Sunday, June 30, 2024

ARP317 Peace Commissioners

Ever since the French and American victory at Yorktown in October of 1781, all sides seemed to be moving toward a conclusion of the war.  The negotiations over the terms of that ending, dragged on for years.

Back in Episode 309, we covered the fall of the North Government and the establishment of a new government under Lord Rockingham that was ready to recognize American independence. Of course, things are never that simple.  Shortly after Rockingham became Prime Minister in early 1782, an influenza epidemic spread through London.  Rockingham became ill and died on July 1.

Shelburne-Fox Schism 

Rockingham had put together a coalition of opposition groups to replace the North Government.  His death led to a schism in that coalition.  Rockingham had appointed two secretaries of state.  One was William Petty, the Earl of Shelburne.  The other was Charles James Fox.  Although both men advocated an end to the war and an acceptance of American independence, they did not get along.  Fox’s father had been a political opponent of Shelburne a few decades earlier and had politically supported William Pitt the Elder over Shelburne after the Seven Years War.  So Fox had a family-based political gripe with Shelburne.  

Treaty of Paris, American Delegation
Beyond that issue, the two men had a very different vision for Britain. Shelburne was a member of the House of Lords.  He held many forward thinking ideas He was an early advocate of free trade and had long standing relations with men like Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin and David Hume.  At the same time, he was also a member of the aristocracy and wary of more power to commoners.

With the North faction greatly weakened, over the fall of the government because of the Revolution, Shelburne’s chief rival was Charles James Fox, who was the other Secretary of State in the Rockingham government.  Fox was the son of a baron, but not being the eldest son, he would not inherit a title. Instead he began a career in the House of Commons.

I talked about Fox a great deal in some of the early episodes of this podcast.   He had initially gravitated to the Tories.  He had been a leader in the campaign to punish the radical John Wilkes and made a personal fortune while he was Paymaster General of the Forces.  Lord North appointed Fox to the Board of Admiralty in 1770.  He only sat on the board for less than a month.  Fox resigned out of opposition to the Royal Marriages Act, something near and dear to the king.  The Act would have raised questions about the marriage of Fox’s parents, which is probably why he took such a strong position.  In 1772, North appointed Fox to the board of treasury.  Once again Fox resigned after a short stint, this time just over a year.

After that, Fox associated more with the opposition, working with Edmund Burke.  When the Revolution began Fox became a leading advocate for the colonies and one of the most vocal opponents of the North Government.

When Rockingham died, Shelburne moved up to become Prime Minister.  Fox greatly opposed this move and resigned from the government.  He went back to the opposition in Parliament.  Several other Fox supporters, including Burke also left the government and returned to opposition.

British Commissioners

Despite the departure of the Fox faction, Shelburne held on as Prime Minister.  He pressed forward with the primary reason he came to office: ending the war.  Shelburne appointed Richard Oswald to begin negotiations with the Americans.

Oswald was a commoner.  He had made a life for himself as a Scottish merchant.  He made a fortune as a military contractor during the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War.  Over the years, he invested much of his wealth in land, owning estates in Virginia, Georgia, and East Florida.  He had business contacts around the world, including India and China.

During the Revolution, Oswald had been a strong advocate of a stronger military crackdown on the colonies.  He had advised Lord North to send overwhelming force and impose ruthless punishments on the rebels.

Oswald’s reputation as a deal maker appealed to Shelburne.  The two men also had a desire to maintain a relationship with the new United States, and perhaps reach some solution that did not result in full independence.  Oswald also had a long standing relationship with one of the American negotiators. He and Henry Laurens had been business partners in the slave trade for several decades before the war.  In fact, Oswald had put up the bail that had allowed Laurens to be released from the Tower of London.  Oswald had also corresponded with Franklin in the past, although the two men did not know each other very well.

Shelburne sent Oswald to France to begin negotiations in the spring of 1782, as soon as the Rockingham Administration took power.  Fox, however, was concerned that Shelburne and Oswald would drag out negotiations in an attempt to avoid having to concede complete independence.  In response, Fox sent his own emissary, Thomas Grenville.  He was the son of George Grenville, the minister who had pushed through the Stamp Tax back in 1765. 

The younger Grenville had been an officer in the regular army.  He never went to America and resigned his commission in 1780.  He had taken a seat in the House of Commons since 1779, when he was only 24 years old.  As such, he had not had much chance to make his mark politically when Fox sent him to Paris.

Grenville was a full half century younger than Oswald, who was in his 70s.  The two agents seemed to have very different personalities, and different political agendas.

Opening Peace Negotiations

As you might guess, having two Secretaries of State sending two different peace commissioners with different instructions was not really a good start for things.  Shelburne’s authority covered diplomacy in the Americas.  Therefore, he had authority to negotiate with the Americans.  Fox had diplomatic authority over Europe.  Therefore, he had authority to negotiate with France, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Oswald showed up at Benjamin Franklin’s door in Vassy, France in April.  He had a letter from Shelburne making clear that he had the authority of the British government to begin negotiations. He also carried a letter from Henry Laurens, making clear that Oswald was a good guy that you could talk to.

Franklin and Oswald talked over dinner, informally getting to know each other and try to discern their opponent’s positions.  Oswald was very vague over the details that a final treaty might take.  He made clear that the ministry wanted peace, but also had to be assured that the terms were not too humiliating to Britain.

Sending a negotiator to speak directly with the American diplomats was at least a good start as a sign of recognition that the US was an independent country.  But Franklin also saw the danger of Britain trying to divide France and the United States. The US had agreed with France not to negotiate a separate peace, so Franklin made clear that French Minister Vergennes would have to be included in any talks.

A few days later, Oswald accompanied Franklin to Versailles, where both men met with Vergennes.  The experienced French diplomat put on a pleasant face, but also made clear that Britain would have to establish terms that would end the war for all four of the combatants: France, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United States.  Oswald pressed Vergennes to give him a framework of what peace terms would be considered acceptable.  But the Frenchman demurred.  He said Britain should put forward a proposal for peace that would be considered by the allies as a group.

A few days later, Franklin and Oswald met again. Franklin had written a letter to Shelburne saying that he would be happy to work on negotiations with Oswald, but that Oswald needed authority to negotiate a wider agreement with all the countries involved.  

As usual, Franklin was firm but pleasant.  He also thanks Shelburne for the government’s decision to release American sailors being held in British jails, and arranging for their return to America.  Those prisoners had been starving to death. Traditionally, the US was responsible for feeding prisoners in British custody.  Since the US had no money for food, the men had suffered terrible deprivation.  Parliament hoped their release would be taken as a gesture of goodwill, which it was.

During this meeting Oswald broached the idea of going beyond peace and establishing some sort of reconciliation between the US and Britain.  Oswald did not say this at the meeting, but he and Shelburne hoped to keep the US within the British sphere of interest, and avoid the US developing closer ties with France.

Franklin countered with the concern that Britain had inflicted so much damage on America that any reconciliation would have to include compensation for the harm done.  Franklin suggested that perhaps Britain could turn over all of Canada to become part of the US.  Without an enemy border between the two countries, perhaps a better relationship would follow.

Perhaps to Franklin’s surprise, Oswald did not reject outright the idea of turning over Canada to become part of the US.  Instead, he simply took notes on their conversation and said that he would discuss the proposal with Shelburne.

To sweeten the deal, Franklin also suggested that if Britain turned over Canada, the US might be willing to compensate loyalists who had been stripped of property during the war.  This would allow both sides to heal and begin developing a better working relationship with one another.

Oswald’s opening gambit of offering Canada to the US was a bold one, and one that might have been more of a feint than a real offer.  Oswald was still trying to divide the US from France in the negotiations.  By offering a generous peace to the US, Britain might get the US to go along with a separate peace that angered France. Creating such a rift would force the US into a close alliance with Britain in order to have naval protection.  It was a way to make the newly independent United States effectively dependent on Britain.

By contrast, France wanted Canada to remain British. That threat to the north would compel the US to form a closer and long standing military alliance with France.

American Commissioners

With the commencement of negotiations, Franklin thought it proper to gather the other Americans commissioners in Europe to negotiate the terms of a final peace.  

Franklin wrote to John Adams, who was in Amsterdam.  Adams had been negotiating with Dutch officials and also seeking cash loans to keep the army and the Continental Congress from falling apart.

Adams had been an interesting choice as a diplomat. He was well known for not getting along well with others.  He was a no-nonsense hard charging New England Lawyer who quickly grew frustrated by the subtleties of European diplomacy.  Adams had originally come to Europe in 1778, when America was trying to get France to agree to an alliance.  Adams replaced Silas Deane, who had been fighting with fellow delegate Arthur Lee.  Congress recalled Deane to America after Lee had sent delegates accusations of Deane’s corruption.  

When Adams arrived in 1778, he immediately did not get along with either Franklin or Lee.  Since Franklin had already finalized an agreement with France before Adams arrived, he did little and returned home the following year.  Frustrated, Adams vowed to return to private practice and never get involved with government service again.

Less than a year later though, in 1780, Adams agreed to return to France to serve on the delegation that would negotiate the treaty that would end the war.  Shortly after his arrival, Franklin sent a letter to Vergennes castigating France for not doing enough to win the war.  Vergennes ceased all communications with Adams, forcing Franklin to write a letter to Congress saying that Adams was harming negotiations with France.

As a result, Adams left France for the Netherlands.  He would spend almost two years there, mostly trying to get loans for the Congress.  He would have little to show for his efforts b the time he traveled to France in the spring of 1782.

Franklin also wrote to John Jay, who was in Spain.  Congress had sent the New Yorker to Europe in 1779.  Despite the fact that he was only 35 years old when he left America, Jay had already established himself.  He started college at age 14 and began work as a law clerk after graduation.  He became an early member of New York’s Committee of Correspondence and attended the First Continental Congress at age 29.  He spent the war in politics, drafting New York’s Constitution in 1777 and serving as the State’s Chief Justice. Two years later, he returned to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and was almost immediately elected president.

When Spain entered the war in 1779, Congress called on Jay to serve as minister to Spain.  His goal was to get diplomatic recognition of the US, financial aid, and establish trade agreements.  Like other American diplomats, Jay mostly met with frustration.  Spain refused to receive an American ambassador or recognize American Independence.  King Carlos had entered the war as an ally of France.  He was not keen on recognizing an American independence movement since there were so many Spanish colonies in America that might be inclined to follow that example.  

As a result, Jay accomplished little in Madrid, other than a relatively small loan. After receiving Franklin’s letter about the opening of peace negotiations in France, Jay packed his bags and left for Paris.

Another member of the American diplomatic team in Europe was Henry Laurens.  Another former president of the Continental Congress, the South Carolina merchant had sailed for Amsterdam in 1780, hoping to secure loans for the Continentals.  The British captured his ship at sea and carried him as a prisoner to London.  Laurens spent nearly two years in the Tower of London, while the government debated whether to put him on trial for treason.

Instead, after the British surrender at Yorktown, officials released Laurens on bond and allowed him his freedom.  Laurens remained in England after his release.  He went to Bath for a short time to help restore his body, then returned to London, where British officials wanted his opinions on how best to end the war.  He dined regularly with Lord Rockingham and other members of Parliament. 

When Shelburne became Secretary of State in the new Rockingham Ministry, Laurens advocated successfully for the release of the six hundred American sailors being held prisoner in England.  In April, 1782, Shelburne told Laurens that John Adams in Amsterdam had told officials that the Americans were ready to negotiate a separate peace without France.  Laurens said this could not be true. He received permission to travel to the Netherlands to get to the truth of the matter.  

Laurens traveled with his old friend and business partner, Richard Oswald, who was on his way to meet with Franklin in Paris.  The two men traveled to the Netherlands together.  Oswald then continued on to France, while Laurens met with Adams.  There, Adams assured Laurens that the American delegation had no plans to establish a separate peace with Britain.  Even the offer of receiving Canada would not cause them to break the French alliance.

Even so, the trip caused French leaders to distrust Laurens.  They believed he was acting on behalf of British interests to encourage the American delegation to break with France and establish a separate peace with Britain.  It did not help that Laurens and Oswald both returned to London together a few weeks later.

Part of the reason for his return was that Laurens was still trying to bring an end to his legal troubles in Britain. Although he had been released, and it seemed that Britain did not want to pursue any charges, they had not been dismissed either.  Laurens did not want to accept a pardon, since that would mean that he would have to concede having committed some crime in the first place. 

Eventually the two sides worked out a deal where Laurens would be exchanged as a prisoner of war with General Charles Cornwallis.  Although Cornwallis had returned to Britain, he was technically on parole until exchanged.

Finally, in May, 1782, Laurens left Britain for France to join the American Peace Commission in Paris.

The final member of the American Peace Commission appointed by Congress was Thomas Jefferson.  The Virginian, however, never made it to France before the final treaty was signed.  Jefferson had left government service in 1781 after losing reelection as governor of Virginia, under a cloud for his pathetic defense of the State against the British invasion.

In early 1782, Jefferson’s wife, Martha, was pregnant with their second child.  She would give birth that spring, but had continuing health complications.  Martha would die later that year.  As a result, Jefferson remained at home in Monticello.  He worked on developing his plantation and writing a book that would later be published as Notes on the State of Virginia.  As a result, Jefferson declined the appointment and refused to leave Virginia.

Next Week: we will take a closer look at the efforts by Britain to undercut US goals in the treaty, as well as the efforts of some members of the Continental Congress to undercut the American peace delegation.

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Next Episode 318 Peace Negotiations 

Previous Episode 316 Skirmishing Around Charleston

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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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