previous next

Chapter 9:

Plan of peace.


for the northern campaign of 1779 two objects
Chap. IX.} 1779.
presented themselves to America: the capture of Fort Niagara, to be followed by that of Detroit; and the recovery of New York city. But either of these schemes would have required an army of thirty thousand men; while the fall of the currency, party divisions, and the want of a central power paralyzed every effort at a harmonious organization of the strength of all the states. Washington remained more than a month at Philadelphia in consultation with congress, and all agreed that the country must confine itself to a defensive campaign.1

Measures for the relief of the national treasury were postponed by congress from day to day, apparently from thoughtlessness, but really from conscious inability to devise a remedy; while it wasted time upon personal and party interests. Gates was more [205] busy than ever in whispers against Washington.

Chap. IX.} 1779.
Most men thought the war near its end; the skilfully speculative grew rich by the fluctuations in prices; and shocked a laborious and frugal people by their extravagant style of living. The use of irredeemable paper poisoned the relations of life, and affected contracts and debts, trusts and inheritances. Added to this, the British had succeeded in circulating counterfeit money so widely, that congress in January was compelled to recall two separate emis-
sions, each of five millions.

Even a defensive campaign was attended with difficulties. To leave the officers, by the depreciation of the currency, without subsistence, augured the reduction of the army to a shadow.2 Few of them were willing to remain on the existing establishment, and congress was averse to granting pensions to them or to their widows.

The rank and file were constantly decreasing in number, and not from the casualties of the service alone. Many would have the right to their discharge in the coming summer; more at the end of the year. To each of them who would agree to serve during the war, a bounty of two hundred dollars, besides land and clothing, was promised; while those who had in former years enlisted for the war received a gratuity of one hundred dollars. Yet all would have been in vain but for the character of the people. Among the emigrants, some mere needy adventurers joined the English standard; others of serious convictions, as well as the descendants of the early settlers of the country, formed the self-reliant, [206] invincible resource of the Americans. If Washington

Chap. IX.} 1779.
could not drive the British from New York, neither could England recover jurisdiction over a foot of land beyond the lines of her army.

Tardily in March, congress voted that the infantry

should consist of eighty battalions, of which eleven were assigned to Pennsylvania, as many to Virginia, and fifteen to Massachusetts.3 Not one state furnished its whole quota; the last-named more nearly than any other. In addition to the congressional bounty, New Jersey paid two hundred and fifty dollars to each of her recruits. Often in Massachusetts, sometimes in Virginia, levies were raised by draft.4

Four years of hard service and of reflection had ripened in Washington the conviction of the need of a national government. To other states than his native commonwealth he made appeals for the subordination of every selfish interest to the public good; so that, in the want of a central government, each of them might do its utmost for what he called ‘our common country, America,’ ‘our noble cause, the cause of mankind.’5 But to the men of Virginia he unbosomed himself more freely. His was the eloquence of a sincere, single-minded, and earnest man, whose words went to the heart from his love of truth and the intensity of his convictions. To one Virginia statesman he wrote: ‘Our affairs are now come to a crisis. Unanimity, disinterestedness, and perseverance in our national duty are the only means to avoid misfortunes.’ In a ‘letter sent by a private [207] hand,’ he drew the earnest thoughts of George

Chap. IX.} 1779.
Mason to the ruin that was coming upon the country from personal selfishness and provincial separatism in these words:

I view things very differently from what the people in general do, who seem to think the contest is at an end, and to make money and get places the only things now remaining to do. I have seen without despondency, even for a moment, the hours which America has styled her gloomy ones; but I have beheld no day, since the commencement of hostilities, that I have thought her liberties in such eminent danger as at present. Friends and foes seem now to combine to pull down the goodly fabric we have been raising at the expense of so much time, blood, and treasure; and unless the bodies politic will exert themselves to bring things back to first principles, correct abuses, and punish our internal foes, inevitable ruin must follow. Indeed, we seem to be verging so fast to destruction, that I am filled with sensations to which I have been a stranger till within these three months. Our enemies behold with exultation and joy how effectually we labor for their benefit; and from being in a state of absolute despair, and on the point of evacuating America, are now on tiptoe. Nothing, therefore, in my judgment can save us but a total reformation in our own conduct, or some decisive turn to affairs in Europe. The former, alas! to our shame be it spoken, is less likely to happen than the latter.

Were I to indulge my present feelings, and give a loose to that freedom of expression which my unreserved friendship for you would prompt me to, I should say a great deal on this subject. I cannot [208] refrain lamenting, however, in the most poignant

Chap. IX.} 1779.
terms, the fatal policy too prevalent in most of the states, of employing their ablest men at home in posts of honor and profit, till the great national interest is fixed upon a solid basis. To me it appears no unjust simile, to compare the affairs of this great continent to the mechanism of a clock, each state representing some one or other of the smaller parts of it, which they are endeavoring to put in fine order, without considering how useless and unavailing their labor is, unless the great wheel or spring which is to set the whole in motion is also well attended to and kept in good order. As it is a fact too notorious to be concealed, that congress is rent by party, no man who wishes well to the liberties of his country and desires to see its rights established can avoid crying out, Where are our men of abilities? Why do they not come forth to save their country? Let this voice, my dear sir, call upon you, Jefferson, and others. Do not, from a mistaken opinion, let our hitherto noble struggle end in ignominy. Believe me, when I tell you, there is danger of it. I shall be much mistaken if administration do not now, from the present state of our currency, dissensions, and other circumstances, push matters to the utmost extremity. Nothing will prevent it but the interposition of Spain, and their disappointed hope from Russia.

Washington to George Mason, Middlebrook, 27 March, 1779. Copied by me from Ms. draft in Washington's handwriting: printed from the papers of George Mason, in the Virginia Historical Register, v. 96. Marshall's Life of Washington, i. 291.

On the eighteenth of May he wrote to another

May 18.
friend: ‘I never was, and much less reason have I now to be, afraid of the enemy's arms; but I have [209] no scruples in declaring to you, that I have never yet
Chap. IX.} 1779.
seen the time in which our affairs, in my opinion, were at as low an ebb as at the present; and, without a speedy and capital change, we shall not be able to call out the resources of the country.’6

While Washington reasoned that the British ministers plainly intended to prosecute the war on American soil, and to make a permanent conquest of the south, congress avoided or delayed the expense of proper re-enforcements of its army,7 and lulled itself into the belief that hostilities were near their end. In this quiet it was confirmed by a proceeding of the French minister, who had been specially commanded to ascertain its ultimate demands, and to mould them into a form acceptable to Spain. Its answer to the British commissioners in 1778 implied a willingness to treat with Great Britain on her recognition of American independence. ‘It has but one course to take,’ wrote Vergennes before his treaty with Spain, ‘and that is to declare distinctly and roundly, that it will listen to no proposition, unless it has for its basis peace with France as well as with America.’ On the report of an able committee on which are found the names of Samuel Adams and Jay, congress, on the fourteenth of January, 1779, resolved

Jan. 14.
unanimously, ‘that as neither France nor these United States may of right, so they will not conclude either truce or peace with the common enemy, without the formal consent of their ally first obtained.’

The conditions on which it was most difficult for [210] the Americans to preserve moderation related to

Chap. IX.} 1779.
boundaries and to the fisheries. They were to take their place in the political world as an unknown power, of whose future influence both France and

Spain had misgivings. The latter longed to recover the Floridas: the United States had no traditional wish for their acquisition; and, from the military point of view, Washington preferred that Spain should possess the Floridas rather than Great Britain. Here no serious difference could arise. Spain wished to extend on the north to the Ohio, on the east to the Alleghanies; but the backwoodsmen were already in possession of the territory and it would have been easier to extirpate the game in the forests than to drive them from their homes.

Spain made the exclusive right to the navigation of the Mississippi the condition of her endurance of the United States; and it remained to be seen, whether they could be brought by their necessities to acquiesce in the demand. It was the wish of both France and Spain that the country north-west of the Ohio river should be guaranteed to Great Britain; but such a proposition could never gain a hearing in congress. France, renouncing for herself all pretensions to her old provinces, Canada and Nova Scotia, joined Spain in opposing every wish of the Americans to acquire them. In this congress acquiesced, though two states persisted in demanding their annexation.

With regard to the fisheries, of which the interruption formed one of the elements of the war, public law had not yet been settled. By the treaty of [211] Utrecht,8 France agreed not to fish within thirty

Chap. IX.} 1779.
leagues of the coast of Nova Scotia; and by that of Paris, not to fish within fifteen leagues of Cape Breton.9 Moreover, New England at the beginning of the war had by act of parliament been debarred from fishing on the banks of Newfoundland. What right of legislation respecting them would remain at the peace to the parliament of England? Were they free to the mariners of all nations? and what limit was set to the coast fisheries by the law of nature and of nations? ‘The fishery on the high seas,’ so Vergennes expounded the law of nations, ‘is as free as the sea itself, and it is superfluous to discuss the right of the Americans to it. But the coast fisheries belong of right to the proprietary of the coast. Therefore the fisheries on the coasts of Newfoundland, of Nova Scotia, of Canada, belong exclusively to the English; and the Americans have no pretension whatever to share in them.’10

But they had hitherto almost alone engaged in the fisheries on the coast of Nova Scotia and in the gulf of St. Lawrence; deeming themselves to have gained a right to them by exclusive and immemorial usage. Further, the New England men had planned and had alone furnished land forces for the first reduction of Cape Breton, and had assisted in the acquisition of Nova Scotia and Canada. The fisheries on their coasts seemed to them, therefore, a perpetual joint property. Against this Vergennes argued that the conquest had been made for the crown of Great [212] Britain; and that the New England men, on ceasing

Chap. IX.} 1779.
to be the subjects of that crown, lost all right in the coast fisheries.

The necessity of appeals to France for aid promoted obsequiousness to its wishes. He that accepts subsidies binds his own hands, and consents to play a secondary part. A needy government, reduced to expedients for getting money, loses some degree of its consideration.

To persuade congress to propitiate Spain by conceding all her demands, the French minister at Philadelphia sought interviews with its separate members and with its newly appointed committee on foreign affairs, which was composed of one from each state; and insisted with them on the relinquishment of the fisheries, and of the valley and navigation of the Mississippi. It was answered, that that valley was already colonized by men who would soon be received into the union as a state. He rejoined that personal considerations must give way to the general interests of the republic; that the king of Spain, if he engaged in the war, would have equal rights with the United States to acquire territories of the king of England; that the persistence in asserting a right to establishments on the Ohio and the Illinois, and at Natchez, would exhibit an unjust desire of conquest; that such an acquisition was absolutely foreign to the principles of the American alliance with France, and of the system of union between France and Spain, as well as inconsistent with the interests of the latter power; and he formally declared, ‘that his king would not prolong the war one single day to secure [213] to the United States the possessions which they

Chap. IX.} 1779.

‘Besides; the extent of their territory rendered already a good administration difficult: so enormous an increase would cause their immense empire to crumble under its own weight.’12 Gerard terminated his very long conversation by declaring the strongest desire, ‘that the United States might never be more than thirteen, unless Canada should one day be received as the fourteenth.’ The president of congress, still confiding in the triple alliance, avowed himself content with the boundary of the colonies at the breaking out of the revolution,13 and the French minister did not doubt of success in extorting the concessions required by Spain.

On the fifteenth of February, Gerard in a private

Feb. 15.
audience represented to congress that the price which Spain put upon her friendship was Pensacola and the exclusive navigation of the Mississippi;14 if her wishes were not complied with, Spain and England might make common cause against America.15

Two days after this private interview, congress re-

ferred the subject of the terms of peace to a special committee of five, composed of Gouverneur Morris, of New York; Burke, of North Carolina; Witherspoon, of New Jersey; Samuel Adams, of Massachusetts; and Smith, of Virginia. Of these, Samuel Adams demanded the most territory; while Morris would rather have had no increase than more lands at the south. [214]

On the twenty-third the committee reported their

Chap. IX.} 1779. Feb. 23.
opinion, that the king of Spain was disposed to enter into an alliance with the United States, and that consequently independence must be finally acknowledged by Great Britain. This being effected, they proposed as their ultimatum that their territory should extend from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, from the Floridas to Canada and Nova Scotia; that the right of fishing and curing fish on the banks and coasts of Newfoundland should belong equally to the United States, France, and Great Britain; and that the navigation of the Mississippi should be free to the United States down to their southern boundary, with the benefit of a free port below in the Spanish dominions.

Congress, in committee of the whole, on the nine-

March 19.
teenth of March, agreed substantially to the report on boundaries, yet with an option to adopt westward from Lake Ontario the parallel of the forty-fifth degree of latitude. The right to the fisheries was long under discussion, which ended with the vote that the common right of the United States to fish on the
coasts, bays, and banks of Nova Scotia, the banks of Newfoundland and gulf of St. Lawrence, the straits of Labrador and Belle Isle, should in no case be given up.16 On the twenty-fourth, ten states against Penn-
sylvania alone, New Hampshire and Connecticut being divided, refused to insert the right to navigate the Mississippi.17 On that subject the instructions were properly silent; for it was a question with Spain alone; Great Britain, according to the American [215] view, was to possess no territory on the Mississippi,
Chap. IX.} 1779.
from its source to its mouth.

On the same day, Gerry obtained a reconsideration of the article on the fisheries. The treaty of Utrecht divided those of Newfoundland between Great Britain and France, on the principle that each should have a monopoly of its own share.

Richard Henry Lee brought up the subject anew, and, avoiding a collision with the monopoly of France, he proposed that the right of fishing on the coasts and banks of North America should be reserved to the United States as fully as they enjoyed the same when subject to Great Britain. This substitute was carried by the vote of Pennsylvania and Delaware, with the four New England states.

But the state of New York, guided by Jay and Gouverneur Morris, altogether refused to insist on a right by treaty to fisheries; and Gouverneur Morris, on the eighth of May, calling to mind ‘the exhausted

May 8.
situation of the United States, the derangement of their finances, and the defect of their resources,’18 moved that the acknowledgment of independence should be the sole condition of peace. The motion was declared to be out of order by the votes of the four New England states, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, against the unanimous vote of New York, Maryland, and North Carolina; while Delaware, Virginia, and South Carolina were equally divided.

The French minister now intervened, and on the twenty-seventh of May congress went back

o its resolve, ‘that in no case, by any treaty of [216] peace, should the common right of fishing be given
Chap. IX.} 1779. June 3.

On the third of June, Gerry, who was from Marblehead, again appeared as the champion of the American right to the fisheries on banks or coasts, as exercised during their political connection with Great Britain. He was in part supported by Sherman;20 but New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island alone sustained a right to the fisheries on the coasts of British provinces; and, though Pennsylvania came to their aid, the ‘Gallican party,’ by a vote of seven states against the four, set aside the main question; so that congress refused even to stipulate for the ‘free and peaceable use and exercise of the common right of fishing on the banks of Newfoundland.’

In the preceding December the queen of France, after many years of an unfruitful marriage, gave birth to a daughter. On the fifteenth of June, con-

gress, congratulating the king of France on the birth of a princess, asked for ‘the portraits of himself and his royal consort, to be placed in their council chamber, that the representatives of these states might daily have before their eyes the first royal friends and patrons of their cause.’ This was not merely the language of adulation. The Americans felt the sincerest interest in the happiness of Louis the Sixteenth. An honest impulse of gratitude gave his name to the city which overlooks the falls of the Ohio; and, when in 1781 a son was born to him, Pennsylvania commemorated the event in the name of one of its counties. In later years, could the [217] voice of the United States have been heard, he and
Chap. IX.} 1779.
his wife and children would have been saved, and welcomed to their country as an asylum. On the same day, congress solicited supplies from France to the value of nearly three millions of dollars, to be paid for, with interest, after the peace.

On the seventeenth, performing a great day's work,

June 17.
it went through the remainder of the report of its committee. The independence or cession of Nova Scotia was waived; nor was the acquisition of the Bermudas to be mooted. A proposal to yield the right to trade with the East Indies was promptly thrown out. A clause stipulating not to engage in the slave-trade was rejected by a unanimous vote of twelve states, Georgia being absent; Gerry and Jay alone dissenting.

The committee proposed to bind the United States never to extend their dominion beyond the limits that might be fixed by the treaty of peace; but the article was set aside. Before the close of the day every question on the conditions of peace was decided; the ‘Gallicans’ congratulated themselves that the long struggle was ended in their favor; and Dickinson of Delaware, Gouverneur Morris of New York, and Marchant of Rhode Island, two of whom were of that party, were appointed to prepare the commission for the American minister who should be selected to negotiate a peace.

Suddenly, on the nineteenth of June, the content-

ment of the French minister and his friends was disturbed. Elbridge Gerry, of Massachusetts, evading a breach of the rules of congress by a change in form, moved resolutions, that the United States have a common [218] right with the English to the fisheries on the
Chap. IX.} 1779.
banks of Newfoundland, and the other fishing-banks and seas of North America. The demand was for no more than Vergennes confessed to belong to them by the law of nations; and Gerry insisted that unless the right received the guarantee of France, or the consent of Great Britain, the American minister should not sign any treaty of peace without first consulting congress. A most stormy and acrimonious debate ensued. The friends of France resisted the resolutions with energy and bitterness, as absurd and dangerous, sure to alienate Spain, and contrary to the general longing for peace. Four states declared peremptorily that, should such a system be adopted, they would secede from the confederation;21 and they read the sketch of their protest on the subject. Congress gave way in part, but by the votes of the four New England states and Pennsylvania against New York, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, with New Jersey, Delaware, and South Carolina divided, they affirmed the common right of the Americans to fish on the grand banks; and they asked for that right the guarantee of France in the form of an explanatory article of existing treaties.22

The French minister took the alarm, and sought an interview with the president of congress and two other members23 equally well disposed to his policy. Finding them inclined to yield to New England, he interposed that disunion from the side of New England was not to be feared, for its people carried their [219] love of independence even to delirium. He added:

Chap. IX.} 1779.
‘There would seem to be a wish to break the connection of France with Spain; but I think I can say that, if the Americans should have the audacity to force the king of France to choose between the two alliances, his decision would not be in favor of the United States; he will certainly not expose himself to consume the remaining resources of the kingdom for many years, only to secure an increase of fortune to a few shipmasters of New England. I shall greatly regret on account of the Americans, should Spain enter into war without a convention with them.’24

The interview lasted from eight o'clock in the evening till an hour after midnight; but the hearers of Gerard would not undertake to change the opinion of congress: and the result was, therefore, a new interview on the twelfth of July between him and

July 12.
that body in committee of the whole. Of the committee on foreign affairs, eight accepted the French policy. Jay, with other members, gained over votes from the ‘Anti-Gallican’ side; and, after long debates and many divisions, the question of the fisheries was reserved to find its place in a future treaty of commerce with Great Britain. The proposition to stipulate a right to them in the treaty of peace was indefinitely postponed by the votes of eight states against New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania; Georgia alone being absent.

The French minister desired to persuade congress to be willing to end the war by a truce, after the precedents of the Swiss cantons and the United [220] Netherlands. Burke, of North Carolina, seconded

Chap. IX.} 1779.
by Duane, of New York, wished no more than that independence should be tacitly acknowledged; but congress required that, previous to any treaty of peace, the independence of the United States should, on the part of Great Britain, be ‘assured.’ Further; Gerard wished America to bring about the accession of Spain to the alliance by trusting implicitly to the magnanimity of the Spanish king; otherwise, he said, ‘you will prevent his Catholic majesty from joining in our common cause, and from completing the intended triumvirate.’ But congress was not ready to give up the navigation and left bank of the Mississippi. It therefore escaped from an immediate decision by resolving to send a plenipotentiary of its own to Spain.

The minister to be chosen to negotiate a peace was, by a unanimous vote, directed to require ‘Great Britain to treat with the United States as sovereign, free, and independent,’25 and the independence was to be effectually confirmed by the treaty of peace. Nova Scotia was desired; but the minister might leave the north-eastern boundary ‘to be adjusted by commissioners after the peace.’ The guarantee of an equal common right to the fisheries was declared to be of the utmost importance, but was not made an ultimatum, except in the instructions for the treaty of commerce with England. At the same time the American minister at the court of France was instructed to concert with that powder a mutual guarantee of their rights in the fisheries as enjoyed before the war. [221] The plan for a treaty with Spain lingered a month

Chap. IX.} 1779. Sept. 17.
longer. On the seventeenth of September, congress offered to guarantee to his Catholic majesty the Floridas, if they should fall into his power, ‘provided always that the United States shall enjoy the free navigation of the Mississippi, into and from the sea.’26 The great financial distress of the states was also to be made known to his Catholic majesty, in the hope of a subsidy or a guarantee of a loan to the amount of five millions of dollars.27

On the twenty-sixth of September, congress pro-

ceeded to ballot for a minister to negotiate peace; John Adams being nominated by Laurens, of South Carolina, while Smith, of Virginia, proposed Jay, who was the candidate favored by the French minister.

On two ballots no election was made. A compromise reconciled the rivalry; Jay, on the twenty-seventh,

was elected envoy to Spain. The civil letter in which Vergennes bade farewell to John Adams on his retiring from Paris was read in congress in proof that he would be most acceptable to the French ministry; and, directly contrary to its wishes, he was chosen to negotiate the treaty of peace as well as an eventual treaty of commerce with Great Britain.

1 Writings of Washington, ed. Sparks, VI. 217.

2 Writings of Washington, ed. Sparks, VI. 168.

3 Journals of Congress, 9 March, 1779.

4 Writings of Washington, ed. Sparks, VI. 156.

5 Writings of Washington, ed. Sparks, VI. 211.

6 Writings of Washington, ed. Sparks, VI. 252, note.

7 Ibid., VI. 199.

8 Article XIII:, April 11, 1713.

9 Treaty of 10 Feb., 1763, article 5. Sept., 1779.

10 Vergennes to Luzerne, 25 Sept., 1779.

11 Gerard to Vergennes, 28 Jan., 1779.

12 Ibid.

13 Gerard to Vergennes, 28 Jan., 1779, and compare Ibid., 19 Sept., 1778.

14 Ibid., 17 Feb., 1779.

15 Ibid.

16 Secret Journals of Congress, II. 145.

17 Secret Journals of Congress, II. 148.

18 Secret Journals of Congress, II. 154.

19 Secret Journals of Congress, II. 161.

20 Secret Journals of Congress, II. 162.

21 Gerard to Vergennes, 14 July, 1779.

22 Secret Journals of Congress, II. 184.

23 Gerard to Vergennes, 14 July, 1779.

24 Gerard to Vergennes, 14 July, 1779.

25 Secret Journals, II. 225.

26 Secret Journals, II. 249.

27 Ibid., II. 263.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: