On this day in 1783, the Treaty of Paris, defining the legal conclusion of the American Revolutionary War, is signed in France. In attendance were representatives of King George III for Great Britain, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and John Jay for the United States, and emissaries of France, Spain and the Dutch Republic. The treaty principally set the boundaries between the British Empire in North America and the United States, on lines “exceedingly generous” to our infant nation.
As with nearly all negotiations, the parties initially jockeyed for positions advantageous to their desires; to wit French Foreign Minister Vergennes proposed a solution strongly opposed by his American ally. Largely exhausted, all but Spain desired peace, as the Spaniards wished hostilities to continue until Gibraltar could be wrested from the Brits, and Vergennes sought to exploit this weariness.
To said end Vergennes offered a plan wherein the U.S. would gain its independence but be confined to the area east of the Appalachian Mountains, and Britain would take the area north of the Ohio River. In the area south of that, an independent Indian state under Spanish control would be established, acting as an barrier state.
The Americans quickly realized they could get a better deal straight from London. John Jay promptly told the Brits he was willing to negotiate directly with them, cutting out France and Spain; Prime Minister Lord Shelburne agreed. Fully in charge of the British negotiations, Shelburne now saw a chance to split the United States away from France and make the new country a valuable economic partner.
The western terms were such that the U.S. would gain all of the area east of the Mississippi River, north of Florida, and south of Canada; the northern boundary would remain largely the same as today. The States would gain fishing rights off Canadian coasts, and agreed to allow British merchants and loyalists methods for recovery of their property. It was a highly favorable treaty for the States, and deliberately so from the British point of view, with the PM Shelburne foreseeing profitable two-way trade between Britain and the rapidly growing U.S., as indeed came to pass.
Within the confines of the Treaty, Britain also signed separate agreements with France, Spain, and the Netherlands. In the treaty with Spain, the territories of East and West Florida were ceded to Spain without a clear northern boundary, resulting in a territorial dispute resolved by the Treaty of Madrid in 1795. Spain also received the island of Menorca; in turn, the Bahama Islands, Grenada, and Montserrat, captured by the French and Spanish, were returned to Britain.
The treaty with France was mostly about exchanges of captured territory, with France’s only net gains summing to the island of Tobago, and Senegal in Africa. However, France reinforced earlier treaties, guaranteeing fishing rights off Newfoundland. Dutch possessions in the East Indies, captured in 1781, were returned by Britain to the Netherlands in exchange for trading privileges in the region.
The Treaty was fully ratified by all parties by May of 1784, and shortly thereafter, as typically happens, the space between what a treaty says and what it does became painfully obvious. With no clearly defined northern border, the West Florida Controversy erupted, and Spain used its new control of Florida to block American access to the Mississippi. Meanwhile in the north and west, Great Britain violated the treaty stipulation that they should relinquish control of forts in United States territory “with all convenient speed.”
British troops remained stationed at six forts in the Great Lakes region, plus two at the north end of Lake Champlain. The British also built an additional fort in present-day Ohio in 1794, during the Northwest Indian War. Indeed, such British-First Nation conflicts with the U.S., the Barbary Wars with France, and the eventual do-over called the War of 1812 demonstrate yet again that as Yogi Berra and Lenny Kravitz like to say, “it ain’t over ’till it’s over.”