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THE UNITED STATES
I. PRIOR TO THE ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION
In the debate in the Continental Congress, February 16, 1776, on the question of opening our ports to foreign commerce, a treaty with a foreign power was suggested. To this suggestion, George Wythe of Virginia replied that we might invite foreign powers to make treaties of commerce with us; but that before this step was taken it should be considered in what character we should treat. “As subjects of Great Britain ? as rebels? No, we must declare ourselves a free people.” He then moved that the colonies had a right to enter into alliances with foreign powers. An objector observed, “This is independence.". The expediency of entering into treaties was at various times considered in Congress, but to many there seemed to be an impropriety in seeking acknowledgment from a foreign power until we had " acknowledged ourselves" and taken a stand as an independent nation. In reply to those who, in the memorable debate on June 8 and 10, advocated the expediency of fixing terms of treaties to be proposed to foreign powers before declaring independence, it was urged “That
'Bancroft, History of the United States (author's last revision), vol. iv, p. 335.
Works of John Adams (C. F. Adams ed.), vol. ii, p. 485. : Ibid., vol. ii, p. 503. 19]
a declaration of independence alone could render it consistent with European delicacy for European powers to treat with us."; Franklin in writing, Dec. 19, 1775, at the request of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, to C. W. F. Dumas, a faithful and too long neglected friend to the American cause, asked him to sound the ambassadors of the European states at The Hague on their willingness to treat with us for the benefits of our commerce if, as it seemed likely to happen, “we should be obliged to break off all connection with Great Britain and declare ourselves an independent people.". So also in the instructions of March 3, 1776, Silas Deane was authorized to enquire of Count de Vergennes “whether if the Colonies should be forced to form themselves into an independent state, France would probably acknowledge them as such, receive their ambassadors, enter into any treaty or alliance with them, for commerce or defense or both? If so, on what principal conditions?" 3
On June 11, 1776, the day on which the committee was chosen to draft a declaration of independence, resolutions were passed providing for two committees—one to prepare a form of confederation, the other to prepare a plan of treaties to be proposed to foreign powers. On the following day the two committees were chosenJohn Dickinson, Benj. Franklin, John Adams, Benj. Harrison and Robert Morris on the latter.Closely associated then in origin are these three features of our national life-independence, union, and treaty-making.
'Jefferson ascribes without distinction the argument to “ J. Adams, Lee, Wythe, and others.” Writings (Ford ed.), vol. i, pp. 21, 22.
'Wharton's Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, vol. ii, p. 65. ' Ibid., p. 79. • Journals of Congress, (1800 ed.) vol. ii, pp. 197, 198.
The committee reported, July 18, a draft, in the handwriting of John Adams, detailing the articles of a treaty to be proposed to the King of France. While it would not be contended that a declaration of independence was an absolute prerequisite to overtures to foreign powers for the negotiation of treaties, yet the conclusion of a treaty on the basis of Adams's draft would naturally have presupposed such a declaration. The draft was not in the nature of a petition of a subject, dependent people struggling for independent existence; but rather, an offer of a nation already free and independent. That the conclusion of such a treaty might bring on war between France and Great Britian was thought probable; and it was proposed to stipulate that in such an event the United States should not assist the latter. As an expression of the natural interest of the new nation in the future disposition of territory on the North American continent, it was proposed further to stipulate that the L'nited States should have “the sole, exclusive, undivided, and perpetual possession" of all parts of the continent or islands closely adjacent, then or lately under the jurisdiction of Great Britain, as soon as they might be joined to the United States. Not only was the French king to grant reciprocal privileges in commerce, but he was to bind himself that under no pretense would he ever take possession of any of the territory above referred to. On August 27 the plan was discussed in the committee of the whole, slightly amended, and again referred to the committee, to which were now added R. H. Lee and James Wilson, with authority to prepare instructions to accompany it. The instructions were
"JSS. Continental Congress Papers, vol. xlvii, p. 129. * Journals of Congress, vol. ii, p. 311.
reported September 10, and, with the project, were adopted by Congress September 17.' As adopted the project differed little from the original draft. An article had been inserted providing that his Most Christian Majesty should retain the same fishing and other rights on the banks of Newfoundland to which he was entitled by virtue of the treaty of Paris. An article requiring additional pledges on his part against any claim to portions of the continent, or adjacent islands, then or lately under the jurisdiction of Great Britain, for assistance in reducing them, was stricken out. The instructions designated articles to be insisted upon, and those that might be waived, thus slightly compromising the independent character of the original plan, and exposing an ultimate object. “It is highly probable,” as one instruction reads, “that France means not to let the United States sink in the present contest. But as the difficulty of obtaining true accounts of our condition may cause an opinion to be entertained that we are able to support the war on our own strength and resources longer than, in fact, we can do, it will be proper for you to press for the immediate and explicit declaration of France in our favor, upon a suggestion that a reunion with Great Britian may be the consequence of delay.”. This idea of an alliance was even more clearly expressed in a clause inserted in the draft of the instructions, but later stricken out, which provided that if the Court of France could not be prevailed upon to engage in the war with Great Britain, the commissioners might agree, as a further inducement, that the United States would
Secret Journals, vol. ii, p. 6. 'The main draft of the instructions is in the handwriting of James Wilson. MSS. Cont. Cong. Papers, vol. xlvii, p. 169.
not make peace with Great Britian until France had gained possession of certain islands in the West Indies lately ceded to Great Britain.
On September 26 Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane and Thomas Jefferson were chosen commissioners to negotiate the treaty. Jefferson, being unable to serve, was, on October 22, replaced by Arthur Lee. The purpose of the mission, as expressed in the letters of credence, which had been prepared by a special committee, and adopted by Congress September 28, was to secure the beneficial results of a trade upon equal terms between the subjects of the two nations. Full power was given "to communicate, treat and conclude," the delegates of the several States in Congress assembled promising in good faith to ratify whatsoever the commissioners should transact in the premises.' On December 23 the commissioners addressed a communication to Vergennes requesting an audience, and in no instance is the dignity of the mission better sustained. “We beg leave," so it reads, "to acquaint your Excellency that we are appointed and fully empowered by the Congress of the United States of America to propose and negotiate a treaty of amity and commerce between France and the said States. The just and generous treatment their trading ships have received, by a free admission into the ports of this kingdom, with other considerations of respect, has induced the Congress to make this offer to France. We request an audience of your Excellency wherein we may have an opportunity of presenting our credentials, and we flatter ourselves that the propositions we are instructed to make are such as will not be found unacceptable.". It was
Secret Journals, vol. ii, pp. 31, 32, 35.