Treaty of Paris (1783): An Honorable Peace
By Donna K. Keesling
Two hundred and forty years ago this month, the American Revolution officially came to an end when British and American delegates signed what is now known as the Treaty of Paris. The document, officially titled the “Definitive Treaty of Peace between the United States and Great Britain” was signed after months of negotiations between the two parties.
According to author Craig Bruce Smith, “peace with honor” was “broadly considered to be the standard by which America could conclude its confrontations with Britain.” With the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “peace with honor” required that Britain recognize the United States as an independent nation. When the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, the United States had its peace with honor.
Following the British defeat at the Battle of Yorktown and General Lord Charles Cornwallis’s surrender of nearly 7,000 British soldiers in October 1781, Prime Minister Lord Frederick North began to doubt whether Great Britain could defeat the American colonists. Lord North attempted to negotiate with the colonists, but they rejected his plan. Parliament then passed a “no confidence” motion against Lord North, forcing him to resign in March of 1782. North was replaced by Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham. When Watson-Wentworth died less than three months later, he was replaced by William Petty, 1st Marquess of Lansdowne, who was known as Lord Shelburne. Lord Shelburne wanted peace between Britain and the United States, so continued negotiations that had started with Lord North.
The American delegates, also known as the American peace commissioners, were appointed by the Continental Congress in 1782. The appointees included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Laurens, President of the Continental Congress from 1777 – 1779. Because he was then serving as Governor of Virginia and it had been invaded by the British, Thomas Jefferson declined the appointment. Henry Laurens did not participate in the negotiations until November 1782 because he had been arrested by the British in 1780. He was charged with suspicion of high treason for attempting to borrow money from countries in Europe to be used by Congress and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, William Temple Franklin, served as secretary during the negotiations.
John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay began negotiations with Great Britain’s representative, Richard Oswald, in Paris in April of 1782. Oswald was selected because he had lived in America and was knowledgeable of its geography and trade.
In the negotiations with Oswald, the United States was allowed all land east of the Mississippi River, north of Florida, and south of Canada. The United States also gained fishing rights off the eastern coast of Canada. On November 30, 1782 the preliminary articles were signed by Oswald for Great Britain, and Adams, Franklin, Jay, and Laurens for the United States.
After being criticized for giving too much to the Americans during the negotiations, Oswald resigned his post. He was replaced by David Hartley, a member of Parliament.
The American commissioners and their secretary met Britain’s delegate, David Hartley, at his chambers at the Hotel de York in Paris during the morning of September 3, 1783. They brought four official copies of the treaty to be signed by Adams, Franklin, Jay, and Hartley. The secretary for the United States, William Temple Franklin, and Great Britain’s secretary, George Hammond, attested the copies of the commissions that would be appended to the treaties and then the four principals signed the treaties and affixed their seals at 10:30 a.m.
The treaty that was signed in 1783 was essentially the same as the provisional treaty that had been signed on November 30, 1782. A portion of the text was moved from the end of Article 1 to the beginning of Article 2 and the British added a tenth article stipulating standard terms for ratification.
Some of the key terms of the treaty were:
- Great Britain formally recognized its former colonies as a new and independent nation – the United States of America.
- Great Britain granted the Northwest Territory to the United States.
- The United States secured fishing rights to waters off the British-Canadian coastline, including the Grand Banks.
- The Mississippi River was opened to navigation by United States and Great Britain citizens.
- American citizens who had remained loyal to Great Britain during the war were granted fair treatment.
The Continental Congress ratified the Treaty of Paris on January 14, 1784.
Images of one of the original copies of the treaty and a transcription can be viewed on the National Archives website: Treaty of Paris (1783).
A map of the United States created by John Wallis in 1783 which shows the boundaries set by the Treaty of Paris can be viewed on The Library of Congress website: The United States of America laid down from the best authorities, agreeable to the Peace of 1783. The hand-colored map “offered visual evidence of the nation’s geography by delineating state boundaries, Native American lands, and the remaining French and Spanish holdings. The cartouche in the lower right links the country’s outline with symbols that became national icons. On the left, George Washington walks alongside the figure of Liberty, while Athena (goddess of wisdom) and the blindfolded figure of Justice assist a seated Benjamin Franklin on the right. The scene occurs beneath an American flag with thirteen stars and stripes.”
Benjamin West, born near Philadelphia, was a prominent artist in late eighteenth century London and served as President of the Royal Academy from 1792 until his death. One of the history paintings he is best known for is the unfinished painting titled “American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Negotiations with Great Britain.” The painting includes John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, William Temple Franklin, John Jay, and Henry Laurens. The British delegation did not sit for the painting. The painting is now part of the collection of Winterthur Museum in Winterthur, Delaware.
With the signing of the Treaty of Paris, Britain formally recognized the United States as an independent nation. The nation doubled in size when Britain ceded most of its territory east of the Mississippi River, setting the stage for westward expansion. There were outstanding issues that were not resolved by the Treaty of Paris. In 1794, John Jay returned to Europe to resolve these issues. Jay’s Treaty, the resulting agreement, helped to prevent another war between the United States and Great Britain – at least for a few more years.
 Craig Bruce Smith, American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals During the Revolutionary Era (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 167.
 “The Treaty of Paris,” American Battlefield Trust, accessed September 10, 2023, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/treaty-paris.
 Thomas Fleming, The Perils of Peace: America’s Struggle for Survival After Yorktown (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 77.
 “Henry Laurens,” National Park Service, last updated August 19, 2022, https://www.nps.gov/chpi/learn/historyculture/henry-laurens.htm.
 “Definitive Treaty of Peace between the United States and Great Britain, 3 September 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 12, 2023. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-40-02-0356.
 “Definitive Treaty of Peace between the United States and Great Britain, 3 September 1783.”
 History.com Editors, “Treaty of Paris,” HISTORY, last updated June 21, 2023, https://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/treaty-of-paris.
 John Wallis, The United States of America laid down from the best authorities, agreeable to the Peace of 1783, London, 1783, Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center, accessed September 16, 2023, https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:z603vs502.