American Ghosts in Ghent

Author and professor of history at the University of California since 1956, HENRY F. MAY has had wide experience in leaching. Three years ago he spent the academic year in Belgium as Fulbright lecturer in American civilization, and while there he engaged in the historical research which follows.

GHENT, in Belgium, is visited by hundreds of American tourists every summer. They come to see one of the finest Medieval and Renaissance cities in northern Europe. Few of them know that Ghent, as a shrine of American history, might almost stand alongside Appomattox Court House. One could argue that the reality of American independence was won at Ghent, on Christmas Eve, 1814, when John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Albert Gallatin, and their colleagues signed our second and last treaty of peace with Great Britain.

The city fathers of Ghent, like most European city fathers, are friendly to American tourists. Yet no plaque marks the place where these important Americans spent seven agonizing months, nor does any of the tourist literature mention the treaty. Since I am a teacher of American history and found myself lecturing in Belgium for a year, I decided, first, to find and visit the places connected with the treaty and, second, to see why nobody else was interested in them.

The facts of the treaty negotiations are spectacular and familiar. Britain, the victor over Napoleon and the arbiter of Europe, was in a mood in 1814 to teach a lesson to her upstart offspring. As she saw it, the savage and unfeeling democrats had stabbed her in the back — painfully, if not really dangerously — during her single-handed struggle for the liberty of the world. After a long delay, during which the American peace emissaries had chased all around Europe seeking a meeting, she had consented to negotiate at Ghent, a city about to be occupied by the British. After another long delay, die British delegation actually turned up and presented a staggering set of terms. Neutral rights and impressment, for which Americans thought they had gone to war, were not to be discussed. The Americans, besides making territorial concessions on their northeast and northwest borders, were to give the British the exclusive right to maintain armed ships and forts on the Great Lakes. The British were to keep the right to navigate the Mississippi, while the Americans were to give up their right to fish off the Grand Banks. Worse still, the Americans were to recognize a huge Indian buffer state in the Northwest, which would end all hopes of expansion in that direction.

Obviously, the British at Ghent did not expect the Americans to accept these terms. After offering them and receiving an indignant refusal, their tactic was to keep the negotiations going, referring every counterproposal home for study. In the meantime, a formidable three-pronged invasion of the United States would get under way. While the British veterans were conquering the country, New England, which disliked the war, might be wooed into something like secession. Eventually the Americans would have to swallow something like the British terms, and the threat of rising American power would be pretty well eliminated.

Faced with impossible demands and interminable delays, hearing rumors about British victories, the American delegates were not hopeful about making a treaty. At first, all they were lookingfor was a chance to break off the meetings over a clear issue, in a way that would unite the country. They rented their house by the month and kept close track of scheduled sailings from Antwerp and the French ports. During the long waits between meetings, while the news from home came slowly and the northern European winter began to close in, they were bored and, naturally, a little quarrelsome. James Bayard and Adams had been squabbling since they had met in Russia. Between Adams and Gallatin there was at first a little sensitivity about seniority, but Gallatin, the easiest and ripest member of the group, conceded the leading position to Adams and won his complete trust. The sharpest clash was, naturally, between Adams, the thorny, introspective, hyperconscientious New Englander, and Clay, the ambitious, optimistic young Kentuckian, whose favorite card game was called “brag.” For fifty years, every college lecturer in American history has told his jaded sophomore class how Adams, at Ghent, getting up at five to meditate, read Greek, or write in his diary, repeatedly heard Clay and his friends coming in after a night at the card table.

Behind the scenes, the delegates differed a little about the tactics and still more about the manner of the negotiation. Clay hurt Adams (an easy thing to do) by asking him to take his “figurative language” and his many references to Providence, morality, and God out of his answers to the British. In the last stages of the negotiations, the two men started to struggle for sectional advantage. To Adams, as a Massachusetts man, American fishing rights were indispensable, and it would really do no harm to let the British sail the Mississippi. To Clay, of course, American command of the great western river was worth any amount of codfish.

Yet the delegation managed to present a united front to its opponents. In November the logjam broke; after a series of useless exchanges the British suddenly began to talk business.

There were a number of reasons for this welcome shift. For one thing, the British taxpayers, and that still meant the governing classes, were tired of war. The European settlement was proving difficult and dangerous. Moreover, the news from America itself took a different turn. The British invasion was not moving on schedule, and in September, at Plattsburg, part of it was broken.

The British Fleet, bringing overwhelming forces down Lake Champlain, was destroyed. Shaken, but still counting on the victory of the veterans they had sent to New Orleans, the British Cabinet asked for the advice of the world’s greatest soldier.

The Duke of Wellington, a Tory with no love for Americans, but also a realist, answered that he saw no prospect of acquiring control of the Lakes and that without such control it would be impossible to demand solid gains in the treaty. It would be better simply to call the war off.

This was, in fact, what the treaty accomplished. Nothing was decided: the Indian buffer state was abandoned; precise boundaries were left to be settled later; and all remaining issues were similarly postponed. Two weeks after the signing of the treaty, Andrew Jackson, who had not heard the news, smashed the final British invasion at New Orleans. Remembering their recent victories, the Americans could forget earlier, sometimes disgraceful defeats. Similarly, they could forget that the peace was not exactly a victory; it could have been so much worse.

The important thing was that the country was intact, united, and out of danger. The greatest military power of the world had failed to defeat a new, weak, and disunited country. The West was finally open, despite halfhearted British efforts to close it. Protected by the Atlantic Ocean and, ironically, by the British Fleet, the United States was free to attend to its own gigantic business. This was the beginning of a century of isolation and expansion, a century of good fortune such as no other country has experienced in modern times, a century which made Americans both optimists and isolationists — which made them, for better or worse, what they are.

This fortunate century was, of course, a matter of world history rather than of skillful negotiation alone. Yet the American commissioners at Ghent might have damaged the cheerful prospect. It would have been disastrous to give in — which they never considered. It would have been disastrous also to explode in a fit of self-righteous indignation, to stop negotiations at the wrong time. On the whole, the five Americans — Adams, Clay, Gallatin, Senator James A. Bayard, and Jonathan Russell, the minister to Sweden — withstood these temptations very well. They showed not only courage but a quality less often associated with American diplomacy, urbanity.

THE more time I spent in Ghent, the more I became intrigued by the idea of these five Americans and their seven months of exile and frustration. Ghent, as a shrine of American history, is an improbable setting. Adams, who knew the European capitals, can be imagined there, but Clay, a New World type if there ever was one, must have been as exotic as an Indian to the Gantois. As I walked along the canals past the florid Renaissance guildhouses, the sturdy stone warehouses in use ever since the fourteenth century, the gloomy castle of the Counts of Flanders, I could at least be sure that Adams, Clay, and Gallatin had passed the time with the same walks. Though Ghent is not, like Bruges, a dead, and therefore perfectly preserved, Medieval city, very little has changed in the center of town since 1814.

By that year the city had been slowly declining for a long time — ever since its capture by the Spanish in 1584. It was a town of about 50,000 (under Charles V, in the sixteenth century, it had reached 185,000). Like New England, Ghent was just breaking into textile manufactures. An enterprising Gantois named Lieuwen Bauwens had secretly, and at considerable risk, secured plans and models of closely guarded British machines. As yet, however, Ghent was both sleepy and patrician. Though the vast majority of its inhabitants spoke Flemish, Adams and his colleagues spoke French with their upper-class acquaintances.

When Alexander I, Adams’ friend, heard of the selection of the peace city, he is said to have asked, “Pourquoi Gard?”, and the question was not unreasonable. The Americans were properly suspicious of a site with a British garrison. Yet the small Flemish city, like all Belgium, was a crossroads. While the Americans were there, Alexander passed through in state, and Lord Castlereagh, the British Foreign Minister, stopped by on his way to Vienna. Shortly after the treaty was signed, Ghent was to have another distinguished visitor. Louis XVIII, driven out of Paris at the beginning of Napoleon’s Hundred Days of return to power, settled in Ghent to wait out the campaign that ended at Waterloo.

Moreover, if the British expected any advantage from being the occupying power, they were disappointed. Like other liberators and occupiers in other places and times, they were thoroughly unpopular in Ghent. Belgium, a part of France since 1794, was about to be handed over by the allies to Holland, and Adams found that the new arrangement pleased the Gantois no more than the old. The British were commercial and industrial rivals. British soldiers crowded the inns and theaters, since they were not admitted to decent private society. Furthermore, the British peace delegation was a mediocre one, and its members behaved with foolish pomposity. Two red-coated sentries stood stiffly before their door, and they refused to mix with the town notables. First-rate British diplomatic talent had, after all, to be concentrated at Vienna, where the great powers were deciding the future of Europe.

On the other hand, the American delegation was as friendly as it was obviously first-rate. Adams found time in his rigorous schedule for a weekly visit to the theater, which he always loved with the slightly guilty passion of a Puritan. In the midst of the worst period of the negotiations, the Americans entertained one hundred and thirty of the town’s “aristocracy and merchants.” The garden of their hotel was illuminated; there were “poor French verses” posted over the central gate; and Adams, as delegation head, danced “part of a Boulangère” with the mayor’s sister.

At one point American popularity reached such a pitch that a visiting company of English actors requested, unsuccessfully, the official endorsement of the American delegation. Local musicians learned the tune of Hail Columbia from Gallatin’s Negro servant, and after that it was played everywhere. As a final indignity, when the Americans left and sold their furniture, some of the British delegation’s furniture was smuggled in and sold with it, because it would bring a better price that way. (Adams had no objection to this, provided no attempt was made to pass off inferior wine as coming from American cellars — he had taken some trouble over wine.)

A guide to Ghent, written in 1843, while the treaty was still well within living memory, comments pointedly on the “marks of interest and confidence” which the Americans had shown to the citizens, and their care to conform to local habits. Several of them, the author said, were still corresponding with friends in Ghent. Adams, who in writing often let his emotions show through his cold New England manner, spoke right after leaving of the “hospitable, kind and even affectionate treatment” all had received and said he left the place “with such recollections as I never carried from any other spot in Europe.”

The climax of U.S.-Ghent relations occurred on January 5, 1815, when the town gave a splendid banquet in the Hotel de Ville in honor of the two delegations. The band played Hail Columbia first, then God Save the King. After a long series of toasts to the King, the President, the allies, the Sovereign Prince of the Netherlands, the peace, Adams raised his glass to “Ghent, the city of peace,” and expressed his hope that the gates (symbolizing war) of the temple of Janus, “here closed, not be opened again for a century.” His prophecy was so accurate that one wishes he had made it a little longer.

TO FIND the exact spots where the treaty was signed and where the Americans stayed proved to be a good deal harder in Ghent than it would have been in any good library at home. Most Gantois neither knew nor cared anything about the treaty. Some said it had been signed in the Hotel de Ville; others, that it had been signed in the building now occupied by l’Innovation, the main department store. My Baedeker said it was signed in the Convent of the Carthusians, and as far as I could determine, this no longer existed. Adams’ abridged memoirs, the only American source easily available in Belgium, said at one point that the British delegates stayed in the Hotel du Lion d’Or, and later, that the treaty was signed in their headquarters. The Hotel du Lion d’Or had also disappeared.

As the laziest way out, I asked the librarian of the University of Ghent, who immediately produced a flood of French and Flemish newspapers and other local contemporary sources. Slightly to my disappointment, I found that there was no mystery and never had been one. The only apparent difficulty had come from the fact that both delegations had moved. Soon after their arrival at the Hotel du Lion d’Or, the British had installed themselves in suitable magnificence at the former Carthusian convent. Naturally, the Americans had to find equally splendid premises. They had rented the residence of a prominent local family, the Hotel Lovendeghem on the Rue des Champs. Adams had negotiated for the furniture — and the wine supply — and all of them had bravely set up bachelor quarters together.

From time to time in the past, Americans had visited both sites. A traveler had sent photographs to the State Department in 1888, and his picture of the Hotel Lovendeghem was still available in a magazine. There was a picture of the Carthusian convent in a centennial article in a 1913 Outlook. Armed with photostats of both, I set out to see if the buildings still existed and to find out why both sites had been forgotten.

On the Rue des Champs, now translated “Feldstraat,” I found the handsome building shown in the 1913 picture. The ground floor had been made into shop fronts, but the facade above this level, with its florid early eighteenth-century windows, was unchanged. About half the house was occupied by l’Innovation, the Ghent branch of the main Belgian department store. The other part, on the corner, was an elegant tobacconist’s, with its windows full of English pipes, special tobaccos, and humidors.

Feeling a little silly, as sentimental pilgrims do, I started with the tobacconist’s and asked for the proprietor. M. Caron, the owner of the store and of the rooms above it, had heard rumors about the treaty and hoped I would tell him it had been signed in his house. When I had to say the contrary, he was a little crestfallen; somehow the mere residence of Clay and Adams did not excite him. Nevertheless, he politely showed me the whole house. The room on the second floor over the corner was the largest and handsomest, and I allowed myself to guess that it had gone to Adams, as leader of the delegation. Might not Clay, since he kept Adams awake, have been in the room above? On my second visit, having tea in what I hoped was the Adams room, my eyes kept straying to the windows, which looked out on other elaborate facades across the street. How would they have appeared, I wondered, to a man homesick for the simple lines of a family residence In Braintree, Massachusetts?

On my second visit I was also taken next door to I’Innovation, and there the proper sentimental mood deserted me completely. L’Innovation was having a grand festival du plastic and, with linguistic impartiality, inviting people to try a “Milk Shake Het Grote Glas 7.50.” The polite but busy manager showed me the area just inside the eighteenthcentury facade. A new inner shell had been built here, and the facade itself survived only because it was protected by the city as an architectural specimen.

Back next door, I thanked M. Caron, who was, I thought, beginning to be a little pleased with the interest shown by a foreigner. He liked the house, which had been in his family for several generations, and did not grudge the paint and gilding for the ornate facade. Deprecatingly, he explained that if I really wanted a historic building, Louis XVIII had lodged, in 1815, a few doors down the street. I tried to suggest that Adams and Clay were as important as that unattractive royal exile but could see that this sounded, in Ghent, like extreme chauvinism. “You have,” I finally told him, in one of the efforts at formal politeness that the French language seems to invite, “one of the historic buildings of the town.” “Especially,” he returned, “from the American point of view.”

MY OTHER search was a little harder. The former Carthusian convent, the British headquarters, had a long and typically Gantois history. It had been occupied by the Carthusians from 1584 until the order was suppressed, first by Joseph II, the Austrian enlightened despot who ruled Flanders in the eighteenth century, and then, after a brief re-establishment, by the French Revolution. The building had fallen into disuse, and then served as a workshop for Bauwens and his illicit English textile machines. It had been magnificently fitted up to serve as headquarters for Napoleon during a visit in 1807. Naturally, Napoleon’s conquerors had fastened on it for the 1814 delegation. Since then it had been used as a hospital by the brothers of St. Jean de Dieu. The 1888 American visitor had been taken through it and seen both the room of the treaty and Napoleon’s handsome suite. I hoped to do as well.

The Kartuizenlaan sounded as if it had been named for the convent, but I walked its length, with the 1888 picture in my hand, without finding anything similar. By accident, on the way back to my car I passed through a large square, the Fratersplein, whose name also sounded conventual. Sure enough, there was the Rusthuus Sint Jan de Deo, but its front did not look at all like my picture and was actually dated 1844. I rang the bell.

Fortunately, it was visiting hours, and the door was opened by a man in a beret and dirty black cassock. He knew a little French, and when I said that I was an American professor he motioned me inside. In the dark little hall was a plaque with the American and British arms and the inscription, in English and Flemish, “Treaty of Ghent, 1814-1914.” I showed the doorkeeper my picture of the facade as it had looked in 1913. He pointed to a door which led to an inner court. On the other side of the court, quite invisible from the street, was the same facade.

The building where the treaty was signed had obviously been entirely remodeled many times, and was full of the dark corridors, offices, and dingy waiting rooms characteristic of any charity hospital. The only trace of the “mansion magnificently fitted out” which had been chosen by the envoys of His Britannic Majesty was a graceful double stairway, with gilt sphinx heads as newelposts, just inside the center door. I asked the doorkeeper if it was old. He thought so and said it had always been known as the Escalier de Napoleon.

My second visit was a little more fruitful. This time I met the superior of the hospital, a brisk but polite cleric. He knew of the treaty, but, as he explained, different people are interested in different things. He obviously was interested in practical problems of the present and had just finished some alterations. The dining room, where the treaty had been signed, was now two rooms. One of the brothers was interested in the history of the place, but he was terribly old, and I would probably have difficulty understanding him.

When the old man was summoned, I could see that he was frail, and he apologized for being forgetful. I found him, however, not only intelligible but witty. He was, he told me, the only person in the hospital who cared about the treaty, but Americans discovered the place from time to time. Most Belgians, of course, laughed at him when he said that the Americans had signed a treaty there in 1814. The English, the French, even the Russians might have had business at Ghent during the Napoleonic Wars, but what on earth, they asked, could Americans have had to do with it? He showed me his scrapbooks, which contained a fair account of the treaty and a summary of his researches about its location. Some people, he said, had once maintained that the treaty had been made at l’Innovation. Toward such misled beings, his tone suggested, we scholars could afford to be charitable.

The old man’s scrapbook, confirmed by a little later research, gave me the answer to the question of Ghent’s neglect of the treaty. In 1912, in the heyday of the new British-American friendship, a committee had been formed to commemorate the approaching centennial of the peace. Naturally, the old monk explained, with a sidelong glance, the Belgians, British, and Americans had each taken on an appropriate task. The Americans, who could afford it, were to have restored the treaty room to its original splendor. The affair was to have culminated in a banquet in the Town Hall on January 8, 1915, exactly a hundred years later than the banquet attended by the two delegations. Unfortunately, just as plans for the celebration were taking shape, the Germans invaded Belgium, and no commemoration has ever been organized again. The doors of Janus’ Temple, ceremonially closed for a century by Adams in 1814, had sprung open on schedule, and at the wrong time.

The old monk assured me that the Escalier de Napoleon, at least, had been there when the treaty was made. On my way out, I paused to summon up for the last time the appropriate emotions. It was not too difficult. Down this stairway in Ghent, in 1814, had come Adams, Clay, Gallatin, Bayard, and Russell. They had won, and they could go home. Adams and Clay, I was sure, were each thinking a little about the other. Each knew that the treaty was largely his own accomplishment and a witness of his patience in the face of the dangerous blunders of the other. I wondered whether thoughts of the presidency had not crossed the mind of each as he walked back through the handsome, wintry city to the Rue des Champs. It was certainly not impossible. Yet mostly, I thought, each must have been thinking of the future. What now could ever stand in the way of peace, prosperity, and the triumph everywhere of republican government?

I envied them, and envied also the people at home whom they had represented so ably. Genial, essentially reasonable about minor matters, polite despite provocation, they had also been firm as rocks about what was important. Of course, in 1814 it had been pretty clear what was important; these men, and all Americans, knew just what they expected of the future, and could afford to be patient in getting it. To an American in Europe in the spring of 1960, 1814 seemed a very long time ago.