December 11 1814: A Game of Brag

On December 11 1814, the American peace delegates Gallatin, Clay, Adams, Bayard, and Russell hold a conference to decide how to respond to the British position. A treaty is now within sight. John Quincy Adams writes:

11th. The meeting was in my chamber, and it was near noon before we were all assembled. The questions were resumed, What should be done with the present British proposals, and in what manner ; whether by another conference or by a written note?

Mr. Russell was averse to the conference. He thought it much safer for us that the discussions should be in writing rather than verbal. It is evident that the British Plenipotentiaries can do nothing of themselves. They have no discretionary powers. They must refer everything we propose to their Government. When we write, they refer our propositions in our own words and supported by our own reasoning. When we merely confer, we leave the statement of our arguments entirely to them. They give them their own coloring, and naturally make their case as favorable to themselves as they can.

I was of the same opinion, with the additional motive of hastening to a conclusion of our business. We have not advanced a step in our conferences, nor shall we advance a step until we come to writing.

Mr. Gallatin said the British Government was now evidently desirous of peace, and of concluding as soon as possible. The two new articles were proofs of that, for they were merely to make the peace palatable to their nation.

I said I entertained still great doubts of their intentions ; that my anxiety was much greater than it had been at any period of the negotiation, infinitely greater than when their demands had been so extravagant that we were sure of being supported by our country in rejecting them. When I saw them abandoning everything of any value in their demands, and stubbornly
adhering to hairs, merely, as it seemed to me, to keep the negotiation open, I could not but deeply distrust their intentions. They clung to atoms involving principles which they had abandoned as applied to everything important.

Mr. Gallatin said that was the course of all negotiations; that Bonaparte had broken off with Austria at Prague merely upon a question whether he should keep or give up Hamburg and Trieste; that he had made war with England merely for Malta. But I said in those cases there was the determination of war on both sides, and if they had not broken on one point they would on another.

Mr. Gallatin said Bonaparte had, on the contrary, been very unwilling at that time to go to war with England, but England did intend the war.

That is precisely what I apprehend now, and that she keeps these points open merely to gain time to break off at last, and then to have the pretence that the blame of breaking off upon a trifle was on our side.

Mr. Gallatin said it was an extraordinary thing that the question of peace or war now depended solely upon two points, in which the people of the State of Massachusetts alone were interested Moose Island, and the fisheries within British jurisdiction.

I said that was the very perfidious character of the British propositions. They wished to give us the appearance of having sacrificed the interests of the Eastern section of the Union to those of the Western, to enable the disaffected in Massachusetts to say, the Government of the United States has given up our
territory and our fisheries merely to deprive the British of their right to navigate the Mississippi.

Mr. Russell said it was peculiarly unfortunate that the interests thus contested were those of a disaffected part of the country.

Mr. Clay said that he would do nothing to satisfy disaffection and treason ; he would not yield anything for the sake of them.

” But,” said I, ” you would not give disaffection and treason the right to say to the people that their interests had been sacrificed ? “

He said, No. But he was for a war three years longer. He had no doubt but three years more of war would make us a warlike people, and that then we should come out of the war with honor. Whereas at present, even upon the best terms we could possibly obtain, we shall have only a half-formed army, and half retrieve our military reputation. He was for playing brag with the British Plenipotentiaries ; they had been playing brag with us throughout the whole negotiation ; he thought it was time for us to begin to play brag with them. He asked me if I knew how to play brag. I had forgotten how. He said the art of it was to beat your adversary by holding your hand, with a solemn and confident phiz, and outbragging him. He appealed to Mr. Bayard if it was not.

” Ay,” said Bayard ; ” but you may lose the game by bragging until the dversary sees the weakness of your hand.” And Bayard added to me, ” Mr. Clay is for bragging a million against a cent.”

I said the principle was the great thing which we could not concede ; it was directly in the face of our instructions. We could not agree to it, and I was for saying so, positively, at once. Mr. Bayard said that there was nothing left in dispute but the principle. I did not think so.

“Mr. Clay,” said I, ” supposing Moose Island belonged to Kentucky and had been for many years represented as a district in your Legislature, would you give it up as nothing ? Mr. Bayard, if it belonged to Delaware, would you ?” Bayard laughed, and said Delaware could not afford to give up territory.

Mr. Gallatin said it made no difference to what State it belonged, it was to be defended precisely in the same manner, whether to one or to another.

It was agreed positively to object to the British proposals on both points the first, as inconsistent with the admitted basis of the status ante bellum; and the second, as unnecessary, contrary to our instructions, and a new demand, since we had been told that they had brought forward all their demands.

We also determined to ask one more conference before we resorted to writing; at Mr. Bayard’s suggestion, and because it would be expected by the British Plenipotentiaries that they should have notice of our wish to recur to writing.

It was asked by Mr. Gallatin whether we should at this conference, in rejecting the British proposals, offer the general status ante bellum, by which the renewal of the Treaties of 1783 and 1794 would both be included. He was for making it, because he thought it would be for our advantage. I was for repeating it, and dwelling upon it, because it was that from which alone I think we can obtain peace, and because I consider it as already made by us. Mr. Gallatin makes a distinction, that we only offered the status ante bellum upon all the subjects of difference between the parties, and not upon subjects about which there was no difference. I have uniformly disclaimed this distinction, though it was upon it alone that Mr. Clay was prevailed upon to sign the note containing the offer.

Mr. Clay now said that he would not propose the general status ante bellum ; and we were not authorized to do so by our instructions.

Mr. Russell thought the authority in our instructions limited to the restoration of territory.

Mr. Gallatin answered that we had needed no new instruction for that; we had always had that authority.

I produced the instruction of igth October. It is unlimited.

Mr. Clay said that the instruction was drawn without knowledge of the Indian article to which we had agreed ; that in assenting to that article he had declared that was the utmost extent of the sacrifice in that quarter to which he would con sent, and with that article he would never sign a treaty on the general status ante bellum, including the British right to trade with the Indians, so help him God to keep him steady to his purpose.

He said this in the harsh, angry, and overbearing tone which I, perhaps more than others, ought to excuse, as the involuntary effusion of a too positive temper. It always offends me in him ; but I took no notice of it this day.

Mr. Gallatin and Mr. Bayard said that every one of us must act according to his own sentiments, but Clay stalked to and from across the chamber, repeating five or six times, “I will never sign a treaty upon the status ante bellum with the Indian article, so help me God !” Mr. Russell declared himself against proposing it to-morrow, and I again urged to propose it. Mr. Clay then said he should object to the conference altogether. We came to no express decision, but Mr. Bayard and Mr. Gallatin did not support me in the resolution to make the proposal, so that Mr. Clay actually beat again a majority by outbragging us. We sent Mr. Hughes to ask a conference with the British Plenipotentiaries at their house to-morrow.

I told Mr. Clay it was rather late for him to come out with his violent opposition to the Indian article, when I had at the time offered him to break upon it, and neither he nor Mr. Russell would support me, though both of them had since been so much against it.

He said I had been the first to say we must admit it, and that it was even advantageous to us, by securing Peace with the Indians. I denied ever having said we must admit it: I had said I considered it advantageous to us in In respect, as it secured us Peace with the Indians, and I still continue of that opinion; but I thought it otherwise so objectionable that I appealed to his recollection, and to that of all my other colleagues, if l had not offered to reject the Article, though at the hazard of breaking off the negotiation. Mr. Clay said I had, on the first day when the Article was received, said so much in favor of admitting the Article that he had reflected and made up his mind to admit it, declaring that he would make no further sacrifice in that quarter. “But, however,” said he, with a laugh, “you will not deny that you szlgned the note first, and so you must be responsible for the Article.”

Bayard said, “Ay; but, Mr. Clay, there was no majority for it till you had signed: you made the majority; so you must be alone responsible for the Article.” Clay said—and I agreed with him—that, at any rate, the Peace would be bad enough. As for him, he believed it would break him down entirely, and we should all be subject to much reproach for it. Bayard thought it would, on the contrary, be highly creditable to us: it would relieve the country from such an immense pressure—twenty-one millions of taxes—commerce restored, and, substantially, nothing given up. I told him that when the people were secure in the enjoyment of all we should obtain, they would count it for nothing, and only look at what we had yielded ; and the very people now the most clamorous against the War would then be equally clamorous against the concessions made by us for Peace. Mr. Gallatin said that almost all Treaties were unpopular, and ours, if we made one, would share the common fate.

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