By Amanda A. Mathews, Adams Papers
“On Wednesday the third day of this Month, the American Ministers met the British Minister at his Lodgings at the Hôtel de York, and signed, sealed and delivered the Definitive Treaty of Peace between the United States of America and the King of Great Britain.” John Adams reported this news to the President of Congress on September 5, 1783 and congratulated Congress on the “Completion of the work of Peace.”
It was eight o’clock in the morning when John Adams along with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, met the British peace negotiator, David Hartley, at his residence in Paris and months of negotiations, first the previous year leading to the preliminary peace treaty, and then in earnest from April until the end of August culminated in this definitive treaty.
While this was no doubt a significant moment—after all, eight long years of war were officially ending with complete American independence—the signing was more of an anticlimax for Adams. His immediate feelings, as he revealed to Abigail the following day, were that as the definitive treaty was no more than “a Simple Repetition of the provisional Treaty,” they had “negotiated here, these Six Months for nothing.” Nevertheless, Adams understood that given the political realities of their position relative to Great Britain, “We could do no better Situated as We were.”
The key provisions of the Treaty of Paris guaranteed both nations access to the Mississippi River, defined the boundaries of the United States, called for the British surrender of all posts within U.S. territory, required payment of all debts contracted before the war, and an end to all retaliatory measures against loyalists and their property. Throughout John Adams’s term as minister to Great Britain in the 1780s, he and the British foreign secretary, the Marquis of Carmarthen, regularly discussed the actions each side saw as breaches of and a failure to fulfill the treaty—a debate that went unresolved until the signing of the Jay Treaty in 1794.
When editors at the Adams Papers Editorial Project are asked to name our favorite document in the immense collection that is the Adams Family Papers, John Adams’s copy of the Treaty of Paris, is certainly a top choice. This duplicate original in the Adams Papers is the only original not in a government archive. One can easily imagine that the legal- and legacy-minded John Adams was keen to retain a copy of this founding document over which he had so long toiled so far from his home for his posterity. Of particular interest are the seals—as there was no official seal for the American commissioners to use, each used whatever was convenient to him. See here for a full discussion of the Boylston family coat of arms, which Adams used as his seal on both the preliminary and definitive treaty and for more on Adams’s thoughts at the conclusion see the newly launched digital edition of Papers of John Adams, volume 15.
Image: First and last pages of the Definitive Peace Treaty between the United States and Great Britain (Treaty of Paris), September 3, 1783, Adams Family Papers.