How to negotiate an exit

As Brexit talks rumble on, could Britain learn anything from Americans' attempts to extricate themselves from the British empire following the War of Independence? Tom Cutterham offers some suggestions...

A portrait of Benjamin Franklin. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
1

Take your sharpest political thinkers…

…whether they like each other or not

Fought from 1775, the American War of Independence saw the United States secure a decisive victory on the battlefield over its British foes. Yet, as US diplomats assembled in Paris in 1782 to hammer out a peace treaty with Britain, they were to discover that negotiating independence from the British empire required a whole different skillset.

Advertisement

The United States’ diplomats in Paris represented a cross-section of the new nation’s elite – and some of its greatest political minds. Henry Laurens, a rice planter and slave trader from South Carolina, was the richest of them. John Jay, a lawyer from New York, had been both president of Congress and ambassador to Spain. The most senior negotiators, though, were John Adams and Benjamin Franklin – two of the most famous Americans in Europe.

Early American patriotic flag. (Visions of America/UIG via Getty images)

Adams was the Massachusetts lawyer who led the political fight for independence back in 1776, then came to Europe to negotiate a vital loan from the Dutch. Franklin, now in his seventies, was not only an elder statesman but also a renowned inventor and scientist, a member of the ‘republic of letters’ that bound enlightened men together across oceans and national boundaries. He was also well-known as a lover of Parisian ladies – in his youth, he had written that older women made good mistresses “because they are so grateful”.

There was just one problem with this diplomatic dream team: they did not get on. Adams thought Franklin was a self-centred show-off, and for his part, Franklin found his colleague an insufferable prude. It was just as well they had a lot of work to do, because they certainly weren’t in Paris to spend time together.

2

Win the fashion war…

Your adversaries will only take you seriously if you look the part

Diplomats had to be respected, and that meant looking respectable – especially as the negotiations took place mostly in the sumptuous drawing rooms of Louis XVI’s famously fashionable Paris.

“The first thing to be done in Paris,” wrote Adams in his diary when he arrived, “is always to send for a tailor… for this nation has established such a domination over the fashion, that neither clothes, wigs nor shoes made in any other place will do in Paris.” Indeed, he grumpily added, French dominance over fashion was a way to tax the rest of Europe – and they’d do the same to America too, given a chance.

A cartoon published by Benjamin Franklin c1770 urging the colonies to unite and resist British rule. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Franklin took a different tack. Instead of wearing all the latest French fashions, he dressed as a rustic frontiersman, making him look somewhat exotic and also playing on his lowly origins. A beaver-fur hat on the head of a noted scientist was an unexpected look – and it only boosted Franklin’s reputation for genius. Needless to say, Adams was not amused.

3

Look after number one

There’s no room for sentiment at the negotiating table

Without support from France and Spain, the United States would have had a much more difficult war. The money and naval power provided by Britain’s European rivals were crucial to achieving independence. But there were strings attached. According to the terms of this alliance, any peace talks were supposed to include all four parties. There was to be no agreement unless France and Spain were happy too.

In 1782, when peace was finally on the cards, the Spanish and French war with Britain was very much ongoing – including a siege of Gibraltar by Spanish forces. A quick deal with the United States would allow Britain to focus on the most pressing threats to their interests, and they were willing to make big concessions to get one.

Sensing an opportunity, the Americans broke the agreement with their allies and went into head-to-head negotiations. That left the French foreign minister, Charles de Vergennes, picking up the pieces. And, after three-and-a-half years under siege, Gibraltar stayed in British hands.

A depiction of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, 4 July, 1776, from a painting by John Trumbull. The men standing are (l to r) John Adams, Roger Sherman Robert R. Livingston, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

4

Make outrageous demands

… because there’s every chance the enemy will meet you halfway

The Americans were in a strong position when negotiations began. At Yorktown in October 1781, George Washington’s Continental Army – with plenty of French help – had captured the main British force under Lord Charles Cornwallis. That was a killer blow to the British campaign on the American mainland, and the US negotiators intended to take advantage of it. That was the background to Franklin’s extraordinary opening offer: give us Canada, and we will give you peace.

That wasn’t going to fly. For one thing, Canada had already become a refuge for loyalists (and their slaves) leaving the United States. But Franklin and Adams did get much more out of the British than anyone expected at the start of the war. Most importantly, the king gave up all claims to territory west of the Appalachian Mountains. That gave the United States a potentially enormous national domain. It was, of course, inhabited by Native Americans – but from the negotiators’ point of view, that was an issue for another day.

Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull (Photo by Francis G. Mayer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

5

Find common ground

After all, both sides will have to rub along in the future

Many elements of the treaty negotiations were more about trade-offs than principles. Whose fishermen could use the waters off Newfoundland? Who would control the forts that dotted the Great Lakes region, which acted as trade posts as well as defensive positions? Where exactly would the borders of the new United States be drawn? On some things, however, questions of principle turned out to be more important than straightforward self-interest. While Franklin was intent on driving a hard bargain, his colleague Adams sought to emphasise the ideals both sides shared.

The biggest example of such shared principles was the question of debt. Many American citizens – including important men like Thomas Jefferson – owed large amounts to British subjects from before the war. Some had thought that independence would wipe out those debts. But in Adams’ view, the revolution had been fought for rights and justice, not so people could escape their obligations. All “private contracts” between individuals of both nations were to be “faithfully executed”, according to the text he negotiated. As Adams put it to Franklin by way of justification: “I had no intention of cheating anybody.”

6

Perfect the ‘show of strength’

The merest hint of weakness will put you on the back foot

One problem that faced the diplomats in Paris was this: exactly where did they get their right to negotiate on behalf of America? In truth, their authority was uncertain at best. The confederation that they represented was a weak alliance of separate states, each with its own constitution and its own ideas. Congress was more an administrative committee than a central government. But if a treaty ratified by Congress couldn’t bind the independent states, it had no value to the British. Adams and Franklin therefore had to hide their weakness. They had to convince the British that their government could actually follow agreements through.

President Abraham Lincoln visiting soldiers encamped at the Civil War battlefield of Antietam in Maryland, 1 October 1862. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

In a certain sense, this delicate position was also a useful one to be in. It suited the Americans that the terms of the treaty might not be fully enforced at home – that gave them some leeway for unpopular concessions. By saying that Congress would recommend a certain course of action to the states, they could make a promise that they knew would probably be broken.

“The earnest recommendation of Congress is equivalent to our king’s recommendation to parliament,” one British negotiator told his superiors. If he really thought that was true, he was much mistaken. The Americans had much less power in their own land than they claimed.

7

Don’t succumb to blind optimism

Unrealistic expectations could lead to your ruin

The document Adams and Franklin finally signed in September 1783 was a peace treaty. It formally ended the war between Britain and the United States, and led to the British evacuation of New York City, the empire’s last American stronghold.

What the treaty didn’t cover was something of crucial importance for the newly independent nation’s survival and development: trade. Americans on both sides of the Atlantic tended to act as if, as soon as they had peace, they would simply go back to their old habits of commerce with the British empire. At the same time, independence would open the United States to trade with other European nations too. Some predicted a new golden age of American commerce.

A painting depicting George Washington with British soldiers at Yorktown. In the final battle of the war at the siege of Yorktown, writes Jem Duducu, there were nearlyas many French soldiers and sailors as American rebels fighting for colonial independence. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Those predictions turned out to be wildly optimistic. Before the peace treaty was even signed, the pro-trade British prime minister Lord Shelburne was replaced by America’s old, wartime enemy, Lord North. He had no intention of letting the United States thrive. Instead, he cut off America’s crucial trade with Britain’s Caribbean colonies, plunging the new nation into an economic depression in 1784. The US also lost the protection that the empire had given it against the corsairs of north Africa, leading to hundreds of captured sailors, and an expensive set of bribes to get them back.

It was only the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars that allowed American trade to revive and thrive. With conflict destroying years of harvests, Europe needed American grain. That was something few could have predicted. Once again, the French saved the United States from ruin – a ruin almost brought about by the over-optimistic assumptions of diplomats and politicians.

Even in 1776, the revolutionaries imagined themselves as a future mighty empire. But their imagination almost ran away with them. By the mid-1780s, they had learned an important lesson. It is never easy to exit an empire.

Tom Cutterham is a lecturer in United States history at the University of Birmingham and the author of Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic (Princeton University Press, June 2017).

Advertisement

This article was first published in the Christmas 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine