November 28 1814: Saving the Mississippi in Ghent

On November 28 1814, the American delegates have a long meeting in Ghent to discuss and argue over the British response to their proposals for a peace treaty. The British had chosen not to mention the American reservations as to fisheries, but had added a provision entitling them to navigate the Mississippi. John Quincy Adams is satisfied, but Henry Clay is adamant that the British not have rights on the Mississippi. In the words of Henry Adams: “Clay was obliged to endanger the peace in order to save the Mississippi”. 

John Quincy Adams writes:

28th. Mr. Gallatin’s servant, Peter, brought me this morning, as the clock struck six, the British note and projet, with Mr. Gallatin’s minutes upon them. I kept them until nine, made my own minutes upon them, and then sent all the papers, excepting my own minutes, which were of no importance, to Mr. Russell. As Mr. Gallatin understands the British projet, there are still some things in it so objectionable that they ought on no consideration to be admitted. At eleven o’clock we met, and continued in session until past four, when we adjourned to meet again at eleven to-morrow morning. Our principal discussion was on an article proposed by the British Government as a substitute for the eighth of our projet. And they have added a clause securing to them the navigation of the Mississippi, and access to it with their goods and merchandise through our territories.

To this part of the article Mr. Clay positively objected. Mr. Gallatin proposed to agree to it, proposing an article to secure our right of fishing and curing fish within the British jurisdiction. Mr. Clay lost his temper, as he generally does whenever this right of the British to navigate the Mississippi is discussed. He was utterly averse to admitting it as an equivalent for a stipulation securing the contested part of the fisheries. He said the more he heard of this the more convinced he was that it was of little or no value. He should be glad to get it if he could, but he was sure the British would not ultimately grant it. That the navigation of the Mississippi, on the other hand, was an object of immense importance, and he could see no sort of reason for granting it as an equivalent for the fisheries. Mr. Gallatin said that the fisheries were of great importance in the sentiment of the eastern section of the Union; that if we should sign a peace without securing them to the full extent in which they were enjoyed before the war, and especially if we should abandon any part of the territory, it would give a handle to the party there, now pushing for a separation from the Union and for a New England Confederacy, to say that the interests of New England were sacrificed, and to pretend that by a separate confederacy they could obtain what is refused to us.

Mr. Clay said that there was no use in attempting to conciliate people who never would be conciliated ; that it was too much the practice of our Government to sacrifice the interests
of its best friends for those of its bitterest enemies ; that there might be a party for separation at some future day in the Western States, too.

I observed to him that he was now speaking under the impulse of passion, and that on such occasions I would wish not to answer anything ; that assuredly the Government would be reproached, and the greatest advantage would be taken by the party opposed to it, if any of the rights of the Eastern States should be sacrificed by the peace ; that the loss of any part of the fisheries would be a subject of triumph and exultation, both to the enemy and to those among us who had been opposed to the war; that if I should consent to give up even Moose Island, where there was a town which had been for many years regularly represented in the Legislature of the State of Massachu setts, I should be ashamed to show my face among my countrymen; that as to the British right of navigating the Mississippi, I considered it as nothing, considered as a grant from us. It was secured to them by the Peace of 1783, they had enjoyed it at the commencement of the war, it had never been injurious in the slightest degree to our own people, and it appeared to me that the British claim to it was just and equitable. The boundary fixed by the Peace of 1783 was a line due west from the Lake of the Woods to the Mississippi, and the navigation of the river was stipulated for both nations. It has been since that time discovered that a line due west from the Lake of the Woods will not touch the Mississippi, but goes north of it.

The boundary, therefore, is annulled by the fact. Two things were contemplated by both parties in that compact one, that the line should run west from the Lake of the Woods; the other, that it should touch the Mississippi. In attempting now to supply the defect, we ask for the line due west, and the British ask for the shortest line to the Mississippi. Both demands stand upon the same grounds the intention of both parties at the Peace of 1783. If we grant the British demand, they touch the river and have a clear right to its navigation.

If they grant our demand, they do not touch the river; but in conceding the territory they have a fair and substantial motive for reserving the right of navigating the river. I was not aware of any solid answer to this argument. I believed the right to this navigation to be a very useless thing to the British, especially after they have abandoned all pretence to any territorial possessions upon the river. But the national pride and honor were interested in it. The Government could not make a peace which would abandon it. They had the same reasons for insisting upon it that we had for insisting on the fisheries and the entire restoration of territory.

Mr. Clay said that by the British article now proposed they demanded not only the navigation of the river, but access to it through our territories generally, from any part of their do minions and by any road, and without any guard, even for the collection of our duties ; that this might be an advantage to the people of Kentucky, for it was the shortest way to them for all imported merchandise. Goods could in that manner be sent by the St. Lawrence River from Europe to his house with a land carriage of not more than fourteen miles. But it would give the British access to our country in a dangerous and pernicious manner. It would give them the trade with the Indians in its full extent, and enable them to use all the influence over those savages which had already done us so much harm.

I observed that with regard to the trade with the Indians, I had no doubt the British Government meant and under stood that to be already conceded in the article to which we had agreed; that I understood it so myself; that by restoring to the Indians all the rights they had in 1811, we had restored to them the right of trading with the British, and of having the British traders go among them for the purposes of trade; that if there could at any time have been a doubt that such would be its operation, the explanatory article after Mr. Jay’s treaty and the Greenville Indian Treaty would remove it. How could we possibly be said to restore to the Indians the right of trade, if we debarred those who carried it on from trading with them ? As to the duties, undoubtedly provision must be made for collecting them, and no doubt that would be agreed to.

Mr. Gallatin declared himself of the same opinion with me, as to the grant of the mere right of the navigation of the Mississippi ; but he asked me why I had then hesitated so much about offering it as an equivalent for the fisheries.

Mr. Clay, on the other hand, thought there would be a gross inconsistency in asking a specific stipulation for the fisheries, after the ground we had taken, that no article was necessary to secure us in the enjoyment of them.

I said that my reluctance at granting the navigation of the Mississippi arose merely from the extreme interest that Mr. Clay and the Western people attached to it ; that as to the ground we had taken upon the fisheries, I believed it firm and solid. I had put my name to it, and considered myself as responsible for it. But when some of my colleagues, who had also put their names to it, told me, in this chamber, among ourselves, that they thought the ground untenable, and that there was nothing in our principle, I found it necessary to mistrust my own judgment, particularly after the enemy had given us notice that they meant to deprive us of the fisheries in part, unless a new stipulation should secure them. If our principle was good for the fisheries on our part, it was good to the British for the navigation of the Mississippi. The Plenipotentiaries had made no reply to our remarks concerning the fisheries. That silence might be taken for acquiescence, and if there was nothing more I would rest it upon that. But they asked for a new stipula tion of their right to navigate the Mississippi. This implied their opinion that they had lost the right as agreed to in ‘the Treaty of 1783. It became necessary, therefore, for us to ask a similar stipulation for the fisheries within their jurisdiction; but I would not accept it even for the rights of fishing on the banks. I would not sign a treaty containing such a stipulation; for it would be a sort of admission that the right would be liable to forfeiture by every war we might have with Great Britain. I would not take, therefore, a stipulation for anything recognized in the Treaty of Peace as a right.

No more (said Mr. Gallatin) than an article acknowledging again our independence.

I said, Certainly.

Mr. Bayard thought there was a material difference between the rights secured by the Peace of 1783 to us, and the British right of navigating the Mississippi, in the same treaty. The rights recognized as belonging to us were certainly permanent, and not to be forfeited by a subsequent war. But we had nothing to grant. We recognized no new rights to the British.The Mississippi was not then ours to grant ; it was held by Spain, and the aspect of the subject was entirely changed by our subsequent acquisition of Louisiana. Our argument for the fisheries might therefore be sound, and yet not apply to the British for the navigation of the Mississippi.

It became necessary to determine by a vote whether Mr.Gallatin’s proposal to offer an article making the navigation an equivalent for the fisheries should be adopted, and it was determined that it should. At the meeting to-morrow he is to produce it, and the draft of a note to the British Plenipotentiaries.

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