The Treaty of Paris 1783

Signatures on the 1783 Treaty of Paris
Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Following the British defeat at the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781, leaders in Parliament decided that offensive campaigns in North America should cease in favor of a different, more limited approach. This was spurred by the widening of the war to include France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic. Through the fall and following winter, British colonies in the Caribbean fell to enemy forces as did Minorca. With anti-war forces growing in power, Lord North's government fell in late March 1782 and was replaced by one led by Lord Rockingham.

Learning that North's government had fallen, Benjamin Franklin, the American ambassador in Paris, wrote to Rockingham expressing a desire to begin peace negotiations. Understanding that making peace was a necessity, Rockingham elected to embrace the opportunity. While this pleased Franklin, and his fellow negotiators John Adams, Henry Laurens, and John Jay, they made it clear that the terms of the United States' alliance with France prevented them from making peace without French approval. In moving forward, the British decided that they would not accept American independence as a precondition for beginning talks.

Political Intrigue

This reluctance was due to their knowledge that France was experiencing financial difficulties and a hope that military fortunes could be reversed. To begin the process, Richard Oswald was sent to meet with the Americans while Thomas Grenville was dispatched to begin talks with the French. With negotiations proceeding slowly, Rockingham died in July 1782 and Lord Shelburne became the head of the British government. Though British military operations began to have success, the French stalled for time as they were working with Spain to capture Gibraltar.

In addition, the French sent a secret envoy to London as there were several issues, including fishing rights on the Grand Banks, on which they disagreed with their American allies. The French and Spanish were also concerned about American insistence on the Mississippi River as a western border. In September, Jay learned of the secret French mission and wrote to Shelburne detailing why he should not be influenced by the French and Spanish. In this same period, Franco-Spanish operations against Gibraltar were failing to leave the French to begin debating ways for exiting the conflict.

Advancing to Peace

Leaving their allies to bicker amongst themselves, the Americans became aware of a letter sent during the summer to George Washington in which Shelburne conceded the point of independence. Armed with this knowledge, they re-entered talks with Oswald. With the issue of independence settled, they began hammering out the details which included border issues and discussion of reparations. On the former point, the Americans were able to get the British to agree to the borders established after the French & Indian War rather than those set by the Quebec Act of 1774.

By the end of November, the two sides produced a preliminary treaty based on the following points:

  • Great Britain recognized the Thirteen Colonies to be free, sovereign and independent states.
  • The borders of the United States would be those of 1763 extending west to the Mississippi.
  • The United States would receive fishing rights on the Grand Banks and Gulf of St. Lawrence.
  • All contracted debts were to be paid to creditors on each side.
  • The Congress of the Confederation would recommend that each state legislature provide restitution for property taken from Loyalists.
  • The United States would prevent property from being taken from Loyalists in the future.
  • All prisoners of war were to be released.
  • Both the United States and Great Britain were to have perpetual access to the Mississippi.
  • Territory captured by the United States subsequent to the treaty was to be returned.
  • Ratification of the treaty was to occur within six months of signing. With the British relief of Gibraltar in October, the French ceased to have any interest in aiding the Spanish. As a result, they were willing to accept a separate Anglo-American peace. Reviewing the treaty, they grudgingly accepted it on November 30.

Signing & Ratification

With the French approval, the Americans and Oswald signed a preliminary treaty on November 30. The terms of the treaty provoked a political firestorm in Britain where the concession of territory, abandonment of the Loyalists, and granting of fishing rights proved particularly unpopular. This backlash forced Shelburne to resign and a new government was formed under the Duke of Portland. Replacing Oswald with David Hartley, Portland hoped to modify the treaty. This was blocked by the Americans who insisted on no changes. As a result, Hartley and the American delegation signed the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783.

Brought before the Congress of the Confederation at Annapolis, MD, the treaty was ratified on January 14, 1784. Parliament ratified the treaty on April 9 and ratified copies of the document were exchanged the following month in Paris. Also on September 3, Britain signed separate treaties ending their conflicts with France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic. These largely saw the European nations exchange colonial possessions with Britain regaining the Bahamas, Grenada, and Montserrat while ceding the Floridas to Spain. France's gains included Senegal as well as having fishing rights guaranteed on the Grand Banks.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "The Treaty of Paris 1783." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). The Treaty of Paris 1783. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "The Treaty of Paris 1783." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).