The Continental Congress ratified preliminary articles of peace ending the Revolutionary War with Great Britain on April 15, 1783. International intrigue and intense negotiation preceded the formulation of these preliminary articles.
There shall be a firm and perpetual peace between his Britannic Majesty and the said States,…wherefore all hostilities both by sea and land shall then immediately cease.
The United States in Congress assembled…Now know ye, that we the United States in Congress assembled, have ratified and confirmed…the said articles… Broadside printed by David C. Claypoole, Philadelphia, 1783. Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789
The June 1, 1781, entry in the Journals of the Continental Congress notes “that Congress have received undoubted intelligence…that the Courts of Vienna and Petersburg have offered their mediation to the belligerent powers for the re-establishment of peace…” A few days later, on June 15, 1781, the Congress issued “instructions to honourable John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Henry Laurens and Thomas Jefferson, ministers plenipotentiary on behalf of the United States to negotiate a treaty of peace.” Although Jefferson did not go to Europe to negotiate, he eventually shepherded the treaty through Congress and later drafted the legislation for the political organization of the western lands acquired by the treaty.
Formal discussions of peace began in Paris in April 1782. France, allied with the U.S. since 1778, along with Spain and the Netherlands also sought to end hostilities with Great Britain and pressured the U.S. to seek peace only in alliance. Regarding a British offer to negotiate directly with its former colony the French warned:
…treating separately with America…this had always been the chimerical and favourite idea of England; and that so long as it subsisted there would perhaps be no possibility of treating seriously about the conditions of a peace. That their negotiations would only be an artifice to scatter divisions among the allies, and retard their exertions for continuing the war…
From the beginning, Congress instructed the U.S. commissioners:
…to make the most candid and confidential communications upon all subjects to the ministers of our generous ally, the King of France; to undertake nothing in the negotiations for peace or truce without their knowledge and concurrence; and ultimately to govern yourselves by their advice and opinion…
The Americans determined, however, that Europe’s secret diplomacy and intrigues did not facilitate peace for the U.S., and concluded a separate preliminary treaty with Great Britain. Care was yet taken to ensure that the final formal treaties (U.S. and Great Britain, France and Great Britain, Spain and Great Britain) were all signed on the same day, September 3, 1783. “We were better tacticians than was imagined,” said John Adams.1
The treaty’s main terms guaranteed U.S. independence from Britain, and acquisition of territory that lay between the thirteen colonies and the Mississippi River. This territory, ceded to Britain under a previous Treaty of Paris which concluded the French and Indian War in 1763, became known as the Northwest Territory.
- 1. Richard B. Morris, The Peacemakers (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 459, quoting John Adams, December 14, 1782, letter to Elbridge Gerry, “The Adams Family Papers,” Massachusetts Historical Society. (Return to text)
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