“The American Peace Commissioners,” by Benjamin West.
[Only the American commissioners are portrayed, because the disgruntled British refused to pose for it.]
In 1763, England, like America in 1945, stood unequalled, all its enemies prostrate at its feet, all its war goals achieved, apparently able to proceed to do anything it wished. The end of the French and Indian War, known to England as the Seven Years War, had swept the French from the North American continent (also from India, but that part of the story does not concern us here.)
Twenty years later, in 1783, England, like America in 1972, signed a humiliating peace in order to extricate itself from an endless mess caused in large part by its own combination of arrogance, ignorance, and stupidity. What had started out as a simple police action to discipline the colonials had developed into a global dogfight that left the English financially broke, diplomatically isolated, and militarily fighting a host of European enemies. Nothing had gone as expected, planned or hoped. It all came down to a bitter peace negotiated in Paris but not really accepted.
(Had the British only known it, the hard lessons learned in losing the Revolutionary War were going to serve them well. In ten years’ time they would be enmeshed in 21 years of warfare against first revolutionary France, and then Napoleonic France, the result of which would be, again, total victory, this time leading to 100 years of economic and diplomatic dominance over Europe and, indeed, most of the world. But that was in the unseen future, and is also not part of our story here.)
Peace talks began in April 1782, after the American-French victory at Yorktown toppled the Tory government and brought in the Whigs, who had never been strong on coercion in the first place.
Since the war had become a world war, involving France, Spain and the Netherlands as well as the 13 colonies, Britain was going to have to make peace with one and all. As is often the case among allies, whether in victory or defeat, various members of the winning coalition had to keep close eyes on one another. And indeed, as it turned out, England signed four treaties, a separate peace agreement with each belligerent power. (One for all, all for one, and every man for himself.)
America’s alliance with France specified that neither party would make a separate peace without the consent of the other, and the French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, wanted, and expected, that the Americans would coordinate their diplomatic strategy with the French. But the American delegation knew that the French king had allied himself with the British colonials for his own reasons, and might easily change without notice. They declined to allow the French monarchy to use them and their cause as a make-weight to improve its own diplomatic position. Instead, they negotiated independently, and to good effect.
Benjamin Franklin and John Jay obtained remarkably generous boundaries that extended all the way to the Mississippi, and John Adams secured economically important fishing rights. The American negotiators secured not only peace but every goal that Congress had set forth in 1779. Franklin wanted Britain to cede Quebec to avoid future conflicts between the two powers, but this he couldn’t obtain. Adams, Franklin, Jay, and Henry Laurens were able to sign preliminary articles of peace for the United States on November 30, 1782.
It was a good deal for the United States. The Treaty of Paris recognized the thirteen former colonies as free, sovereign and independent states, with agreed-upon territorial boundaries. It confirmed their right to fish on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. Both parties agreed to impose no impediment to creditors attempting to recover valid debts. Congress was to “earnestly recommend” to state legislatures the restitution of estates, rights and property that belonged to British subjects, and would end prosecution of loyalists and confiscation of their property. All prisoners of war were to be set free, The Mississippi River would remain open both to British and American citizens, and any territories captured by either side after the treaty was signed would be restored without compensation.
It is true, America lost the privileges that it had automatically enjoyed as part of the British empire. This meant new restrictions on trade with British possessions, and, as we have seen, meant loss of protection from Muslim pirates in what are now Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. Also ahead was trouble over boundaries with the Spanish possessions, and difficulties getting the British to live up to their agreement to relinquish their posts on American territory. But these were problems that would be sorted out in time. The immediate American goals had been met, and the former colonies were free to try to turn themselves into a nation.
The final treaty was signed on September 3, 1783 by Adams, Franklin and Jay. On that day, Britain signed separate agreements with the other allies, as well, ceding East and West Florida to Spain, recovering captured Grenada, Montserrat and the Bahamas from the French and Spanish, exchanging captured territory with France, and returning Dutch possessions in the East Indies, captured in 1781, in exchange for trading privileges in the Dutch East Indies. The treaty was ratified by the American Congress of the Confederation on January 14, 1784 and by British Parliament on April 9, 1784.
The long war was officially over.