Today in history, on January 14, 1784, the United States ratified the Treaty of Paris with Britain, bringing a formal end to the American War of Independence.
Although few actual scuffles with the British had occurred since the 1781 Battle of Yorktown, the war officially dragged on for two additional years. By this time, exorbitant debts, paper money experiments, insolvency, bloodshed, and financial woes compounded the maladies facing the American states.
The states were ready to end remaining hostilities by 1782, and in that September negotiations with Britain began. The United States sent John Adams of Massachusetts, John Jay of New York, and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania to formulate and sign the treaty under the authority of Congress, while Britain was represented by David Hartley and Richard Oswald.
While French diplomat 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. The negotiations were originally intended to be a three-party arrangement between the United States, Britain, and France. After a series of deliberations between only the American and British diplomats, however, a series of stipulations were agreed to without the consent of France.
First, the independence of the American states was unambiguously recognized. Rather than the acknowledgement 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.
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 affect. 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.
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.”
Respecting the primacy of the states, Article II of the Articles of Confederation emphasized that each of the state retained its sovereignty, freedom, and their independence. By securing the successful endorsement of nine states, the states entered into a pact with Britain to end hostilities. The treaty was considered “perpetual” – not everlasting but lacking a specific sunset date.
Confirming that the sovereignty of the states pre-dated the general government, Great Britain recognized that the details of the arrangement were binding with states individually rather than with a national polity:
“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.”
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- Today in History: Treaty of Paris Ratified, Formally Ending War for Independence - January 14, 2021
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