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Continental Congress Remarks on the Provisional Peace Treaty, [19 March 1783]

Continental Congress
Remarks on the Provisional Peace Treaty1

[Philadelphia, March 19, 1783]

Mr. Hamilton urged the propriety of proceeding with coolness and circumspection. He thought it proper in order to form a right judgment of the conduct of our Ministers, that the views of the French & British Courts should be examined. He admitted it as not improbable that it had been the policy of France to procrastinate the definite acknowledgmt. of our Independence on the part of G B in order to keep us more knit to herself & untill her own interests could be negotiated. The arguments hower, urged by our Ministers on this subject, although strong, were not conclusive; as it was not certain, that this policy & not a desire of excluding obstacles to peace, had produced ye. opposition of the French Court to our demands. Caution & vigilance he thought were justified by the appearance & that alone. But compare this policy with that of G B, survey the past cruelty & present duplicity of her councils, behold her watching every occasion & trying every project for dissolving the honorable ties which bind the U.S. to their ally, & then say on which side our resentments & jealousies ought to lie. With respect to the instructions submitting our Ministers to the advice of France,2 he had disapproved it uniformly since it had come to his knowledge, but he had always judged it improper to repeal it. He disapproved highly of the conduct of our Ministers in not shewing the preliminary articles to our Ally before they signed them, and still more so of their agreeing to the separate article. This conduct gave an advantage to the Enemy which they would not fail to improve for the purpose of inspiring France with indignation & distrust of the U.S. He did not apprehend (with Mr. Mercer) any danger of a coalition between F & G B against America,3 but foresaw the destruction of mutual Confidence between F & the U.S., which wd. be likely to ensue, & the danger which would result from it in case the war should be continued. He observed that Spain was an unwise nation, her policy narrow & jealous, her King old her Court divided & the heir apparent notoriously attached to G B. From these circumstances he inferred an apprehension that when Spain sd. come to know the part taken by America with respect to her, a separate treaty of peace might be resorted to. He thought a middle course best with respect to our Ministers; that they ought to be commended in general; but that the communication of the separate article ought to take place. He observed that our Ministers were divided as to the policy of the Ct of France, but that they all were agreed in the necessity of being on the watch against G B. He apprehended that if the ministers were to be recalled or reprehended, that they would be disgusted & head & foment parties in this Country. He observed particularly with respect to Mr. Jay that altho’ he was a man of profound sagacity & pure integrity, yet he was of a suspicious temper, & that this trait might explain the extraordinary jealousies which he professed. He finally proposed that the Ministers sd. be commended and the separate article communicated.4

“Notes of Debates in the Continental Congress,” MS, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress.

1The provisional peace treaty between the United States and Great Britain, signed on November 30, 1782, reached Congress on March 12, 1783. Although pleased with most of its provisions, Congress was disturbed that the peace commissioners, in violation of their instructions to make no peace without the knowledge and concurrence of the French, had concealed their negotiations with the British from the French ministry until the treaty had been signed.

On March 18, 1783, Congress received a letter from the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Robert R. Livingston, concerning the peace treaty’s secret article relating to West Florida. This article provided that, if at the conclusion of the war Great Britain should be in possession of West Florida, “the line of north boundary between the said province and the United States shall be a line drawn from the mouth of the river Yassous, where it unites with the Mississippi, due east to the river Apalachicola” (Secret Journals of the Acts and Proceedings of Congress [Boston, 1821], III, 338). The Secretary for Foreign Affairs stated that Congress was reduced to the alternative “either of dishonoring themselves by becoming a party to the concealment, or of wounding the feelings & destroying the influence of our Ministers by disclosing the article to the French Court” (“Notes of Debates in the Continental Congress,” MS, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress). The Secretary proposed that he be authorized to communicate the article relating to West Florida to the French Minister; that the American Ministers in France be instructed to agree that the boundaries of West Florida, as established in the provisional articles, be allowed to the country to which West Florida might be given in the final peace treaty; and that the preliminary articles between the United States and Great Britain should not take effect until peace had been signed between Great Britain and France. Livingston’s letter provoked a long debate.

2The Treaty of Alliance between the United States and France, signed in 1778, had stipulated that neither country should make peace without the concurrence of the other. During the peace negotiations Congress repeatedly had reminded the American commissioners of this treaty obligation to France and warned them against separate negotiations.

3John Francis Mercer, delegate from Virginia, had predicted that if Congress approved the secret article of the treaty relating to West Florida, France might form an alliance with Great Britain for “our destruction and for a division of the spoils” (“Notes of Debates in the Continental Congress,” MS, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress).

4Madison recorded that the motion contained in the last sentence of H’s remarks was seconded by Samuel Osgood on the ground that it was preferable to the propositions of the Secretary for Foreign Affairs. (See note 1). Osgood, however, recommended that H’s motion not be accepted, but that it be referred to a committee.

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