Dramatic Moments in American Diplomacy/Chapter Three

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Dramatic Moments in American Diplomacy by Ralph W. Page
Chapter Three: Fighting For Life. The Birth of a Nation

The European Cabal Against Democracy—The United States Sends Out an All-American Team—Benjamin Franklin Plays Fair and Wins the Applause of His Opponents—John Jay Discovers a Plot and Throws His Instructions to the Winds—The Part Played by the Intercepted Dispatches of Marbois and the Secret Mission of Reyneval in American Independence—The Foundations of the Anglo-Saxon Solidarity.


In spite of the doctrine of blood and iron and the playful maxims of an all-conquering destiny so artfully and universally spread through the German Empire by its princes, evidence is not lacking to-day that the people of that empire may be distinguished from its rulers in their aims and purposes and ideas of the war now raging. In recognizing this distinction and in directing the fierce publicity of his open diplomacy toward the people over the heads of the Kaiser's star chamber, Woodrow Wilson is putting in practice a diplomatic precedent which is perhaps the greatest single step yet taken toward the liberation of the world from the scourge of national feuds and dynastic wars.

But in making this distinction between rulers and the human beings ruled, in the frank directness of his negotiations, and in the momentous decision by which he took the action which for the first time in history caused the raising of the Stars and Stripes in St. Paul's, London—in these actions for which he will be famous for all time, he was still only following the principles and the train of events laid by Benjamin Franklin in Paris, a long time ago.

Nurtured by the aggressive spirit of our public men from the Civil War to the Spanish War and by politicians anxious about the Irish and the German vote—as well as by a false sense that patriotism demanded an hereditary and always-vanquished enemy—an uninformed public has held the belief that the victory of Yorktown ended the horrid British rule in America and set this country free fully equipped to sail a new and better sea. The exact facts of the matter are not quite so flattering to our pride, although they do in fact augur much better for our future and our civilization than does the popular version.

Yorktown fell before a combined American and French army in October, 1781. For the moment the military effort of the Hanoverian King in the thirteen Colonies had completely broken down. But even the most cursory view of the European situation at that date will show how far this event came short of settling the future of this country as a great independent liberal force in the world.

We were recognized at the time by two countries—France and Holland. The rest of the world under the rule of what we now consider despots, had not only no sympathy with us, but viewed this upstart republican government with the gravest possible distrust and concern. As far as they were concerned, they wished us ill, except in so far as a revolt in her colonies embarrassed Great Britain, of whose power they were jealous. And they left us strictly alone, turning our ambassadors from their doors with the utmost incivility and contempt.

In establishing peace and commerce, our standing in the world community, and our national boundaries—upon the last of which our entire future power depended—we were at the mercy of five foreign forces:

  1. The infinitesimal part of the French public that had any knowledge of or influence in Foreign affairs.
  2. King Louis XVI and his circle of advisors.
  3. The Spanish Court.
  4. The English throne.
  5. The voice of the English people.

To begin with, it is abundantly clear that in so far as the French people were concerned the United States had the most cordial, almost vehement support, based upon a sympathy with the struggling ideals of personal liberty and human emancipation which has been dear to the hearts of both peoples ever since and has become an international tradition of the most binding kind. The advertising of this attitude and its presentation to the citizens of France were largely due to the extraordinary perception and abilities of Franklin.

But as a plain matter of fact the French public had about as much to say concerning their foreign policy as had an Irishman with England's under Edward III. Not only had the public no say, but not even the vaguest idea of what it was. As an active force in the tremendous decision to be reached, they had no more influence than the rest of the populace of Continental Europe, whose prevailing conviction was that the inhabitants of North America were bright red and wore feathers.

Vergennes was at the helm for Louis XVI. His policy is now clear enough. He had entered the war and made an alliance with the United States solely to injure Great Britain. Since making his agreement with us he had made another with Spain—his true ally—which, as we shall see, was more dangerous to us than the Hessian forces of King George ever thought of being.

The Spanish Court was our deadly enemy, although at the moment fighting England under a secret treaty with France. And of course King George was beside himself with fury, resolved to crush the Colonies and with them English liberty.

Add to these circumstances the fact that in April, 1782, the English Admiral Rodney smashed the French naval power at Martinique, and that shortly after Lord Howe raised the siege of Gibraltar and ended the hopes of the Spaniards, and the difficulties of our peace commissioners become apparent.

These commissioners constituted a powerful team—probably the most powerful diplomatic trio ever sent forth into the world. They were Franklin, old, wise, and tolerant; John Jay, young, impatient, and daring, already a great master of English law and keen analytical thinking; and John Adams—well, an Adams, that is to say a genius, whose uncompromising, provincial, stubborn, and cantankerous methods still succeeded because of his monumental earnestness and patent honesty.

Primarily their instructions were to insist upon absolute independence, and to consult and take the advice of the French Court in all negotiations.

They met Mr. Richard Oswald, sent by the British, to Paris. To begin with, it all looked bright. It was almost a family party. Oswald was a gentleman—friendly, courteous, even sympathetic, reasonable to a degree, and a charming companion. But before they had gone very far it developed that he was authorized to treat with the "United Colonies." To be sure, he was to grant them independence. But John Jay would not listen to a word of it. He intended to be treated with as representing the United States, already independent.

So according to instructions he proceeded to Versailles to see the Secretary for Foreign Affairs to consult on this point. And his experience there showed him the exceedingly precarious position these infant United States were in:

"I observed to the Count that it would be descending from the ground of independence to treat under the description of colonies. He replied that a name signified little; that the King of Great Britain's styling himself the King of France was no obstacle to the King of France treating with him; that an acknowledgment of our independence, instead of preceding, must in the natural course of events be the effect of the treaty, and that it would not be reasonable to expect the effect before the cause."

Since, meantime, Oswald, the Englishman, as Jay says, "upon this, as upon every other occasion, behaved in a candid and proper manner," which is to say, seemed inclined to agree with the Americans, this position of the French whose help they counted upon, and whose advice they were ordered to follow, caused the greatest alarm. And this was increased a hundred fold by further developments.

For the Conde d'Aranda, a splendid nobleman from Arragon, ambassador of Spain, to whom France was primarily bound, condescended to allow John Jay to wait upon him. Jay's account is interesting, to show how the props were falling from beneath the American cause:

"He began the conference by various remarks on the general principles in which contracting parties should form treaties, on the magnanimity of his sovereign, and on his own disposition to disregard trifling considerations in great matters. Then opening Mitchell's large map of North America, he asked me what were our boundaries. I told him that the boundary between us and the Spanish Dominions was a line drawn through from the head of the Mississippi down the middle thereof. * * * He entered into a long discussion of our right to such an extent * * * and proposed to run a longitudinal line on the east side of the river * * * A few days afterward he sent over the same map with his proposed line marked on in red ink. It ran from near the confines of Georgia, but east of the Flint River to the confluence of the Kanawa with the Ohio and thence round the western shores of Lakes Erie and Huron, and thence around Lake Michigan to Lake Superior."

Added to this contention of the Spaniards was the amazing proposition coming from an ally, that the country above the Ohio, if not Spanish, should remain British.

Jay went over and left this map with Vergennes and told him that it would not do at all. The consequence was that Jay was invited to dinner at the palace, to talk it over with Reyneval, Vergennes's secretary. And he came out boiling with indignation, and teeming with suspicions. Reyneval had handed him a memorandum, of which this is the salient passage:

"If by the future treaty of peace, Spain preserves West Florida, she alone will be the sole proprietor of the course of the Mississippi from the thirty-first degree of latitude to the mouth of this river. Whatever may be the case with that part which is beyond this point to the north, the United States of America can have no pretentions to it, not being masters of either border to this river."

This meant that the United States was to be confined for ever to the Atlantic coast, and not only not become a power, but was never even to open the Mississippi basin. And that our allies were insisting on these terms, while supposed to be aiding our cause. And this was the more accentuated by the receipt of a document put into his hands on Sept. 10th by an agent of the British government.

This was a dispatch from Barbé Marbois, French chargé d'affaires at Philadelphia, to the Comte de Vergennes. Like most dispatches traversing the sea those days it had fallen prey to an English frigate, fished out of the sea where it had been thrown when in danger of capture. It revealed that the French were planning to prevent our purpose of sharing in the Newfoundland fisheries, "the cradle of sea-men."

What all this meant, is put quite plainly by Jay himself;

"They are interested in separating us from Great Britain, and on that point we may, I believe, depend on them; but it is not their interest that we should become a great and formidable people, and therefore they will not help us become so. It is not their interest that such a treaty should be formed between us and Britain as would produce cordiality and mutual confidence."

Apparently the American diplomats were checkmated, and the United States destined to be a Costa Rica. For not even a Fourth of July orator will contend that, single handed we could establish an empire in the face of France, Spain, and England.

What the American commissioners did, however, was simple enough. They went to Richard Oswald, and laid the matter frankly before him. And he agreed to send at once for new instructions to negotiate with a free and independent United States.

And then the plot thickened. These were hectic days for the Americans, two months from any instructions, with the destiny of not only America but the Anglo-Saxon and, as it now appears, perhaps of all the world in their hands, marooned in a babel of cabals and intrigues. On the 9th of September they received certain word that Reyneval was setting out for England in the greatest secrecy, and that the Conde d'Aranda had galloped out to Versailles in the greatest haste to confer with him before he left. No wonder it looked to John Jay as if the goose was to be cooked in London and carved by the three kings, with

America left to freeze outside the door.

He never had much patience with instructions. Like Napoleon, who tore up his letters from the National Council, and Dewey who cut his cables, John Jay when on the war-path decided things for himself. From that date he neglected entirely to consult with Vergennes about anything. On the contrary he called on Benjamin Vaughan, private secretary to Lord Shelburne, Prime Minister of England, and laid the plot before him, sending him post haste like a second D'Artagnan to London, to circumvent Reyneval, and prevent the coup.

The question naturally is: Why did he suppose that he could save his country by confiding in the enemy?

This was because of a fact which is at the very foundation of our government, the one fundamental basis of our entire history, and the keynote of the present alignment of the nations in the fight for liberty.

The fact was that the English people were a power not only apart from but in opposition to the King, and that this power was at that very moment arising in one of its periodic struggles for the destruction of royal prerogative and arbitrary rule. And that the Englishmen leading this battle realized that our War of Independence was the very backbone of their movement—that the American cause was their cause and the cause of freedom of peoples of the whole world.

Franklin's correspondence shows that he was in intimate and friendly relations with John Charles Fox, Lord Shelburne, Hartley, Oswald, Lord Chatham, Lord Rockingham, Conway, Adam Smith, the inheritors and champions of the Anglo-Saxon traditions and independence. And that so strong were these men that they openly said in the very halls of King George that "we heartily wish success to the Americans."

Richmond and Fox proclaimed their satisfaction over every British defeat in America. Walpole wrote:

"I rejoice that there is still a great continent of Englishmen who still remain free and independent, and who laugh at the impotent majorities of a prostitute parliament."

Burke and Chatham openly proclaimed their correspondence with Franklin and held every "British and Hessian" victory over America to be a victory over British freedom.

The American historian Willis Fletcher Johnson points out that "Many British officers refused to serve against America, preferring to resign their commissions. Among these were: the eldest son of Lord Chatham, who had begun a most promising military career; Admiral Keppel, Lieutenant-General Sir Jeffrey Amherst; General Conway, afterward a field marshal; Lord Frederick Cavendish; and the Earl of Effingham, who was commended for his act by the city corporations of London and Dublin in public addresses."

Wharton says:

"When the question is asked, why did not the British ministry arrest men of this class when corresponding with the American legation—a question often put by Hutchinson and other refugees in England—the answer, as elsewhere noticed, is, that they could not be arrested without arresting almost the whole Whig opposition."

The personal part played by the perfect confidence these men had in Franklin, and the reward our great ambassador reaped for his candid, open, and friendly attitude is best emphasized by the event. On February 22, 1782, Conway's famous address to the King resulted in a resolution in Parliament against further continuance of the war, and the fall of Lord North and the King's party. Lord Rockingham became Prime Minister; Charles James Fox, Foreign Minister, and Lord Shelburne, at whose house Franklin's messengers were accustomed to spend their time in England, Secretary for the Colonies, and master of the situation.

Now Shelburne regarded Franklin not only with the greatest confidence and esteem, but considered him the one great authority upon the whole movement. As a consequence, in order to open peace negotiations, he discarded the entire crooked set of current diplomatic rules and methods, and cast about to find an ambassador who would be personally satisfactory to the philosopher. He chose one of Franklin's personal friends, Richard Oswald. He might as well have chosen an American. Oswald's sympathy for our revolution can be judged by his furnishing the enormous bail of $250,000 for Henry Laurens, an American envoy who had been thrown into the Tower of London. The spirit of this negotiation, a magnificent precedent of fair dealing between peoples, can be shown by Shelburne's letter to Franklin. It not only shows the purpose of this new party in power to emancipate the Americans, but the unparalleled confidence they had in Franklin.

"Your letter discovering the same disposition, has made me send to you Mr. Oswald. I have had a longer acquaintance with him than I even had the pleasure to have with you. I believe him an honest man and, after consulting some of our common friends, I have thought him the fittest for the purpose. He is a pacifical man and conversant in these negotiations, which are most interesting to mankind. * * * He is fully appraised of my mind, and you may give full credit to everything he assures you of. At the same time, if any other channel occurs to you, I am ready to embrace it. I wish to retain the same simplicity and good faith which existed between us in transactions of less importance."

Of course, the truth of the matter was that King George in his battle for autocratic power had been even worse beaten in England than in America, and that Franklin and Jay were not dealing with enemies at all. Shelburne's inclination, as well as far-sighted policy, was to create as powerful an independent country as possible, founded upon the same liberal ideals of government and conscience as his own, and knit as firmly to the old English stock as inheritance and language, tradition, religion, literature and commerce, laws, manners and similar conceptions of truth, justice, and liberty could knit them.

This was his own statement, and this was the outcome. Independence was acknowledged, the treaty was signed without knowledge of the French Court, and we were given all we demanded. The wisdom of this decision was demonstrated not long ago when the first flotilla of American destroyers cleared for action and joined the British patrol in the Irish Sea.