Wednesday, January 14, 2015

231 Years Ago: A Rush to Ratify the Treaty of Paris

Most students of American history know the story of the signing of the Treaty of Paris at the end of the American Revolution. However, few are aware of the tensions felt by Congress to ratify the treaty in time and the final dramatic race to return the ratified copy to the peace commissioners by the agreed-upon deadline.

In Paris on September 3, 1783, peace commissioners John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Laurens had at last concluded negotiations with the British delegation. However, the treaty could not be considered a legal, active document until it was ratified by both Congress and King George III within the next six months. Copies of the treaty were immediately sent to both England and America, and Congress, at the time meeting in Princeton, sent messages to all thirteen states to reconvene in Annapolis for the purpose of the document’s immediate ratification.

American painter, and mentor to Charles Willson Peale, Benjamin West captured one of the most well-known images of the Treaty of Paris negotiations. The image depicts American peace commissioners, John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and Franklin's secretary, William Temple Franklin. Unable to secure sittings with the British delegation, this painting was famously not completed. American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Negotiations with Great Britain by Benjamin West, 1783. Image courtesy of Winterthur Museum and Gardens, 1957.856.

On this day, 231 years ago, after sitting in Annapolis for nearly two months, Congress at last reached the necessary quorum of nine states and the Treaty of Paris was officially ratified in the Old Senate Chamber. With Congress’ approval of the document, the momentous occasion officially marked the United States of America as a recognized nation and made Annapolis the first peacetime capital of the new country.

However, the delegates’ work was not done after the ratification. In order to be officially recognized, the document still had to return to Europe by the fast-approaching deadline. As the race to accumulate enough delegates to ratify the document ended, the race to deliver it to France in time had begun. Thomas Jefferson anxiously wrote, “Two copies were immediately dispatched by different officers who were to embark in the first vessel they could find going to France. They had 48 days left for it's timely delivery.”[1]

Unfortunately, no European-bound ships were leaving from Annapolis at the time, and, due to the particularly cold winter of 1783-1784, many of the harbors had frozen. The two officers, Lt. Col. Josiah Harmar and Mr. Morris, were forced to carry the two copies of the treaty to New York, where two French packets were waiting for them. The following day, on January 15,  David Salisbury Franks was entrusted with a triplicate copy and followed the other two messengers.[2] By January 20, at least one of the French packets had left and a copy of the Treaty of Paris, along with several letters from Annapolis citizens (including Molly Ridout’s letter describing the resignation) were on their way to Europe.[3]

Image of a period French packet. Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society and Olenkiewicz, John S., "French Packet Sailings Between New York and France, 1783-1793: Sailing Schedule and Newspaper Date," available online.

Harmar took the French packet, Le Courier de L’Amerique. He was the first to reach France, and successfully delivered his copy to the American peace commissioners on March 29, 1784. Due to frozen harbors and heavy snowfall, the treaty had not arrived in time to meet the original deadline, but was accepted nonetheless, and the American Revolution had, at last, come to an end.

If you would like to learn more about the ratification of the Treaty of Paris in the Old Senate Chamber, and the articles described in the document, don’t forget to take a look at last year's blog post describing this significant event!

[1] Smith, Paul H., ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 2000. Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Pendleton, 18 January 1784.
[2] Ibid. Charles Thomson to Benjamin Franklin, 15 January 1784.
[3] Ibid. Roger Sherman to Lyman Hall, 20 January 1784.

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