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The Small-Talk of a Great Affair

ISSUE:  Winter 1930


When the Honorable Charles Bagot was appointed Minister to the United States the congratulations of his friends sounded something like condolences. “You were right to accept, and if you can succeed”—the ominous little “if” creeps into their letters and there is an uneasy tone to their felicitations. It was a splendid opportunity for the young diplomat, they all agreed, but a dangerous and desperate undertaking, and one that was quite as likely to end his career as to establish it. In the thirty-two years that had passed since the American Revolution, none of the British Ministers to the United States had gained any glory from their missions. All of them had returned to Downing Street injured either in spirit or in reputation, usually in both. They had made mistakes, or they had been simply unlucky. They had fallen into all sorts of pitfalls. Some of them had seemed to ally, themselves with one political party, offending another; and. some had imprudently conversed with adventurers and fili-busterers. They had suffered horribly from the vagaries of democratic etiquette, and their wives had made scenes. A leakage of official secrets had embarrassed one; another, with the best intentions, had made trouble by exceeding his instructions. One envoy had used such invidious language to the President that the Executive had declined to receive any more communications from him, and he was left to wander in outer darkness until a ship came and curried him home. Sometimes reproof, sometimes cold sympathy, had been the reward of these unfortunate servants of His Majesty, but never a laurel to any one of them.

As young Mr. Bagot surveyed the scene, the bones of his predecessors lay whitening the field, and “such an one was strong and such an one was bold” but all of them, as Mr. Wellesley Pole, Bagot’s father-in-law, pleasantly remarked, had contrived to render themselves objects either of “contempt or ridicule.”

At last, in 1812, the measure of mutual misunderstanding was full, and there broke out between the two countries what some historians have termed “an unnecessary, war.” It was now 1815. Great Britain and the United States had just signed a treaty of peace at Ghent and diplomatic relations were to be resumed. The task of a British Minister at Washington was, however, even more difficult than before. A whole new crop of quarrels and resentments had sprung up on the recent battlefields, and it had been so hard for the two parties to agree and make a peace that important points of contention were left unsettled by the Treaty. Some were actually not mentioned in the articles; others were referred to commissions; so that the Convention itself was hardly more than an indefinite and fragile armistice. There were a number of explosive questions awaiting the British Minister at Washington, any one of which was liable to blow him out of the service and into the retirement of private life.

It was under these auspices that Mr. Bagot accepted the American mission.

The Honorable Charles Bagot was a younger son of an ancient and honorable house, a brother of Lord Bagot of Bagot’s Bromley. He was thirty-two years old and had married in 1806 Mary Charlotte Anne Wellesley-Pole, a niece of the Duke of Wellington. He was an Oxford man and a member of the witty circle of George Canning and his friends. Just after Mr. Bagot’s acceptance something happened which made his task much easier. Waterloo was won—British prestige received a tremendous boost.

“Waterloo is a great help to you,” wrote Canning to the newly made Minister, “perhaps a pretty necessary help after the (to say the least) balanced successes and misfortunes of the American War.”

There was a general belief in England at this time that President Madison had been secretly leagued with Napoleon, and the feeling aroused by this misconception was very bitter. Even the genial Sir Walter Scott regretted that his country had been obliged to make peace with the Americans before giving them “a memento” that “the unborn babe would remember,” and the philanthropic Wilber-force was restrained only “by, the religion of the blessed Jesus” from longing to inflict all sorts of evils upon the detestable American Government. Bagot doubtless felt much as these gentlemen but, not being a philanthropist or a literary man, he was neither so bitter nor so picturesque. He was a Tory and bred upon The Quarterly. A pretty thorough-going article had appeared recently in that magazine and Mr. Bagot had read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested that highly spiced dish of truth and slander, and was now fully possessed of the fact that “the Englishman whom business should carry to visit his brethren across the Atlantic must expect to find vulgarity of vice and hostility to all of the graces of life—a tone of conversation, heartless and repulsive or (among the more sprightly breed of genteel citizens) coarse, forward, and inquisitive.”

Charles Bagot had no love for the United States but he had a firm intention to do a good piece of diplomatic work, please his chief, and honorably advance himself in his career. It was his business to cultivate good relations between his country and that to which he was accredited, and he made up his mind that this could be done and that he was going to do it.

For the purpose of drawing the two countries closer together he had imagined “a plan of treatment” simple but entirely original in this connection—so simple, indeed, as to arouse a cynical merriment among his friends. He intended to make himself agreeable. He would charm the wild Yankees. He would carry with him an inexhaustible stock of good-humor, laying aside pride, vain-glory, all superfluity of witty sarcasm, and he would array himself in the most beautiful shining armor of courtesy that any British diplomat had as yet exhibited in the United States. A chorus of friendly, jibes greeted his exposition of his “plan.” It was fine, but his friends hoped he did not flatter himself that by being civil to the Yankees he would render them civil to him in return. Canning patted him on the head for his amiable intentions but remarked dryly, “I am afraid, indeed, that the question is not so much how you will treat them, as how they will treat you, and that probably the hardest lesson a British Minister at Washington has to learn is not what to do but what to bear.” So they wished him well.

It was in June, 1815, that the Honorable Charles Bagot kissed hands on his appointment at the Levee of the Prince Regent, but it was not until early in 1816 that he sailed for America. He had to wait for a ship, and the ship had to wait for a crew. So he waited, if dallying in England at that particular time can be called waiting. It was the glorious summer of Waterloo, one of the most brilliant periods in all English history, and London was in her gayest mood. The army had come back from the Continent, and heroes, foreign and domestic, were plentiful as tabby cats. In Hyde Park all sorts of strange and gorgeous uniforms vied with the proud cravats and tightly buttoned coats of the dandies. In the afternoon, beautiful duchesses drove out in magnificent equipages with powdered footmen and coachmen stately, as archbishops, and the Prince Regent appeared on horseback accompanied by a cavalcade of ladies and gentlemen. Lord Byron had brought his bride to town. Sir Walter Scott had come out of the north and was swapping jokes at the Regent’s table and cleverly parrying his host’s allusions to the mysterious authorship of “Waverley.” Beau Brummel was gaily gambling away “the poor ten thousand guineas” that remained at his bankers. He lost also the half-penny with the hole in it—”no doubt that rascal Rothschild or some of his set have got hold of it.” Kean was playing Shakespeare, and a small, exclusive audience enjoyed wicked French plays, foiling the censor by limiting the show to subscribers. Society sang Moore’s melodies, waltzed, or danced the quadrille which Lady Jersey had just brought over from France; until the hunting season drove them out of London and into the country, houses.

And all this Charles Bagot saw and was part of, in that anno mirabile in England.

At last his ship was manned and he sailed away and arrived in the New World early in the New Year.

Washington in 1816 was, as the Abb6 Correa described it, a city of magnificent distances. Not that it was so large; it was very small but it was so spread out. It was peculiar in having been started at the extremities, and there was no cosy sociable centre. Everything was very, far away from everything else, and, in between, stretched miles of marsh and bare commons. There had been such a ruthless cutting down of trees that hardly any remained except a double row of poplars planted along Pennsylvania Avenue. A few buildings huddled around Capitol Hill, but frogs and mosquitoes were the principal inhabitants along the unpaved road that led to the White House. Around the President’s grounds a few streets were nearly filled up. At Nineteenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue there was a row of handsome houses called the Seven Buildings. One of these was now the residence of the President, as the White House was being repaired after its destruction by the British in 1814. Farther along towards Georgetown were several blocks cf houses, and scattered about were a few fine mansions built by the original owners of the land. The roads were unpaved afifl” impassable in bad weather. Getting about at night was a high adventure. Carriages were frequently overturned or stuck fast in the mud. If the driver missed the way he might wander around the country until morning. There were even stories of highwaymen in the neighborhood of Georgetown. Fevers were accepted as a part of the ordinary routine of life. One got used to the daily, attack of chills and simply took to the sofa with a shawl and a pot of tea until the shivering fit was over. The Congressmen and Senators lived for the most part in boarding houses: and a young lady of North Carolina who surveyed the social scene at this time noted regretfully, “the homespun propensities of our great folk. I suppose there have never been in the city so many plain women, in every sense of the word, as are now among the families of official personages.” Madame Pichon, the French Minister’s wife, complained that the ladies knew the price of a bunch of turnips but knew nothing of the Paris Opera. But there were always pretty girls at the Georgetown balls (even a former British Minister had acknowledged it).

The city still bore the scars of the recent British invasion. At the approach of the redcoats the President’s lady and many other worthy citizens had gathered up their best belongings and fled the town. It was now two years since that day, and Mrs. Madison’s macaw and the Stuart portrait of Washington, and all the other fugitives, had gotten back from their hasty flight; the Capitol was rising from its ruins; the new White House was nearing completion.

Shortly, after Mr. Bagot arrived in the United States he jotted down some of his first impressions. Entering the Chesapeake was “the grandest thing imaginable. . . . We saw five hundred wild swans in a flight, and saw the Potomac and the Rappahannock and all those mighty waters with the names of which I could have curdled myself in former days. . . . At last I arrived at Squashington— Snow—Taverns, Credentials, Congress, Visits, Senators, Consuls, Vice-Consuls—Packets and their agents, Federalists and Madeira, Democrats and Segars, Slaves smelling like cats, Atheists, Methodists and Cobbetts.”

“Here I am in a great red brick house, stark new, built with unseasoned wood—the doors won’t shut and the windows won’t open, and it stands in a wilderness of brick kilns. Still it is a good house”; and Washington was a better city than he had expected.

Mr. and Mrs. Bagot made their first public appearance at Mrs. Madison’s Drawing Room in February. The Executive Mansion was a three-story brick building and had been very hastily and simply furnished as a temporary lodging. The whole house was thrown open for the reception and was illuminated from top to bottom, candles being supplemented by pine torches held by slaves standing motionless in the embrasures of the windows. Chief Justice Marshall and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court were there in their robes, many officers of the Army and of the Navy, and members of the Cabinet. Mrs. Madison, resplendent in rose-colored satin with a long white velvet train lined with lavender and a velvet turban and plumes, had a pleasant word and a smile for everyone. Somewhere near her, but rather lost in the crowd, hovered the precise little figure of the President in black satin knee-breeches and a queue no thicker than a pipe-stem, queues being quite out of fashion. It was known that the British Minister and his wife were to be at the Drawing Room. Gossip reported them young and good-looking, and Washington society, was eager to meet them. Mrs. Crowninshield, the wife of the Secretary of the Navy, had hurried back from Baltimore where she had been visiting, and Mrs. Patterson and the Catons, granddaughters of Charles Carroll of Carroll-ton, had also come over for the occasion. It was the most brilliant reception that Mrs. Madison had held.

The Bagots came late and made a splendid entry. The Minister and the Secretaries of the Legation were in court costumes and the beautiful Mrs. Bagot was in white lace and satin with diamond ornaments. Her hair was in curls and dressed high and a narrow gold band held in place nine white ostrich feathers. Her manner was gracious and gay. Washington society decided that she was a very agreeable lady, determined to be pleased with everything, and that her neck and shoulders were the whitest ever seen. Tradition has it that the Minister gallantly fired a royal salute to the First Lady of the Land. “Mrs. Madison looks every inch a Queen.” This tribute coming from a man who belonged to the world of Kings and Queens sounded pleasantly in republican ears. Doubtless, in the weeks that had passed since his arrival, Mr. Bagot had made many remarks more worth preserving, but this little compliment is what that capricious jade History has chosen to pass on, and, as far as we know, it was the first word that Mr. Bagot spoke in this country..

By May the new Envoy began to feel somewhat at home. “I am in a great situation,” he wrote, “much greater than I conceived when I was in England, but it is a very arduous and a very responsible one.—All my first worries are over, I have gone through all my ceremonials, and begin to know people’s names and faces; and now the Congress is up, and the members have all dispersed, which gives me rest and time to look about me. I have been very well received here, and I make it my business to endeavour to do away with—as much as I can—the mains animus, I shall do something in that way, but no man can hope to do it in any great degree, as it is, in fact, the food upon which the great, and, I am sorry to say, the predominant party in the country is nourished.”

Among the most important matters awaiting the Minister’s attention was the troublesome question of the Canadian Fisheries which the Commissioners at Ghent had not been able to settle. Mr. Bagot tactfully, suggested to Mr. Monroe, the Secretary of State, that they should endeavor to reach an understanding on the subject by informal conversation. “His manner is candid,” wrote Monroe, “he wishes to put nothing on paper to irritate; to agree if we can and in that case in the simplest and most concise form, and if we cannot, to let the matter rest, as if nothing had been done.” There was, however, a matter which in the view of the President was more pressing than the question of the Fisheries. This was the presence of a large number of war vessels on the Great Lakes.

During the recent war there had been much fighting on the Lakes, and at the termination of the contest both parties had large armaments on those waters. The American Government was veiy anxious to have these forces reduced in the interest both of peace and of economy. Great Britain, on the other hand, as the weaker party in those regions, felt that she needed protection against sudden attack, and public sentiment in England was for increasing the Canadian fleet. The two nations seemed about to be drawn into an expensive and irritating competition. The situation was full of danger. There was jealousy and suspicion on both sides, and the peace so newly made was in peril of being disturbed at any moment by an indiscretion of some young naval officer or of some touchy captain of a trading vessel. In fact there were about this time several clashes between British armed vessels and American merchant ships. Mr. J. Q. Adams, American Minister to Great Britain, had already, in January, opened the matter to Lord Castle-reagh, Minister for Foreign Affairs, and had made the proposition that each side should reduce its force to a certain moderate number of armed vessels, or even limit its lake fleet to the needs of the revenue service. Lord Castle-reagh agreed that all armament beyond what was necessary to prevent smuggling was liable to produce mischief, but he observed that mutual disarmament would give the United States a great advantage in case of war. This seems evident in spite of Mr. Adams’ ingenious argument to the contrary. When the subject was touched upon in Parliament there was also much mention made of the ancient policy of preserving peace by being prepared for war. However, some weeks later, to Mr. Adams’ surprise, Lord Castlereagh renewed the discussion of the Lake Armaments, and it was arranged that negotiations on the subject should be undertaken at Washington and that powers and instructions should be sent to Mr. Bagot.

“I have received instructions four miles long and full powers to make a convention, which frightens me to death, but I am glad of it too,” wrote Charles Bagot to an intimate friend, and in a somewhat different style he communicated the news to the American Secretary of State, intimating also that he would be glad to enter on the Lake discussion after they had arranged the question of the Fisheries. But Mr. Madison was uneasy. Those British war vessels riding on the Lakes were a kind of nightmare to him. He wanted immediate attention to be given to the armament adjustment, especially as an enlargement of the British forces was actually going on; and he urged that all augmentation of force should be stopped immediately, even if only provisionally, pending a permanent agreement. Mr. Bagot yielded to the President’s desire to have the armament question come first, and he formally opened the negotiation by a letter stating that the Prince Regent, “in the spirit of the most entire confidence,” was ready to adopt cheerfully any reasonable system “which would contribute to economy, to peacefulness and to the removal of jealousy.” In answer, Mr. Monroe submitted a precise and detailed proposal for the mutual reduction of armed forces on the Lakes.

In the meantime summer was icumen in. Mr. Bagot, after a few days of Washington heat, decided that “Shad-rach was no such great fellow after all.” “A pint of American summer,” he writes, “would thaw all Europe in ten minutes. Sir, it is dreadful—it is deleterious—it leads to madness. Ice houses take fire and scream because they cannot bear it. . . . In England, as far as I can recollect, you have a small sort of summer, consisting chiefly of Roses, Swallows, Trout, Bees, Peas, Buttermilk and things of that kind. Here we have the Frog, the Fever, the Locust, Lizard, Thunderstorm and all the sublimer features of that charming season. . . . I wish you could see a thunderstorm here, your thunderstorms in Europe are squibs and crackers to them here.”

The President was now at Montpelier, having left Mr. Bagot the use of his ice house (“a thousand blessings attend him i”), the Secretary of State was at Oak Hill for the greater part of the time, and the Minister in Washington; so negotiations were tedious and complicated. They are spread out in full in learned books, and by. studying them carefully one gets a vision of large official letters playing “Pussy Wants a Corner” around a quadrangle formed by Mr. Bagot, the State Department, Mr. Monroe, and Mr. Madison. Propositions, explanations, answers zig-zagged diligently to and fro.

The proposed reduction of the forces being greater than he had expected, and some of the details seeming questionable, Mr. Bagot thought it safest to refer the matter to England. There it arrived during the holiday season when, as Mr. Pole said, “The Lord be praised, all the Cabinet are dispersed, and no one of them knows what the other is about.” This caused a delay of several months.

That Great Britain had seemed willing to accede to our wishes, had of course appeared to certain persons as a sign of weakness. Was British prosperity on the decline, or was trouble in Europe apprehended, they questioned with invidious meaning. And now that the negotiations were delayed, there were not wanting others who gloomily foreboded that the United States was being made the victim of a game. So, to a low antiphonal chanting of such sentiments, the work went on.

Mr. Bagot gave orders to stop all increase of the British forces on the Lakes and furnished the American Secretary of State with an exact tableau of His Majesty’s fleet in those waters. He also busied himself investigating and correcting some recent unpleasant incidents in those regions. “I have had a swingeing time of it, and have worked harder and done more disagreeable things during the last four months than I ever did in my whole preceding life.” The promptness of the Minister and the efficacy of his measures for preventing irritation were very reassuring and pleasing to Mr. Madison, but no further agreement could be reached during his term of the presidency..

In the autumn the Bagots passed a few days at Mont-pelier where Queen Dolly reigned with lavish hospitality. The winter that followed was, according to Mr. Bagot, “prodigious,” very busy, very cold, and very gay. There were a number of balls and dinners, and thrilling descriptions of Mrs. Bagot’s costumes were written by the ladies of Washington to their sisters “back home.” She flits in and out of the scene in a light green Italian crepe with a wreath of roses in her hair or in a gold-embroidered gown and turban, That her dress “stuck out very much at the bottom,” or that it was cut very low in the back, were important details. Her sleeves were sometimes long and tight, and anon short and full.

Mr. Harrison Gray Otis wrote of seeing the Minister and his wife at one of Madame de Neuville’s informal Saturday Evenings at the French Embassy. They and some others of the diplomatic set danced and waltzed, “just a jeu An moment, on the carpet, but gracefully executed.” The waltz was new in that age of innocence and delightfully shocking; to be sure, it was much the vogue in London, though, as Mrs. Middleton said, “to the dismay of all mothers.”

Mr. Otis also tried his hand at reporting Mrs. Bagot’s costumes. He described a ball at the British Legation most competently in regard to decorations, the display of plate and porcelain, the fancy jellies and dishes with which the tables were loaded, the air of ease and affability which pervaded the rooms—but when he came to the lovely lady’s dress, he was vague and lyric—: “It was certainly silk covered with muslin—whether light blue or pink I could not swear. But the border was of very rich lama. White feathers nodded from her pretty head, and contested in vain for the palm of whiteness with a bosom and shoulders which were dressed in the depth of the fashion; a diamond necklace added to the effect of these charms.”

The “homespun” quality of some of our great folk, which the young Carolina lady deplored, amused the Minister’s wife not a little. “My dear Mrs. S., what ever can you be doing?” she said laughingly, one day to a woman whose arm up to the elbow was disappearing in the salad bowl. “Oh, just rollicking for an onion, my lady,” was the equally good-humored reply. Such little happenings doubtless cheered the way, but the Honorable Mrs. Bagot was bored and lamented in her correspondence that she had to stick pins in herself to keep awake at “their stupid balls.” Whereupon she received a wholly delightful letter from the Duke of Wellington. He scolded his niece “like a little Dutch uncle.” He told her plainly that he did not care at all about her being bored. “You pledged yourself that you would live behind a mountain with your Man if you were allowed to marry him; and I have no pity for you and won’t hear of your being off. Besides, how can you complain when you have such elegant amusements as a Barbecuel I could not avoid reading your account of that amusement to Miss Louisa (Louisa Caton and her sisters had been introduced to the Duke by the Bagots) who was with me when I received it. But she swears she was never present at such an amusement, but she knows what apple toddy is, and whiskey sling and a shote. She is very entertaining and we all like her excessively,” and so on, with some pleasant scandal about other friends, for the Iron Duke knew admirably how to brew a dainty dish of gossip and Mrs. Bagot was a great favorite with him.

“Mr. Monroe (a man of altogether foxy appearance) has been made King of these parts,” wrote Mr. Bagot from “Washington in the Wilderness” in March, 1817; and it was with Mr, Rush, Secretary of State ad interim, that the disarmament negotiations were continued. The proposition put forward by the United States was accepted by Great Britain, and in April, 1817, a formal agreement between the two Governments was entered into by an exchange of notes between Mr. Bagot and Mr. Rush. The forces were mutually reduced to the mere needs of the revenue service, and all other armed vessels were dismantled, as it was impossible to get them from the Lakes to the sea.

Mr. Bagot remained about two years longer in the United States. He had in hand some other important matters, and certain events occurred at this time that required careful attention. General Jackson was on the warpath. His summary execution of two British subjects suspected of arousing and aiding the Indians in Florida caused much excitement in England. The American Government had a great deal of explaining to do, and it was fortunate for both nations that His Majesty’s representative in the United States during the crisis was a gentleman of cool and steady nerves.

In March, 1819, an “unprecedented entertainment” took place in Washington, “a ball given to a British Minister by American citizens.” The Bagots were about to leave. “A more festive or brilliant assembly I never attended,” wrote a young lady. “Mr. Bagot acted the perfect gentleman and she looked an empress. They were both very much excited and expressed gratitude in unbounded and apparently sincere tones. They will carry with them the admiration and good wishes of all who knew them. . . . We shall never again, I imagine, witness so much style and splendor as the entertainment the British Envoy presented.” While waiting for their frigate at Annapolis, Mr. Bagot and his family, including a small new daughter, passed several days with Charles Carroll of Carrollton in the brick house which still stands down by, the water’s edge and which was then a century old.

John Quincy Adams, who had returned from England to become Secretary of State, pondered heavily in his diary concerning Mr. Bagot’s successful career in this country. For a, sample of the Minister’s technique, Mr. Adams had only to turn back a few pages in his own journal. He might have read there a rather sharp little conversation which he once had with Mr. Bagot. “I told him that no Government in the world understood better than the British how to accommodate their pride to their interests.” This remark seems to border on the sneer, but Mr. Bagot accepted it as a compliment and suavely answered that he was fully convinced that his Government understood everything as well as any other. John Quincy runs over the pros and cons: Mrs. Bagot was a discreet, amiable, and lovely woman; the Minister was tall, remarkably handsome, perfectly well-bred ; on the other hand, he had no great intellectual power or profound learning, and he came immediately after a war when national feeling was highly exasperated against his country. Yet he had made himself universally acceptable. No English Minister had ever been so popular. Mr. Adams found it very puzzling, but finally reached the thoroughly Adamsian conclusion that Mr. Bagot’s success was due chiefly to the mediocrity of his talents and that perhaps second-rate men make the best diplomatists. The British Government however did not inquire so curiously into the matter but promptly conferred upon Mr. Bagot the Order of the Bath and raised him to the rank of Ambassador. English relations with the United States were better than they had ever been before.

The Rush-Bagot Agreement was a modest arrangement and went into action very unobtrusively. Mr. Monroe did not submit it to the Senate until nearly a year after it went into operation, and Lord Castlereagh, who was quite in advance of popular sentiment in England, does not seem to have announced it to Parliament at all. The task of bringing the two countries together had not been an easy one. The air was foggy with resentment and suspicion, not at all a propitious atmosphere for an international rapprochement. But perhaps it was the very danger of the situation that forced the responsible men on both sides to rise above their natural prejudices and customs. They sought peace and took practical measures to ensue it. To the Rush-Bagot Agreement must be attributed in great part the peaceful relations that have subsisted since that time between Great Britain and the United States. It has been characterized as “the greatest step in progress toward the maintenance of peace, and without precedent in history.”

It was the first disarmament agreement made by the United States.

Who got the pen that signed the Rush-Bagot Agreement? No one, apparently. It probably went on humbly scratching for a living, not dreaming that it was perhaps mightier than a sword.


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