The View From 1776

John Adams and John Jay

The PBS documentary on Abigail and John Adams is woefully inaccurate in one major aspect.

PBS’s two-hour documentary on the roles of Abigail and John Adams in the War of Independence and in the formation of the United States is recommendable to anyone interested in our nation’s history.

In one vital respect, however, it creates in passing an entirely erroneous impression.  The PBS documentary doesn’t even mention John Jay.  The narrator states that the treaty ending our War of Independence was negotiated and signed by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.

In fact, it was negotiated almost single-handedly by John Jay on terms so favorable to the United States that political protests in England led, shortly thereafter, to the fall of Lord Shelburne’s Ministry.

The Wikipedia’s summary of the 1783 treaty is the following:

“The Anglo-American settlement fixed the boundaries of the United States. In the Northeast the line extended from the source of the St. Croix River due north to the highlands separating the rivers flowing to the Atlantic from those draining into the St. Lawrence River, thence with the highlands to lat. 45?N, and then along the 45th parallel to the St. Lawrence. From there the northern boundary followed a line midway through contiguous rivers and lakes (especially the Great Lakes) to the northwest corner of the Lake of the Woods, thence ?due west? to the sources of the Mississippi (which were not then known).

“The Mississippi, south to lat. 31?N, was made the western boundary. On the south the line followed the 31st parallel E to the Chattahoochee River and its junction with the Flint River, then took a straight line to the mouth of the St. Marys River, and from there to the Atlantic. The navigation of the Mississippi was to be open to the citizens of both nations.

“Another section of the treaty granted Americans fishing rights off Newfoundland and the privilege of curing fish in the uninhabited parts of Labrador, Nova Scotia, and the Magdalen Islands, but not in Newfoundland. A third part provided that creditors of either side would be unimpeded in the collection of lawful debts. In a fourth section the American government promised to recommend to the several states that they repeal their confiscation laws, provide for restitution of confiscated property to British subjects, and take no further proceedings against the Loyalists.”

Benjamin Franklin’s views regarding the nature of the treaty to end the war would have been disastrous to the United States.  John Adams understood that, but, as the PBS documentary makes clear, he was not well suited by personality for diplomatic negotiation.

Franklin, having lived in Paris for many years, was a thorough Francophile.  His counsel was to place the United States’s fate in the hands of the French Foreign Minister Vergennes.  His partiality to France arose from France’s military support that enabled General Washington to trap Lord Cornwallis’s armies at Yorktown and end the war.

What Franklin, in all his native shrewdness, failed to grasp was that France’s aid was not for the purpose of supporting American Independence as such, but for the purpose of hitting back at England to redress France’s catastrophic losses in Canada and the West Indies during the earlier French and Indian War period.  Vergennes intended to make France the protector of the United States and use that position gradually to make the United States into an outpost of the French Empire.

Franklin failed to see this, but Jay focused upon it like a laser beam.  Moreover, Jay understood that the United States’s natural ally was Great Britain, the world’s greatest naval power, not Continental, land-army France.  Our historical trade had been via Great Britain, financed by London bankers.  As our shipping and trading expanded around the world, it would become vital to have England as our ally.

Seeing all of this clearly, as Franklin did not, Jay immediately opened direct discussions with his English counterpart in Paris and worked out the details of the treaty.  Fortunately, Franklin could do little to interfere, because of his illness at the time.

Jay has rightly been called the least appreciated of our Founding Fathers. 

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