Source Problems in English History


World History


Beginning of Peace Negotiations With America

Beginning of Peace Negotiations With America


THE Seven Years’ War was a long reach forward in the history of English expansion. If English politicians and diplomats failed to hold for England all the winnings of her warriors, the Peace of Paris, nevertheless, gave the British Empire a secure place in the sun. She received nearly all the French possessions in America except Louisiana (including the city of New Orleans and the isle of Orleans upon which it stands), she gained Florida from Spain, she got some of the French islands in the West Indies, and she established her position more firmly in India. It was Turgot, the French statesman, who then prophesied that the French loss of Canada would eventually cost England the loss of her American colonies. Whatever partial truth there was in this, from the Peace of Paris on, tendencies were at work which were to drive the thirteen colonies out of the English fold. In 1775 the disaffection came to a head and in the next year the Declaration of Independence committed the colonies to the policy of complete separation. George III., who with the help of Lord North was attempting in England to substitute for the system of cabinet and party government his personal rule through ministers, strove no less eagerly in the New World to coerce the colonies into submission to royal regulation and taxation. The narrow mind of the sovereign, intent upon exercising those prerogatives of the crown which the first two Georges had lost, was by instinct impatient of colonial aspiration and intolerant of colonial insolence. It was George III. who forced the opposition in Parliament to speak for the Americans. The Whigs would have been utterly undiscerning had they not felt their community of interest with the colonists. Not even the outbreak and progress of the war stopped their voices. But in their sympathy for the Americans they were by no means united. The followers of Chatham, among whom, after their leader’s death, Shelburne was most prominently concerned in American policies, never grew weary of asserting that America had been goaded into the war. She could, they said, be won back by proper concessions. Another faction, of which Rockingham was the leader and Charles Fox the daring spokesman, declared that America deserved and would ultimately win independence. Meantime, in 1778, France, eager to avenge the Seven Years’ War and willing to see England lose her best possession, had allied herself with the United States, each nation promising not to make peace without the consent of the other, and not before the acknowledgment of American independence. Spain soon followed France into the war, though not as an ally of the United States, and Holland was drawn in through English resentment of her policy of supplying naval and military stores to the enemies of England.

The news of Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown put an end to George III.’s plans for subduing the revolted colonies, and with the failure of those plans all his efforts to turn back the clock in England were without effect. The ejaculation attributed to Lord North, "O God! it’s all over!" was no over-statement. The factions of the Whig party came together, and the Commons by a majority of nineteen resolved to cease offensive warfare in America and to direct their energies against France, Spain, and Holland. It was high time. Early in 1782 England lost the island of Minorca and several of the West Indies. From the English point of view the next move was to induce America to forswear her French ally and accept a separate peace. Attempts in this direction had indeed already been made. Lord North had made use of David Hartley, an intimate friend of Franklin; and one Digges, who was a great deal of a rascal, but who claimed to represent Lord North, had interviewed Franklin in Paris and Adams in Holland. Neither of these attempts, nor a like one to seduce France from the support of America, availed to disturb the close relations existing between Franklin and the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vergennes. Had he wished to do so Franklin would not have dared to go back on the instructions to the American Commissioners for Peace, instructions which forbade negotiation without the known edge of the French Ministers. He was glad to live up to them and kept Vergennes informed of every move. The only effect of such efforts had been to rouse the resentment of Franklin, who was, in consequence, in no mood at all to listen to further negotiations of the kind. This the student should bear in mind.

On March 20, 1782, Lord North resigned, and the Rockingham Cabinet was formed from the two wings of the Whig party. The union was a marriage of convenience and was destined to prove a mésalliance. Charles Fox, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, was in favor of immediate and unconditional recognition of American independence. That such a recognition would throw the negotiations into his hands, since the United States would cease to be a colonial possession and would at once become a foreign nation, cannot be said to have been the determining motive of a man who had on many occasions wished success to the revolting colonies. Lord Shelburne, Secretary for Home Affairs, Ireland, and the Colonies, a personal and political opponent of Fox, had leaned, as a follower of Chatham, toward some scheme of federation between Great Britain and America, but was now coming around, reluctantly enough, to the possibility of separation. He thought independence might have to be granted, but only in return for important concessions. Meantime, so long as independence had not been given, he had, as Secretary of State for the Colonies, charge of the negotiations for peace. Seldom had English diplomacy been so confused with party politics.

In the summer of 1781, even before Yorktown, John Adams, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and Thomas Jefferson1 had been commissioned to make peace2 whenever the time should be ripe. For such a task Franklin was in a peculiarly good position. He represented America at the French Court, and was in the good books of both the Court and the people. He had, furthermore, the confidence of Vergennes. Before Franklin knew that Shelburne had joined the Rockingham Ministry, he had, on the strength of a former friendship and as the upshot of a call from Lord Cholmondeley, written Shelburne a letter in which he expressed the hope of a "general peace." It was natural that Shelburne, when he came into power, should return such a lead. With the knowledge of Rockingham and other members of the Cabinet he sent Richard Oswald, an elderly Scotch merchant who had been introduced to trim by Adam Smith, and who had large interests in America, to treat with the American representative in Paris. Oswald, who was an honest if somewhat simple-minded gentleman, was cordially received by Franklin and was presented by him to Vergennes.

The rest of the story the student will piece together from the source extracts which follow. It is a wise statement of Gardiner that no part of historical method is so fruitful as tracing the order of events in time. In no field of history is this so true as in diplomacy. The student can thread his way through the negotiations down to that point in June when the Cabinet through Shelburne empowered Oswald to treat with the American commissioners. Just at that time, when Fox announced his intention of resigning, Lord Rockingham died. Shelburne was asked to head the new Cabinet, and Fox, of course, refused to enter it. Thomas Grenville, who had been Fox’s appointee at Paris, was replaced by Lord Fitzherbert, and treaties of peace were concluded between England and the four nations with which she had been at war.


1. The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, collected and edited by A. H. Smyth [New York, 1906], Vol. VIII. [Two important letters written by Oswald and Shelburne have been taken from fared Sparks’s edition of Franklin’s works (Boston, 1840), Vol. IX.]

2. The Life of William, Earl of Shelburne, afterward first Marquess of Lansdowne. With Extracts from his Papers and Correspondence [London, 1876], Vol. III.

3. The Life and Times of Charles James Fox, by the Right Honorable Lord John Russell, M.P. [London, 1853], Vol. I.

4. The Autobiography and Political Correspondence of . . . the Duke of Grafton, edited by Sir W. R. Anson [London, 1898].

The works above mentioned include several kinds of sources which may be classified under four headings.

a. Franklin’s Journal.

Franklin wrote this as a report to Robert Livingston, Secretary. of Foreign Affairs of the Congress of the United States, and he undoubtedly intended it for future publication. He was conscious of the posterity to whom he was speaking, and knew that every part of his narrative could be tested by other accounts. As a matter of fact, Oswald’s diary of events, which has been preserved in the Lans-downe MSS., agrees with Franklin’s Journal in almost every detail.

b. Letters from participants in the events.

These are to be found in the three works mentioned above under 1, 2, and 3. They tell the story at the time from the pens of men who took part, responsible and careful men who realized the meaning of words. Better evidence could hardly be asked for. These letters are from Charles James Fox, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in the Rockingham Ministry; William, Earl of Shelburne, Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Ireland, and the Colonies in the Rockingham Ministry; Thomas Grenville, English Minister Plenipotentiary to France; Richard Oswald, Shelburne’s representative in Paris for negotiation with Franklin, and later English Minister Plenipotentiary to treat with the American Commissioners; Benjamin Franklin, American Commissioner Plenipotentiary to France and Commissioner to treat for peace with England.

c. The Autobiography of the Duke of Grafton.

Grafton was Lord Privy Seal in the Rockingham Cabinet and iris Autobiography contains his recollections of what happened in the Cabinet. Because it was put together somewhat later and depends at least in part upon the accuracy of memory of an old man, it cannot be so fully trusted as letters written at the time. But a large part, including what is quoted, was based upon contemporary memoranda.

d. Minutes of Cabinet meetings.

No formal minutes of Cabinet meetings were ever kept. Fox’s notes of such sessions were purely for his own memory, and were probably put together after the sessions.


1. Write a consecutive narrative of the events concerning the negotiations from March 22 to July 1, 1782.

2. Upon what basis did Oswald indicate that Shelburne was willing to begin negotiations?

3. How much enlightenment did Franklin get from his first interview with Oswald?

4. Where does Oswald first show himself more honest than diplomatic?

5. Why should Franklin hesitate to give the Notes on Canada to Oswald? Is the reason he offers for regretting his step the only reason he may have had?

6. On what condition did Franklin give the Notes?

7. Who saw the Notes in England? Were they of such a nature as to have deserved consideration by the whole Cabinet?

8. Why did Shelburne not show the Notes to Rockingham? to Fox?

9. Did Fox and Grenville read too much official significance into the Notes?

10. What error in diplomatic courtesy did Grenville commit upon arriving in Paris?

11. With whom did the English Cabinet consider that Grenville was sent to confer? To whom did he consider himself sent?

12. How did Grenville’s first proposal to Vergennes compare with Oswald’s first suggestion to Franklin?

13. What diplomatic stand was Grenville in his first interview trying to force Vergennes into?

14. What progress had been made at the end of that interview?

15. Why was Oswald so uncommunicative on his second visit to Paris?

16. What part did the Notes about Canada play in Oswald’s second visit?

17. In what attitude of mind was Franklin toward suggestions for a separate peace with America? Why?

18. For what was Grenville in his first interview with Franklin trying to pave the way?

19. Was Franklin sincere in all his answers?

20. Did Grenville gain anything more from Franklin in this interview than Franklin tells us of in his Journal?

21. What misstatement did Grenville make concerning his commission? How was the statement received by Franklin and Vergennes?

22. Was there any reason for the form of Grenville’s commission?

23. Was Franklin satisfied with Grenville’s explanation?

24. What was Grenville’s motive in acquainting Franklin with one of his instructions? Was his action premature?

25. State the two points of view in the English Cabinet with regard to acknowledging American independence.

26. What was Franklin’s and Vergennes’s opinion of the English efforts to use the acknowledgment of American independence as part of the bargain?

27. Compare Franklin’s account of Grenville’s visit on June 1st with Grenville’s account.

28. Was Oswald in Paris secretly? Had Fox reason to know of his presence there or of his intention of being there?

29. What was Grenville’s explanation of Franklin’s failure to discuss the terms of peace with him on June 1st?

30. What explanation can be inferred from Franklin’s account of the conversation?

31. Do Oswald’s and Franklin’s accounts bear out the statement that Franklin was reserving his confidence for Oswald?

32. How do you explain Franklin’s refusal to discuss the terms of a treaty as he had promised to do? How did he explain it? How did Grenville?

33. When did Franklin learn that Oswald would be given a separate commission if Franklin so desired?

34. When and how did he act on that knowledge? Why not before? Does this throw any light on Grenville’s letter to Fox (June 4th)?

35. At whose instance was Oswald to be given a separate commission?

36. What suggestion did Grenville make to get the negotiation wholly into Fox’s hands? Would it have accomplished that result?

37. How would you answer the two questions in Fox’s letter to Grenville (June 10th) concerning possible charges against Shelburne?

38. Did Grenville discover "further proofs of duplicity" upon the part of Shelburne and Oswald?

39. What is the importance of the Enabling Act in reference to Franklin’s unwillingness to discuss terms?

40. What estimate did Franklin make of the two men, Grenville and Oswald?

41. What incident between June 3d and 15th might have affected Franklin’s feeling toward Grenville?

42. Was Grenville’s failure due to Franklin’s reticence? Shelburne’s duplicity? Oswald’s interference? the English Cabinet situation? or his own diplomatic errors?

1 Adams was in Holland trying to negotiate a treaty and to obtain a loan; Jay was in Spain on a similar mission; Jefferson did not get away; Laurens was a prisoner in England at the time the commission was given, but, though released, was unable to take much part in the negotiations. Franklin knew that he could count only on Adams and Jay, but did not know when they would be able to get to Paris.

2 Owing to the influence of the French representative in America, they had been instructed "to make the most candid and confidential communications upon all subjects to the ministers of our generous ally, the King of France; to undertake nothing in the negotiations for peace or truce without their knowledge and concurrence; and ultimately to govern yourselves by their advice and opinion." Such instructions were no hardship to Franklin, but his trust in the French Ministers was not fully shared by either Adams or Jay.


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Chicago: "Beginning of Peace Negotiations With America," Source Problems in English History in Source Problems in English History, ed. Albert Beebe White and Wallace Notestein (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1915), 281–292. Original Sources, accessed December 1, 2022,

MLA: . "Beginning of Peace Negotiations With America." Source Problems in English History, in Source Problems in English History, edited by Albert Beebe White and Wallace Notestein, New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1915, pp. 281–292. Original Sources. 1 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: , 'Beginning of Peace Negotiations With America' in Source Problems in English History. cited in 1915, Source Problems in English History, ed. , Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, pp.281–292. Original Sources, retrieved 1 December 2022, from