We Shouldn't Forget to Celebrate the Treaty of Paris

Mr. Fleming is the author of The Perils of Peace, America’s Struggle To Survive after Yorktown.   A member of HNN's board of directors, he is also the senior scholar at the American  Revolution Center at Valley Forge.  

     Two hundred and twenty five years ago, on  September 3, 1783, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and John Adams went to the Hotel D’Yorke in Paris and signed a world-transforming agreement with the British diplomat, David Hartley.  The document formally and finally ended the eight years of warfare with Great Britain that we call the American Revolution and established the United States of America as a nation.

     A marvelous  contemporary celebration of this landmark event is on display through October 19 at the Pennsylania Academy of Fine Arts.  The show is a collaboration between the academy and the American Revolution Center at Valley Forge. Using dramatic paintings of Washington, Lafayette, George III and other leaders and eye-catching displays of weapons and original manuscripts, the exhibition reminds us that in spite of all the troubles assailing us, the America Revolution remains a powerful remedy for a nation’s shaken morale.

    The Treaty of Paris ended two years of  menacing uncertainty that followed the American victory at Yorktown in1781.  Far from ending the war, Yorktown left the United States bankrupt and deeply divided about its future. The Continental Congress, which met daily in the Pennsylvania State House  (now Independence Hall) owed millions of dollars in back pay and pensions to George Washington’s soldiers. The congressmen could not persuade the 13 states of the shaky union to give them the power to raise so much as a penny in taxes. Meanwhile, inflation ravaged the paper dollars that Congress issued by the millions until “not worth a Continental” became a wry synonym for worthlessness.

     In London, George  III dismissed Yorktown as a minor defeat and vowed  not to yield an acre of “my dominions”  in America. In New York a large well-equipped British army waited for the rebels to unravel.   Protestors stormed through the streets of Philadelphia shouting demands for a law banning Congress’s useless money. In March of 1783, the officers of the main American army, camped  at New Windsor, some forty miles north of  New York City, seriously considered  marching on Philadelphia to demand  their long promised cash from Congress at the points of  their bayonets. Only a desperate face to face plea by General Washington changed their minds.

      In June of 1783, several hundred disgruntled, drunken soldiers in the Philadelphia garrison surrounded the State House demanding cash from Congress-- or else. Whenever one of these well-lubricated mutineers saw a congressman peering out a State House window, he aimed his musket at him.  Panicking, the politicians fled Philadelphia for Princeton. Newspapers hooted derisively and made jokes about their cowardice.

      The Treaty of Paris rescued America from these embarrassments. It ratified with virtually no changes a “provisional” treaty that Ben Franklin and his fellow negotiators had signed in 1782.  Thanks to Ben’s canny diplomacy and General George Washington’s insistence on maintaining a regular army to “look the enemy in the face,” the once-despised rebels had become rulers of one of the largest nations in the world, a domain that extended from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River and from the border of Canada to the northern boundary of  Florida.

     In 1783 it took three months aboard a slow sailing vessel for the news of the treaty to reach Philadelphia. Elation swept the December streets. The woes of the present receded and people began remembering the Revolution’s glory days. That unforgettable first week in July, 1776, when Congress defiantly ratified Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence even though they knew a huge British fleet and army was about to attack New York.  The wild excitement of  the  last  week of  that tumultuous year, when  General Washington’s do or die victories at Trenton and Princeton  rescued Philadelphia from capture by a seemingly unbeatable  British army. The heroic patience of the suffering army at Valley Forge in the following year and the astonishing news that ended the ordeal on an incredible high note: Benjamin Franklin had negotiated an alliance with France!

      To salute the Treaty of Paris, the Pennsylvania Assembly voted for a celebration  worthy of the new nation’s capital.  The state’s leaders erected a triumphal arch that spanned Market Street between Sixth and Seventh Streets. On it were thirteen paintings by Charles Willson Peale.  Some honored General Washington, others the help America had received from France.   Still others  proclaimed the future prosperity of the United States. The arch became the centerpiece of a boisterous festival, with fireworks, oratory,  parading soldiers and martial music. 

         Perhaps it is not too late for a contemporary celebration of the Treaty in our current capital city. In December,  President Bush could arrange a reception at the White House at which the French ambassador would be the guest of honor. The President could give a moving speech about how deeply America appreciates and remembers the way France rescued our faltering rebellion with the equivalent of a billion modern dollars in financial aid, plus weapons, uniforms, ammunition, and finally a huge fleet and a trained army that made the victory at Yorktown possible.  Here is a chance to explain how the memory of this generosity has made America ready to fight for France’s freedom  twice in the 20th Century and to do the same thing for other peoples elsewhere.

         In 1783, Philadelphians  were not only hailing the victorious end of the seemingly interminable war. They were saluting the birth of a nation that embodied the ideas and ideals of the American Revolution, whose existence would change the world.  No one put it better than Philadelphia’s Benjamin Rush, who had signed the Declaration of Independence. “The American War is over,” he wrote. “But this is far from being the case with the American Revolution.  Nothing but the first act of the drama is closed.” Why don’t we tell each other and our friends and enemies everywhere that we still share this conviction with the men and women of 1783?

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