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Between the Acts at Ghent

ISSUE:  Winter 1929

In 1814 both the United States and Great Britain were thoroughly tired of the Trial by Combat, so, although war was still raging on land and sea, it was agreed that commissions from the two governments should get together and discuss terms of peace. Ghent was finally chosen as the meeting place, and the American delegates, after long journeys from various parts of Europe and the United States, began to arrive in July. John Quincy Adams and Jonathan Russell were the first, James Ashton Bayard came a few days later, then Henry Clay and last of all Albert Gallatin. About the same time the secretary to the Commission, Christopher Hughes, tore himself away from the delights of Paris and reported for duty. “Kit” Hughes was a Maryland man of Irish extraction, twenty-eight years of age at the time, and had married about three years previously, a daughter of General Samuel Smith.

Never has the United States put a stronger team into the field. The principals represented various sections of the country and different shades of political opinion. They were all, with the exception of Russell, men of great ability; they had a high sense of the heavy responsibility resting upon them; above all they were good fighting men. From the dramatic point of view, “our lively secretary” was a marvelous selection. Hughes provided the note of comedy in a very serious business. “He is good-humoured,” wrote Adams, “smart at repartee, and a thorough punster, theory and practice.” It is only fair to add that he had also more serious qualifications for his post—quick observation and correct judgment united to “great facility and great assiduity in the transaction of business.” “The fine qualities of Hughes cannot fail to interest you very, highly,” wrote Mr. Clay to Mr. Bayard shortly before they all met at Ghent.

There were also some hard-working private secretaries and a number of junior attaches who were very independent and came and went much as they pleased. Among these was John Payne Todd, Mrs. Madison’s son by her first marriage. Some Frenchman innocently mispronouncing his name dubbed him “Monsieur Toad” to Hughes’ great delight, and after that he seldom went by any other name in the Mission. “Toad” was greatly fascinated by Paris, but it was not only the gayeties that attracted him. The poor fellow was cross-eyed, and a physician of that city had promised to straighten his eyes, so he had a good alibi for not sticking in Ghent. Then there was James Gallatin. That auburn-haired youth, who may still be seen as Cupid in the well-known picture by David, accompanied his father, and was just about entering on his amazing career as a dandy. He had his new Chinese nankeen suit with him and his white silk stockings and his mother’s pearl brooch for his high white choker. A few months later he was presented to the Prince Regent and was told by that competent authority that he would break many hearts; and James was anticipating that prophecy.

The Commissioners established themselves at Ghent in a large house, now called the Maison d’Alcantara, a dignified eighteenth century building with a facade on the rue des Champs. It was supposed to be fully furnished, even to a traditional ghost, and had a fine garden. There were rooms for all the chiefs, but the secretaries were scattered about in lodgings. “We should have been gratified to have had Mr. Hughes with us,” wrote Adams. “I regret the loss of his society.” However Hughes and all the other attaches came to dinner every day, and the whole party gathered around the long dining table.

In this house they lived for many months and played many a pretty dramatic scene of tragedy and of comedy between the acts of their public performances. Here they wrote and argued and re-wrote and quarreled and made up and began over again and closed ranks and sallied forth with a brave front to meet the English, and nearly broke their hearts in their effort to make a good peace.

It was over a month before the British Commissioners arrived, and the Americans fretted at the delay. A great event had changed the whole international scene since the peace negotiations had first been set afoot. Napoleon had been defeated at Leipzig and was now at Elba. Great Britain had her hands free to pursue the war in America with the whole power of her army and navy. The Americans felt terribly alone against their powerful enemy. They knew that heavy reinforcements were going out from England, and they feared that military reverses would put them in a bad position for negotiating. However there was nothing to do but to wait with the best patience they could. The secretary beguiled the time by teasing Mr. Adams for having summoned him away from Paris before there was anything doing, and the attaches, being very lightly attached, journeyed off on pleasure trips.

Finally the British Envoys, Admiral Lord Gambier, Mr. Goulburn, Dr. Adams, and the secretary, Mr. Anthony St. John Baker, arrived. Mr. Gallatin looked them over and confided to Cupid that he felt perfectly competent to handle any or all of them. Even so, after the first conferences the Americans felt terribly depressed. They knew their country needed peace desperately, and they saw no hope of obtaining it. The ideas of the two parties were so far apart that it seemed no compromise could ever bridge the gulf. Perhaps Great Britain did not even want to end the war, they, thought; a few formalities and the whole business would be over, and they might as well order their ship to make ready for a grim homeward voyage. Only Henry Clay, took a contrary view. Clay was a great card player; one of his favorite games being Brag, an early form of poker. He suspected that the British were indulging in one of the usual maneuvres of that diversion, and so for some “inconceivable” reason, as Adams wrote, Clay maintained that their opponents would retreat from their position. The poker player was right; that was only a beginning of the game. It was a long struggle with many ups and downs. Again and again the Americans thought it was all off and steeled their hearts to accept failure; again and again a way was found out of the difficulty and the negotiations went on.

There was plenty of cause for misunderstandings. Ignorance and resentment had built up a wall between the two nations. In the London papers the current story was that Henry Clay stropped his razor in the mornings on a strip of skin which he had cut from Tecumseh’s back. The Englishmen looked at the Westerner curiously, and Goul-burn made the discovery that all Americans thought they had a natural and inalienable right to kill Indians. The sight of the redcoats doing sentry, duty before the British headquarters in the old Convent of the Chartreux reminded Adams of the time when he first saw that uniform. It was just after the battle of Lexington. He was a little boy; there was a great bustle in the house; his mother was melting her pewter spoons into bullets, and they all expected “hourly to be butchered by General Gage’s troops.” Thus pleasantly ruminating, the Chief of the Mission would pass in between the scarlet soldiers to a conference.

Gallatin with his European education and manner of thought seemed nearer to the English than the men of their own race. The Duke of Wellington wrote that he placed his confidence in Gallatin’s sense of justice, moderation and good common sense to bring the parties together. It is difficult to confer about peace when war is going on. They met in conference and preserved the forms of courtesy while their armies and fleets were grappling with each other on the other side of the world. With bitterness in their hearts they ate each other’s bread and salt at reciprocal dinners, and some of these were fairly stiff occasions.

There were short periods of intense activity in the negotiations when the Commissioners would work day and night preparing their arguments and counter-propositions, and “the fly on the coach wheel,” as the secretary called himself, would be very busy copying and re-copying and hurrying to and fro between the American residence and the headquarters of the British. Then there would be a long interval of usually ten days while everything was referred to the Council in England. The Americans got through these trying periods of inaction and suspense as best they could. Henry Clay played cards. Mr. Adams caught up with his diary. On many a cold gray dawn the light was still burning in one of the windows of the Maison d’Alcantara; Clay and his friends were having a game, and as the party broke up and the panes went black, a light would appear in another casement. It was Adams’ candle. The Heid of the Mission was kindling his fire and getting ready to read his five chapters in the Bible and then start on his work of the day.

There were coffee houses in the town where one could read the papers, and also billiard rooms. Then there was the French theatre. Mr. Gallatin and James went every night and got to know all the company intimately. Mr. Bayard, observing James, wrote home to his son that he was glad he had left him at college, in spite of the great comfort and solace it would have been to him to have had the young man with him. The European trip was not doing Mr. Gallatin’s son any good; he was not “advancing one step in the acquisition of any useful knowledge.” Mr. Adams limited himself to one night a week at the play. He had always been very fond of the theatre. When he was a boy at school at Passy, his father and Dr. Franklin used to take him to see a troupe of child actors. There was a lovely girl in the company, and young John Quincy adored her for many months but could not get the chance to speak to her. He had never forgotten the charming vision; but he hoped that his boys would never make the acquaintance !of actresses—delightful, clever beings—but young scions of the Adams family must stuff wax in their ears and pull on their oars.

The citizens of Ghent were very hospitable to the Commission. The Intendant and the Mayor and the prominent families entertained them with great friendliness. The good Belgians felt a great deal of sympathy for the Americans. Their own fate was at that time in the hands of the Congress of Vienna and was about to be decided for them without any reference to their wishes. They gave them good dinners and showed them their art treasures, and they invited their guests to be honorary members of their learned and scientific societies. Mr. Bayard and Mr. Adams and Mr. Gallatin were invited by, the Society of Fine Arts and Letters, and Mr. Clay and Mr. Russell and Mr. Hughes received a similar compliment from the Society of Agriculture and Botany, at which Mr. Russell was somewhat nettled, considering himself to have been placed in the less honorable group. The musicians of the town were anxious to learn “Hail Columbia.” They had some trouble in getting it, but with Mr. Gallatin’s “black Peter” whistling and Mr. Hughes doing a little scraping on a fiddle, they made out, and soon all the bands in the town were playing it.

At the dinner parties they sometimes finished the evening with whist. Mr. Adams had the Intendant’s lady as a partner, and Mr. Clay was bored and thought the stakes too small. Mr. Gallatin told some of the ladies that Mr. Adams was too devoted to his wife to be interested in feminine charms and Mr. Adams politely begged Mr. Gallatin to mind his own business and let the ladies find out about him for themselves and in their own ways. At one entertainment the little twelve-year old daughter of the Mayor played on the harp and sang several verses in compliment to the guests, whereupon John Quincy, not to be outdone in courtesy, and also because he always had a weakness for versifying, knocked off work for one whole morning in order to compose a suitable response.

Of course the Americans returned the civilities. They gave dinners with music, took the ladies for a turn in the garden, which was gaily illuminated, and even had dancing. There were the usual slow games of whist, but Mr. Clay got some excitement out of it one evening when he won a picture that Mr. Adams had previously drawn in a lottery and also the prize that Mr. Russell had drawn.

A number of Americans turned up in Ghent, some just for the pleasure of seeing their fellow-citizens, some with a very practical intention of finding out how the negotiations were going. Among the latter was Mr. Bentzon, a son-in-law of John Jacob Astor. He hung about a good deal and was actually in at the finish, trying to pick up information for his father-in-law.

The envoys were eager for news from home, and, direct communication being rare, what knowledge they got of the progress of the war came frequently through British sources. They knew that Admiral Cochrane and his fleet threatened the whole Atlantic Coast and that an expedition was preparing for New Orleans. “It is not possible that the summer should pass without bringing us news that will cause our hearts to ache.” At last it came. Washington had been captured, Baltimore was threatened.

Mr. Goulburn sent Mr. Clay the London papers containing the official account of the taking of the Capital, with an apology for the disagreeable nature of the intelligence, presuming that, nevertheless, Mr. Clay, would like to have the latest news. To this bitter-tasting courtesy Mr. Clay responded in a short while by sending to Mr. Goulburn with his compliments a Paris journal containing the first tidings of the destruction of the British fleet on Lake Champlain. He apologized for the unpleasant character of the news, but presumed that Mr. Goulburn would be anxious for the most recent information.

Those were dark days for the secretary of the Commission. His young wife and his father were in Baltimore. His brother-in-law, Colonel Armistead, was in command of Fort McHenry, protecting Baltimore on the water side, and his father-in-law, General Smith, had charge of the militia defending the city in the absence of regular troops. It must have been difficult in such circumstances to keep up one’s character as the life of the party. Even Mr. Clay’s optimism was dashed. “These distressing events,” he wrote, “have given me the deepest affliction.” Mr. Adams went to the play the evening he heard of the capture of Washington, but he was too miserable to be diverted. Looking back on that unhappy time he remembered with gratitude the cheerfulness and animation the secretary mingled “in the cup of our political bitterness and dullness.”

In spite of discouragements the Commissioners maintained a strong stand, and gradually matters began to take on a better aspect. The English really wanted to make peace. Lord Castlereagh, Minister for Foreign Affairs, passed through Ghent on his way to Vienna and read Mr. Goulburn a stiff lesson, and the Duke of Wellington wrote a letter to the Prime Minister that pushed the affair along considerably.

The Americans always had great discussions over every paper they drew up. Mr. Adams was all for a spirited tone, Mr. Gallatin wanted to strike out every expression that might give offence, Mr. Bayard made changes in the style; and now, as their opponents drew nearer to their terms, they had a hard time to agree among themselves. Some terrific arguments, not to say battles, took place. On one occasion Clay stalked up and down the room in the old Maison d’Alcantara and swore that, so help him God, he would never agree to a certain article; and there was another day when Adams told his colleagues bitterly to go ahead and sign the paper under consideration if they liked it, but that he would never put his name to it; and the Kentuckian said gloomily that they were going to “make a damned bad treaty.” In such moments Mr. Gallatin would ease the tension with a humorous comment or Mr. Hughes would break up the meeting with a laugh.

One day, after a long and nerve-racking conference with their opponents, Mr. Clay, remarked that Mr. Goulburn was a man of much irritation. “Irritability is the word,” said Adams, and looking at Clay fixedly, he added in a half-jesting tone, “like somebody else that I know.” Clay laughed and sent the ball back. “Aye, we all know him, and none better than yourself”; and Gallatin, joining in the attack on their chief, said, “he is your best friend.” “Agreed,” said Adams, “I’m the most irritable,” adding, with his eye on Clay, “except one” and they let him have the last word. “The Chevalier,” as they called Mr. Bayard, had, of all, the most perfect control of his temper. He and Mr. Adams discussed their differences one night tête-à-tête over a bottle of Chambertin, with good results for harmony, and that time it was the Massachusetts man who gave way.

One of the fiercest battles they had was about an article relating to the fisheries. The question was tangled up with another article regarding the navigation of the Mississippi. That New England men should have the liberty to fish in Canadian waters and dry their catch on Canadian shores seemed to Clay very unimportant, but Adams was determined not to yield a jot of what he considered Yankee rights. The “Battle of the Fish” raged long and loud until finally they agreed among themselves and got the English to consent to leave the matter to be adjusted by a commission. Years afterwards Henry Clay was dining with John Quincy Adams in Washington. A. large fish was brought on the table. “What is that?” Clay inquired as the cover was removed. “A codfish from my constituents in Marblehead,” replied his host; “shall I send you a bit of it?” Clay remembered their ancient quarrel; “Not the least bit,” he replied, laughing and waving it away with a god-forbid gesture. “The bones would stick in my throat like a Mississippi snag.”

Not until about the end of November did the Americans begin to think that their efforts would be successful. At last the articles were agreed upon. No territory, was ceded, no rights abrogated, some troublesome matters were passed over in silence, others were to be submitted to commissions; and so, on December 24th, 1814, in the Convent of the Chartreux, the British and American Commissioners signed their names to the Treaty of Ghent, and a message of peace and good-will floated over the world.

Three copies of the Treaty were executed on each side. Mr. Baker, the British Secretary, had a carriage waiting in the courtyard and started off posthaste with a copy to be ratified by the British Government. Mr. Hughes was to carry the tidings and a copy of the Treaty to the American Government, and in case of accident or delay, another copy was entrusted to Mr. Henry Carroll, Clay’s secretary.

The next day Mr. Adams wrote to Mr. Monroe, Secretary of State, a joint letter from the Commissioners and gave the despatch to Hughes. The secretary glanced it over: “There now, my name is not once mentioned in the whole letter,” he blurted out impetuously, thinking perhaps that some notice of his devoted service was due. “I assure you,” said he, “this takes away a great part of my satisfaction in being the bearer of the Treaty.” Mr. Adams explained somewhat coldly that such personal matters were not proper in an official paper, but he assured the young man that his work would be commended in a private letter to Mr. Monroe. Hughes, still feeling a bit sore, hurried off to get the signatures of some of the other Commissioners who were dining at the house of Madame van Canighem. During the dinner Mr. Clay noticed that the secretary was not in his usual spirits, and when Hughes, having made his adieux, was about to leave, the Kentuckian followed him into the corridor. He threw his arm around the young man and asked affectionately what was the matter. A great part of Clay’s charm was his warm human sympathy, and he was not going to let their “lively secretary,” start off on his long winter journey in a gloom of hurt feelings. Hughes may have realized afterwards that Adams was right, but he never forgot Clay’s kindness. Thirty years later Henry Clay suffered a bitter disappointment. The Presidency which had seemed at last almost within his grasp slipped from him. When Christopher Hughes, at that time Charge d’Affaires in Sweden, heard the result of the election, his heart overflowed in a long letter of condolence. After assurances of his love and respect, he reminded his old chief of that winter night in Ghent; he recalled all the details of the scene, the exciting events of the day, his mortification, and the sympathy and kindness that Clay showed to him then—”and the precious pen you used to sign that last despatch (Mme. van Canighem thought it was the Treaty and always boasted that the Peace had been made at her house) is in a glass case in her home and is sacredly preserved to this day.”

The news of the signing of the Treaty, by the Commissioners was announced in Ghent on Christmas Day, and was received with great manifestations of joy by high and low. The Americans entertained the British, and the British entertained the Americans. The Intendant gave a dinner for the envoys of both nations, at which his daughter-in-law, the charming Countess d’Hane, teased Mr. Goulburn by, telling him that “Hail Columbia” was a prettier tune than “God Save the King,” and much more gay and lively. In the town a ripple of amusement was caused by some impudent doggerel verses in honor of the event. They alluded to a recent bon mot of the Prince de Ligne about the Congress at Vienna, “Le Congrès danse mais il ne marche pas” and recommended the Sovereigns and Ministers assembled at the Austrian Capital to look at what had been done at Ghent; no one ever saw Lord Gam-bier and Mr. Gallatin waltzing or Mr. Goulburn taking part in a country dance; they all stuck to their work, and lo, one morning, when nobody expected it, it was found that they had made a treaty, and all was settled.

The good people of Ghent had a real affection for their American guests. Ten years later in 1825 when John Quincy Adams became President and made Henry, Clay his Secretary of State and Christopher Hughes his representative at Brussels, it seemed to their Belgian friends a perfect end to a perfect story.

“Everyone in Ghent is delighted at your appointment,” Baron van Crombrugghe, the Netherlands Minister to Stockholm told Mr. Hughes. “They insist upon considering it a special compliment to them, une coquetterie envers lew bonne ville de Gand” When the former secretary arrived in Brussels to fill his new post his old friends came down to see him—among them Charles Maelcamp, the tall lank fellow whom the Americans used to call the sword of Charlemagne, now comfortably married to a rich widow; the Dowager Countess d’Hane with her large family of children and grandchildren; van Huffel, who had painted and sketched the Commissioners at Ghent; and all the others, delighting and sometimes embarrassing Hughes with their attentions. They claimed him as a member of their scientific academies, and his colleagues of the diplomatic corps rallied him not a little on his fellowship in the Botanical Society. At a reception at the British Minister’s, Lady Bagot maliciously called on him for the name of a beautiful exotic plant. Amid much laughter Mr. Hughes roared out that it was a hollyhock and for the moment put an end to their teasing.

“ ‘Twas moonset at starting,” or four o’clock in the morning of the 26th of December, when Hughes dashed off to bring the good news from Ghent to Washington. There was a long journey before him. He had to cross France to sail on the Transit from Bordeaux. Owing to various accidents the ship was a week in getting out of the Garonne. Hughes had hoped to be the first to present the good news to his Government, but all chance of that pleasant sensational end to his mission had vanished before he was out of sight of land. “I am afraid I shall be second or third herald in point of time,” he wrote to the Ministers at Ghent. Buffeted by wintry winds he ploughed his way across the Atlantic for sixty stormy days, and the Treaty had been ratified and signed long before the secretary landed on these shores.

Henry Carroll had better luck. He sailed on the British sloop of war Favorite with Mr. Baker, who was bringing over the British ratification. He landed at New York on the 11th of February and proceeded with all haste to the Capital.

The last scene of the drama was played in the Octagon House at Washington when President Madison signed the Treaty, but before this dénouement Fate in a sportive mood staged a little entr’acte that seemed to John Quincy Adams a most pleasant piece of irony.

Just two days ahead of Carroll on the road was Harrison Gray Otis, journeying south to present to the Government the first fruits of the Hartford Convention. Somewhere near Baltimore the messenger from Ghent overtook the emissary from Massachusetts and they, reached Washington about the same time—the one bearing the menace of separation and the other the treaty of peace that put an end to internal dissension as well as to the war with the foreign enemy.


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