Benjamin Franklin Papers

David Hartley to the American Peace Commissioners, 14 June 1783

David Hartley to the American Peace Commissioners

Copies:1 Library of Congress, William L. Clements Library, Massachusetts Historical Society; two incomplete copies and incomplete transcript: National Archives

The American peace commissioners grew increasingly suspicious as they waited for Fox to respond to the article that Hartley had presented to them without prior approval on May 21.2 Hartley drafted another memorial for them on June 1, but this time he sent it to Fox for review before discussing it with the commissioners.3 As the days wore on, however, Hartley complained to Fox that he and the commissioners were expecting an answer hourly and were growing impatient. The Americans were also expressing “some degree of discontent, as if their business was neglected in England, or that there were rubs & difficulties.” On June 5 Hartley let Fox know that he had finally read to the commissioners his June 1 memorial along with sections of his June 2 cover letter to Fox.4 The secretary of state finally answered on June 10. Fox approved of the memorial as “cogent and convincing”—a phrase Hartley repeats in the present letter, which encloses a copy of it.

Fox informed Hartley that the king was pleased by his reports of the commissioners’ goodwill. The king now wanted Hartley to tell them about the concessions he had made, including his order for the immediate evacuation of British troops from the United States. (In a private letter of June 10, Fox explained that he had delayed writing until that order was given.) The king approved the idea of a temporary convention, as this would delay a decision on whether to loosen the trade restrictions of the Navigation Acts. Fox warned, however, that Britain would not permit the importation of West Indian products on American ships into Britain, and he drafted an explanation that Hartley could offer the Americans. (Hartley quotes it here.) As for the United States’ prohibiting the importation of slaves, Britain would abide by such a policy as long as it applied equally to all countries. Finally, Fox stressed the importance of obtaining a temporary convention as soon as possible, hoping that its duration might extend beyond May or June, 1784, as the commissioners had suggested.5

Hartley drafted the beginning of the present letter before he received Fox’s dispatch. He finished it once Fox’s letter arrived. The portion beginning “I am ordered to inform you” follows Fox’s letter closely, quoting large sections and paraphrasing the rest. Hartley explained to Fox that he did this deliberately and with the commissioners’ knowledge.6

Paris June 14th. 1783.


Permitt me to address the inclosed Memorial to your Excellencies, & to explain to you my Reasons for so doing. It is because many consequences now at a great Distance and unforeseen by us, may arise between our two Countries, perhaps from very minute and incidental Transactions which in their Beginnings may be imperceptible and unsuspected as to their future Effects. Our respective Territories are in vicinity, & therefore we must be inseparable. Great Britain with the British Power in America is the only Nation with whom by absolute Necessity you must have the most intimate Concerns, ether of Friendship or Hostility. All other Nations are 3000 Miles distant from you. You may have Political Connexions with any of these distant Nations but with regard to Great Britain it must be so, Political Intercourse and Interests will obtrude themselves between our two Countries because they are the two Great Powers dividing the Continent of North America. These Matters are not to come into Discussion between us now. They are of too much Importance either to be involved or even glanced at in any present Transaction.

Let every eventual principle be kept untoucht, until the two Nations shall have recover’d from the animosities of the War. Let them have a pacific Interval to consider deliberately of their mutual and combined Interests & of their Engagements with other Nations. Let us not at the outset of a temporary Convention, adopt the severe Principle of reducing every transaction between the two Countries to the footing of exact Reciprocity alone.7 Such a Principle would cast a Gloom upon conciliatory Prospects. America is not restrained from any conciliation with Great Britain by any Treaty with any other Power. The Principles of Conciliation would be most desireable between Great Britain and America and forbearance is the Road to Conciliation. After a War of Animosities, time should be allowed for recollection. There are all reasonable Appearances of conciliatory Dispositions on all sides, which may be perfected in time. Let us not therefore at such a moment as this and without the most urgent Necessity establish a morose Principle between us. If it were a decided Point against Amity and Conciliation it would be time enought to talk of Partition & strict Reciprocity. To presume in favour of Conciliation may help it forward, to presume against it may destroy that Conciliation which might otherwise have taken Place.

But in the present Case there is more than reason to presume Conciliation. I think myself happy that I have it in my Power to assure you from Authority that it is the fundamental Principle of the British Councils to establish Amity and confidence between G Britain and the American States as a Succedaneum for the Relation in which they formerly stood one to the other. The Proof of this consists not in Words but in substantial Facts. His Britannick Majesty has been graciously pleas’d to send orders to his Commanders in North America for the speedy and complete evacuation of all the Territories of the United States. His Majesty has given Orders in Council, on the 14th of the last Month, for the Admission of American Ships and Cargoes into G. Britain; & on the 6th Inst. he has given farther Orders permitting the Importation from America of several Articles which have been usually considered as Manufactures. He has likewise provided for the Convenience of American Merchants who may wish to land Tobacco in Great Britain for Re-exportation.8 Upon the same Principle Mr. Fox the Secy. of State corresponding with America, has moved for and received the leave of the House of Commons, (nem. con)9 to bring in a Bill that any American Merchants importing Rice into Great Britain, may upon Re-exportation drawback the whole duty paid on its first Importation. All these Circumstances put together, undoubtedly form the most indisputable Evidence of the Disposition which prevails in the British Councils to give every facility to the Establishment of that Intercourse which must be so beneficial to both Nations.

I am ordered to inform you that his Majesty entirely approves of the Plan of making a temporary Convention, for the Purpose of restoring immediate Intercourse & Commerce; & more particularly for the purpose of putting off for a time, the decision of that important question, how far the British Acts of Navigation ought to be sacrificed to Commercial Considerations, drawn from the peculiar Circumstances of the present Crisis; a question which will require much deliberation and very much Enquiry before it can be determined. I am sure, Gentlemen, you will see and admitt the reasonableness of our proceeding in such a Case with Deliberation and Discretion, more especially when these Acts of Prudence, do not proceed from any motives of Coolness or reserve towards you. In the mean time the temporary convention may proceed, upon principles of real and accommodating Reciprocity. For instance we agree to put you upon a more favourable footing than any other Nation. We do not ask a rigid Reciprocity for this because We know by your present subsisting Treaties it is not in your Power to give it to us. We desire only to be put upon the footing of other Nations with you and yet we consent that you shall be upon a better footing with us than any other Nation.

Thus far we must be allowed to be giving something more than reciprocity and this we do as I said before because we are unwilling to ask what you are unable to give. Surely it is not unreasonable, nor more than from Principles of Reciprocity, we have a Right to expect that you should imitate our Conduct in this particular and that you should abstain from asking things under the Title of exact and literal Reciprocity, which upon the Consideration of our Case you must know that we cannot give. Virtual and substantial Reciprocity we are willing to give; literal Reciprocity is impossible as much from your Engagements as from our System of Navigation.

If we can agree upon an Article of Intercourse & Commerce, in the nature of a temporary Convention, on the Basis of the Memorial which I had the honour of giving lately to you bearing date 19th of May 1783, no time need be lost, in finishing this business; but with this Explanation that altho’ it is proposed that the Commerce between the United States and the British West Indies should be free with regard to their respective Productions, yet that we are not bound to admit the Importation of West Indian Commodities into Great Britain in American Vessels.1 Believe me, Gentlemen, that this Restriction does not proceed from any invideous Disposition towards the American States. It is imposed by indispensable Prudence and Necessity upon the British Ministers, who in the present State of things, could not be justified to their own Country to go hastily to a larger extent of Concession. This point is not to be looked upon merely as Commercial, but as affecting fundamentally the great political System of British Navigation, And you are to consider, that the principle upon which the whole of our proposed temporary Convention is to stand, is, that the Commerce between the two Countries is to be revived nearly upon the old footing; but that each Nation is to keep in its own Hands, the Power of making such regulations respecting Navigation, as shall seem fit. I assure you that this point has been discussed by the Ministers of the British Cabinet, with infinite Candour, and with every possible disposition of Amity & favour towards your Country; but the more they have enquired upon this subject the more they are overborne by conviction that the prejudices upon this Matter (if that be the name these opinions deserve) are so strong, that such a measure as a relaxation of the Act of Navigation in this instance, never can be taken, but upon such a full and solemn Parliamentary Enquiry, as it is impossible to go into at this time of the year, & in this Stage of the Sessions. I cannot therefore Gentlemen help flattering myself that you are so well acquainted with the Difficulties which must embarass an English Administration, in a business of this sort will rather endeavour to remove them, than to encrease them; and I am sure that such a plan on your part would ultimately be most conducive to your own Objects. When an amicable Intercourse is once opened and when conciliatory Confidence comes to take place of those Jealousies which have lately subsisted, you may easily conceive in how different a manner the whole of this matter will be considered. I am confident that this will be the Case; but if it is not the Provisions being only temporary, it will be in the Power of the United States to take up any hostile mode of proceeding by restraints and prohibitions &ca. whenever they may think fit.

I have made use above of the word Prejudices, in speaking of the principles of the British Act of Navigation. I hope you will accept that term from me as proceeding so far in compliance towards the consideration of the points now between us, as to keep the question open and free for discussion. If G. Britain should in any Case throw down the Barriers of Act of Navigation towards America, she should be very secure against the possible Case of future Enmity, or Alliance against her. Such Considerations as these lead to Objects far beyond our present Scope or Powers. But I must still add one word more upon this Article of Prejudices. Such prejudices (if they are so) are not confined to Great Britain. By your Commercial Treaty with France Article 4th2 you are only intitled to an European Trade with that Kingdom and not even by that Treaty, to any direct Commerce between their west Indian Islands and the Ports of the American States much less to the Immediate Communication between the French Islands and the Dominions of the Crown of France in Europe.

Every public proceeding in England since the Commencement of our present negotiation for opening Intercourse and Commerce between our two Countries will I am sure support me in saying that we have very liberally taken the lead, that we have not waited for any assurance of reciprocity but have given Orders for almost an universal admission of American Articles before we even know that any Vessel of Great Britain will find admission into American Ports. What do we ask in return? No more than this; That while we gratuitously and without stipulation, give advantages to the American States which we deny to all other nations they would so far justify our liberal way of proceeding as to receive us in the same Manner as other Nations which are foreign and to permitt us to carry to North America what it is evidently for their Interest that we should carry thither.

I need hardly add that it is of infinite Importance, that some temporary Convention should be finished without loss of time. I hope and trust that we shall not find much more difficulty in this Business. You must see the Advantage of an immediate renewal of Intercourse and from the Candour of your Dispositions, I am sure you must likewise be convinced, that to give us some facility in the outset is the sure road to such an equitable Arrangement for the future as you must have at Heart. The reasons which I have given in the Memorial dated the 1st. June inst. appear to me to be cogent and convincing upon the natural Alliance between our two Countries and when the Intercourse has once begun every thing will go in its natural road. It is therefore of infinite Consequence to begin that Intercourse. Great Britain by all public proceedings of repeals Proclamations &ca &ca. has made the first Advances with warmth and Confidence and therefore I conclude with the fullest assurance, that you will meet those Advances with Cordial reciprocity—

I have the Honour to be Gentlemen, with the greatest respect & Consideration Your most obedient humble Servant

D Hartley.

To the Commissioners of the United States of America for negotiating Peace.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

1All these copies (the first and third from the commissioners’ legation letterbooks, the second by Hartley’s secretary George Hammond) contain obvious errors and display occasional variations in wording. We publish the best of them, written by BFB, and silently correct a few slips of the pen.

2Hartley sent it to Fox on May 22. See Hartley’s memorial and proposed article, [May 19], and the annotation of WTF to Hartley, May 21.

3See Hartley’s June 1 memorial, above.

4Giunta, Emerging Nation, I, 860–1.

5Giunta, Emerging Nation, II, 127, 146–9, 150.

6Hartley to Fox, June 18, 1783, Clements Library.

7Hartley was taking his cue from Fox but could have had little optimism about such an appeal. On May 20 he had reported to Fox that “precise reciprocity is the line imposed upon [the peace commissioners] by their constituents” and that the American states, hitherto “restrained & crampt” by the Navigation Acts, “have now no other object of negotiation, but absolute reciprocity”: Giunta, Emerging Nation, II, 122.

8For these two Orders in Council see Hartley’s memorial and proposed article, [May 19], and Laurens’ letter to the other commissioners, June 10.

9Nemine contradicente, “no one objecting.”

1This restriction was added to a revised copy of the [May 19] memorial that Hartley gave the commissioners; see the annotation of the document immediately below. He was aware of its difficulties. When sending his initial proposal to Fox on May 22, Hartley warned that the commissioners had “declared in the most absolute terms” that the temporary convention must acknowledge an American right to share in the trade between Britain and the West Indies. “I am assured,” he wrote, “that no persuasion in the world would prevail without this point explicitly secured to them”: Giunta, Emerging Nation, II, 125.

2An article which BF had tried unsuccessfully to alter: XXV, 599n.

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