In early July, 1814, John Quincy Adams reached the Belgian city of Ghent in order to begin negotiations with the British to end the War of 1812. He was soon joined by by an extraordinary team of colleagues: Henry Clay, the brilliant young House Speaker; Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury and indispensable man of the Madison Administration; and Senator James Bayard of Delaware, known as “Chevalier.” Adams wrote excitedly to his wife Louisa that the British could not compare to the Americans “for sagacity and shrewdness of comprehension” or “vivacity of intellect.”
The Americans, quartered in an elegant neo-classical villa, the Hotel Alcantara, settled into a set of conflicting routines. Adams often ate by himself, and took long solitary walks to the gates of the city and beyond. The others would dine later, and smoke cigars and drink wine, and then go out to coffee houses and come back for cards and billiards. Clay, a notorious rake, had the room next to Adams, and at times Adams would find himself waking just as Clay was going to sleep. The two men quickly began to get on one another’s nerves. Gallatin was called on to intervene. In mid-July, James Gallatin, the Treasury Secretary’s seventeen-year-old son and secretary, wrote in his diary, “Mr. Adams in a very bad temper. Mr. Clay annoys him. Father pours oil on the troubled water.”
Albert Gallatin, peace-maker among the peace-makers
The clash of temperament within the American team grew much more serious as the negotiations got under way. At first Adams drafted the correspondence to Secretary of State James Monroe. But he reported to Louisa that his colleagues had shredded one of his drafts, while keeping far more of an alternate version written by Gallatin. “He is always perfectly cool,” Adams wrote, “and I, in the judgment of my colleagues, am often more than temperately warm.”
The British, who then enjoyed a clear advantage on the battlefield, were demanding territorial concessions that the Americans had been explicitly instructed not to make. Adams wanted to meet presumption with scorn. “The tone of all the British Notes is arrogant, overbearing, offensive,” he wrote in his journal. “The tone of ours is neither so bold nor so spirited as I think it should be.” But when Adams mounted his rhetorical high horse, and thundered about British violations of natural right and divine order, his colleagues ridiculed him. “The terms God, and Providence and Heaven, Mr. Clay thought were canting,” Adams grimly recorded, “and Russell”—Jonathan Russell, a deputy—“laughed at them.”
Adams was, at 47, America’s most seasoned and most gifted diplomat. Yet he could neither get along with his colleagues nor moderate his temper. One wonders how he had achieved such dazzling success in The Hague, Berlin and Moscow. Adams had always worked alone, which suited his solitary and uncompromising nature; in close quarters, he could not adapt as other men quite naturally did. And he was a vehement man; he could accept an insult to himself, but not to his country—especially an insult from Great Britain. As a nine-year-old boy Adams had heard the awful din of the Battle of Bunker Hill; he could not forget, and barely forgive.
The American team was constantly on the verge of crack-up. At one point the British cleverly offered to concede the right to fish on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, precious to New England and thus to Adams, in exchange for the right of navigation on the Mississippi, a red line for the Western Clay. This produced violent arguments between the two, with the emollient Gallatin acting as referee.
The tides of war went back and forth; in the fall, the U.S. won a series of crucial naval battles. In early November, the Duke of Wellington scotched a planned military expedition, telling Lord Liverpool that British troops had shown themselves unable to take and hold territory. Now Adams’ great experience came to the fore. Despite their bluster, he told his colleagues, the British would accept ute posseditis—“the state before the war”—and proposed that they make such an offer even though President Madison had not authorized them to do so. He would, he said, take personal responsibility for violating instructions. Clay refused; he was still seething over the Mississippi. All agreed that they would cede neither the Grand Banks nor the Mississippi. The Americans presented their plan; and the British, after insisting upon first one and then another additional concession, acquiesced.
The negotiating teams signed the Treaty of Ghent December 24. A war which looked at one point like it might lead to a catastrophic defeat for the Americans ended as a draw. Adams had played a strange role: Having almost wrecked the consensus among his own team, he had ultimately pointed the way to success. He had a gift for making arguments, but not for leading men.