By: Dave Benner
Today in history, on September 3 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed, formally ending the American War for Independence the next year.
In 1781, a major victory was scored over the British at Yorktown by Continental Army commander George Washington, with considerable French support. British General Charles Cornwallis’ entire army was captured, and Britain was forced to suspend combat operations in North America. In the following two years, however, the war officially continued as Britain refused to recognize peace. Meanwhile, The American states maintained the official position that complete independence was the minimum demand for making peace with Britain.
Back in London, the political stock of those who had opposed the war against the American states from the beginning, such as Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox, was rapidly rising. With the Cornwallis’ defeat in Yorktown, King George III faced scrutiny from Parliament, which eventually threatened to withhold funding to wage the king’s war.
In February of 1782, British Parliament finally voted to halt war operations, though about 30,000 soldiers remained in North America. Politically, though, the severance of the United States from Britain was far from a done deal.
Fox, a leader of the British Whigs, urged the ministry to grant immediate independence prior to any other concessions or arrangements. However, with the passing of Lord Rockingham and the selection of The Earl of Shelburne to replace him, Fox’s radical views were prevented from influencing the peace negotiations.
At the same time, French diplomat Charles Gravier, the Comte de Vergennes, opposed American independence as a precondition to the settlement of other terms. Vergennes believed that American concessions to France were due, including the recognition of French territory east of the Mississippi River. At this point, it was expected that any peace agreement would be a three-way deal between Britain, France, and the United States.
While Vergennes was on cordial terms with Benjamin Franklin, the famed American diplomat in London, he remained at odds with American commissioners John Jay and John Adams – both of whom distrusted him. When Franklin and Jay agreed to abandon American demands for immediate recognition of independence prior to any other concessions, it infuriated Adams so much so that he mulled resigning from the peace commission.
Even so, after a series of unilateral deliberations between the American and British diplomats, a series of stipulations were agreed to. The 1783 Treaty of Paris, as it was to be known, contained the following provisions:
First, the independence of the American states was unambiguously recognized. Rather than the acknowledgment of a singular American union, the Treaty of Paris made clear that each state was to be considered a sovereign country with independent political authority.
As Article 1 of the treaty stated, all of the American polities were to be considered “free sovereign and Independent States,” and that Britain would relinquish “all claims to the Government, Propriety, and Territorial Rights of the same and every Part thereof.”
Second, all wartime hostilities were to cease and British army and naval forces, along with remaining British forts, were to be evacuated with “all convenient speed.” Third, all land north of the Ohio River and south of Canada was to be ceded to the United States. Fourth, rights to fisheries off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia were guaranteed to all Americans.
Fifth, the rights and property of Tories in the United States were to be recognized, and the states were ordered to repay the Tories for estates that had been confiscated during the course of the war. Future confiscation of Tory property was expressly prohibited, and all prisoners of war were to be released. Sixth, debts accrued between citizens of both Britain and any American state were to remain undisturbed and in effect. Seventh, navigation of the Mississippi River would be guaranteed to each American state and to Britain. However, since Spain controlled access to the river, this clause was virtually meaningless in practice.
The Americans secured peace through the Treaty of Paris with Britain alone, mostly at the urging of Jay. This maneuver effectively pushed Vergennes out of deliberations, and the French diplomat consequently felt deeply betrayed by the Americans. Believing the terms toward the United States to be too generous, he commented that “the English buy peace rather than make it.”
While the move obviously disturbed French-American relations to some extent, some consider Jay’s shrewd behavior as one of the greatest American diplomatic achievements. This was because it granted the American states broad territorial control, expansive navigation rights, and unmistakable political autonomy. The Treaty of Paris also dismayed Spain, which thought the agreement would threaten its North American holdings, such as Spanish Florida.
The treaty also represented a significant British betrayal of their Indian allies in North America, who were to suffer most by being left alone in United States territory without military support from a European power.
Under the Articles of Confederation, treaties required the assent of a majority of states in Congress. This benchmark was finally realized in January of 1784, and the British crown ratified that April.
Confirming that the sovereignty of the states pre-dated the general government, Great Britain signed an agreement with the states separately. This is iterated in Article I of the Treaty:
“His Brittanic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be free sovereign and independent states, that he treats with them as such, and for himself, his heirs, and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety, and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof.”
Revealing the primacy of the states, the treaty held the arrangement to be one between Britain and each of the states individually. This conception was also illustrated under the Articles of Confederation, of which Article II described as “a firm league of friendship” wherein the states retained their “sovereignty, freedom, and independence,” and every “power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”
Undoubtedly, the 1783 Treaty of Paris left an unparalleled impression upon the world, guaranteeing the establishment of the United States as world powers. Even though the agreement acknowledged peace, relations between the United States and Britain remained strained, especially due to the practice of impressment and the lack of trade relations.