Source Problems in English History

Date: March 21 to July 1, 1782

World History


The Sources


The Writings of Benjamin Franklin,

collected and edited by A. H. Smyth. Journal of the Negotiation for Peace with Great Britain. From March 21 to July 1, 1782, Vol. VIII, p. 459, et passim.

PASSY, 9 May, 1782.

As since the change of ministry in England some serious professions have been made of their disposition to peace, and of their readiness to enter into a general treaty for that purpose; and as the concerns and claims of five nations are to be discussed in that treaty, which must therefore be interesting to the present age, and to posterity, I am inclined to keep a journal of the proceedings, as far as they come to my knowledge; and, to make it more complete, I will first endeavor to recollect what has already passed. Great affairs sometimes take their rise from small circumstances....

[Lord Cholmondeley going through Paris was introduced to Franklin and offered to take a letter from him to Shelburne, whom Franklin had known in England. In that letter Franklin expressed the hope that a "general peace" might soon be made. In reply Shelburne sent Richard Oswald to discuss the possibilities of peace.]

I entered into conversation with Mr. Oswald [April 15th]. He was represented in the letter as fully apprized of Lord Shelburne’s mind, and I was desirous of knowing it. All I could learn was, that the new ministry sincerely wished for peace; that they considered the object of the war to France and America as obtained; that, if the independence of the United States was agreed to, there was no other point in dispute, and therefore nothing to hinder a pacification; that they were ready to treat of peace, but intimated, that, if France should insist upon terms too humiliating to England, they could still continue the war, having yet great strength and many resources left. I let him know, that America would not treat but in concert with France, and that, my colleagues not being here, I could do nothing of importance in the affair; but that, if he pleased, I would present him to M. de Vergennes, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs....

[Franklin to Shelburne. April 18, 1782.]

... I have conversed a good deal with Mr. Oswald, and am much pleased with him. He appears to me a wise and honest man. I acquainted him, that I was commissioned, with others, to treat of and conclude a peace; that full powers were given us for that purpose, and that the Congress promised in good faith to ratify, confirm, and cause to be faithfully observed, the treaty we should make; but that we would not treat separately from France, and I proposed introducing him to the Count de Vergennes, to whom I communicated your Lordship’s letter containing Mr. Oswald’s character, as a foundation for the interviews.... Being myself but one of the four persons now in Europe commissioned by the Congress to treat of peace, I can make no propositions of much importance without them.

[Journal.] In going to him [to give him the letter to carry to Shelburne], I had also in view the entering into a conversation, which might draw out something of the mind of his court on the subject of Canada and Nova Scotia. I had thrown some loose thoughts on paper, which I intended to serve as memorandums for my discourse, but without a fixed intention of showing them to him.

[Franklin suggested to Oswald that as peace without real reconciliation might bring about future quarrels, England might well afford to give Canada to the United States by way of reparation for her scalping and burning parties. Oswald appeared "struck" with this discourse and asked to see his notes, which were at length given. The notes threw out the idea that Canada as a neighbor would be a danger to the United States, that England ought to give it up not only as reparation, but as a means of enabling Congress through the sale of lands to compensate the "royalists." The notes ended, "This is mere conversation matter between Mr. Oswald and Mr. Franklin, as the former is not empowered to make propositions and the latter cannot make any without the concurrence of his colleagues." Oswald took back also the letter from Franklin to Shelburne indicating his satisfaction with Oswald as a negotiator and saying further that he desired no other channel of communication between them.]

By the first opportunity after his departure, I wrote . . . to Mr. Adams. . . . I omitted only the paper of Notes for Conversation with Mr. Oswald, but gave the substance, as appears in the letter. The reason of my omitting it was that, on reflection, I was not pleased with my having hinted a reparation to the Tories for their forfeited estates, and I was a little ashamed of my weakness in permitting the paper to go out of my hands.

[Shelburne sent Oswald back with a letter to Franklin, April 28th, telling of the decision of the Cabinet to send Oswald to him. Oswald was to settle "the preliminaries of time and place." "It is also determined," he wrote, "that Mr. Fox . . . shall send a proper person [Grenville], who may confer and settle immediately with Monr. de Vergennes the further measures and proceedings. . . . In the mean time Mr. Oswald is instructed to communicate to you my thoughts upon the principal objects to be settled." Oswald and Franklin went to see Vergennes and Oswald spoke of Grenville’s expected arrival.]

On the whole I was able to draw so little from Mr. Oswald of the sentiments of Lord Shelburne, who had mentioned him as intrusted with the communication of them, that I could not but wonder at his being sent again to me. . . .

On Tuesday I was at court as usual on that day. M. de Vergennes asked me, if Mr. Oswald had not opened himself farther to me? I acquainted him with the sight I had had of the Minute of Council, [An extract from which Oswald had shown Franklin.] and of the loose expressions contained in it, of what was in contemplation. He seemed to think it odd that he had brought nothing more explicit. I supposed Mr. Grenville might be better furnished.

[Grenville arrived on May 8th, and, instead of going first to Versailles to Vergennes to whom he was credited, went to see Franklin, and presented to him an introductory letter1 from Fox.]

I imagined the gentleman had been at Versailles, as I supposed Mr. Grenville would first have waited on M. de Vergennes before he called on me. But finding in conversation that he had not, and that he expected me to introduce him, I immediately wrote to the minister. . . .

[May 9th Franklin took Grenville for the interview with Vergennes, who received the young man cordially.]

What my memory retains of the discourse amounts to little more than this, that, after mutual declarations of the good dispositions of the two courts, Mr. Grenville having intimated that, in case England gave America independence, France, it was expected, would return the conquests she had made of British islands, receiving back those of Miquelon and St. Pierre. And, the original object of the war being obtained, it was supposed that France would be contented with that. The minister seemed to smile at the proposed exchange, and remarked that the offer of giving independence to America amounted to little: "America," says he, "does not ask it of you: there is Mr. Franklin; he will answer you as to that point." "To be sure," I said, "we do not consider ourselves as under any necessity of bargaining for a thing that is our own and which we have bought at the expense of much blood and treasure, and which we are in full possession of."

[Vergennes was quite as positive in refusing to go back to the basis of the treaty of 1763. England did not content herself, he said, in that war with what she hoped at its beginning to attain. He agreed, however, to communicate immediately with Spain and Holland.]

Friday morning, the 10th of May, I went to Paris and visited Mr. Oswald. I found him in the same friendly dispositions, and very desirous of good, and seeing an end put to this ruinous war. But I got no farther light as to the sentiments of Lord Shelburne respecting the terms.

[On May 13th Franklin learned that Oswald was to return to London at once.]

Franklin to Shelburne.

PASSY, 13 May, 1782.

. . . I then hoped that gentleman [Oswald] would have remained here some time, but his affairs, it seems, recall him sooner than he imagined. I hope he will return again, as I esteem him more, the more I am acquainted with him, and believe his moderation, prudent counsels, and sound judgment may contribute much, not only to the speedy conclusion of a peace, but to the framing such a peace as may be firm and long lasting....

[Journal.] I went in the evening to Mr. Oswald’s lodgings with my letters, when he informed me, his intention was to return immediately hither from England.... We had but little conversation, for Mr. Grenville coming in, I . . . retired, that I might not interrupt their consultations.

Since his departure, Mr. Grenville has made me a visit; and entered into a conversation with me, exactly of the same tenor with the letters I formerly received from Mr. Hartley, stating suppositions that France might insist on points totally different from what had been the object of our alliance, and that in such case he should imagine we were not at all bound to continue the war to obtain such points for her, &c. I thought I could not give him a better answer to this kind of discourse than what I had given in two letters to Mr. Hartley, and, therefore, calling for those letters, I read them to him. He smiled, and would have turned the conversation; but I gave a little more of my sentiments on the general subject of benefits, obligations, and gratitude.

[Franklin then gave a supposititious case carrying very far the duty and obligation of gratitude.]

Mr. Grenville conceived that it was carrying gratitude very far, to apply this doctrine to our situation in respect to France, who was really the party served and obliged by our separation from England, as it lessened the power of her rival and relatively increased her own.

I told him, I was so strongly impressed with the kind assistance afforded us by France in our distress, and the generous and noble manner in which it was granted, without exacting or stipulating for a single privilege, or particular advantage to herself in our commerce, or otherwise, that I could never suffer myself to think of such reasonings for lessening the obligation; and I hoped, and, indeed, did not doubt, but my countrymen were all of the same sentiments.

Thus he gained nothing of the point he came to push; we parted, however, in good humour. His conversation is always polite, and his manner pleasing. As he expressed a strong desire to discourse with me on the means of a reconciliation with America, I promised to consider the subject, and appointed Saturday the first day of June for our conversation, when he proposed to call on me. . . .

Our business standing still at present till the return of Mr. Oswald, gives me a void that I may fill up with two or three circumstances. . . .

[May 26th.] Mr. Grenville visited me. He acquainted me that his courier was returned, and had brought him full powers in form to treat for a peace with France and her allies. That he had been to Versailles, and had shown his power to M. de Vergennes, and left a copy with him. . . . That Mr. Oswald had arrived in London. . . .

He [Grenville] had requested me at our last interview that, if I saw no impropriety in doing it, I would favor him with a sight of the treaty of alliance between France and America. I acquainted him that it was printed, but that if he could not readily meet with a copy, I would have one written for him. And as he had not been able to find one, I this day gave it to him. . . .

On Tuesday [May 28th] I dined at Versailles with some friends, so was not at home when the Marquis de Lafayette called to acquaint me, that M. de Vergennes had informed him, that the full power received by Mr. Grenville from London, and communicated by him, related to France only. The Marquis left for me this information, which I could not understand. On Wednesday [May 29th] I was at court, and saw the copy of the power. It appeared full with regard to treating with France, but mentioned not a word of her allies. And as M. de Vergennes had explicitly and constantly from the beginning declared to the several messengers, Mr. Forth, Mr. Oswald, and Mr. Grenville, that France could only treat in concert with her allies, and it had in consequence been declared on the part of the British ministry, that they consented to treat for a general peace, and at Paris, the sending this partial power appeared to be insidious, and a mere invention to occasion delay, the late disaster to the French fleet having probably given the court of England fresh courage and other views.

M. de Vergennes said he should see Mr. Grenville on Thursday, and would speak his mind to him on the subject very plainly. "They want," said he, "to treat with us for you, but this the King will not agree to. He thinks it not consistent with the dignity of your state. You will treat for yourselves; and every one of the powers at war with England will make its own treaty. All that is necessary to be observed for our common security is, that the treaties go hand in hand, and are signed all on the same day."

. . . On Friday, May 31st, Mr. Oswald called on me, being just returned, and brought me . . . letters from David Hartley, and two letters from Lord Shelburne, the first of which had been written before his arrival. . . .

[Shelburne’s first letter was an answer to Franklin’s of May 10th, and said that Oswald would stay in Paris until further orders. The second was written after Oswald went back to England, and announced his intended return to Paris.]

I had not then time to converse much with Mr. Oswald, and he promised to come and breakfast with me on Monday [June 3d].

Saturday, June 1st, Mr. Grenville came, according to appointment. Our conversation began by my acquainting him, that I had seen the Count de Vergennes, and had perused the copy left with him of the power to treat. That after what he, Mr. Grenville told me of its being to treat with France and her allies, I was a little surprised to find in it no mention of the allies, and that it was only to treat with the King of France and his ministers; that at Versailles there was some suspicion of its being intended to occasion delay; the professed desire of speedy peace being perhaps abated in the British court since its late successes; but that I imagined the words relating to the allies might have been accidentally omitted in transcribing, or that, perhaps, he had a special power to treat with us distinct from the other.

He answered that the copy was right, and that he had no such special power in form, but that his instructions were full to that purpose, and that he was sure the ministry had no desire of delay, nor any of excluding us from the treaty, since the greatest part of those instructions related to treating with me. That to convince me of the sincerity of his court respecting us, he would acquaint me with one of his instructions, though perhaps the doing it now was premature, and therefore a little inconsistent with the character of a politician, but he had that confidence in me that he should not hesitate to inform me (though he wished that at present it should go no further), he was instructed to acknowledge the independence of America, previous to the commencement of the treaty. And he said he could only account for the omission of America in the POWER, by supposing that it was an old official form copied from that given to Mr. Stanley, when he came over hither before the last peace. Mr. Grenville added that he had immediately after his interview with M. de Vergennes, despatched a courier to London, and hoped that with his return the difficulty would be removed; that he was perfectly assured their late successes had made no change in the dispositions of his court to peace, and that he had more reason than M. de Vergennes to complain of delay, since five days were spent before he could obtain a passport for his courier, and then it was not to go and return by way of Calais, but to go by Ostend, which would occasion a delay of five days longer. Mr. Grenville then spoke much of the high opinion the present ministry had of me, and their great esteem for me. . . .

Mr. Grenville then discoursed of our resolution not to treat without our allies. "This," says he, "can properly only relate to France, with whom you have a treaty of alliance, but you have none with Spain, you have none with Holland. If Spain and Holland, and even if France should insist on unreasonable terms of advantage to themselves, after you have obtained all you want, and are satisfied, can it be right that America should be dragged on in a war for their interests only?" He stated this matter in various lights and pressed it earnestly.

I resolved from various reasons to evade the discussion, and therefore answered that the intended treaty not being yet begun, it appeared unnecessary to enter at present into considerations of that kind. The preliminaries being once settled and the treaty commenced, if any of the other powers should make extravagant demands on England, and insist on our continuing the war till those were complied with, it would then be time enough for us to consider what our obligations were, and how far they extended. The first thing necessary was for him to procure the full powers, the next for us to assemble the plenipotentiaries of all the belligerent parties, and then propositions might be mutually made, received, considered, answered, or agreed to. In the mean time I would just mention to him, that, though we were yet under no obligations to Spain by treaty, we were under obligations of gratitude for the assistance she had afforded us; and as Mr. Adams had some weeks since commenced a treaty in Holland, the terms of which I was not yet acquainted with, I knew not but that we might have already some alliance and obligations contracted there. And perhaps we ought, however, to have some consideration for Holland on this account, that it was in vengeance for the friendly disposition shown by some of her people to make a treaty of commerce with us, that England had declared the war against her.

He said, it would be hard upon England, if, having given reasonable satisfaction to one or two of her four enemies, she could not have peace with those till she had complied with whatever the others might demand, however unreasonable, for so she might be obliged to pay for every article fourfold. I observed that when she made her propositions, the more advantageous they were to each, the more it would be the interest of each to prevail with the others to accept those offered to them. We then spoke of the reconciliation; but his full power not being yet come, I chose to defer entering upon that subject at present. I told him I had thoughts of putting down in writing the particulars that I judged would conduce to that end, and of adding my reasons, [but] that this required a little time, and I had been hindered by accidents; which was true, for I had begun to write, but had postponed it on account of his defective power to treat. But I promised to finish it as soon as possible. He pressed me earnestly to do it. . . .

On Monday the 3rd, Mr. Oswald came according to appointment.

[He spoke of his conversations with Shelburne, Fox, and Rockingham, and then, with "utmost frankness," told Franklin that England had to have peace, that "her enemies have the ball at their foot." Franklin was puzzled at such "simplicity and honesty" and somewhat suspicious of its meaning. Oswald went on to speak of the esteem in which the ministers held Franklin and finally showed him a memorandum that Shelburne had given him, as follows]:

1. That I am ready to correspond more particularly with Dr. Franklin if wished.

2. That the Enabling Act is passing, with the insertion of Commissioners recommended by Mr. Oswald; and on our part Commissioners will be named, or any character given to Mr. Oswald, which Dr. Franklin and he may judge conducive to a final settlement of things between Great Britain and America; which Dr. Franklin very properly says, requires to be treated in a very different manner from the peace between Great Britain and France, who have been always at enmity with each other. . . .

[Journal.] We now came to another article of the note, viz. "On our part Commissioners will be named, or any character given to Mr. Oswald which Dr. Franklin and he may judge conducive to a final settlement of things between Great Britain and America."

This he said was left entirely to me, for he had no will in the affair; he did not desire to be farther concerned, than to see it en train; he had no personal views either of honor or profit. He had now seen and conversed with Mr. Grenville, thought him a very sensible young gentleman, and very capable of the business; he did not therefore see any farther occasion there was for himself; but if I thought otherwise, and conceived he might be farther useful, he was content to give his time and service, in any character or manner I should think proper. I said his knowledge of America where he had lived, and with every part of which and of its commerce and circumstances he was well acquainted, made me think, that in persuading the ministry to things reasonable relating to that country, he could speak or write with more weight than Mr. Grenville, and therefore I wished him to continue in the service; and I asked him, whether he would like to be joined in a general commission for treating with all the powers at war with England, or to have a special commission to himself for treating with America only. He said he did not choose to be concerned in treating with the foreign powers, for he was not sufficiently a master of their affairs, or of the French language, which probably would be used in treating; if, therefore, he accepted of any commission, it should be that of treating with America. I told him I would write to Lord Shelburne on the subject; but Mr. Grenville having some time since despatched a courier, partly on account of the commission, who was not yet returned, I thought it well to wait a few days, till we could see what answer he would bring, or what measures were taken. This he approved of.

The truth is, he appears so good and so reasonable a man, that though I have no objection to Mr. Grenville, I should be loth to lose Mr. Oswald. He seems to have nothing at heart but the good of mankind, and putting a stop to mischief; the other, a young statesman, may be supposed to have naturally a little ambition of recommending himself as an able negotiator. . . .

Saturday, June 8th. I received some newspapers from England, in one of which is the following paragraph.

[From the London Evening Post of May 30, 1782.]

"If reports on the spot speak truth, Mr. Grenville, in his first visit to Dr. Franklin, gained a considerable point of information, as to the powers America had retained for treating SEPARATELY with Great Britain, in case her claims, or demands, were granted."

[There then follow quotations from the treaty with France as well as arguments that America, if granted independence, might make a separate peace.]

I conjecture that this must be an extract from a letter of Mr. Grenville’s; but it carries an appearance as if he and I had agreed in these imaginary discoveries of America’s being at liberty to make peace without France, whereas my whole discourse in the strongest terms declared our determinations to the contrary, and the impossibility of our acting not only contrary to the treaty, but the duties of gratitude and honor, of which nothing is mentioned. This young negotiator seems to value himself on having obtained from me a copy of the treaty. I gave it him freely, at his request, it being not so much a secret as he imagined, having been printed, first in all the American papers soon after it was made, then at London in Almon’s Remembrancer, which I wonder he did not know; and afterward in a collection of the American Constitutions, published by order of Congress. As such imperfect accounts of our conversations find their way into the English papers, I must speak to this gentleman of its impropriety.

[Franklin went to Versailles and laid before Vergennes all the letters and detailed to him the substance of all the conversations with both Grenville and Oswald, and they agreed on the necessity of acting in Concert and preventing any separation of the countries concerned.]

Saturday, the 15th June. . . . Mr. Grenville came, and acquainted me with the return of his courier, and that he had brought the full powers. . . . That the instrument was in the same terms with the former, except that, after the power to treat with the King of France, or his ministers, there was an addition of words importing a power to treat with the ministers of any other Prince or State whom it might concern. . . . Mr. Grenville then said to me, he hoped all difficulties were now removed, and that we might proceed in the good work. I asked him if the Enabling Bill was passed? He said, no. It had passed the Commons, and had been committed in the House of Lords, but was not yet completed. [He assured Franklin that it would be done before Parliament was prorogued.] I then observed to him that, though we Americans considered ourselves as a distinct independent power, or State, yet as the British government had always hitherto affected to consider us only as rebellious subjects, and as the Enabling Act was not yet passed, I did not think it could be fairly supposed, that his court intended by the general words, any other Prince or State, to include a people whom they did not allow to be a state; and that therefore I doubted the sufficiency of his power as to treating with America, though it might be good as to Spain and Holland. He replied that he himself had no doubt of the sufficiency of his power, and was willing to act upon it. I then desired to have a copy of the power, which he accordingly promised me.

He would have entered into conversation on the topic of reconciliation, but I chose still to wave it, till I should find the negotiation more certainly commenced; and I showed him the London paper containing the article above transcribed, that he might see how our conversations were misrepresented, and how hazardous it must be for me to make any propositions of the kind at present. He seemed to treat the newspaper lightly, as of no consequence; but I observed that, before he had finished the reading of the article, he turned to the beginning of the paper to see the date, which made me suspect that he doubted whether it might not have taken its rise from some of his letters. . . .

Monday, the 17th. . . . I find myself in some perplexity with regard to these two negotiators. Mr. Oswald appears to have been the choice of Lord Shelburne, Mr. Grenville that of Mr. Secretary Fox. Lord Shelburne is said to have lately acquired much of the King’s confidence. Mr. Fox calls himself the minister of the people, and it is certain his popularity is lately much increased. Lord Shelburne seems to wish to have the management of the treaty; Mr. Fox seems to think it in his department. I hear that the understanding between these ministers is not quite perfect. Mr. Grenville is clever, and seems to feel reason as readily as Mr. Oswald, though not so ready to own it. Mr. Oswald appears quite plain and sincere; I sometimes a little doubt Mr. Grenville. Mr. Oswald, an old man, seems now to have no desire but that of being useful in doing good. Mr. Grenville, a young man, naturally desirous of acquiring reputation, seems to aim at that of being an able negotiator. Oswald does not solicit to have any share in the business but, submitting the matter to Lord Shelburne and me, expresses only his willingness to serve, if we think he may be useful, and is equally willing to be excused, if we judge there is no occasion for him. Grenville seems to think the whole negotiation committed to him, and to have no idea of Mr. Oswald’s being concerned in it, and is therefore willing to extend the expressions in his commission, so as to make them comprehend America, and this beyond what I think they will bear. I imagine we might, however, go on very well with either of them, though I should rather prefer Oswald; but I apprehend difficulties if they are both employed, especially if there is any misunderstanding between their principals. I must, however, write to Lord Shelburne, proposing something in consequence of his offer of vesting Mr. Oswald with any commission, which that gentleman and I should think proper.

[Franklin was taken sick the next day and on June 23d Jay arrived. On June 27th Franklin gave Oswald the following letter concerning his appointment as a commissioner]:

PASSY, June 27, 1782.

To Richard Oswald:

SIR: The opinion I have of your candor, probity, and good understanding, and good will to both countries, made me hope you would have been vested with the character of plenipotentiary to treat with those from America.

[He then repeats the objections given above to the power assigned to Grenville.]

I cannot but hope that it is still intended to vest you with the character above mentioned, respecting the treaty with America, either separately or in conjunction with Mr. Grenville, as to the wisdom of your ministers may seem best. . . .

Sunday, July 1st, Mr. Grenville called on me. [Here the journal abruptly ends.]

1 The letter dated May 1st began: "Though Mr. Oswald will, no doubt, have informed you of the nature of Mr. Grenville’s commission," etc.


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Chicago: A. H. Smyth, ed., "1. The Writings of Benjamin Franklin," Source Problems in English History in Source Problems in English History, ed. Albert Beebe White and Wallace Notestein (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1915), 293–314. Original Sources, accessed July 3, 2022,

MLA: . "1. The Writings of Benjamin Franklin." Source Problems in English History, edited by A. H. Smyth, Vol. VIII, in Source Problems in English History, edited by Albert Beebe White and Wallace Notestein, New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1915, pp. 293–314. Original Sources. 3 Jul. 2022.

Harvard: (ed.), '1. The Writings of Benjamin Franklin' in Source Problems in English History. cited in 1915, Source Problems in English History, ed. , Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, pp.293–314. Original Sources, retrieved 3 July 2022, from