John Quincy Adams Announces That the American Commissioners at Ghent Have Presented a Draft Treaty to the British, and Lays Out His Negotiating Strategy to Win the Talks

Should this strategy work and a peace be signed based on it, he will “sign the Treaty with a degree of pleasure which has not yet fallen to my lot in this life.”.

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He rejects the argument that the British were justified in burning Washington as a retaliation against American misconduct in York, Ontario, and sees a chance that the French firmness in negotiating with the British at Vienna will benefit the United States

The U.S. was unprepared for the War of 1812, and the...

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John Quincy Adams Announces That the American Commissioners at Ghent Have Presented a Draft Treaty to the British, and Lays Out His Negotiating Strategy to Win the Talks

Should this strategy work and a peace be signed based on it, he will “sign the Treaty with a degree of pleasure which has not yet fallen to my lot in this life.”.

He rejects the argument that the British were justified in burning Washington as a retaliation against American misconduct in York, Ontario, and sees a chance that the French firmness in negotiating with the British at Vienna will benefit the United States

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.

Tsar Alexander I saw his ally Britain preoccupied with a war with the United States that he considered a side show, with the real conflict being fought in Europe. Anxious to disentangle Britain from the American war, and to increase his influence in European affairs, Alexander offered through U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Quincy Adams, to mediate the War of 1812. He presented documents detailing its 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. Prior to their leaving, Madison had Monroe prepare instructions to be used by them. These stated: ”The impressment of seamen and illegal blockades were the principal cause of the war,” which would “cease as soon as these rights are respected.” British cruisers must not be allowed to stop and search U.S. vessels, and “It is expected that all American seamen who have been impressed will be discharged.” Another major object of the negotiations was to end the British blockades. “Your first duty will be to conclude a peace with Great Britain, if you obtain a satisfactory stipulation against impressment…If your efforts to accomplish it should fail, all further negotiations will cease, and you will return home without delay.” Next it took up the question of the British arming and supplying the Indians, saying this must stop. Nor must Britain continue to use native forces against “our Western States and Territories.” Thus, the U.S. negotiators must insist on an end to impressment, and ship seizures, and stop aiding the Indians in the west.

The British offered to negotiate directly with the Americans, and on August 8, 1814, talks began that would result in the Treaty if Ghent. The Americans delegation was led by Adams and included Gallatin and Bayard. Added to the team were House Speaker (and noted War Hawk) Henry Clay and diplomat Jonathan Russell. They had their instructions as issued the previous year, yet these instructions were not viable as the sessions at Ghent began. It would fall to the lot of the negotiators to determine, cumulatively but led by Adams, what practical positions the Americans would take, and what conditions in their instructions to regard and disregard.

As for the British, they initially 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 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. The Americans rejected these demands out of hand, and actively considered going home.

On August 24, 1814, after defeating an American force at Bladensburg, Maryland, the British marched unopposed into Washington, D.C. Most congressmen and officials fled the nation’s capital, but President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, escaped just before the invaders arrived. The British army entered Washington in the late afternoon, and General Ross and British officers dined that night at the deserted White House. Meanwhile, the British troops, ecstatic that they had captured their enemy’s capital, began setting the city aflame. The White House, a number of federal buildings, and several private homes were destroyed. The still uncompleted Capitol building was also set on fire, and the House of Representatives and the Library of Congress were gutted before a torrential downpour doused the flames. On August 26, Ross, realizing his untenable hold on the capital area, ordered a withdrawal from Washington. The next day, President Madison returned to a smoking and charred Washington and vowed to rebuild the city.  It took well over a month for the news to reach Ghent, with Adams learning about the dismal event on October 4. The British justified burning Washington by saying it was in retaliation for American actions in Canada.

About the same time Adams received news ballyhooing that American Gen. George Izard sent some raids into Canada. Adams was justifiably suspicious of the results Izard would get, and in fact Izard received much criticism for his ineffectiveness, and retired from the army. This was yet another defeat on land.

In November there was still no comprehensive document covering all the war’s issues, nor was their unanimity within the delegations themselves as to what to demand and concede. After agreeing amongst themselves, on November 10, the Americans broke the stalemate and provided the British with a draft for a comprehensive treaty. This was the first draft treaty of Ghent, and it contained 15 points.

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. In July 1814, after Napoleon’s abdication, a Congress assembled at Vienna to craft a general European peace. The French, now led by King Louis XVIII, somewhat surprisingly took firm positions against the British. This offered hope to the Americans that the French might yet benefit their cause, and Adams kept in touch with Crawford to learn the latest news from Pairs, and plan how best to exploit the ongoing disagreements in Europe.

Autograph report signed, 3 pages, Ghent, November 17, 1814, to Crawford, announcing the draft treaty the Americans presented to the British just a week before, discussing strategy, seeking to use France as a wedge against Britain, even with Napoleon gone, expressing lack of confidence in the weakened U.S. Army, and rejecting the argument that the British were justified in burning Washington as a retaliation against American misconduct in York, Ontario. “I received yesterday your favor of the 10th instance which restaurant by Mr. Storrow. My expectations with regard to the issue of the campaign in America are colored perhaps more by general reasoning than by reference to the particular state of facts. I cannot suppose it possible that Izzard’s object was not an attack upon Kingston. I take it for granted it was to relieve and reinforce our army at Fort Erie, which by our most recent accounts was in a situation more critical than that of Drummond, and still besieged by him. Among the last rumors from Halifax is that of a successful sortie from Fort Erie, and if that report was well-founded we might rely more upon the issue of Izzard’s exposition. My distrust of it arises from the necessity of exact correspondence in the execution of combined operations, and a want of confidence in our military maneuvers upon the land. We have not yet learnt to play the game.

“The debates in Parliament upon the Regent’s speech have disclosed the system pursued by his government in the negotiation at this place. Lord Liverpool avows without scruple that their demands and propositions are to be regulated by circumstances, and of course while that policy prevails nothing can be concluded. Even when all the preparations are made, and all the funds provided for another campaign, it is not clear that they will find it expedient to break off this negotiation, and it is certain that we shall not break it off without orders from our government.

“We sent on the 10th instant the project [draft] of a Treaty, assuming the basis of status quo ante vellum with regard to territory, and have offered in the note sent with it to extend the same principle to all the other objects in dispute between the two countries. We have presented articles on the subjects of impressment, stockades, indemnification, exclusion of savage cooperation in future wars, and amnesty. But we have declared ourselves willing to sign a peace placing the two nations precisely as they were at the commencement of the war, and leaving all controversial matter for future and pacific negotiation. I was earnestly desirous that this offer should be made, not from hope that it would be accepted, for I entertain none, but with the hope that it would take from them the advantage of caviling [making unnecessary objections] at any of our proposed articles as manifesting no disposition for peace, and compel them to avow for what object they intend to continue the war.

“We have offered no equivalent for the fisheries. We have considered the rights and liberties connected with them as having formed essential parts of the acknowledgment of our independence – that they need no additional stipulation to secure us in the enjoyment of them, and that our government upon the principles had instructed us not to bring them into discussion. This was originally my view of the subject, and the principle on which I thought the rights to the fisheries must be defended from the moment when we were informed in the first conference they would be contested. The offer of an equivalent was afterwards suggested from a doubt whether the ground I had proposed to take was tenable, and with the intention of relieving it from all contention. I was prepared for either alternative, but I held the one or the other to be indispensable. We finally assumed the principle on which I had originally rested the cause. It is urged that the principle if correct includes the equivalent which it had been contemplated to offer, and I admit that it may. The general basis of the state before includes in substance both to my mind beyond all doubt. And although I have no hope that this offer will be now accepted, yet if it should be, I am not only ready to adhere to it, and abide by it in all its consequences, but to sign the Treaty with a degree of pleasure which has not yet fallen to my lot in this life. I am very certain that after seven years of war we shall not obtain more, and what heart would continue the war another day, finally to obtain less?

“You will have observed that the atrocious manner in which the British are carrying on the war in our country has been a subject of animadversion in Parliament. The ministers placed it on the footing of retaliation. Lord Grenville and Mr. Whitbread censure in the style which Burke described as ‘above all things afraid of being too much in the right’. They are evidently not in possession of the facts which shed the foulest infamy upon the British name in these transactions. We have seen several interesting speculations in the Paris papers on the same subject. Would it not be possible through the same channels to show the falsehood of the pretext of retaliation, or to make the principle recoil upon themselves? You have no doubt the report of the Committee made 31 July 1813 on the spirit and manner in which the war had been waged against us even then. It has occurred to me that a short abstract from that might be presented to the public in Europe, with a reference to dates, which would point the argument of retaliation such as it is, directly at the enemy.

“In general, the British have had ever since the commencement of the war such entire possession of all the printing presses in Europe, that its public opinion has been almost exclusively under their guidance. From the access which truth and humanity have obtained in several of the public journals in France in relation to our affairs, it may be inferred that no control unfavorable to them will be exercised, however unwelcome the real exposition of facts may be across the channel.  It appears that the principles asserted by the French plenipotentiaries at Vienna have made a profound impression, that they have already disconcerted some of the projects of Lord Castlereagh, and that without offering any pretext for hostility from any quarter, they have laid the foundation for the restoration to France of that influence in the affairs of Europe without which this continent would be little more than a British colony. The issue of the Congress at Vienna will undoubtedly be pacific, but if France has taken the attitude ascribed to her by the rumored contents of Talleyrand’s memorial, her rival will not long enjoy the dream of dictating her laws to the civilized world. France had lost her place in the family of nations.It was at Vienna that it became her to resume it. We have reason to hope that she did resume it, exactly she ought, and as the place she took was marked at once with dignity and moderation, it is to be presumed it will be maintained with firmness.”

This is one of the most important and revealing American diplomatic letters we have ever seen, filled with Adams’ strategies for the ultimately successful peace negotiations, which were in fact concluded on the basis he advocated, his personal emotional involvement in the results, his views on American military forces, his announcement of the first draft treaty, and more. It was acquired by us from a direct descendant of William H. Crawford, and it has never before been offered for sale.

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