Franklin: Notes for a Conversation with Oswald
Copies:2 Library of Congress (two), William L. Clements Library; transcripts: Massachusetts Historical Society, National Archives
[on or before April 19, 1782]3
To make a Peace durable, what may give Occasion for future Wars, should, if practicable, be removed.
The Territory of the United States, and that of Canada, by long extended Frontiers touch each other.
The Settlers on the Frontiers of the American Provinces are generally the most disorderly of the People, who being far removed from the Eye & Controll of their respective Governments, are more bold in committing Offences against Neighbours,4 and are forever occasioning Complaints and furnishing Matter for fresh Differences between their States.
By the late Debates in Parliament, & publick Writings, it appears that Britain desires a Reconciliation with the Americans. It is a sweet Word. It means much more than a mere Peace, & what is heartily to be wish’d for. Nations may make a Peace whenever they are both weary of making War. But if one of them has made War upon the other unjustly, and has wantonly and unnecessarily done it great Injuries, and refuses Reparation; tho’ there may for the present be Peace, the Resentment of those Injuries will remain, and will break out again in Vengeance, when Occasions offer. These Occasions will be watch’d for by one side, fear’d by the other; and the Peace will never be secure; nor can any Cordiality subsist between them.
Many Houses & Villages have been burnt in America by the English and their Allies the Indians. I do not know that the Americans will insist on Reparation. Perhaps they may. But would it not be better for England to offer it? Nothing could have a greater Tendenccy to conciliate? And much of the future Commerce & returning Intercourse between the two Countries may depend on the Reconciliation. Would not the Advantage of Reconciliation by such means be greater than the Expence?
If then a Way can be proposed which may tend to efface the Memory of Injuries, at the same time that it takes away the Occasions of fresh Quarrel & Mischief, will it not be worth considering, especially if it can be done not only without Expence but be a means of saving?
Britain possesses Canada. Her chief Advantage from that Possession consists in the Trade for Peltry. Her Expences in Governing and Defending that Settlement must be considerable. It might be humiliating to her to give it up on the Demand of America. Perhaps America will not demand it: Some of her politic Rulers may consider the fear of Such a Neighbour as a Means of keeping the 13 States more united among themselves, and more attentive to Military Discipline.5 But on the Minds of the People in general, would it not have an excellent Effect, if Britain Should voluntarily offer to give up this Province; tho’ on these Conditions, that she shall in all times coming have & enjoy the Right of Free Trade thither, unincumbred with any Duties whatsoever; and that so much of the vacant Lands there shall be sold, as will raise a Sum sufficient to pay for the Houses burnt by the British Troops and their Indians;6 and also to indemnify the Royalists for the Confiscation of their Estates.7
This is mere Conversation-matter between Mr. O. & Mr. F. as the former is not impower’d to make Propositions, and the latter cannot make any without the Concurrence of his Colleagues.—8
2. We publish the copy in WTF’s hand. The other Library of Congress copy and the transcripts are in BF’s journal of the peace negotiations.
3. After dining with Oswald on April 18 at Passy and giving him Vergennes’ passport for Calais, BF asked whether Oswald would delay his departure the following morning to accommodate one final visit. BF wanted to deliver a letter for Shelburne (above, April 18) and have “some farther Conversation.” They met for breakfast the following morning and spent about an hour in what Oswald characterized as a “familiar” exchange. Oswald left for London around noon, convinced of BF’s trust in him: Richard Oswald’s Journal, in Giunta, Emerging Nation, I, 351. See also BF’s journal of the peace negotiations.
4. BF had used the same argument in his Canada pamphlet of 1760: IX, 65. Four years later he had occasion to condemn such an offense, the massacre of Christian Indians by Pa. frontiersmen: XI, 42–69.
5. A point James Logan had made years earlier: Joseph E. Johnson, “A Quaker Imperialist’s View of the British Colonies in America: 1732,” PMHB, LX (1936), 128; Gerald Stourzh, Benjamin Franklin and American Foreign Policy (2nd ed., Chicago and London, 1969), p. 209.
6. This suggestion (although not the one which follows) resembles one BF had made to the British four years earlier: XXV, 562–3.
7. Congress would not have been pleased to learn that BF had made such an offer (see XXXVI, 128–9), and he realized his mistake almost immediately; see BF’s journal of the peace negotiations. It was not only his reputation in Congress that he put at risk. By hinting at an offer which the peace commissioners would not have the inclination to grant, he risked losing Shelburne’s trust. In fact Shelburne was encouraged to raise the question of compensation for the loyalists during the negotiations and this issue proved extremely difficult to resolve. BF’s suggestion that Britain cede Canada also was imprudent, particularly since he gave Oswald notes outlining the offer. Even made informally, it could be considered a violation of his instructions, recently repeated to Oswald before Vergennes, to undertake nothing without the concurrence of the French government. Such a violation was not something to be done lightly, given America’s continued economic dependence on France; had Shelburne leaked the proposal to the French government, it might well have damaged the French government’s trust in BF. Fortunately, Shelburne kept it secret: Richard B. Morris, The Peacemakers: the Great Powers and American Independence (New York, London, and Evanston, 1965), p. 264; Edward E. Hale and Edward E. Hale, Jr., Franklin in France … (2 vols., Boston, 1887–88), II, 51.
8. According to BF’s journal he used that conversation as a way of learning about Shelburne’s thinking. Conversely Oswald hoped to use it to further the negotiations: Richard Oswald’s Journal, in Giunta, Emerging Nation, I, 351. For further details about the conversation see BF to JA, April 20.