September 3, 1783 – The Treaty of Paris was signed by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay, formally ending the American Revolutionary War between Britain and the United States.
A lot can happen in 10 years. In the summer of 1773, most Americans, though frustrated with Parliament’s actions towards its American colonies, still considered themselves loyal British subjects. Even with renewed anger prompted by Parliament’s passage of the despised Tea Act, only a small minority of colonists sought a complete break with the mother country. On the contrary, most Americans – even those who protested the loudest against English taxes – wanted only a recognition of their natural rights as English citizens by the English government.
From 1773 on, however, the relationship between England and the American colonies resembled that of an exasperated parent and a misunderstood child trapped in a relationship where neither side can comprehend the other’s feelings, and every action taken is interpreted as a hostile act. In 1773 colonists responded to enforcement of the Tea Act with the Boston Tea Party; in 1774 Parliament reacted to the Tea Party with passage of the Coercive Acts which, among other draconian measures, stripped Massachusetts of its elected assembly and placed it under martial law; the colonies responded to the Coercive Acts by uniting together and forming a Continental Congress, which, while claiming loyalty to the crown, directed each colony to store arms, ammunition, and train its militia; in 1775 Parliament reacted by ordering military action against those storing arms and ammunition in Lexington and Concord, resulting in the first shots fired, American and British deaths, and the start of all-out war; and, in 1776, with the outbreak of hostilities, public opinion in the colonies had shifted so much so that the Continental Congress easily passed a resolution formally declaring their independence from England.
Fighting continued unabated from 1776 until the fall of 1781, when English general Charles Cornwallis managed to get himself and his entire army of 9,000 men trapped in Yorktown, Virginia, surrounded by 18,000 American and French soldiers, as well as the French navy. When news of Cornwallis’ surrender reached England King George III wanted to keep fighting, but Parliament was done paying for a war without end, and immediately agreed to open peace negotiations with its soon-to-be former colonies.
Formal negotiations between the English, the Americans, and their French allies began in April of 1782. It did not begin smoothly: for one, the Americans, in their alliance with France during the war, had specifically agreed not to negotiate with the English without France. Another problem was that Spain, another American ally (through France), wanted to continue the war, hoping to wrest Gibraltar from England in the process. The biggest stumbling block, however, was France, which proposed a treaty where the US would be limited to its land east of the Appalachian Mountains, England would retain the Northern Ohio Valley, and Spain would receive the Southern Ohio Valley.
In this environment the American negotiators, including Benjamin Franklin, future President John Adams, and future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay, decided to break their agreement with France and seek their own deal with England. England was more than happy to accommodate, as they rightly viewed it as an opportunity not only to drive a wedge between the Americans and the French but also to start cultivating the Americans as new international trading partners, now that the colonial trading relationship was forever done.
In the resultant Treaty of Paris England formally acknowledged American independence, America’s borders (which soon expanded), granted American fishing rights off the Canadian coast, promised to return all American runaway slaves then under British protection (which they didn’t), and promised to vacate all of its forts in the Ohio Valley (which they didn’t do until 1794). The Americans agreed to grant British free passage on the Mississippi River (which was controlled by the Spanish anyway) and urge the individual states to return property that had been confiscated from loyalists during the War (which never happened).
Notably missing from the Treaty was any acknowledgment – indeed, and mention at all – of the fate of the Native Americans who lived in the areas now being given up by England. Most shameful was the English abandonment of the Iroquois. Most Iroquois (four out of the six tribes which made up the Iroquois Confederation) had fought on the side of the British during the war and had suffered losses far greater than their English allies had. Tens of thousands of Iroquois had been killed and hundreds of Iroquois villages had been utterly destroyed, and yet British negotiators made no attempt to provide for their welfare or protection from the Americans in the Treaty. As a result, the Americans treated the four tribes allied with the English – the Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga and Cayuga – as conquered peoples, with their land forfeit. In a separate treaty signed with the Americans in 1784, the Iroquois were forced to give up most of their land (and would eventually lose it all), and many left the new United States and moved to Canada.