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Revolutionary War
History

The Treaty of Paris

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When news reached London in early December 1781 of the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, what support for the war effort that had remained quickly evaporated. Prime Minister Lord North’s ministry dissolved into fiery debates about how to bring the war to an end. This was the worst possible scenario for war-hawks and for King George III, who had personally orchestrated all major decisions in suppressing the American rebellion since its inception. Initially, the British government sought to minimize its losses to the Americans. The monarchy was willing to accept concessions, but still balked at recognizing the United States as a sovereign nation. When British attempts to thwart the inevitable went nowhere, North was forced to resign as Prime Minister on March 20, 1782. Any remaining support quickly folded under the posturing of pro-peace factions within Parliament.  

Talks began in April 1782 with American diplomats Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay, and Henry Laurens meeting British diplomats Richard Oswald and David Hartley in Paris to discuss terms to end the war with their French and Spanish counterparts. The top French diplomat, the Comte de Vergennes, leveraged much on his growing impatience with American demands by influencing the direction of negotiations. Recall, France’s alliance with the new United States was more about French revenge for losses sustained from the British victory in the Seven Years War (French & Indian War) than it was for admiration of the concept of American statehood. France had its eye on British interests and their intentions. On top of that, France had just loaned the United States a large sum of monetary support, and the French economy was sinking. However, understanding they might have felt towards these truths, it became apparent to the Americans that French and Spanish interests were outweighing their own.  

French diplomats had secretly gained support from some members of the Confederation Congress in America to dictate terms favorable to France, so long as the United States received its independence from England. This did not sit well with Franklin and the others, so privately they reached out to new British Prime Minister Lord Shelbourne for a separate deal. From the British point of view, if they were willing to accept the sovereignty of the United States, they would look toward a future where an expanding United States could become a dynamic trading partner with Great Britain. Essentially, the British and the French were both willing to use the United States as a bargaining chip for their own self-interests. At one point, the Canadian provinces were offered up in exchange for these favorable trade agreements with the United States. Recall, again, that the Patriot insurrectionists had tried - and failed - to instigate a rebellion in Canada in 1775-76. Vergennes responded by saying, “The English buy peace rather than make it.” Ultimately, the proposition of dealing Canada never materialized, and after much back and forth, posturing and stealth maneuvering, a preliminary deal was finally reached in November 1782. 

The Treaty of Paris was signed by members of the American and British delegations on September 3, 1783, and officially ratified by the Confederation Congress on January 14, 1784. Among the terms of the Treaty, the most important was that the United States of America received recognition as a sovereign and independent nation as well as fishing rights off the coast of Newfoundland (still British territory). In addition, Loyalists and former British subjects could petition to retrieve confiscated property from during the war, and the British government had to remove all troops from the US in return. Lastly, the Treaty placed the new boundary for the United States west of the Appalachians to the Mississippi River, excluding Spanish-held Florida.  

A painting (American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Agreement with Great Britain) by artist Benjamin West showing the delegates discussing terms of the peace deal has become famous not for the events it depicts, but for the fact that only the American delegates appear. The British delegation refused to sit for the painting, leaving West’s work unfinished - thus its final title. A fitting reflection of the pride and ego of all parties involved, and the rupture on the world stage that changed the course of human events ever after.  

 

References and Recommended Sources: 
  • Bemis, Samuel Flagg. The Diplomacy of the American Revolution, (Indiana University Press, 1967).  

  • Hoffman, Ronald; Albert, Peter J. Peace and Peacemakers: The Treaty of Paris 1783, (University Press of Virginia, 1986).  

  • Morris, Richard B. The Peacemakers: The Great Powers and American Independence, (New York, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965).