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This Day in History: The struggle to negotiate a peace with Great Britain

On this day in 1782, John Adams writes a letter to John Jay. The latter gentleman was in Paris helping to negotiate a peace treaty between Great Britain and the United States.  

Those negotiations were all but impossible! George Washington’s victory over the British at Yorktown had occurred ten months earlier. Nevertheless, Americans were STILL dealing with a British government that refused to recognize the United States of America. Instead, it would recognize only individual colonies.

The negotiators for the Treaty of Paris. It is unfinished because the British commissioners refused to pose.

Apparently, in the British view, the American government was an unnecessary participant in the peace negotiations?

Indeed, the British negotiator, Richard Oswald, had been given instructions to negotiate a peace with “the said Colonies or Plantations, or any of them, or any part or parts thereof.” In other words, “the United States of America” was not mentioned.

The mistake was reminiscent of mistakes that had been made during the Revolution. As early as 1775, the British government had refused to work with the Continental Congress. At the time, Americans suspected that the approach was a ruse to divide the colonists and to turn them against each other.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Jay was pretty unhappy about Oswald’s commission. Another American emissary then serving abroad agreed. On August 10, John Adams wrote to Jay: “[I think that we ought to] insist upon full powers to treat with us in character, before we have a word more to say upon the subject. They are only amusing us.” Then he wrote Jay, again, on August 13:

“I think we ought not to treat at all, untill we see a Minister authorised to treat with ‘The United States of America’ or with their Ministers. . . . Firmness and Patience for a few Months, will carry us triumphantly to that Point, where it is the Interest of our Allies, of Neutral Nations, nay even of our Enemies, that we should arrive: I mean a Sovereignty, universally acknowledged by all the World.”

Fortunately, any crisis was averted. On September 1, Jay reported good news: Oswald had requested “further Instructions.” A few weeks later, more good news would arrive. Oswald received a second commission, which authorized him to negotiate with “any Commissioners or Persons vested with equal Powers, by and on the part of the Thirteen United States of America.”

Our history books may teach about the Battle of Yorktown, won by George Washington on October 19, 1781. But far too often, history books forget to mention that the American victory was followed by two long years of political maneuvering as peace negotiations were conducted.

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