From the Commissioners for Negotiating a Peace with Great Britain Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Since we have assumed a place in the political system of the world, let us move like a primary and not secondary planet.”

Summary Overview

In these letters to Chancellor Robert Livingston a fellow member of the former Continental Congress, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay explain several components of the ongoing peace negotiations between Great Britain and America. Topics of discussion include postwar land boundaries, treatment of British loyalists—or Tories—still residing within American territory, commerce agreements, and deference to the king of France. More importantly, the authors articulate an image of the new nation that not only underscores its autonomy but also its readiness to position itself as an equal among the European powers, Britain, France, and Spain. Despite a reciprocity agreement signed with Louis XVI of France in 1788 that forbade a separate peace with Britain, Americans maneuvered around the terms of that treaty to work directly with British ministers. In doing so, Americans asserted their political prerogatives and shielded their new country from subservience to France.

Defining Moment

When fighting for the War for Independence commenced in 1775, American colonists faced the world’s strongest army and navy. In 1774, the First Continental Congress created the Committees of Observation and Safety for each colony. The committees organized autonomous legislative bodies throughout the colonies and helped establish militias as well. Moreover, the committees established a degree of continuity and unity among the colonies. In June 1775, the Second Continental Congress elected George Washington as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Initially, each colonial government was charged with providing funding for the army and war effort, but this proved insufficient. Americans quickly found an ally in King Louis XVI of France, whose ongoing feud with Great Britain fueled his interest in helping the colonies gain independence. Beginning in 1776, the Committee of Secret Correspondence sent emissaries to France to secure supplies and funding. One of the authors of the letter, Benjamin Franklin, proved instrumental in winning over the French public to the American cause.

Five years prior to the commissioners’ letter, in February 1778, Congress and the king of France signed the Treaty of Alliance. It forbade each party from negotiating a peace with Great Britain independently and without the other’s explicit acquiescence. Over the course of the war, France provided troops, supplies, naval support, and money to the colonial cause. Furthermore, the extent to which French military forces, including the Comte de Rochambeau’s troop maneuvers at Yorktown, ensured a British surrender increasingly suggested that America would be saddled in an obeisant position regarding the French monarch. The commissioners’ letters to Robert Livingston, a fervent proponent of Franco-American relations, underscore this tension between the allied parties. Although reaffirming their affection for Louis XVI and gratitude for French assistance, the commissioners’ actions reflect a shift in diplomatic relations and an endeavor to assert American autonomy.

The French Revolution of 1789 initially pleased Americans, who took joy in the shared political and ideological principles of the Enlightenment. Enthusiasm began to wane, however, during the early 1790s as the revolution entered a radical phase known as the Terror. The Treaty of Alliance with France from 1778 had no expiration, leaving the United States vulnerable to European politics. When France declared war against Austria in 1792, America was left wondering if their treaty, nearly fifteen years old, still applied. President George Washington firmly decided on a policy of neutrality. The United States, still in its infancy, did not yet have the necessary funds or military at their disposal to aid France. In 1793, Washington declared that America would remain neutral. They remained so even after Britain entered the engagement against France in 1794.

Private peace discussions with Great Britain allowed the American commissioners more flexibility in negotiating the terms of the agreement, but also fostered an atmosphere of suspicion among the belligerent powers. In the early 1780s, several European powers, Spain included, desired a quick end to the war and for Britain to retain a large portion of her colonies. France even had ambiguous motives in 1781 and sent missives to the other European powers outlining a potential cease-fire. Had not the combined forces of the French and American armies defeated Cornwallis at Yorktown in the same year, an alternative history may have been written. That the American commissioners instigated secret talks with Britain to ensure that their political aims were met reflects their impressive skill at maneuvering in the game of diplomacy. At the close of the war, Americans adopted a cautious stance toward defensive treaties, being wary of “entangling alliances.”

Author Biography

John Adams

John Adams was born on October 30, 1735, in Braintree, Massachusetts, to Susanna Boylston Adams and Deacon John Adams. Adams had a modest childhood, his father being a farmer and religious figure in the community. Adams descended from the first generation of Puritans that fled England from religious persecution and settled in America during the 1630s. He enjoyed an affectionate relationship with both his father and mother, praising their virtues and modeling his own character after theirs. His marriage to Abigail Adams on October 25, 1764, produced six children, one of them being future president John Quincy Adams.

As an adult, Adams quickly emerged as a respected and adept lawyer. He had received a Harvard education beginning at age fifteen and developed a fondness for reading. His erudition and honesty aided him throughout his career as a lawyer. In 1770, Adams successfully defended the British soldiers who fired on a Boston crowd, an event that became known as the Boston Massacre. Adams became a leading figure in the War for Independence and was a Massachusetts delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses. At the closing of the war, he helped Benjamin Franklin and John Jay draw up peace negotiations with Great Britain.

Adams served as vice president during George Washington’s presidency from 1789 to 1797. He became a federalist in the 1790s, and in 1796 he ran for the presidency. He served one term, which lasted from 1797 to 1801. John Adams died on July 4, 1826, in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts, to Josiah and Abiah Franklin. Despite his parents’ urging to pursue a career in the clergy, Franklin pursued a different path. For a brief time, he worked at his brother’s print shop. During the 1720s, Franklin mastered the printing trade and published secretly in his brother’s paper under the pseudonym, “Mrs. Silence Dogood.” Franklin left his brother’s shop on bad terms and moved to Philadelphia. By the end of the decade, he had established his own paper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. On September 1, 1730, Franklin entered into a common-law marriage with Deborah Read, a woman with whom he had two children.

Franklin published under various pseudonyms and enjoyed great popularity, especially with Poor Richard’s Almanac, a project that lasted from 1733 to 1758. In addition to being an accomplished writer, Franklin developed an interest for scientific and philanthropic projects. Known in France as the “man who tamed lightning,” Franklin also helped fund public works, including the University of Pennsylvania and a public library in Philadelphia.

During the War for Independence, Franklin most notably served as ambassador to France and helped negotiate the 1778 treaty between America and King Louis XVI. As the war reached its conclusion, Franklin retained a central role in diplomatic affairs and, with the help of Adams and Jay, ensured Americans received recognition from Britain as an autonomous nation. Benjamin Franklin died on April 17, 1790. His death was mourned by both Americans and the French, with whom he had spent several years.

John Jay

John Jay, son of Peter and Mary Jay, was born in New York City on December 12, 1745, to a prosperous merchant family. He descended from French Huguenots who fled France after Louis XIV rescinded the Edict of Nantes, a law which stipulated limited tolerance for French Protestants. As the son of a prominent member of New York, Jay received an extensive education, his parents having hired private tutors. When Jay was fifteen, he went to King’s College (now Columbia University), entering the legal profession after graduating. In April 1774, Jay married Sarah Livingston, a member of the New Jersey elite. They had six children.

Jay was a conservative who served on both the First and Second Continental Congresses. During the revolution, he went to Spain to try and secure funding and Spanish recognition of America’s independence. Though Spain eventually entered the war against Britain, Jay never obtained their recognition. In mid-1782, Jay traveled to Paris where he aided John Adams and Benjamin Franklin in negotiating the Treaty of Paris. After the revolution, Jay served his country in a variety of ways. He first became Secretary of Foreign Affairs, advocated a strong central government in the Federalist Papers, became the Chief Justice on the United States Supreme Court, negotiated a treaty with Britain in 1795, and later served as governor of New York. He died on May 17, 1829, in Bedford, New York.

Document Analysis

The commissioners’ letters to Robert Livingston illustrate the difficulties that American diplomats faced when negotiating a treaty with Great Britain as a result of their alliance with France. Letters during the eighteenth century were not always meant for private consumption. Although the letter, written from Passy, a residence in Paris, France, was directed to Livingston, the authors intended for its message to be delivered to Congress as well.

The treaty with France stipulated that both parties should provide full exposure of the peace discussions with Great Britain. Despite their feelings of amity toward Louis XVI and the financial and material support granted by the French, the commissioners recognized the danger in becoming too reliant on their ally. Moreover, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay expressed overt suspicion concerning Spanish territorial goals in North America. As a result, the commissioners carried out secret negotiations with Great Britain in 1782 to settle the geographical boundaries of America, make arrangements for loyalists still residing in America, and stipulate terms for repayment of debts owed to British lenders. These “quid pro quo” settlements, as the commissioners euphemistically called them in their missive to Livingston, would allow Americans to navigate toward friendlier and economically advantageous relations with Great Britain in the following years. More importantly, the secret negotiations reflected a sense of urgency by the diplomats to assert American sovereignty in determining the terms of independence and recognition.

As the document demonstrates, Robert Livingston, the US Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 1781 to 1783, addressed two letters to the commissioners, one on March 25 and one on April 21. In the letters, Livingston expressed his displeasure at having learned of the secret negotiations undertaken by the three men. He alluded to America’s 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France. Article VIII indicated that “Neither of the two parties shall conclude either truce or peace, with Great Britain, without the formal consent of the other first obtained.” Instructions sent by Congress reaffirmed this article and charged the commissioners to make all negotiations with the British diplomats known to the French king. Livingston recognized America’s indebtedness to France’s generosity. Moreover, he and members in Congress faced daily pressure from the French ambassador. Explaining that “honesty was the best policy,” Livingston asked for a recapitulation of the commissioners’ actions.

The commissioners’ response to Livingston is somewhat problematic. It reflects the germination of obstacles to the Franco-American alliance. Yet, it was with uneasiness that the diplomats negotiated separately from their allies. From 1776 to 1785, Benjamin Franklin served as ambassador to France and integrated himself thoroughly into several elite circles. Initially, Franklin opposed secret negotiations, but later yielded to Adams and Jay on the matter. Writing back to Livingston, they remarked that if their actions had insulted France, it would “give us great pain.”

The defensive strategies used by Adams, Franklin, and Jay in their missive reveal some nuances of eighteenth-century diplomacy. Despite being charged with undermining the defensive alliance with France, the diplomats countered by depicting the secret negotiations as advantageous to the French. Although not conforming to Livingston’s rules of diplomatic “propriety,” they assured him that the Compte de Vergennes, the French minister, had “more reason to be pleased than displeased with [their] silence.” Put simply, they asserted that their separate discussions and subsequent reticence helped France avoid delay in forming her own treaty with Britain. More importantly, the American diplomats underscored another vital theme—the notion that national interests and needs trumped alliances. Although the diplomats wanted to keep the “separate Article” about the Floridas “secret for the present,” they maintained that “France had not the smallest interest” in the matter. The negotiations, they argued, were inconsequential and benign to France’s interests. The commissioners’ strong attitudes toward the Spanish underscore another layer of tension that occurred during the peace negotiations. Spain had entered the war under the Family Compact with France. The Treaty of Aranjuez (1801) outlined Spain’s role in the conflict against Britain, which made no reference to America’s independence. Rather, their aims involved controlling the Mississippi River, ceding Gibraltar, and gaining Minorca and the Floridas. More covertly, they wished to limit the geographic expanse of America. For the duration of the war, Spain—itself a monarchy and not wanting to fan enthusiasm for republicanism—refused to recognize the independence of Americans. The commissioners writing to Livingston witnessed these animosities, according to their letter, and argued that Spain “extended her pretensions and claims of dominion, not only over the tract in question but over the vast region lying between the Floridas and Lake Superior.” They explained that “[t]he negotiations between Spain, France, and Britain were then in full vigor, and embarrassed by a variety of clashing demands.” Put simply, the diplomats explained to Congress that in order for America’s demands to be met, it was necessary to prevent Spain from learning of their work. That France was tied to Spain in a separate treaty muddled Franco-American relations even further. Had France known of the American acquiescence to Britain over the Floridas, they asserted, they would have felt it necessary to share the information with Spain and even further complicate negotiations.

Adams, Franklin, and Jay also recognized and accepted that the individual interests of nations could undermine treaties. Prior to Yorktown, each “belligerent” party in 1781 looked to settle the dispute diplomatically. The cost to each nation in men and money had dampened morale and their respective economies. France, a party in two treaties, was especially vulnerable to a protracted war. They had agreed to remain in the conflict until America received recognition from Britain as a separate nation and until Spain obtained Gibraltar. The diplomats observed that while the French Minister appeared as “our friend,” his primary objective remained to “promot[e] the power, riches, and glory of France.” Adams and the others sought to do the same, naturally. Against the interests of Spain, they advised Britain against relinquishing areas surrounding the Mississippi River to the Spanish, as it would impact their trade. Despite America’s urging, Britain eventually did abandon the mouth of the Mississippi and the Floridas to Spain.

Land comprised a large portion of the secret negotiations with Britain. American commissioners did not seek access to the entire North American continent. Much of what is America today was purchased in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848 extended America’s boundaries further. Comparatively, in 1783, delegates sought to “extend as far down towards the mouth of the Mississippi” because of the “natural fertility and position” of the land. They denied Britain’s claims to “extend the bounds . . . of West Florida, up to the Yazoo River.” Moreover, they successfully renegotiated the ownership of the eastern shores of the Mississippi River despite the British delegate’s verbose explanation about “the ancient bounds of Canada, Louisiana, &c.” To Livingston, they explained that “the surest way to reconcile and obtain both objects would be a composition beneficial to both parties.” The map of America at the end of the war reflects the successful maneuvering of the American delegates in refusing British geographic claims. By 1783, Georgia extended to the eastern shore of the Mississippi River and south toward the Gulf of Mexico. However, Spain and Georgia claimed some of the same territory.

The letter to Livingston also alludes to some of the strategies for dealing with colonists who had remained loyal to Britain during the war. Large pockets of loyalists resided in areas of New York, including the borough of Queens in New York City, which was under British control for much of the war. Southern loyalists, for instance, adhered to strong political maxims that situated the monarch at the forefront of the social and religious hierarchy. During the revolution, states articulated treason laws. Essentially, treason was defined as assisting the enemy, in this case, Great Britain. Treason was punishable by property confiscation, exile, or death. In the 1770s and 1780s, revolutionaries used the term “tories” to allude to loyalists. The moniker was replete with negative connotations. Great Britain had depended heavily on loyalist factions in New York and colonies in the south to fight the revolutionaries. At the closure of the war, loyalists were left without property and branded as traitors. The commissioners worked with Britain to develop a plan for allowing loyalists to leave America. Mr. Hartley, a British commissioner, assured the diplomats that “positive orders for the evacuation of New York have been dispatched, and that no avoidable delay will retard that event.” The British delegate also desired portions of southern land to remain under British control to facilitate a “convenient retreat to the tories.” The sixth article articulated that America should cease confiscating property of loyal British subjects. Yet, Britain enunciated a deference to and preference for British subjects and refugees, hoping to preserve the property of absentee landowners.

Another central component to the negotiations for the Treaty of Paris involved debt owed to British lenders. Naturally, Britain was eager to recoup these funds. In the eighteenth century, Britain followed a mercantilist policy which emphasized trade regulations both internally and externally. American debts represented a long-established economic relationship whereby Britain controlled the distribution of American goods. Though Americans disliked Article Four of the treaty, as represented by the delegates’ offer to Livingston to “propose an Article . . . postponing the payment of British debts for the time,” it was nevertheless imperative in order to make room for future trade agreements between the two countries. In 1776, Adam Smith published a tract, abbreviated as The Wealth of Nations, which instigated a break from traditional mercantilism by calling for free trade. British merchant Richard Oswald (who was an emissary for the signing of the Treaty of Paris), mentioned in the letter by Adams, Franklin, and Jay, recognized the economic opportunities in trading with Americans. In his journal, he recounted these sentiments, rationalizing that because of the vast amount of open land, Americans would focus on production, leaving opportunities for British manufacturing. Seeing that future commercial exchanges were inevitable, the delegates proposed a “future special treaty, to be made either in America or Europe.”

Collectively, the concerns set out by Adams, Franklin, and Jay culminated in a desire to assert American autonomy from both their allies and former king. Although the revolutionaries depended on French assistance, their letter reflects uneasiness at acquiescing control over the peace proceedings to France. Put simply, they did not want to trade obeisance from a constitutional monarchy to an absolute monarchy. By initiating and constructing a provisional treaty with Great Britain, the delegates positioned themselves on equal footing with Vergennes and Oswald. They demonstrated to Great Britain that the newly formed nation would not be a puppet to France, subservient to their needs. Instead, they articulated that “Since we have assumed a place in the political system of the world, let us move like a primary and not a secondary planet.” In addition to this show of American nationalism, the delegates countered Livingston’s admonitions of dishonesty, exclaiming that, unlike France who clamored for “riches,” they had not “sacrifice[ed] our faith, our gratitude, or our honor, to any considerations of convenience.” Rather, they worked according to “the dignity and independent spirit, which should always characterize a free and generous people.” The delegates drew an invisible line between what benefited America and their obligations under the Treaty of Alliance. They contended that it was not their “duty” to be forthright or offer “flimsy excuses” to France regarding their discussions with Britain. Though indebted to France for her assistance, the delegates skillfully acknowledged the diplomatic need to assert autonomy from all parties involved in negotiations.

Essential Themes

Taken together, the themes represented in these two letters illustrate the complex nature of treaty negotiations. American diplomats walked a tightrope in Paris, hoping to negotiate terms favorable to their wishes. Most importantly, the delegates needed Britain to relinquish all authority over the states and recognize American independence. That the commissioners achieved this and other gains in spite of Britain’s continuing war with France and Spain into 1783 reflects their skill but also their willingness to put their nation’s needs over the interests of their allies. Each ally entered the conflict with specific goals in mind. As the delegates explained to Livingston, these aims often conflicted with American designs. For instance, although Spain entered the war against Britain, the monarchy never recognized America’s independence. Rather, they viewed the revolution as dangerous to their colonial possessions. Though the delegates agreed to allow Britain to retain the Floridas for other land concessions, a capitulation they defined as quid pro quo, they successfully achieved most of their objectives.

Although France had come to America’s aid in 1778, the provisional treaty outlined in November 1792 by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay reflected a growing rift between the two allies and a growing sentiment of suspicion over entangling or protective alliances. The goals of each party, as the diplomats observed, conflicted with one another, causing confusion and delays in the settlement process. While Congress enjoyed French assistance during the war, they moved increasingly closer to neutralism as the 1780s progressed.

  • Hoffman, Ronald and Peter J. Albert eds. Diplomacy and Revolution: The Franco-American Alliance of 1778. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1981. Print
  • ___. Peace and the Peacemakers: The Treaty of 1783. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1986. Print.
  • Kerber, Linda K. “The Paradox of Women’s Citizenship in the Early Republic: The Case of Martin vs. Massachusetts, 1805.” American Historical Review 97.2 (1992): 349–78. Print.
  • Stinchcombe, William C. The American Revolution and the French Alliance. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1969. Print
Additional Reading
  • Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. ed. Charles W. Eliot. New York: SoHo, 2012. Print.
  • McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon, 2001. Print.
  • Meier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: First Vintage, 1997. Print.
  • Wood, Gordon. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: First Vintage, 1991. Print.

Categories: History