September, 1783: Treaty of Paris Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The ultimate success of the United States in winning the Revolutionary War did not immediately translate into an easy peace. The new nation’s primary objective was to gain formal recognition of its independence from Great Britain; it also needed agreements related to tangential issues, such as boundaries and fishing rights off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. It quickly became evident that the United States could not expect altruistic generosity from either its friends or its former adversaries.

The ultimate success of the United States in winning the Revolutionary War did not immediately translate into an easy peace. The new nation’s primary objective was to gain formal recognition of its independence from Great Britain; it also needed agreements related to tangential issues, such as boundaries and fishing rights off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. It quickly became evident that the United States could not expect altruistic generosity from either its friends or its former adversaries.

John Jay, from a painting by Gilbert Stuart. One of the chief American negotiators at Paris, Jay was later the first chief justice of the United States. (National Archives)

France, an ally of Spain, hesitated to support U.S. interests against the wishes of its Bourbon neighbor. Madrid also objected to any new rising empire in the Western Hemisphere, fearing possible instability within its own Latin American colonies. If Great Britain appeared conciliatory toward the United States, its motives were dictated by a desire to weaken the Franco-American Alliance and maintain remaining North American interests. At the same time, as events later revealed, Great Britain and France were willing to cooperate surreptitiously to limit the territorial aspirations of the United States when it proved to be in the interest of either power.

The American Diplomats

The U.S. diplomats at the peace conference were a match for their French and English counterparts, despite problems in undertaking their important task. Of those appointed by the Continental Congress to negotiate a peace, Thomas Jefferson did not serve because of the fatal illness of his wife, and Henry Laurens was a prisoner in England during the most crucial period of the peacemaking discussions. Two other appointees were serving in previous diplomatic assignments—John Jay at Madrid and John Adams at The Hague—and did not reach Paris until months after Benjamin Franklin began discussions with the British in April, 1782. (Jay reached Paris in late June, while Adams did not arrive until the end of October.)

In London, Lord North had been prime minister throughout the entire war, but King George III largely had dictated government policy. The revolt of the American colonies and their probable loss from the British Empire led to North’s resignation in March, 1782. Lord Rockingham succeeded him but died several months later. William Petty, the earl of Shelburne, the home secretary in Rockingham’s cabinet, had been assigned the responsibility of dealing with the Americans. Shelburne sent to Paris a Scottish merchant named Richard Oswald, an elderly acquaintance of Franklin, to start conversations aimed at luring the venerable commissioner away from France.

Oswald argued that the former British colonies in America could gain more by dealing separately with the mother country, but while Franklin revealed a willingness to speak with the British representatives, he remained firmly committed to the Franco-American military alliance created in 1778. He did, however, assure Oswald that a generous peace would go far toward rebuilding ties between the English-speaking nations. When Lord Rockingham died in July, Shelburne became prime minister but was reluctant to concede total independence to the former colonies.

General George Washington and his victorious troops entering New York, which briefly served as the new nation’s first capital. (F. R. Niglutsch)

Suspicions About France

When Jay finally arrived in Paris in June, he expressed his deep suspicion of French intentions, correctly believing that the comte de Vergennes, French minister of foreign affairs, favored Spanish ambitions in the disputed region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. The conde de Aranda, Spanish ambassador to France, informed Jay of the unwillingness of Charles III, the Bourbon king of Spain, to recognize U.S. claims to all lands to the east bank of the Mississippi River north of 31° north latitude and to free navigation of the entire river. Subsequently, Aranda and Gérard de Rayneval, Vergennes’s secretary and diplomatic courier, proposed that the region between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River remain in British hands and that much of the Southwest should become a Spanish protectorate. When he learned that Rayneval had slipped away to London, Jay suspected that the Bourbons might negotiate with Great Britain at U.S. expense.

Led by Jay, who personally took the initiative in August, the U.S. commissioners assured Shelburne of their willingness to deal directly with the British if London would change Oswald’s instructions to permit him to negotiate openly and with full authority with the representatives of the United States. This would be an implicit recognition of U.S. sovereignty, which Great Britain had hitherto refused to acknowledge. Shelburne now responded positively, believing that the patriots could be separated from France and would be more cooperative with Great Britain in the future. Oswald received his increased authority in September, and the negotiations rapidly clarified the details of an agreement.

Terms

Franklin was disappointed at not gaining Canada, one of his personal objectives in the negotiations, but the boundaries agreed upon in the preliminary treaty did meet U.S. aspirations in the northwest and southwest. The Mississippi River was designated as the primary western boundary of the United States. In addition, the new nation was given access to the Canadian fishing grounds, and British forces would be evacuated from U.S. soil. In return, the U.S. commissioners agreed to validate prewar debts owed to British subjects and to recommend to the states that they return confiscated loyalist property. On balance, the United States gained more than the British in the concessions each side made to reach a satisfactory conclusion.

The preliminary articles, signed on November 30, 1782, although without the advice or consent of Vergennes, did not technically violate the letter of the Franco-American Alliance, for the treaty was not to go into effect until France and Great Britain also had come to terms. What the commissioners had violated, however, were the instructions given by Congress in June, 1781, that they do nothing without the knowledge and consent of France. At that time, Congress had even withdrawn the requirement that the Mississippi River be the nation’s western boundary, ordering its commissioners to insist only upon independence. The negotiators’ coup enabled Vergennes, never really eager to keep fighting until Spain recovered Gibraltar from the British, to persuade Charles III’s ministers to settle instead for the acquisition of the island of Minorca in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the two Floridas.

The final treaties were signed at Paris on September 3, 1783, confirming the detailed Anglo-American understanding of the previous November. With the acceptance of the formal agreement and Congress’s ratification of the treaty, the United States of America entered the community of nations.

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