Today in 1783: The Preliminary Articles of Peace, ending the Revolutionary War, are ratified

April 15, 2011

Today in Legal HistoryIt’s nice to hear about the end of a war, for a change.

On April 15, 1783, the Preliminary Articles of Peace were ratified by the Continental Congress, effectively ending the American Revolutionary War (although the war wasn’t formally over until the Treaty of Paris was ratified in January 1784).

Peace negotiations were made possible by the Battle of Yorktown, in which American forces led by General George Washington and French forces led by Marshal comte de Rochambeau defeated British forces commanded by Lord Cornwallis.

The battle was significant in that the victory was utterly decisive for American victory in the war.

Early 1781 saw American support for the war arguably reaching its lowest levels. Washington concluded that a significant victory was needed soon, or the war could be lost.

Even after the victory, Washington and other colonial leaders were uncertain as to what the British’s next move would be. In short, they did not apprehend the victory to be as crucial as it was.

Rather than retaliating, the British, in the face of diminished political support for the war, sought to discuss peace with the Americans, which started in Paris in May 1782, continuing through the fall.

At first, the British refused to recognize the United States as a whole, and rather sought to negotiate peace with each colony individually.

This was rejected by the American envoy, which consisted of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay.

In September, the American diplomatic envoy learned that the French foreign minister Vergennes’ undersecretary, Gérard deRayneval, had been dispatched to England on a secret mission.

The Americans suspected the worst: that France and England were beginning preliminary peace talks and cutting out the Americans.

Their fears were well-founded. France’s finances were running low from fighting wars with so many different European powers that it wanted to get out of the American war with Britain.

In turn, the American envoy let the British know that they were willing to negotiate unilaterally, and after months of negotiations, the British and American diplomats signed the Preliminary Articles of Peace on November 30, 1782.

These articles would largely be the base for the final peace treaty ratified in 1784.

It actually worked out for the best that the French were cut out of the preliminary talks.

Treaty of ParisIt allowed Americans to work more independently without having to worry about losing valuable French support, which therefore allowed the American envoy a stronger bargaining position to push for British recognition of American independence.

France, while not happy about being left out, didn’t want to breach its agreement with the Americans since it was allied with Spanish and Dutch forces against the British at the time, and such a breach would weaken France’s links with those allies.

In the end, France reluctantly agreed.

While this is only a summary of the events, one thing is clear, even after delving in deeper.

Fortune smiled on the United States in forging a peace treaty, and if circumstances had been changed slightly, we may not have the independent United States that we have today.