December 13 1814: War and Peace


For December 13 1814, John Quincy Adams writes:

13th. I suspended the journal of yesterday for the sake of writing to my wife, and prepared my letter for her just in time to be prepared for the meeting of the mission in my chamber at eleven. Mr. Clay produced his draft of a note to the British Plenipotentiaries, and Mr. Gallatin brought mine, with an unfinished one which he had drawn himself. They were all discussed, and there was a great diversity of opinions as to the course most proper to be pursued. Mr. Clay was for persisting in the rejection of both the British demands, but with the determination finally to yield both. He thought that by insisting equally upon both we should most probably obtain a concession upon one. My draft had insisted upon both, with an intimation that if the case of the islands should be made an ultimatum, we should rather subscribe to it, though without authority, than break off the negotiation, but that we could not concede the point of the fisheries.

Mr. Bayard was for giving up explicitly and without qualification the islands; and he was prepared to be much more flexible upon the fisheries than he had been yesterday. Mr. Russell declared himself in favor of my draft, but was for yielding eventually, if necessary, upon both the points. Mr. Gallatin had taken the statement made yesterday by Mr. Goulburn, that the British had exercised jurisdiction over Moose Island since the Peace of 1783, as the motive for our concession upon that point; but his draft intimated too distinctly that we should ultimately yield on the other point if it should be pressed. Mr. Bayard confined his observations chiefly to the Moose Island question. He inclined much to the opinion that the British argument was better than ours; that they were right upon the principle. At any rate, we could not break upon it. We should not be supported in it by our own people, nor by the general opinion of Europe. We had at the commencement of the negotiation thrown the blame of the war upon them. Europe and America had pronounced their demands extravagant and absurd. They had raised a powerful opposition against the war among their own people. They might be now playing a similar game against us. They might only want to draw us out to refuse concession upon these trifles, then to break off, retort upon us the blame of continuing the war, and make an ostentatious display of all the concessions they had made only to ensnare us, as proofs of their moderation and of our insincerity. Their own people would support them on this ground of rupture. Ours would not support us. The only chance we could possibly have of a successful continuation of the war was, that our whole people should embark heart and soul in it. They never would do so for a war on the only ground now left us. Our divisions would become infinitely more dangerous and formidable. Our finances were in ruins. Enormous taxes, such as our people have never known, are the only means by which the war can possibly be carried on. A war is nothing to the British Government. They have now no other enemy upon their hands. In a thousand years there could not happen again a concurrence of circumstances under which war would be so unequal between us, so much to their advantage and so disadvantageous to us. He was against hazarding the possibility of a rupture upon the Moose Island question, and was for frankly giving it up at once. I declared my concurrence in all these sentiments; I said I had made my draft according to them, and under the full conviction of their weight. I had distinctly shown our intention to yield the point, and had only continued to resist upon it that they might declare it on their part an ultimatum. I wanted that, to convince our country that we had done everything in our power to secure the object, and finally yielded only to prevent the continuance of the war. Mr. Gallatin thought that if we told them we had no authority to make the concession, while intimating to them that we should make it, they might insidiously make that the pretext for breaking off. It was observed that they had already accepted one article with that understanding, and therefore could not object to taking another on the same footing. Mr. Gallatin, however, was unwilling to give them the opportunity. Mr. Clay was still very urgent for holding out upon both the points for the sake of obtaining one. I said that the result of our measure was altogether conjectural. It was possible that concession upon one point would obtain concession upon another more easily than resistance upon both. Our experience had been rather in favor of this anticipation, for the greatest concessions that we had obtained were immediately after we had agreed to the Indian article. We adjourned from one to three o’clock, for Mr. Gallatin to finish his draft after this discussion. I walked round the city, and part of the Coupure, where I met Mr. Bayard walking. I returned with him. He said he had been reflecting upon this Moose Island question until he had convinced himself that the British were right in their pretension. Their possession was a lawful possession; though taken in time of war, they did not claim to hold it by the right of conquest, but by their own title, of which they say we had wrongfully dispossessed them. On the same principle, they might have refused to leave the question to reference, and have insisted upon keeping it as their own. I admitted that they might. But if they fairly and honestly waived all claim of conquest, they could not pretend that their title was unquestionable. They knew, on the contrary, that our claim was strong; they certainly never would otherwise have agreed to the reference. But when they did agree to refer, it was begging the very question in dispute, to retain possession as upon a valid title. It was also manifestly inconsistent with the status ante bellum. As to the lawfulness of the possession, all possession taken in war was lawful. Their possession of Moose Island was no more or less lawful than ours of Fort Erie. He had made a distinction, too, which the British Plenipotentiaries had attempted to take, that the war had been declared by us—as if the rights of either nation could be affected by the question which party declared the war. No such distinction was acknowledged by the law of nations. The rights of the two parties were precisely the same, and it was one of the worst features in the practice of the British nation that they always began war without declaring it. Mr. Bayard admitted this, but said it did not at all affect the argument. He said that the war would wean vast numbers of people in America from their attachment to England, and that British influence would never again be so powerful in America as it had been. At three o’clock we met by adjournment, and Mr. Gallatin had got his draft ready, with a clause of an article to propose relative to Moose Island. After some further discussion, it was agreed that we should successively take and examine Mr. Gallatin’s new draft, and meet again to-morrow morning, finally to decide upon it. We all dined with the British Plenipotentiaries. There was no other company present, and the party was more than usually dull, stiff, and reserved. Mr. Goulburn attempted to be courteous, and told me he hoped I should pay a visit to England after we have finished here. I said I certainly should, if they would permit me. Mr. Clay had some conversation with him, and with Lord Gambier. He expressed a wish that we could come to a conclusion without a new reference to England, which I believe to be impossible. Lord Gambier impressed him with the belief that they would ultimately insist upon our subscribing to an article abandoning our claim by the Treaty of 1783 to the fisheries within British jurisdiction. Lord Gambier said to him that we surely could not rely upon that as a right. Mr. Clay said he did not wish to enter upon that discussion. Lord Gambier said that if we should not make the stipulation, our fishermen would continue the practice, and that would produce a new quarrel; that there had been many complaints against our fishermen, and representations made, to which the British Government were obliged to pay attention. Mr. Clay therefore wished us to reconsider our determination, and still to insist upon both the open points for the sake of obtaining the concession upon one. It appears to me, by his own account of his conversation with Lord Gambier, and particularly by declining to discuss our claim of right upon the construction of the treaty, he gave our adversaries encouragement to adhere upon the point of the fisheries as well as upon the other.

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