The Treaty of Paris: Negotiating from Weakness

September 3rd will mark 232 years since the end of the American Revolutionary War, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. While this treaty was a monumental step for the new United States, it also laid the groundwork for future international strife and set the priorities for the new nation. As the U.S. continues to develop its relationship with the rest of the world, primarily in the Middle East, it is perhaps useful to look back on the negotiations that took place in 1782–1783, especially in light of the negotiations with Iran that took place this year.

The stage for the peace treaty had been set with the victory of combined American and French forces over the British garrison at Yorktown, Virginia, in October of 1781. Over 8,000 British soldiers and sailors had surrendered to George Washington and his French allies in the last major battle of the American Revolution. This was the major military blow that convinced the British government that the cost to fight the American colonies outweighed the benefits of keeping them.

  Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, 1781, by John Trumbull (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, 1781, by John Trumbull (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

What really brought the British to the negotiating table, however, was the four-front war that they were now fighting. France, the Netherlands, and Spain had all joined the war, on the American side, and were using the conflict as an excuse to grab land in the Caribbean, Africa, and India. Spain was gunning for Gibraltar, that British fortress that controlled the mouth of the Mediterranean just under Spain’s nose. Spain had France’s word that this time, Gibraltar would fall. In fact, there were a whole series of agreements governing the conduct of the war from the French, Spanish, and American sides. France had agreed to fight until the United States gained independence. Spain was convinced to join the fight on the condition that France continue the war until Spain had met its goals, namely, taking Gibraltar. Therefore, France and the United States could not make peace without the other, while France could not make peace without Spain.

By 1782, the American colonies had shown that they could wage a sustained war with a semi-professional army in the field (with significant French and Dutch financial and military backing). The French had seized a number of territories in the Caribbean and India while the Spanish had little to show for their efforts, embroiled in a long siege of Gibraltar. The Dutch were barely able to hang on to their existing colonies, let alone take any. The British keenly recognized that acknowledging American independence would take both the U.S. and the French out of the war, leaving Spain to muddle along as well it could. Therefore, in early 1782, the British opened negotiations with the Americans and the French separately, hoping to entice them to peace independent of each other.

  Spanish and French forces besiege Gibraltar (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Spanish and French forces besiege Gibraltar (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The American negotiators with England were Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Henry Laurens, and John Adams, a veritable powerhouse of Founding Fathers. All agreed that peace with Britain came before everything else, although they paid lip service to their treaty with the French. However, when Franklin found out at the French and British were secretly negotiating, the American goals became far more unilateral. Throughout 1782, the American negotiators did their best to shore up their international relations. On April 19, John Adams secured recognition from the Dutch government which allowed for much-needed financial backing for the new country. On July 16, Franklin got a guarantee from the French that the U.S. would not have to start paying off their substantial loans from France until three years after peace was made between the warring powers. With the new republic on a much more sure financial footing, the negotiators began formal meetings with the British in September of 1782.

An Anglo-American agreement to the exclusion of other powers was rapidly coalescing.

The negotiations for the “American Deal,” as we might call it today, were based on three conditions: independence for the thirteen American colonies, settled and concrete borders, and a resolution of property disputes. Independence was assured by October of 1782 but Franklin demanded Canada, or at least Quebec. The British balked at this, instead offering up what was then referred to as the Northwest Territory: land that now comprises Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. This was accepted, securing the eventual Big Ten college football franchise for the new nation. More importantly, it provided room for the new nation to expand, especially since the British acknowledged the claims of the original colonial charters that claimed all land to the west. That this land was claimed by Spain did not bother the Americans or British at all. Both nations agreed to share the navigation of the Mississippi River, again ignoring competing French and Spanish claims. Furthermore, Americans were given fishing rights off the Newfoundland coast. An Anglo-American agreement to the exclusion of other powers was rapidly coalescing.

Property rights for British loyalists in America proved to be a stickier subject. The British demanded that all property seized during the war be returned and reparations for damages be made. However, the Americans similarly demanded that the British return all stolen property, especially slaves, and make reparations. The British refused, and in the end the best that could be resolved was that the American government would promise to try to make the individual state governments restore property to dispossessed loyalists. Prisoners were all to be released and restored to their respective nations and creditors were given the rights to collect on their pre-war debts.

As with the majority of the colonial wars of the 18th century, most territory captured by each side was redistributed back to their original owners.

The preliminary peace treaty between the United States and Britain was signed on November 30, 1782. The French might have vehemently opposed, had not they received word that the British had resupplied Gibraltar, effectively ending any chance that the Spanish could take it. France reneged on its deal with Spain and acknowledged this preliminary treaty. Both France and Spain would sign their own preliminary peace treaties with Britain in January, 1782. As with the majority of the colonial wars of the 18th century, most territory captured by each side was redistributed back to their original owners. France came out of the war marginally better off, except that it had sunk so much money into its military that it was nearing financial insolvency. Spain gained Western Florida and the Dutch retained their original possessions. It was clear that the real winners were the Americans and the British. The official treaty between the two nations was signed on September 3, 1783, in Paris.

  Painting of the American negotiators at the Treaty of Paris, by Benjamin West. The British delegates refused to sit for the portrait (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Painting of the American negotiators at the Treaty of Paris, by Benjamin West. The British delegates refused to sit for the portrait (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The British forts in the Northwest would remain occupied by British troops into the 19th century.

Notable in the treaty was what was left out. No mention was made of the rights of the various Indian nations, especially the Iroquois who were British allies and who would suffer from American expansion into the Northwest Territory. The borders that were drawn were inexact, especially in northern Maine, then Massachusetts. No mention was made of trade rights, which resulted in a flood of British exports into the United States while U.S. commerce was barred from British ports with strict tariffs. Nor was there a time set for the withdrawal of British military garrisons from American territory, only stating that it should be done, “with all convenient speed.” The British forts in the Northwest would remain occupied by British troops into the 19th century. Each of these points set the stage for future treaties and then the eventual conflict in 1812.

The Treaty of Paris showed both the skill of the American negotiators in their ability to navigate the intricate webs of international diplomacy as well as the limits of American power. With no military force to project international power, the new nation could not seek to force sticking points. The treaty set the precedent for American negotiators to operate from a position of military weakness, until the 1840s. This did not stop U.S. foreign policy from being aggressive in pursuit of economic freedom and neutrality rights, however. Economic rights continue to drive American foreign policy to this day.

This is seen in the new efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. The U.S. goal is a safe and secure Middle East where it can engage in trade with any nations that it wishes. Iran with nuclear weapons would be a destabilizing factor for the entire region and add to the likelihood of non-state actors being given access to nuclear weapons. To that end, the U.S. and other major powers have sought a negotiated settlement. However, the negotiations for the Iran deal have been carried out from a somewhat precarious position; while the U.S. has the force necessary to project military power, both sides are aware that the use of that power would be counterproductive. The ensuing war would add to the destruction and chaos in the region and possibly destabilize more countries, leaving them open to Daesh incursions.

The final product of the negotiations is what the President is calling the “Iran Deal.” Not unlike the Treaty of Paris, it seeks to deal with immediate problems and pushes eventual issues further down the metaphorical road. However, in this scenario, the U.S. more resembles Britain: it has the greater military power but cannot use it, while seeking an immediate solution. For its part, Iran is looking for admittance back into the international community and a boost to its economy through a lifting of sanctions.

The temptation to draw a historical analogy is strong, but history is never that clear-cut. The United States in 1783 was barely even a minor power, even in its region, while Iran is a major power broker in the Middle East. The two powers, while conducting proxy wars, have not met in open combat in a declared war. The Iran deal is meant not to end current fighting but to prevent future disaster. Still, there remain valuable lessons to be learned from the Treaty of Paris, the most significant of which is not to presume that one deal will secure eventual peace; ongoing negotiations and treaties are necessary. As the young United States learned as it entered the 19th century, diplomacy is played for the long game.


Angry Staff Officer is an officer in the Army National Guard and a member of the Military Writers Guild. He commissioned as an engineer officer after spending time as an enlisted infantryman. He has done one tour in Afghanistan as part of U.S. and Coalition retrograde operations. With a BA and an MA in history, he currently serves as a full-time Army Historian. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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