Benjamin Franklin Papers

Editorial Note on the American Peace Commissioners’ Project for a Definitive Treaty of Peace, [6 August 1783]

Editorial Note on the American Peace Commissioners’ Project for a Definitive Treaty of Peace, [August 6, 1783]4

In late July, the American peace commissioners obtained Vergennes’ reassurance that France would not sign its definitive treaty with Great Britain until the American treaty was ready. On July 31 Vergennes told this to the Duke of Manchester, who immediately informed Hartley. The following day, August 1, Hartley received a letter from Fox—the first in nearly a month—answering his mid-June request to return to London for a face-to-face conference. Fox granted permission, as long as Manchester could affirm that Hartley’s absence and the “consequent suspension of negotiation for the definitive Treaty with the United States” would have no effect on the completion of the other treaties, which Fox understood to be “near at Hand.”5

Hartley, who had suspended negotiations for weeks while waiting for this permission, had no choice now but to stay. In his answer to Fox, he expressed his resentment that so much time had been lost, and with it the Americans’ goodwill.6 He nonetheless would recommence negotiations, even though he still had no concrete instructions. Fox had declined to send any.

On August 2 Hartley reported to Fox that he had met with “the American Ministers.” This can only mean that he went to Passy and conversed with Franklin and Jay, as Adams was in Holland and Laurens had returned to England. He delivered Fox’s messages: that the Order in Council of July 2 should not be considered the final word, that the commissioners’ suspicions were “ill-founded,” and that “the points in debate might still be granted if we could agree upon the other parts of the proposed Convention.” The Americans were distressed to learn that Hartley had received neither instructions nor specific propositions that he was authorized to sign. “As I had no specific proposition to make to the American Ministers,” Hartley told Fox, “I left them to draw up their project in form for their definitive treaty which I expect tomorrow.”7

Franklin and Jay did not deliver their proposal until the morning of August 6. When sending a copy to Fox that evening, Hartley characterized it this way: “I think there is not much substantial difference in this Project, from the separate propositions from the American Ministers, which I have transmitted to you in former letters; only that these Propositions are now reduced into the specific shape of Articles; with a great deal of preambulary recital, which was drawn up by Mr. Adams a long while ago.”8

Hartley was correct. The “Project for the definitive Treaty of Peace and Friendship between his Britannic Majesty and the United States of America” contained eight articles from the preliminary agreement and 11 others, most of which the Americans had already proposed. The lengthy preamble and the closing paragraphs were taken from the draft language for a definitive treaty that John Adams prepared on February 1. He copied it mutatis mutandis from the 1763 Treaty of Paris between Great Britain and France. Adams prepared this draft at a time when the commissioners expected the final treaty to be concluded within a matter of weeks. They were so confident of this, in fact, that Adams wrote “February” into the dateline, leaving only the day of the month and the location blank. He indicated that the preliminary articles were to be inserted as numbers 1 through 9, and added two standard articles adapted from the 1763 British-French treaty, which he numbered 10 and 11, specifying that both parties promised to observe the terms of the treaty and would exchange ratifications within a certain number of months (a number he left blank).9 In the version Franklin and Jay gave Hartley on August 6, Adams’ Articles 10 and 11 were stripped of their numbers but retained in an equivalent location, after the numbered articles, as unnumbered paragraphs.

When Adams returned to Paris, he wrote to Livingston that “nothing further had been done Since my departure but to deliver to Mr: Hartley, a fair Copy, of the Project of a definitive Treaty, which I had left with my Collegues.”1 While this has sometimes been interpreted to mean that Adams prepared the entire text before leaving, no manuscript survives to verify that fact. We think it likely that what Adams left with his colleagues was the draft he had prepared in February, which provided the formal language missing from the preliminary agreement.2 It would have been left to Franklin and Jay to copy this language if Hartley should ask for a proposal, and to insert the articles that the commissioners had already agreed upon. Just when those articles were put into their final form and numbered is not clear. If Franklin and Jay were responsible, it would explain the delay of several days in delivering the proposal.

The body of the proposed treaty consists of 19 articles. Not all of the nine articles from the preliminary treaty3 were transcribed in full. Those that were to be carried over verbatim or with alterations were noted as such (“the same as …”), with the alterations explained. Article 5 was nullified and replaced by the Article 5 that Franklin had proposed, unsuccessfully, on November 29, 1782.4 Free navigation of the St. Lawrence River was added to Article 8. Article 9, no longer relevant, was deleted without comment.

The new articles, most of them copied from previous communications to Hartley, were as follows:

Articles 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13: The second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth articles proposed by the American commissioners to Hartley on June 29, above.

Article 14: A new article granting America the same rights to cut logwood as Great Britain had just granted Spain, “on condition that they bring or send the said Logwood to Great Britain or Ireland, and to no other Part of Europe.” The American commissioners had raised this issue in the form of a query when submitting their proposed articles on June 29.

Articles 15, 16, and 17: The American commissioners’ June 29 revisions to four of the articles (2, 3, 4, and 5) that Hartley proposed to them on June 19.

Article 18: Excerpted from the American commissioners’ July 17 letter to Hartley. The proposal is in the paragraph beginning “As it is necessary to ascertain an Epocha, for the Restitutions and Evacuations to be made, we propose that it be agreed …”

Article 19: Adapted from the armistice of February 20 (XXXIX, 190–2), concerning the restoration of prizes taken during specified time intervals after the ratification of the preliminaries.5

When sending this proposal to Fox, Hartley added one final comment: the American commissioners considered all the additional articles to be “optional to either Party,” and considered themselves “bound to sign the provisional Articles in statu quo as a definitive Treaty of Peace, if called upon by Great Britain to do so.” That same day, George III ratified the preliminary articles,6 setting the stage for an outcome that the commissioners must have realized was inevitable.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

4The document is published in Adams Papers, XV, 151–9, under the date [before July 19]; in Giunta, Emerging Nation, I, 906–13, under [c. Aug. 6]; and in Wharton, Diplomatic Correspondence, VI, 601–6, under July 27. Wharton’s source, Jared Sparks, did not ascribe any date at all; indeed, the document was undated, as discussed below. The only extant MS versions are copies: the version sent to Congress by the American peace commissioners (National Archives), the copy made by Hartley and sent to Fox on Aug. 6 (Public Record Office), and the commissioners’ letterbook copies (Mass. Hist. Soc. and Library of Congress).

5Hartley to Fox, July 31 and Aug. 2, 1783, and Fox to Hartley, July 29, 1783, in Giunta, Emerging Nation, I, 902; II, 206–7, 216.

6Hartley to Fox, Aug. 2, 1783, in Giunta, Emerging Nation, II, 217.


8Hartley to Fox, Aug. 6, 1783, in Giunta, Emerging Nation, I, 905–6.

9See XXXIX, 124n, and Adams Papers, XIV, 227–30, where the text is published.

1Adams Papers, XV, 216.

2We base this interpretation on what was copied into the three legation letterbooks prepared by BF’s secretaries after the definitive treaty was concluded. Two of the letterbooks (preserved among BF’s papers at the Library of Congress) retain the word “February” in the dateline, indicating that the secretaries—L’Air de Lamotte in one case, and BFB in the other—were unthinkingly copying the Feb. 1 draft. The third letterbook, also written by L’Air de Lamotte (Adams Papers, Mass. Hist. Soc.), left a blank space for the name of the month, as did the copy on loose sheets that he prepared for the commissioners to include in their Sept. 10 letter to Congress. The fair copy given to Hartley (now missing) also left the month blank, as reflected in the copy Hartley sent Fox.

3Published in XXXVIII, 382–8.

4XXXVIII, 375–7.

5This article is equivalent to Article XXII of the British-French preliminary peace treaty and Article X of the British-Spanish preliminary treaty, both signed on Jan. 20, 1783. Fitzherbert exchanged ratifications with the French government on Feb. 3: Courier de l’Europe, XIII (1783), 68, 69, 91.

6Giunta, Emerging Nation, I, 904–5.

Index Entries