Quincy Adams on the Day He Arrives for Peace Talks with the British: “We are expecting the arrival of Messrs. Gallatin and Hughes, and of the British Commissioners.”

Despite Napoleon’s exile to Elba, he is rightly unconvinced that the Napoleonic Wars are yet over

“The Revolution is complete. The wheel has turned to the position from which it started, though it is not, and probably never will be, on exactly the same ground…The calm of the present moment is not a natural one, and the Elements of Discord are by no means exhausted.”

On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Britain, beginning the War of 1812. The U.S. was unprepared for war, however, 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 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.

At about the same time, William H. Crawford was sent to Paris as the new U.S. ambassador to France, and was also 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 upcoming 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.

On June 24, 1812, in an extraordinary coincidence just six days after the American war declaration, Napoleon invaded Russia later that year, and though initially successful was famously forced to retreat in disarray. But the war continued, and Russia and Russia’s interests were still at risk. Tsar Alexander I saw his ally Britain, whose participation was crucial to victory, preoccupied with a war with the United States that he considered a side show. Anxious to disentangle Britain from the American war, and to increase his influence in European affairs, in March 1813 Alexander offered through U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Quincy Adams, to mediate the War of 1812. He presented documents detailing this mediation offer to Secretary of State James Monroe on February 27, 1813. Monroe accepted the offer on March 11, and in May sent Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin and former Senator James Bayard to join Adams in St. Petersburg as negotiators.

The British rejected the concept of third-party mediation, but remained interested in peace talks. In the fall of 1813, after the defeat of Napoleon at Leipzig, British foreign minister Lord Castlereagh offered to negotiate directly with the United States in the neutral city of Ghent in Belgium. In January 1814, President Madison agreed, and he followed up by appointing five negotiators. The head of the American negotiating team was John Quincy Adams, and Gallatin and Bayard were retained to assist him. Henry Clay, Speaker of the House of Representatives and a noted War Hawk, and Jonathan Russell, acting U.S. ambassador to Britain when war was declared and soon to serve as ambassador to Sweden and Norway, were also added to the team. Some of the American envoys, including Adams, arrived in Ghent on July 6, 1814; the others followed soon after.

Meanwhile, Napoleon, who had know so many triumphs and had changed the face of Europe, suffered stinging defeats and defections in 1814. In April he was compelled to surrender and in May found himself in exile at Elba. This change in his fortunes was anything but welcome in the United States, and caused apprehension. The British had huge, experienced armies in Europe, and very capable military leaders (like the Duke of Wellington); with Napoleon gone and there being peace in Europe, all of these assets could be sent to prosecute the war in America, and the U.S. might be overwhelmed. On the other hand, the events were so epochal that Americans could not help but watch in amazement, and wonder about the fate of the parties and persons involved, and about the future of Europe and indeed the world.

Autograph letter signed, Ghent, July 6, 1814, the very day Adams arrived for the peace talks, to Crawford, about the stirring events in Europe, and quite accurately predicting that the peace would not last.  “On the 15th of November and on the 4th of February last, I had the pleasure of writing you letters, and am yet uncertain whether you have ever received them. The former enclosed also letters to the Senator, Count Destutt de Tracy [a French Enlightenment philosopher] and the Marquis de Lafayette.  But I received at Stockholm, without precisely knowing how it had been transmitted there, favor of the 15th November. As there had been an eventful interval of more than six months between the date and the the time when it was received, the objects to which it relates had materially changed their aspects; but the sentiments expressed in it are such as neither times nor circumstances can change, and the opinions were warranted by appearances which in the ordinary occurrences of the world would have been decisive.

“The political convulsions in Europe have now lasted twenty-five years. The Revolution is complete. The wheel has turned to the position from which it started, though it is not, and probably never will be, on exactly the same ground. But whether Europe has a prospect of tranquility before her to succeed her late agitations is a question which baffles all rational foresight as much as it could, at any other since 1789. The calm of the present moment is not a natural one, and the Elements of Discord are by no means exhausted.

“We have received from Mr. Bayard your obliging communications relating to the negotiation with which we are charged. We are expecting the arrival of Messrs. Gallatin and Hughes, and of the British Commissioners.”        

Adams was right to be skeptical that the contending parties were not yet exhausted. In March 1815 Napoleon escaped from Elba and reclaimed power. The war resumed, and did not end until his defeat at Waterloo in June.

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