Peace Negotiations

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Peace Negotiations

PEACE NEGOTIATIONS. 1780–1784. Military operations in America virtually ceased when Cornwallis surrendered on 19 October 1781. The British proclaimed a cessation of hostilities on 4 February 1783, and Congress issued a similar proclamation on 11 April 1783. What follows is a chronology of steps leading to the uneasy peace.

On 15 February 1779 a committee of Congress completed a report on minimum peace demands. They were independence, specific boundaries, British withdrawal from all U.S. territory, fishing rights in the waters off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, and free navigation of the Mississippi River. This report was submitted to Congress on 23 February. Only the last two points were controversial, and on 14 August, Congress accepted all points but the one having to do with fishing, though the final instructions concerning peace negotiations were not completed until the end of September. On 27 September 1779, Congress selected John Adams to negotiate peace with England and also to draw up a commercial treaty and John Jay as minister to Spain with instructions to confer on the peace treaty with the leaders of that country. Each man, however, found that his mission was premature.

On 11 June 1781 Congress, largely in response to the demands of the French minister to the United States, the chevalier de la Luzerne, that Adams be recalled, decided to have the peace with Britain negotiated by a committee rather than by Adams alone. Jay was named to this committee on the 13th; Franklin, Henry Laurens, and Jefferson were appointed on the 14th. The next day Congress limited essential peace demands to independence and sovereignty, giving the committee discretion on all other points, including borders. Furthermore, in deference to the nation without whose help victory would have been impossible, Congress instructed the commissioners to act only with the knowledge and approval of the French ministry and to be "ultimately governed by the advice of the French Court or Minister" (Commager and Morris, p. 1251). Jefferson never left America, and Laurens was captured at sea by the British (3 September 1780).

On 12 April 1782, Richard Oswald reached Paris as representative of the Rockingham ministry and started talks with Franklin, the only American commissioner on the scene. Before leaving for France, Oswald—an old friend of Laurens—paid Laurens's bail and helped him get to the Netherlands to meet with Adams. Adams was at The Hague to secure Dutch recognition of the United States (which came on 19 April), arrange a loan, and bring about a treaty of amity and commerce (obtained in October 1782). Laurens returned to London and did not reach Paris until November 1782.

On 19 September the new Shelburne ministry authorized Oswald to treat with the commissioners of the "13 United States." This tacit recognition of independence started formal negotiations between Oswald, Franklin, and Jay. On 5 October, Jay gave Oswald the draft of a preliminary treaty. Henry Strachey joined Oswald on 28 October and by about 1 November, Jay and Adams (who reached Paris on 26 October) prevailed on Franklin to exclude France from preliminary treaty negotiations in violation of their congressional instructions. On 5 November a new set of articles was agreed to by the U.S. and British commissioners. With a few last-minute modifications, agreed to on 30 November, these articles became the final Peace Treaty of 3 September 1783. Vergennes, meanwhile, voiced his objections to the unilateral action of the commission but was impressed by the favorable results it had achieved. Franklin's tactful reply to the French minister on 17 December 1782 and the latter's desire for a speedy settlement prevented serious discord; so much so that Franklin was able to squeeze another huge loan out of the French government.

The treaty won for the United States almost everything Congress had originally desired, from Britain's recognition of American independence and a promise to withdraw all their troops to rights of navigation on the Mississippi and some fishing rights. Most astounding, however, were the new borders of the United States, which extended well beyond the original thirteen colonies to include the entire Northwest territory. Just about the only thing Britain received in return were American promises to honor pre-war debts and to recompense Loyalists for their losses. But the British also got what they were desperate for, namely, peace, as America's allies followed its lead in coming to terms with the British. In addition, as Jonathan Dull has written of the treaty, "The terms represented a considerable triumph for the American commissioners, but their victory was partly illusory," as so many details remained unstated and would haunt U.S. relations with Britain for the next half century (Diplomatic History, p. 150) Equally disruptive of relations between these two nations was the conviction on the part of most British leaders that the United States could not possibly last as an independent republic.

On 20 January 1783, Great Britain signed preliminary articles with France and Spain. Peace preliminaries then were complete and hostilities were officially ended. On 4 February the British Parliament proclaimed the cessation of hostilities. Though furious over the generosity of the treaty with the United States, Parliament voted 207 to 190 on 21 February to both approve and denounce the treaty. Shelburne resigned as prime minister, and Parliament eventually saw no alternative but to accede to the treaty in order to end a long and devastating war. Congress received the text of the provisional treaty on 13 March and on 11 April proclaimed hostilities ended. After considerable criticism of the commissioners for not consulting France, Congress ratified the provisional treaty on 15 April. On 3 September the treaty was signed in Paris, on 14 January 1784 it was ratified by Congress, and on 12 May ratifications were exchanged to complete the peace negotiations. Both Spain and Great Britain found reasons for not honoring all the terms of the treaty.

SEE ALSO Jay's Treaty; Peace Treaty of 3 September 1783; Spanish Participation in the American Revolution.


Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution As Told by Participants. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Dull, Jonathan R. A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.

Hoffman, Ronald, and Peter J. Albert, eds. Peace and the Peacemakers: The Treaty of 1783. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1986.

Morris, Richard B. The Peacemakers: The Great Powers and American Independence. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

                              revised by Michael Bellesiles

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Peace Negotiations

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