Diplomacy of the American Revolution

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Diplomacy of the American Revolution

DIPLOMACY OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. European exploration and colonization of the New World led to the Colonial Wars, and the political settlements that followed these conflicts must be considered the background of the diplomacy during and after the American Revolution. In simplest terms, British diplomacy during the Revolution amounted to little more than the attempt to maintain European neutrality while the "revolting colonists" were brought back into line. The Americans, on the other hand, needed European support to win. France and Spain, the major powers on the Continent, looked on England's misfortune in America as their opportunity to reshape the balance of power in Europe and in the world.

In the period following the Seven Years' War, two French foreign ministers, Choiseul and later Vergennes, anticipated conflicts between the American colonists and the British and sought to exploit them for French advantage. As the war of words between the colonies and England escalated into actions, George III issued a proclamation in October 1774 forbidding the sale of munitions to the colonies. In the spring of 1775 Parliament passed a series of acts that prohibited altogether foreign trade with the colonies except for those considered safe—Georgia, North Carolina, Delaware, and New York. In August George III declared the colonies to be in rebellion and those participating as traitors. The colonies under restraint (especially Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland, and Virginia) began the search for arms and ammunition from foreign sources such as the West Indies. Working through local merchants, they identified and established contacts with sympathetic foreign officials in the Caribbean and in Europe.

Congress on 18 September 1775 established a committee, similar to the state organizations, called the Secret Committee of Trade (later known as the Secret Committee) to negotiate contracts for imports of gunpowder and munitions. Original members of the committee included, among others, Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, Robert R. Livingston, and Robert Morris. When Morris's business firm received contracts through the committee, congressional factions led by the Adamses and Lees complained. Divisions between the Adams-Lee Junto and the Morris faction, two small but powerful minorities in the Continental Congress, continued to fragment congressional policy on foreign relations. As Neil Storch has concluded, this strife increased until 1779 when it included numerically only fifteen to forty percent of the delegates, but those small groups constituted a significant portion of the divided leadership. The Adams-Lee Junto included among others: Samuel Adams, John Adams, William Whipple, James Lovell, Arthur Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Richard Henry Lee, Henry Laurens, and James Searle. The Morris faction included among others: Robert Morris, John Dickinson, James Duane, John Jay, Robert R. Livingston, Gouverneur Morris, Meriwether Smith, Thomas Burke, Willian Henry Drayton, and William Paca. Thus the factionalism present in Congress became a fundamental element of American foreign policy. Another secret committee, the Committee of Secret Correspondence, was established on 29 November 1775 "for corresponding with our friends in … other parts of the world." Its members included, among others, Franklin, John Jay, and later Robert Morris. The two secret committees combined their efforts and objectives to send Deane to France.

Deane had been an active Connecticut merchant, and as a member of the Continental Congress he had spoken out in the debate over trade policy for America in favor of seeking it actively abroad. From July to December 1776, he alone represented Congress in France. There he assumed the role of a merchant openly buying goods, while privately seeking the favor of the French government. In a secret meeting with Vergennes, Deane was given assurance that as a private merchant he could conduct business in France and that the French government was in possession of older model weapons (see the article on Jean Baptiste de Gribeauval) that were still serviceable. Vergennes recommended him to Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais, the author of comedies who was also engaged in commerce. Soon the two had made arrangements for significant arms shipments to America. Early in December many French officers began to approach Deane for service in the American army. Perhaps seeking to play to public opinion in France as well as to provide experienced officers for the American army, Deane provided commissions for many highly placed officers.

In September 1776 the Continental Congress appointed Franklin and Arthur Lee to join Deane as a committee (or, as they became known, the "commissioners") to perform the mission originally entrusted to Deane alone. Though not "trained" diplomats, Franklin and Lee had served earlier as colonial agents in England and had become accomplished negotiators and propagandists. Their skills strengthened the American presence in France. Franklin, as the more colorful and charming figure, of course became the topic of greatest public interest. Lee, without set duties and accused of English associations, dissociated himself from the others. Ironically it was Franklin and Deane who were unwittingly providing information for covert English agents such as Edward Bancroft. By early February 1777, Franklin, Deane, and Lee became concerned at their lack of timely news and further instructions from the Congress. So in February they agreed to exceed their earlier instructions. Given that little was happening in France, the three decided that Lee should venture off to Spain and Deane to the Netherlands. In February 1777 Lee went to Spain, where the embarrassment of his presence forced the officially neutral government to offer him private assurances of money and supplies through Diego de Gardoqui.

William Carmichael, an affluent student in London, had been recruited by Lee to carry dispatches for him. When he appeared in Paris, he shifted loyalties to Deane to establish business and diplomatic contacts with the Netherlands and Prussia. Congress meanwhile in May 1777, under the influence of the John Adams-Arthur Lee junto, had appointed Lee commissioner to Spain as well as renewed him as a commissioner to France; William Lee commissioner to Prussia and the Holy Roman Empire (Austria); and Ralph Izard commissioner to Tuscany (Italy). Before news of these Congressional appointments reached France, Arthur Lee proposed in April 1777 that Carmichael accompany him to Prussia. Carmichael—now associated with Deane—refused unless awarded official status, which the commissioners declined to grant. This magnified the growing rift among Deane, Franklin, and the Lees. In addition, Deane and Franklin refused to inform Lee of negotiations during his absence or to provide him with access to their files. Complaining to the French of his treatment, Arthur Lee set off for Berlin and Vienna on 15 May. Contrary to his experiences in Spain, Lee found his advances stymied in both capitals. When he returned to Paris to find his brother William arrived from London, Lee also discovered that his fellow commissioners were not keeping systematic financial accounts and were indiscreet in the security of sensitive documents. The acrimony increased. In October and November, Arthur Lee wrote to his congressional allies calling for an overhaul of America's agency in Europe and a separation of diplomats from commercial agents; he also suggested that the commercial activities of Beaumarchais were in fact gifts of the French government.

On 27 November Deane suggested to Franklin and Lee that they threaten France with an ultimatum. If it would not agree to a commercial treaty, they would open negotiations with the British. The two rejected Deane's proposal. Shortly thereafter news arrived in France that General John Burgoyne had surrendered his army to the Americans at Saratoga. One prominent American historian, Jonathan Dull, suggests that news of Saratoga had little to do with the French decision to negotiate treaties with the Americans. He suggests that French planners had already projected that spring 1778 would be the date to begin hostilities against the British. On the other hand, noted English historians John Hardman and Munro Price suggest that changes in Bavarian politics may have opened the way for the redirection of French attention (and resources) to America. Serious negotiations on a treaty began on 8 January 1778. The French representative agreed to American proposals and responded with a counteroffer of a commercial treaty and a military alliance treaty. The texts of both were approved and signed on 6 February, and Louis XVI formally received the American commissioners at Versailles on 20 March. Although the British ambassador quickly withdrew from France, there was no major combat between England and France until 16 June, when a naval encounter served as the formal cause for mutual proclamations of war between the two major powers.

As a last effort to trump the alliance in America, Lord North pressed two bills through Parliament. One offered the Americans repeal of the Coercive Acts and freedom from taxation; the other established a commission to negotiate peace with the Americans under the nominal leadership of the earl of Carlisle. Congress dismissed the proposals. The French minister to the newly recognized United States, Conrad-Alexandre Gérard, arrived near Philadelphia on 11 July 1778 with the recently recalled American commissioner Deane and a French fleet commanded by comte d'Estaing. To equalize diplomatic representation, the Congress dissolved the commission in September and appointed Franklin as its minister plenipotentiary.

France now turned to Spain to secure its commitment to the war and thereby achieve clear naval superiority over England. Spain's price for such a commitment was a series of objectives crowned by a combined invasion of England. The treaty of Aranjuez, establishing a Franco-Spanish alliance, was signed on 12 April 1779. By its terms Spain promised not to undertake a separate peace with England and to acknowledge that France would conclude no peace short of American independence. As a result of disease and bad weather, the projected invasions in 1779 and 1781 failed, but they distracted critical English naval forces from American waters. An English attempt to negotiate with the Spanish through envoy Richard Cumberland also failed.

Congress's next step was to balance its diplomatic representation overseas. Congress kept Franklin as minister to France, selected from the "radicals" John Adams as peace commissioner, chose from the "moderates" John Jay as minister to Spain, and the nonaligned former president of Congress Henry Laurens as minister to the Netherlands. Arthur Lee and William Lee were recalled to America. During 1781 Congress appointed a peace commission composed of Franklin, Jay, Adams, Laurens, and Thomas Jefferson (who declined) and instructed them to undertake no treaty without consulting with the French government. With the success of the Yorktown campaign, American prospects for a serious English negotiation blossomed.

When the British government under Lord North fell in March 1782 and was replaced by the Opposition under Lord Rockingham, there were deep divisions within the new government about how to handle the Americans. The English negotiators Richard Oswald and Thomas Grenville took different approaches with Franklin, the remaining American representative in Paris. Adams had gone to the Netherlands to work out the terms of a treaty of amity and commerce. John Jay did not return to Paris until late June. Henry Laurens had been captured on the Atlantic and upon his release from English imprisonment declined to serve. Separate English negotiations with Franklin and with Vergennes were both stalemated. With the death of Rockingham in June 1782, George III named the earl of Shelburne as head of the cabinet. By the end of July Shelburne offered the Americans independence. However, Franklin, owing to illness, had been forced to withdraw from the negotiations. Jay, having entered the negotiations late, hesitated to agree until the British negotiator's instructions included the offer of independence. He was also suspicious of a separate French-British deal. He sent Benjamin Vaughan to England with an offer for America to withdraw from the French alliance.

In October Franklin, Adams, and Laurens joined the negotiations, and all reached an agreement with the British diplomats on 30 November. The British would acknowledge American independence and withdraw all their troops, and accept America's boundary demands, its fishing rights off Newfoundland, and its right to navigation on the Mississippi River. In turn, the Americans would honor their British debts and Congress would urge the states to treat the Loyalists fairly. Yet ambiguities in these terms would lead the British to delay a full troop withdrawal from the frontier until 1794 by the terms of Jay's Treaty. Although the French were somewhat surprised by the British concessions the Americans had obtained, they were pleased that this achievement would put additional pressure on the Spanish to comply without having reached their primary goal of retaking Gibraltar. On 20 January 1783 a preliminary peace treaty was signed by the Americans, French, and Spanish and on behalf of the Netherlands. However, by February a new problem had arisen. The House of Commons rejected the proposal.

With the rejection of the preliminaries, Shelburne resigned as chief minister and was replaced by a coalition government led by Lord North and Charles James Fox. A wave of anti-American feeling swept through England, resulting in the passage of an act excluding Americans from trade with the British West Indies. Despite this, the new government held on to the old treaty concessions, and a final treaty along the same terms was signed at Paris on 3 September 1783, the same day as the French and Spanish treaties were signed. A final British treaty with the Dutch followed on 20 May 1784. For all its military, political, and economic weaknesses, America had emerged at the end of the war victorious in its major objective: political and diplomatic independence. In time, with a new constitution it would move to overcome those weaknesses.

The standard general authority on the diplomacy of the American Revolution is Jonathan R. Dull. The best authority on French relations with the Continental Congress is William C. Stinchcombe.

SEE ALSO Adams, John; Bancroft, Edward; Choiseul, Etienne François, comte de Stainville; Colonial Wars; Committee of Secret Correspondence; Deane, Silas; Estaing, Charles Hector Théodat, comte d'; Fox, Charles James; Franklin, Benjamin; George III; Gérard, Conrad Alexandre; Gribeauval, Jean Baptiste Vaquette de; Hortalez & Cie; Izard, Ralph; Jay, John; Jay's Treaty; Laurens, Henry; Lee, Arthur; Lee, William; Livingston, Robert R.; Morris, Robert (1734–1806); North, Sir Frederick; Oswald, Richard; Rockingham, Charles Watson-Wentworth, second Marquess of; Saratoga, Second Battle of; Secret Committee of Congress; Shelburne, William Petty Fitzmaurice, earl of; Spanish Participation in the American Revolution; Vergennes, Charles Gravier, Comte de; Yorktown Campaign.


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――――――, et al., eds. John Jay. 2 vols. New York: Harper and Row, 1975–1980.

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――――――. The American Revolution and the French Alliance. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1969.

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                            revised by Robert Rhodes Crout