Revolution: Diplomacy

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Revolution: Diplomacy

For the United States, the key problem of the diplomacy of the American Revolution was to secure aid from abroad without sacrificing independence. With the outbreak of war in 1775, many Americans in and out of Congress presumed that some foreign aid was necessary. On 29 November 1775, the Continental Congress created the Committee of Secret Correspondence (renamed in 1777 the Committee for Foreign Affairs) to communicate with friends of America in Great Britain, Ireland, and elsewhere.

The main questions regarding foreign alliances were whether independence should come before or after such agreements, what America had to offer foreign powers, and what commitments America should make to them. Leaders as different as John Dickinson and Patrick Henry believed that independence without an alliance in place would put America at the mercy of France. Samuel and John Adams believed that other nations would not sign alliances until America declared its independence and that the offer of trade would bring alliances without political commitments. In Common Sense (1776), Thomas Paine argued that American agricultural productions would force European concessions "while eating is the custom of Europe." Agreeing with this assessment, John Adams in March 1776 proposed a commercial alliance with France that would accept no French troops or ministers, taking only French arms and supplies. On 6 April, Congress opened American ports to the world. Congress sent Silas Deane, a Connecticut merchant and former member of Congress, to France to purchase munitions.

On 11 June, Congress appointed a committee to draft a plan of a treaty that would be offered to other powers. Adams completed the Model Treaty in July. It would grant the United States and the other nation most-favored-nations status in each other's ports. Adams borrowed this provision from the Treaty of Utrecht (1713). Adams also included provisions traditionally favored by small navy powers, such as a limited contraband list (of items that neutrals could trade to belligerents and still remain neutral) and the principle that free ships make free goods, meaning that all goods carried in a neutral ship are considered neutral. The only military provision stated that the United States would not seek a separate peace if Great Britain declared war on the other signatory. Congress adopted a slightly modified version as official policy on 17 September 1776. Military setbacks led Congress to abandon the Model Treaty by the end of the year. In December 1776 Benjamin Franklin joined Arthur Lee and Silas Deane as an American envoy in Paris. They were authorized to do whatever was necessary to bring France into the war.

seeking french support

France was the natural choice for an ally. Since its humiliating defeat in the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), France had sought a way to regain its power and prestige. France sent several secret agents to the American colonies during the 1760s and 1770s to determine if the colonial crisis might be turned to French advantage. In September 1775 France's foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, sent Julien-Alexandre Achard de Bonvouloir to Philadelphia. Bonvouloir reported back that Congress was seeking French aid. Upon receiving this report, Vergennes moved toward supporting the American Revolution. In March 1776 Vergennes prepared his "Considerations" on the colonial rebellion, recommending that France and Spain prepare for potential war with Great Britain, that France assure Great Britain that it had no hostile intentions, and that France should secretly supply the American Revolutionaries with munitions. King Louis XVI approved the policy in April. Vergennes than directed his deputy, Joseph-Mathias Gérard de Rayneval, to draft another paper, "Reflections," which argued that British power and wealth depended on the colonies. American success would increase French power and trade while permanently damaging Great Britain. The French government set up a dummy corporation, Rodrigue Hortalez and Company, led by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, to funnel munitions to America. By 1777 France was paying for the bulk of the war.

Soon after Franklin's arrival in Paris in December 1776, he, Deane and most of the Americans in the mission to France moved to a residence at Passy, which became the Americans' headquarters. The mission was far from unified. Lee's heightened sense of his own republican virtue led him to be overly suspicious of the motives and actions of those around him. He soon suspected that Franklin and Deane were plotting against him. Meanwhile, the mission was also riddled with spies, double agents, and others of questionable loyalty. The most notorious double agent was Edward Bancroft, who met with Deane in Paris in July 1776 and subsequently served first as Deane's secretary and then as secretary of the legation. Franklin never knew of Bancroft's activities and tended to dismiss the danger of spies. Others around the mission, such as William Carmichael, who served as Deane's secretary and later as John Jay's secretary in Spain, sometimes acted in ways that cast doubt upon their loyalties.

Benjamin Franklin was already the most prominent of the Americans and so naturally took the lead in diplomacy. He recognized that France was in a delicate position and sought to help the American cause through what later generations would call public diplomacy. He avoided the court of Louis XVI and instead concentrated on the salons of Paris, appealing to the intellectuals and wooing the ladies there. French Enlightenment thinkers tended to have an idealized view of America as an unspoiled utopian wilderness. Franklin played on this image and portrayed himself as a simple backwoodsman. He appeared around Paris in a coonskin cap, which certainly would not have been part of his wardrobe in London or Philadelphia. In these ways he kept the American cause before the eyes of influential Parisians without embarrassing the French government.

Franklin agreed with the moderates in Congress that the United States should rely on France for foreign aid and not seek other entanglements. Arthur Lee, like the radicals in Congress led by the Adamses and the Lees, sought to balance other allies against France. In February 1777 Lee left for Spain. He was not officially received but was promised aid. Between May and July he was in Berlin seeking permission to use Prussian ports for American privateers. King Frederick II had some sympathy for the United States, but could not risk hostilities with Great Britain. In May, Congress decided to expand diplomatic activities, naming Arthur Lee commissioner to Spain, his older brother William as commissioner to the Holy Roman Empire, and Ralph Izard as commissioner to Tuscany. The commissioners received their appointments in September.

Vergennes hoped to keep the American war at a low level while preparing for a wider conflict with Great Britain. In the spring of 1777 Rayneval concluded that the navy would not be ready until March 1778. The aggressive American use of privateers out of French ports threatened to bring a premature war. On 23 July, Vergennes presented a memorial to the king that France could no longer prop up the American cause through secret aid. The time had come for a formal offensive and defensive alliance. The king agreed, provided that Spain join any such alliance. Spain, however, preferred to avoid an open war with Great Britain and advocated a truce between America and Great Britain guaranteed by France and Spain. The American victory at Saratoga, New York, on 17 October 1777 changed the diplomatic situation. Word of the victory reached Paris on 3 December. The week before, Deane had suggested threatening to reconcile with Great Britain if France did not offer recognition. Soon after the news of Saratoga, the North ministry in Britain sent Paul Wentworth, a former colonial agent for New Hampshire, to try to get a settlement short of independence. Fear of a deal between the Americans and the British contributed to Vergennes promising recognition on 17 December 1777. He had wanted to wait until Spain was on board.

the franco-american alliance

The United States and France concluded two treaties on 6 February 1778. One was a treaty of amity and commerce based on the Model Treaty. The other was a treaty of alliance. The alliance provided that France and the United States would fight together against Great Britain if Britain declared war on France. The United States was free to conquer Canada and Bermuda, and France could keep any islands it took in the Caribbean. Neither would sign a separate peace with Great Britain. France and the United States agreed to guarantee each other's territory in America. The king appointed Conrad-Alexandre Gérard as minister to the United States and formally received the American commissioners on 20 March. In November 1777 Congress replaced Deane with John Adams, who arrived in Paris in February. Formal recognition made the commission system obsolete and even counterproductive. In September 1778 Congress named Franklin minister to France and recalled all other commissioners.

The Franco-American alliance turned the American war into a transatlantic conflict. The goals of the United States, however, remained the same: independence with a minimum of outside interference. Many Americans assumed that French interest in American independence would lead France to do what the United States wanted. For France, the U.S. alliance was a part of a wider strategy against Great Britain. France wanted to create a client state, completely independent of Great Britain but reliant on France for its survival. France had its own objectives in the Caribbean, India, and Africa that had little or nothing to do with American independence. The problem for France was how to confine American ambitions to a framework compatible with French policy and France's European allies.

Political divisions within the United States made France's task easier. For the first two years after independence, Great Britain failed to make any counteroffer that might have divided the Continental Congress. In 1776 the Howe brothers were authorized to offer only a partial amnesty. In the spring of 1778, a commission led by the Earl of Carlisle offered some home rule, but not independence. French policy opened divisions the British had closed. Congress recalled Deane for issuing too many army commissions to French officers who did not speak English. In September 1778 Congress took up charges by Arthur Lee of Deane's corruption. Deane had heavily invested in Rodrigue Hortalez, mixing his personal and official accounts to the point where they could not be untangled. Franklin and the moderates in Congress believed Deane innocent of any wrongdoing. The Lee-Adams faction believed the charges. In response, Deane accused the Lee family of disloyalty to the alliance.

The dispute came at an opportune moment for Gérard's efforts to moderate American peace demands. Congress began to discuss peace ultimata in early 1779, and on 23 February approved independence, possession of territory to the Mississippi, free use of the Mississippi below thirty-one degrees north latitude, British evacuation of American territory, access to the Newfoundland fisheries, and either the cession or independence of Nova Scotia. These ultimata threatened French goals in Newfoundland and would have frightened Spain. On 12 April 1779 France and Spain signed the Treaty of Aranjuez in which Spain joined the war against Great Britain. Gérard attached himself to the moderates, subsidized a newspaper campaign against American claims to the fisheries, and sought to moderate American demands in the West. His work paid off on 14 August, when Congress reduced its demands to independence and possession of territory to the Mississippi north of thirty-one degrees. Congress then debated electing someone to the joint post of minister to Spain and peace commissioner. Moderates supported John Jay. Radicals abandoned Arthur Lee for John Adams. On 26 and 27 September, Congress voted to split the position, sending Jay to Spain and naming Adams peace commissioner. Gérard resigned his position for health reasons, and the Chevalier de la Luzerne arrived as his replacement in August 1779. Vergennes cautioned Luzerne against becoming too identified, as Gérard had, with any one political faction.

spain and the netherlands

Jay and Adams arrived in Spain at the end of 1779 and proceeded to their respective posts. Jay's main goal was to secure a Spanish alliance and loan while preserving American claims to the West and access to the Mississippi. Spain did not favor American independence but did wish to hurt Great Britain, so it funneled money to the United States through American agents in Europe. In February 1780 the Conde de Floridablanca, Spain's foreign minister, told Jay he would have to give up claims to the West. Floridablanca did not formally receive Jay until 11 May 1780. Again, Floridablanca was willing to loan money in exchange for an American retreat from the West. Jay had always held the Mississippi to be a vital American interest. He appealed to the Comte de Montmorin, the French ambassador to Spain, for assistance. When none came, Jay concluded that France dictated Spanish policy. In October, Congress reaffirmed the claim to the Mississippi. Military setbacks led Congress in February 1781 to allow Jay to back off the claim to navigation below thirty-one degrees north. Jay learned of his new instructions in May. On 19 September 1781, Jay offered to abandon the lower Mississippi in exchange for an alliance. The offer was good only for the duration of the war.

John Adams's mission was no more successful. Adams wanted to reveal his commission to the British to see if Great Britain would negotiate. Vergennes believed such a move premature. Adams believed that France was wasting resources on its abortive invasion of Great Britain and the failed assault on Gibraltar when deployment off New York would end the war. Adams defended Congress's 18 March 1780 decision to devalue the currency and refused Vergennes's request to intercede for French merchants. Vergennes concluded that he could no longer negotiate with Adams and broke off communication with him. Franklin also considered Adams a disruptive presence and believed that the United States needed to treat France with deference, making no demands.

Adams wished to bring as many nations as possible into the conflict. In July 1780 Russia proposed an Armed Neutrality, a league of the neutral powers of northern Europe dedicated to maritime principles similar to those in the Model Treaty. Adams urged the United States to apply for membership. Congress sent Francis Dana as minister to Russia, but he was never received. In August 1780 Adams left Paris for the Netherlands to serve as acting minister until the arrival of Henry Laurens. Laurens was captured by the British a month later. Adams's main goal was to secure loans and so he set up his mission at Amsterdam rather than The Hague. Adams constantly appealed to the Netherlands as a fellow republic and a fellow small navy power, but to no avail. The Netherlands did not grant a loan until June 1782, after news of Yorktown had reached Europe.

the treaty of paris

By 1781 the expense of war and a string of battlefield defeats led France to explore a negotiated settlement. In May, Russia and Austria offered to mediate between Great Britain and "the colonies." Vergennes was willing to accept only if all of France's allies accepted as well. As peace commissioner, Adams refused to attend any conference that did not recognize American independence. Great Britain refused any direct negotiation with the United States. Vergennes believed that Adams was the main obstacle to peace and instructed Luzerne to lobby Congress for Adams's removal. The first half of 1781 saw a series of military disasters, and Congress had begun to panic. On 15 June 1781, Congress revoked Adams's single commission and approved a five-member commission of Adams, Franklin, Jay, Laurens, and Thomas Jefferson. Congress instructed the commission that France was to take the lead in all negotiations.

Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown on 19 October 1781 started the chain of events that concluded in the Treaty of Paris. On 4 March 1782 Parliament voted to suspend offensive operations. On 20 March the North ministry fell and was replaced by a government under the Marquis of Rockingham and the Earl of Shelburne, both American sympathizers. Franklin sent peace feelers in March and in April began unofficial negotiations with Richard Oswald, a Scottish merchant. Oswald was formally appointed on 17 June. Jay arrived in Paris on 23 June. Rockingham died on 1 July, leaving Shelburne as chief minister.

On 10 July, Franklin presented a peace proposal that went beyond the ultimata of 1779 to include access to the fisheries as a necessary article and the cession of Canada as a desirable one. Shelburne was willing to grant a generous peace, particularly regarding western claims and the fisheries. Oswald arrived with a commission on 8 August, but Jay objected to the fact that the commission did not formally recognize American independence. Two days later, Jay and Franklin met with Vergennes and Rayneval. The French diplomats informed the Americans that the claim to the Mississippi was extravagant and should not be a necessary article. Jay concluded that the commissioners must violate the 15 June 1781 instructions and sign a separate peace. Franklin reluctantly agreed.

Oswald returned to Paris on 27 September. On 5 October, Jay submitted a draft treaty that would give the United States much of New Brunswick and lower Ontario. Great Britain rejected it on 17 October, but it did serve as the basis of the final treaty. Adams arrived in Paris on 26 October, having concluded a treaty of amity and commerce with the Netherlands on 8 October. Laurens did not join negotiations until the final days, and Jefferson never left for Europe. On 30 November 1782 Great Britain and the United States concluded a preliminary treaty that recognized American independence and granted territory to the Mississippi, granted some access to the fisheries, and allowed British merchants to collect prewar debts. The Americans had hoped for a commercial treaty that restored trade patterns in the West Indies. The peace brought down the Shelburne ministry and the new government took a harder line. The final Treaty of Paris, signed on 3 September 1783, read the British-American articles into a general settlement. France never did see the economic benefits it expected. The British did not completely evacuate American territory until 1796. The Maine boundary was not completely settled until 1842, and the fisheries remained a contentious issue until 1871.

See alsoAdams, John; Continental Congresses; Fisheries and the Fishing Industry; Franklin, Benjamin; Mississippi River; Spain; Spanish Borderlands; Treaty of Paris .


Bemis, Samuel Flagg. The Diplomacy of the American Revolution. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957.

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

Hutson, James H. John Adams and the Diplomacy of the American Revolution. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1980.

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

Rakove, Jack N. The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress. New York: Knopf, 1979.

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

Robert W. Smith

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Revolution: Diplomacy

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