Eliga Gould is Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire and the author most recently of Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire.
When I teach the American Revolution, I often ask my students, when did the United States become independent? The conventional answer, of course, is the Fourth of July. Like most conventional answers, this one isn’t wrong. As the delegates who courageously approved Thomas Jefferson’s text knew, the Declaration of Independence was a crucial first step. Without it, the Continental soldiers under George Washington’s command were an outlaw band of rebels, and patriots who supported them were pirates, brigands, or worse. How many Americans were going to commit their blood and treasure to a dubious undertaking like that? As Congress also knew, however, declaring independence was not the same thing as being independent. For their experiment in self-government to succeed, Americans needed the approval of the “powers of the earth” whose ranks they intended to join.
On that summer day in July, as church bells announced Congress’s historic vote to people across Philadelphia, the power on everyone’s mind was France, Britain’s historic rival. Within days, Congress authorized John Adams to draw up a Model Treaty, essentially a list of conditions to guide the negotiations, and dispatched Benjamin Franklin to Paris. Adams eventually followed him, as did John Jay and Henry Laurens. In February 1778, the delegation pulled off one of the greatest diplomatic coups in history, concluding an alliance with Louis XVI that recognized the former colonies as independent states. With the stroke of a pen, the upstart republic gained the backing of one of Europe’s leading monarchies. When the news reached America, the relief was as palpable as the jubilation. Nowhere were the celebrations more joyous than at Valley Forge, where Washington’s ragged army was still in winter quarters. Congress’s gamble no longer seemed quite so desperate.
Even so, uncertain times lay ahead. Transformative though the French alliance was, Americans also needed the recognition of George III. Early on, the initiative for peace came from Britain. On two separate occasions, Congress received offers to negotiate, once during the summer of 1776 from the Howe brothers — commanders of the British army and navy in America — and again in 1778 from a commission headed by the Earl of Carlisle. Each time, the king’s terms included accepting continued membership in the British Empire, though with broader, more clearly defined rights. Each time, Congress refused. Only with Lord Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, followed several months later by the resignation of Lord North as prime minister, did negotiations begin in earnest. By the spring of 1782, most Britons accepted the inevitability of American independence.
In many classes, one of those two events — Yorktown or Lord North’s resignation — would probably be an acceptable answer to the question about when the United States became independent. There is just one problem. When Franklin, Adams, and Jay opened negotiations with their British counterparts in Paris, three questions remained unresolved. The first was whether George III really would let the colonies go. When British writers and politicians said they supported American independence, what they usually meant was granting the colonies legislative independence from Parliament while keeping them subject to the British crown. Before the union of 1707, Scotland had been independent in this sense, and Ireland still was. Crucially, William Petty, Earl of Shelburne, Lord North’s Dublin-born successor as prime minister, was one of the most forceful advocates for an “Irish” solution to the question of American independence. Although Shelburne eventually yielded, a less flexible negotiating partner might not have been so accommodating.
Britain had more success on the second question of where to situate the new international boundary. Depending on one’s perspective, Shelburne was either remarkably generous or remarkably devious, ceding millions of acres of western land to the thirteen states. Almost all of the land in question belonged to the Indians, though the Treaty of Paris made no mention of their rights. What Shelburne refused to yield was Canada and Britain’s other North American possessions, including Nova Scotia, East and West Florida, Bermuda and the Bahamas. In Adams’s Model Treaty, Congress had claimed all of British North America for the United States, while the Articles of Confederation named Quebec as the union’s fourteenth state. By keeping Canada for the crown and ceding Florida to Spain, Shelburne dashed these hopes, partitioning the continental space that Congress had hoped to occupy on its own with two other powers. Neither had reason to look favorably on its new neighbor. Both borders would be sources of conflict for decades to come.
The final question involved what, if any, compensation the United States owed Britons and Loyalists who had suffered because of the war. To his critics — a group that included Franklin’s Loyalist son William, who led the community of Loyal Refugees in London — Shelburne was much too lenient with Congress, accepting token reparations for the tens of thousands of men and women who had sacrificed everything they had for the king. Joining with hardliners in Parliament, the Loyalists returned the favor by helping drive the liberal Earl from office. Americans, however, found even Shelburne’s forgiving terms to be more than their new governments could bear. In 1783, Britain used the Loyalists’ plight to justify hanging onto Detroit and a string of other forts on the American side of the border with Canada. Meanwhile, the states’ failings under the Treaty of Paris gave nationalists like Adams an opening to call for a stronger union with a more effective central government. Although we don’t usually think of it this way, the Constitution was a significant part of the price that Americans paid for securing foreign recognition.
So when did the United States become independent? The answer is later than Americans usually think — and the quest for the international recognition that made the new republic independent affected its history every bit as much as the ideals in the Declaration. That too, as I tell my students, needs to be part of the story.
This essay accompanies “A Declaration in Draft,” the latest episode of Doing History: To the Revolution!, a series of the Ben Franklin’s World podcast. You can also find bonus material related to the Declaration of Independence from the OI Reader: download it now for iOS or Android.