Inventing American Diplomacy

by R. B. Bernstein

In 1783, the expatriate artist Benjamin West began what became his most memorable painting, “The Peacemakers.” West intended to produce a group portrait of the diplomats whose negotiations resulted in the Treaty of Paris of 1783, but the British diplomats refused to sit for the portrait, and West had to leave it unfinished. The Americans who sat for the portrait seem to embody the virtues of diplomacy, in particular a calm collegiality uniting the new nation’s diplomats. John Jay stands to the left, grim and resolute. Beside him sit John Adams, looking weary but tranquil; Benjamin Franklin, the only one looking out at the viewer, with a faint smile on his face suggesting his pleasure with the negotiations’ results; and his grandson, William Temple Franklin, the American delegation’s secretary, leaning with head on hand looking pensive and attentive. Behind the two Franklins stands Henry Laurens, looking anxious and worn, as befitted a man who had spent nearly two years as an imprisoned guest of George III in the Tower of London.

“The Peacemakers” shows no sign of the discord that raged among these diplomats and their colleagues, nor between the Americans and their adversaries the British and their allies the French. It gives no clue to the slapdash, turbulent, and conflicted history for which the treaty was the culmination. Nor does it suggest that the treaty spawned a turbulent history that led to the Constitution of the United States.

It is important to remember that independence from Britain was more than just a severing of ties between the United States and its former mother country. It created the chance for the United States to establish its presence in the community of nations. Thus the American Revolution not only created the United States; it was the catalyst for the invention of American diplomacy.

Even before the war began, the thought of independence led Americans to explore securing support from Britain’s European rivals. In late 1775, the Second Continental Congress created a Committee of Secret Correspondence to make covert feelers toward foreign powers. That committee authorized the Connecticut merchant Silas Deane to undertake a confidential mission to France, Once independence was declared, Congress decided to bolster its diplomatic presence in France. It named Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, perhaps the most famous and eminent American in the world, and Arthur Lee of Virginia, to join Deane as a team of diplomats seeking recognition from France. Franklin led this series of negotiations, meeting with the French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes. At the same time, he also conducted a shrewd and well-crafted campaign of public relations to make the American cause the toast of Paris and the central issue of the time. Clad in modest dress topped by a fur-trimmed hat, taking on the role of an ingenuous American farmer-philosopher from the banks of the Delaware, Franklin proved a master of political theater. Even with all these efforts, which he maintained throughout his diplomatic service, Franklin needed to prove to the skeptical Vergennes and his colleagues that the Americans could make effective use of the aid they sought. Not until news of the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777 reached Paris could Franklin induce the French to enter into a formal treaty of alliance between France and the United States.

Unfortunately for Franklin, his colleagues bickered with each other and with him—a characteristic that dominated the earliest years of American diplomacy. Of the various representatives that Congress sent to Europe, only Franklin had extensive previous experience in the Old World, and only Franklin possessed the talents and abilities essential to the mission’s success. Deane was out of his depths and defensive; Lee was wary of everyone but himself, suspecting Deane of corruption and Franklin of being susceptible to French influence and flattery. He tended to voice these suspicions not only in arguments with his colleagues but in letters to his political allies in Congress.

More than personal animosity underlay these divisions and disputes. Most Americans had been steeped in distrust and fear of Catholic France since the days of the colonial wars, and many Americans’ felt that their own country was innocent and virtuous while Europe, in particular France, was decadent and corrupt. This feeling sparked American wariness that decadence and corruption might gain too much influence over America in general and its diplomats in particular.

Franklin found having to deal with Deane and Lee bad enough—but in some ways things were about to get worse. In 1777, Congress sent one of its leading members, John Adams of Massachusetts, to Paris to help secure an alliance with France. Unfortunately Adams arrived in early 1778, after the establishment of the alliance. Feeling all but useless and frustrated by his uselessness, Adams also became aghast at what he considered Franklin’s sloppiness in keeping records and Franklin’s preference for convivial dinners and banquets over the hard work of diplomacy.

Adams did not understand Franklin’s mastery of indirect diplomacy conducted under the guise of social engagements. But at the same time Franklin did not understand Adams’s lawyerly conception of diplomacy. For Adams, a diplomat was a lawyer for his country, committed to argue for its interests. Adams concluded that the Comte de Vergennes was insufficiently committed to the American cause—and, in some measure, Adams was correct, for Vergennes put France’s interests first, and saw the American cause as a means for France to humble and injure its old enemy Great Britain. Determined to defend American interests from French indifference, Adams lobbied, pressured, argued with, and even berated Vergennes. In return, Vergennes pressed Congress to recall the troublesome Adams.

In June of 1779, overcome by frustration, Adams welcomed the news from home that he could leave France for America. He soon returned to the fray, however, sailing back to Paris at the end of 1779, named as the American commissioner to negotiate a treaty of peace with Britain. French objections to Adams as the sole appointment for such an important diplomatic task eventually led Congress to name four other diplomats to join Adams as a commission of diplomats—Benjamin Franklin; John Jay, a polished and suave New Yorker who had spent two years seeking without avail to establish a treaty of alliance with Spain; Thomas Jefferson, a diplomatic and genial Virginian who was friendly with both Adams and Franklin; and Henry Laurens, a powerful figure in South Carolina. Jefferson, however, was unable to set sail for Europe before the commission concluded its work, and Laurens was captured by a British ship, arrested for treason, and jailed in the Tower of London, where he languished until he was exchanged for General Cornwallis in 1781. Thus, Franklin, Adams, and Jay comprised the team entrusted with the fate of the United States.

John Jay held Adams and Franklin in a careful, tenuous, ever-shifting balance. More suspicious of France than Franklin (as a descendant of French Huguenot Protestants, Jay still remembered with bitterness the persecution of his family by French Catholics in the late sixteenth century), but more diplomatic in style and manner than the blustery Adams, Jay tipped the scales decisively among the American commissioners. Congress had directed the American diplomats always to coordinate and work in close contact with their French counterparts in any negotiations with Britain. But Adams and Jay distrusted the French and persuaded Franklin that their best course of action was to open direct talks with the British and seek a separate peace. According to legend, the three men were smoking in front of a fireplace at Franklin’s rented house at Passy, just outside Paris, when Franklin asked Jay, “Would you break our instructions?” Jay supposedly threw his pipe into the fireplace, where it shattered, and answered, “I would break our instructions as soon as I would break that pipe.”

Thus in late 1782, the American diplomats and their British counterparts began the subtle, difficult, and complex negotiations that ended in late 1783 with the Treaty of Paris. The situation of the negotiations was complex. France was bound to Spain by secret agreements to recover Gibraltar from the British and some British factions did not want to concede American independence despite Cornwallis’s surrender. British diplomats were prepared to insist that the United States make good on the losses suffered by loyalists, whose property was confiscated, and British merchants, to whom Americans owed considerable debts. Americans, on the other hand, were determined to secure access to the fisheries of the Gulf of Mexico and the Canadian Atlantic coast.

Americans faced several additional problems. It was difficult to keep Congress informed of the negotiations, for messages carried across the Atlantic could take as long as two months to reach their intended destination. Congress itself was wracked by internal political divisions, and this led to sometimes conflicting instructions and advice and demands reaching the American diplomats in Paris. Suspicions that agents of rival European powers were seeking to influence Congress further complicated the diplomats’ task. And there was always the need to be on guard against espionage agents, hoping to discover American intentions and willing to sow disinformation to all parties involved in the negotiations.

For the most part Franklin, Adams, and Jay managed to bury their differences so that they could effectively deal with the British diplomats. Adams managed to secure American access to the fisheries of the Canadian coast, and Franklin parried British claims for reparations for loyalists by arguing that those claims had to be set off against American claims against Britain for property destroyed in the war.

The preliminary articles of peace between Britain and the United States which served as the basis for the final treaty, (1) recognized American independence, (2) ceded to the United States all territory held by Great Britain between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River, (3) recognized American rights of access to the Newfoundland fisheries in Canada, (4) required the American states to make good on any valid legal claims of loyalist refugees or British subjects against American debtors, and (5) gave up any attempt to seek compensation for by loyalists and British subjects for lost property.

Although the Treaty of Paris brought a triumphant end to the war with Great Britain, and was one of the greatest achievements of the American government operating under the Articles of Confederation, it also left a legacy of political and constitutional uncertainty. The United States had great difficulty inducing the individual states to see that legitimate debts were paid to loyalist and British creditors. In retaliation, the British refused to withdraw their forces from forts in the Old Northwest. Further, Britain refused to give Americans “most favored nation” status in commercial relations, injuring American trade. The treaty’s most important consequence, perhaps, was that it highlighted the Confederation’s inability to defend American interests abroad or enforce the terms of the treaty. This contributed to a movement to revise—or replace—the Articles of Confederation. The Treaty of Paris was thus a step-parent of the Constitution of the United States.


R. B. Bernstein is Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Law at New York Law School and author of The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (2009) and Thomas Jefferson (2003).

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