The Peace of Paris

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On Sept. 3, 1783, the 13 colonies that had rebelled against the United Kingdom signed a peace treaty with the empire in Paris. The peace treaty signalled the formal end of the war between the U.K. and not only its former colonies, but also Spain, France, and the Netherlands, which all took advantage of the American secession to try and seize territory from the British Empire. The entire conference is known at the Peace of Paris.

The British signed peace treaties with Spain, France, and the U.S. separately on the 3rd of September and, a day later, an agreement with the Dutch to end hostilities, as well. (The two sides eventually signed a peace treaty on May 20, 1784, officially ending the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War. Here is more on the Dutch empire: “10 Things About the Dutch Empire.”)

The peace treaty between the United States and the United Kingdom actually angered the French and disappointed the Spanish. Here’s why:

The French, who got revenge on the British for their defeat in the Seven Years’ War, were in dire financial straits due to their support of the American colonies, and their pyrrhic victory was made worse when the Americans went around French peace proposals and dealt directly with the British. The French wanted to placate the Spanish (who wanted Gibraltar back) by persuading them to give up their siege of Gibraltar in exchange for a buffer state in North America between the United States and Spanish territory to be ostensibly ruled by Native Americans. The French also suggested the United States should get nothing west of the Appalachian mountain range nor the Northwest Territory (Ohio River Valley area), which would remain in British hands.

This proposal would give the French and Spanish colonies in North America room to breathe from potential American aspirations, and keep the British occupied governing an incredibly large chunk of territory.

The Americans did not like this proposal one bit, and they went around the French and their Spanish allies and negotiated a separate treaty with the British, who were all too happy to give up some land in exchange for sticking a thumb in France’s eye. The French foreign minister at the time of the treaty negotiations, Charles Gravier, Count of Vergennes, bitterly complained that “the English buy peace rather than make it.” London also anticipated a rapprochement between itself and its now-former colonies, and a favorable treaty with the rebels would buy the British some much-needed diplomatic capital down the road. The American diplomats who negotiated such a generous truce were led by Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams.

The rift between France and the United States caused by the Treaty of Paris was to be felt for several political generations, and caused a significant split in American politics between the pro-British Federalists and the pro-French Democratic-Republicans.

The Indian buffer state, which was a British proposal before the French adopted it for the Paris negotiations, obviously never came to pass, but was initially supposed to be a confederacy of sorts indirectly governed by the British and used to protect the empire’s fur trade. The original buffer state was meant to be located in the Great Lakes region, in the territories the British seized from the French during the Seven Years’ War. The Native American nations who were to become “citizens” of this buffer state were never consulted on the plan’s implementation. One of the best books to read on the Great Lakes region during this time period, by the way, is "The Middle Ground," by Stanford historian Richard White. It’s really, really good.

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