One our “Ideals of Independence” is that the Revolutionary War ended when Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown. Right? Well, kind of, sort of.
Technically, the war ended two years after Yorktown when the Treaty of Paris was signed. What’s the Treaty of Paris? And why does Yorktown get all the glory? Read on…
The Surrender at Yorktown
On October 19, 1781, the British Army under General Lord Cornwallis surrendered to the combined American and French forces. Yes, Cornwallis was absent from the surrender ceremony and sent his second-in-command to deliver his sword. (More on Cornwallis next week…)
The siege and surrender of Yorktown basically ended the military campaigns and land operations for the war in North America. The British would evacuate New York and head for Canada, taking many loyalists with them. Some of the guerrilla and frontier fighting would continue sporadically – remember it took time to communicate in those days. (Washington couldn’t send a text message to all colonels and chiefs telling them to stop fighting.)
The Treaty of Paris
The French tried to start negotiations for peace, but after too much politicking and dithering, the American representatives decided to thank the French for their efforts and communicate directly with the British representatives. Meeting in Paris, the representatives of the countries discussed the terms to officially end the war.
Representing America: Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Henry Laurens, and John Adams. Britain was represented at the negotiation table by David Hartley and Richard Oswald. (See next section for the terms.)
The Treaty of Paris was drafted on November 30, 1782, over a year after the surrender at Yorktown. The representatives signed it almost a year later on September 3, 1783, and sent it “home” for approval. Congress ratified the treaty on January 14, 1784, and both countries exchanged signed copies in Paris on May 12, 1784. Whew! It took a lot of time to communicate before telephones and email, huh?
Some European nations had declared war on Britain and sided with the Americans. Britain negotiated separate peace treaties with France, Spain and the Dutch Republic. These treaties, combined with the American/British document are collectively known as the Peace of Paris.
Here’s what the British and American agree to do and not to do by signing the Treaty of Paris:
- Britain recognized American as an independent and sovereign nation, and relinquished any claims to the former colonial property.
- The boundary lines between British and American territories in North American were established
- Americans got the right to fish off the coast of Newfoundland and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (important for the New England maritime industries)
- Debts that had been lawfully contracted would be paid…by both sides
- Congress would urge all states to return seized lands and property to loyalists who wanted to live in America
- The property of men who had supported Britain during the war could not be seized as punishment for their actions/lack of action during the conflict
- Prisoners of war were released, but would remain in America
- Britain and the U.S. were both given free access to the Mississippi River
- Territory captured by the Americans and not acquired by this treaty would be returned to Britain
- The treaty would be ratified within six months after signed by the representatives and go into immediate effect
Now you know what the Treaty of Paris is. Yes, Yorktown ended the land war in America and forced the British to seek terms of peace. But it was really the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783, that ended the conflict.