Sunday, July 7, 2024

ARP318 Peace Negotiations

Last week we covered the negotiators who assembled in early 1782 to begin negotiating a peace treaty that would end the Revolutionary War.  Benjamin Franklin called on John Adams from the Netherlands, John Jay from Spain, and Henry Laurens from Britain to join him in France for those negotiations.

Trouble from Philadelphia

The Americans were relatively new at international diplomacy.  Franklin arguably had some experience from serving as a colonial representative in Britain for many years before the war.  The others had served in Congress where there was arguably diplomacy between the British colonies or states, but nothing like the international stage that they faced in 1782.

Earl of Shelburne
The American diplomatic experience had been troubled from the beginning.  Initially, back in 1776, Congress had sent Silas Deane to France to seek financial assistance from King Louis.  Deane had incredible success, not because of any diplomatic skill, but because French Minister Vergennes saw a benefit to providing the British colonies with covert aid and used Deane as a conduit to get supplies to the Americans.

A few months later, Deane was joined by Franklin and Arthur Lee.  Franklin had spent nearly two decades in Britain before the war, acting as a colonial agent.  His reputation among elites and in scientific circles, made him a cause celeb in France.  Franklin very quickly acquired the greatest favor with the French government and French aristocracy.

Arthur Lee had been living in Europe for much of his life. The son of a prominent Virginia family, Lee attended Eton College and the University of Edinburgh. He studied law and was making a living as a lawyer in London when the war began.  Through his brothers in the Continental Congress, Lee received an appointment, along with Deane and Franklin, to negotiate an alliance with France.  Lee did not get along at all with Deane or Franklin, who managed to get the treaty despite Lee’s constant criticisms.  Lee attacked Deane and Franklin in numerous letters to delegates in Congress.  He eventually managed to have Deane recalled in 1778, falsely claiming that the secret loans Deane had obtained from France were actually gifts and that Deane was going to keep loan repayments for himself.  

As a result, Congress recalled Deane and spent years investigating him in a way that did not seem interested in getting at the truth, but rather just destroying his career and reputation. With Deane gone, Lee focused on trying to destroy Franklin.  This met with less success. Congress also recalled Lee a few months later.

Lee spent several years back in America without any government assignments.  Had he come from a less influential family, his public career probably would have come to an end. But in 1782, he returned to Philadelphia as a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress.

Lee seemed to have a paranoia that bordered on delusion.  He seemed to think that everyone he worked with was either corrupt or incompetent.  Adams, who had worked with Lee for a short time in Europe wrote about Lee. 

There is an acrimony in his temper, there is a jealousy, there is an obstinacy, and a want of candor at times, and an affection of secrecy, the fruit of jealousy, which renders him disagreeable often to his friends, makes him enemies and gives them infinite advantage over them.

In 1781, Congress sent John Laurens to Europe.  Laurens’ father, Henry Laurens, had been taken prisoner by the British in an attempt to open diplomatic relations with the Netherlands.  The younger Laurens was very close to Washington, having served as an aide for many years.  He was also very close to the Marquis de Lafayette, which gave him instant credibility at Versailles.  

Lee saw this appointment as an opportunity to destroy Franklin and get him recalled.  Franklin saw this coming and pulled out all stops to get a huge financial gift from France for the Continentals before Laurens arrived, thus underscoring his importance to the American diplomatic effort.  The new French ambassador to Philadelphia, the chevalier de La Luzerne, worked to build support among the Continental Congress to build support to keep Franklin in France.

Franklin served as the sole American diplomat to France, Jay got sent to Spain and Adams to the Netherlands.  Laurens, after a short time in France, also returned home.  Things seemed to be working pretty well.  Following the British surrender at Yorktown, things seemed to be heading toward a conclusion.

Lee Goes on the Attack

Then came the Silas Deane letters.  If you don’t know what I mean by that, go back and listen to Episode 281.  Essentially, Deane wrote several private letters disparaging Congress, saying that it was incapable of running a government and that perhaps we should consider settling the war with Britain and accepting some sort of British rule.  British agents captured and published these letters, which the public read just after Yorktown.  The result was a wide condemnation of Deane.

If that had been the end of the story, it was a shame for Deane, but did not really impact the war effort.  Dean had been out of power for years anyway, thanks to Lee’s lies about him.  Deane had moved back to Paris in an attempt to settle his affairs, but went broke and moved to Ghent (in what is today Belgium), where the cost of living was cheaper.

Arthur Lee, however, took the Deane issue and ran with it.  He called Deane a traitor and told everyone who would listen how he knew about this for years and that Deane’s letters proved him correct.  He then argued that men including Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris who had worked closely with Deane in the past should be thrown out of office based on their associations with this man.

Lee went on a rant about how Morris was really a Tory at heart and did not care about the people of America.  He attacked Philadelphia as a Tory city that was the cause of all of the nation’s money problems.  According to Lee, Morris’ Bank of North America kept all of the money in Philadelphia, forcing the rest of the country to suffer unnecessarily.

He called for an investigation into all of Morris’ commercial activities.  Remember that Morris had reluctantly accepted the position as Secretary of Finance, even though it forced him to neglect his private affairs and had driven him nearly to personal bankruptcy.  He was desperately trying to hold together the financial affairs of the country at a time when it looked like finances might result in the entire cause to fail.  

Morris was attempting to push through a bill that would allow Congress to collect import tariffs, something that was absolutely critical to paying off the army and keeping the war effort alive.  Congress had been running on donations from France for at least a couple of years.  France, heavily in debt itself, had made clear that it could not continue to fund the entire government in America.  

In the end, twelve of the thirteen states backed the controversial tariff bill.  Only tiny Rhode Island refused.  Since revenue bills had to be unanimous, all of the pressure was on Rhode Island.  Then Lee’s home state of Virginia reversed itself and said it also would no longer support the tariff bill.  The Government’s financial plans fell apart.  Many believed that this could have been the end.  While Deane had lamented this end, Lee seemed bent on making it happen.

Lee did not stop there.  The Deane letters also led Lee to call for the recall of both Benjamin Franklin and John Jay.  As allies of Deane in past years, both men should not be permitted to negotiate the peace treaty with Britain.  Lee also criticized Franklin for being too pro-French.  Lee noted that Congress’ instructions to the peace commissioners back in July of 1781 were to work closely with France to come up with a unified plan.  

Lee actually blamed Franklin for supporting those instructions and the terms of the 1778 treaty with France that obligated the US not to establish a separate peace with Britain.  The Continentals, according to Lee, needed to send a new commission to Europe that would not be so closely aligned with France, implicitly arguing that they should seek a separate peace with Britain.

He also called for the dismissal of Robert Livingston as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, who Lee believed was too close to Franklin and, therefore, could not be trusted.  Some of Lee’s supporters began to back this position and argued that Lee should replace Livingston and take over all of US foreign policy.

In August, 1782, the French Ambassador in Philadelphia, the Chevalier de La Luzerne wrote a candid letter to Vergennes saying that it appeared Lee wanted to stop all progress toward a peace treaty, then take over all foreign affairs.  Lee’s actions seemed so counter to US interests that Luzerne suspected that Lee might be in the process of betraying the US, in exchange for a reward from Britain for ending the war on terms favorable to Britain.

Fox Goes on the Attack

While Lee was doing everything in Philadelphia to block progress on peace, Charles James Fox was doing something similar in London.  After Shelburne became Prime Minister in July 1782, following the death of Lord Rockingham, Fox resigned his position in the government and returned to the opposition in Parliament.  Fox called Shelburne’s government a “den of thieves” and began to undermine their negotiations.

Fox’s representative in Paris, Thomas Grenville, called on Vergennes to tell the French government that Fox’s resignation had fatally wounded peace negotiations, and that he was resigning his appointment and returning to London.

Fox supporter, Edmund Burke told parliament that he thought Shelburne’s ministry was “fifty times worse” than the North Government.  He said he did not think Shelburne was willing to negotiate a peace based on the principles that Parliament had outlined.

Shelburne fed into the view of his opponents.  Shelburne had joined the government with the idea of granting American independence. After speaking at length with King George, Shelburne insisted that giving up on America would be a terrible blow to the British Empire, and could spell its end.  Although he had called for American independence when he was working under Rockingham, he now seemed to pull back from that position.

Shelburne remained vague on what would be acceptable terms to end the war, but he did say that it had to result in France being kept from any real gains from the war so that Britain’s enemy would always remain subordinate to Britain.

Franklin Opens Negotiations

Franklin was aware of the apparent change in tone in both Philadelphia and London. His fellow commissioners were not yet ready.  Jay had arrived in France late June, only to be stricken with influenza and unable to leave his sick bed for weeks.  Franklin also began talks without Vergennes.  The French minister wanted Britain to provide the first proposal.  Franklin thought that delay might result in the peace talks coming to an end entirely.  He knew that neither France nor the US could continue the war financially much longer.  He was ready to talk.

Franklin told British negotiator, Richard Oswald, that there were four basic areas on which they had to agree.  The first was full and complete independence for the US.  The second was the settlement of boundaries between the US and the British colonies in Canada and Florida.  The third issue was western boundaries.  Britain was claiming pretty much everything west of the Appalachian mountains was part of Quebec.  That was unacceptable. The fourth matter was fishing rights off Newfoundland.  These were traditional commercial fishing areas for New England and were critical to its economy.

Franklin, however, had not given up on compensation for all the damage that Britain had done in the war.  He suggested several more matters if Britain wanted to have a good relationship with the US after the war.  One was a grant of five or six hundred thousand pounds sterling to compensate for harm done to private parties during the war in America.  Another was a public acknowledgement that Britain had been wrong to start the war.  Third would be a commercial treaty giving American ships the right to free trade in all British ports, including Britain, Ireland, and the West Indies.  The fourth was giving up British Canada.

Recall that last week, Oswald had suggested that perhaps Britain might hand over all of Canada to the US.  Unsurprisingly, when Oswald returned to London and conferred with Shelburne, it became clear that was a nonstarter.  Oswald told Franklin that the only way that might be a matter of discussion would be if France agreed to give back all the territories worldwide that it had captured during the war, putting France back in the highly disadvantageous position it found itself at the end of the Seven Years War.  Franklin knew that France would never agree to that, and even suggesting it to Vergennes would create a rift between France and America. So while Franklin hoped to keep the idea alive as a bargaining chip, he was more focused on boundaries between an independent US and British Canada.

Around this same time, Franklin wrote to Benjamin Vaughan, a young man in Britain who was close to Lord Shelburne, but also a friend of Franklin’s based on their shared love of science.  Vaughan gave Franklin a backchannel into Shelburne’s thinking, and also provided a way to make clear to Shelburne what conditions were most important to American negotiators in a final treaty.  Franklin’s letter made clear he was aware that Shelburne wanted something less than complete independence for America, but that was a nonstarter.  Britain had to accept full and unconditional American Independence.

Oswald, the British negotiator, seemed to have a knack for telling people whatever they wanted to hear.  According to Franklin’s notes, Oswald told him that the British were certainly ready to accept total American independence. Around this same time Oswald wrote to Shelburne to say he did not think the war should be coming to an end.  Britain needed to continue the war until victory allowed Britain to impose heavy sanctions on America, including removal of many of the rights of self-government that they had as colonies.

A few weeks later, Shelburne seemed to reverse himself again.  After arguing for weeks that complete independence for America was unacceptable, he wrote again to Oswald saying that Britain would support independence.  He even included a letter to General Carleton, sent several months earlier, which showed Shelburne's support for independence, asserting that he has always taken that position.  Shelburne, however, also made clear that France had to make some concessions.  Otherwise, Britain was more than willing to continue the war.  Shelburne seemed to hope Franklin would pass this along to Vergennes, either to get the French to become more flexible in demands, or still to drive a wedge between America and France by giving America what it wanted and denying France most of its goals from a peace treaty.

Jay Enters Negotiations

While Franklin was ready to deal, he was soon joined by a partner who was not.  Jay had recovered from the flu and was ready to join the negotiations.  Well, at least ready to argue that Britain had to do more before they could negotiate.  Jay told Oswald that Parliament need to pass a resolution explicitly recognizing American Independence before negotiations could even begin.  When Oswald pointed out the Parliament had already left for summer recess, Jay suggested that, perhaps instead, the King could issue a proclamation that recognized American Independence.  Everyone knew that given the King’s attitude toward these negotiations, that was an impossibility.

Jay also got into a fight with Spanish negotiators.  Jay had spent two frustrating years in Madrid, just trying to get Spain to recognize the US. He had gotten nowhere and gave little credit to Spain for any real help to the American cause.  

Now that negotiations were getting serious, Jay met with the Spanish Ambassador to France, the Conde de Aranda to discuss a treaty of alliance between Spain and the US.  Discussions soon turned to a discussion of land.  Aranda said that Spain should be given just about all lands in North America west of the Allegheny Mountains.  Jay thought the border should be at the Mississippi River.  Most of the land that Spain wanted was already claimed by multiple US states.  Americans already had settlements up to the eastern shore of the Mississippi, while Spain had virtually no presence on that side.  Spain seemed to want to bottle up the US along the east coast, while America was demanding almost all of the land between the Mississippi and the Atlantic.

Franklin was unsure how to deal with this new player in the negotiations.  Jay’s demands of a British concession of independence before even talking, and his talk of a US that stretched from the river to the sea, if you will, endangered the delicate talks between the parties.  Franklin took Jay to see Vergennes so that the French diplomat could set him straight.

Vergennes did not want to delay negotiations based on demands.  He pointed out that the fact that Britain was negotiating with the American peace commission was an implicit recognition of American independence.  Vergennes also thought that Spanish claims on the western lands had to be a topic of discussion.  He was not ready to side with either the Spanish or the Americans on that issue.

Jay came away from the meeting frustrated.  He believed that Vergennes wanted to prolong the war, bankrupt the US, and force it to become a client state of France.  While Franklin disagreed with Vergennes on some issues, he argued that Vergennes was trying to move along the discussions by rejecting Jay’s demand that negotiations could not begin until formal British recognition of the United States.

So, during the summer of 1782, negotiations didn't seem to be going anywhere.

Next week, we take a looks at the negotiations from the French and Spanish perspectives.

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Next Episode 319 Gibraltar Threatens Negotiations

Previous Episode 317 Peace Commissioners

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Further Reading


The Treaty of Paris (1783) in a changing states system: papers from a conference, January 26-27, 1984 (borrow only). 

Bemis, Samuel F. The Diplomacy Of The American Revolution, Indiana Univ. Press, 1935. 

Jay, John The Peace Negotiations of 1782 and 1783. An address delivered before the New York Historical Society on its seventy-ninth anniversary, Tuesday, November 27, 1883, New York Historical Society, 1884. 

Pellew, George John JayJohn Jay, Boston, New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. 1890. 

Perkins, James B. France in the American RevolutionFrance in the American Revolution, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Co. 1911. 

Wallace, David Duncan The life of Henry Laurens, with a sketch of the life of Lieutenant-Colonel John LaurensNew York G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1915.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Brown, Marvin Luther American Independence Through Prussian Eyes: A Neutral View of the Peace Negotiations of 1782-1783 - Selections from the Diplomatic CorrespondenceAmerican Independence Through Prussian Eyes: A Neutral View of the Peace Negotiations of 1782-1783 - Selections from the Diplomatic Correspondence, Duke Univ. Press, 1959 (borrow on 

Dull, Jonathan A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution, Yale Univ. Press, 1985.

Fleming, Thomas The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown, Harper Collins, 2007.  

Hoffman, Ronald and Peter Albert (eds) Peace and the Peacemakers: The Treaty of 1783, Univ. Press of Va., 1986. (borrow on

Hutson, James H. John Adams and the Diplomacy of the American Revolution, Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1980.  (borrow on

Morris, Richard B. The Peacemakers: The Great Powers and American Independence, Harper & Row, 1965 (borrow on 

Smith, Page John Adams, Vol. 1, Doubleday & Co. 1962.

Stockley, Andrew Britain and France at the Birth of America: The European Powers and the Peace Negotiations of 1782-83, Liverpool Univ. Press, 2001. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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