HistoryExtra Podcast

Brexit and American Independence

TOM: I suppose you can imagine a world where there's no deal on an American independence, and the British Army and Navy continues to occupy and hold the city of New York. That would have been a really serious problem for creating the United States.
That was Tom Cutterham describing the USS departure from the British Empire. You're listening to the History Extra podcast from BBC History Magazine. We’re the UK's best-selling history magazine, available in print and several digital formats all over the world. Find out more at https://www.historyextra.com/subscribe/, or look out for us in your digital newsstand or App Store.

ROB:  Hello, and welcome to the HistoryExtra Podcast. I'm Rob Attar, the editor of BBC History Magazine. Late last year we ran a piece in the magazine by the historian Dr Tom Cutterham of Birmingham University, in which he talked about how the United States negotiated its independence from the British Empire after the American Revolutionary War. Now with the Brexit negotiations leading the news agenda in Britain, we thought it would be a good time to revisit this topic and consider what, if anything, today's politicians and diplomats could learn from their British and American counterparts of 230 years ago. So I caught up with Tom just while back, to explore the parallels and differences between these two momentous negotiations.

ROB:  So Tom, first of all could you please just briefly set the scene of these Paris negotiations? Who were the negotiating parties and why were they there?

TOM:  Sure; the key thing to the scene is that the military conflict over North America has essentially come to a halt with the American victory at Yorktown at the end of 1781, and (UNCLEAR “have fooled”) Lord North's ministry in Britain, which creates an opening for peace negotiations to begin under the new government of Lord Shelburne. So there is a couple of British peace Commissioners in Paris - a guy called Richard Oswald and David Hartley; they're appointed by the Shelburne government. Then on the American side you've got most importantly Benjamin Franklin, who's been ambassador in France for some time, throughout most of the war; you've got John Jay, who's also a very senior American diplomat; and you've got John Adams who's kind of pulled in at the last minute, coming down from the Netherlands where he's been ambassador for a little while. So those are the much more famous figures now on the American side than the two Brits.

ROB:  What were the two sides hoping to achieve at the outset?

TOM:  Well, when negotiations actually began in kind of 1782 after this big American victory at Yorktown - and obviously the resignation of the British prime minister - Franklin was quite pushy at the beginning with his goals, including expecting the British to negotiate over the possibility of ceding Canada to the United States. Obviously early on in the War for Independence the Americans had unsuccessfully invaded Canada, so Franklin tried to put that on the table; he didn't get very far with it in the end. That was probably the most ambitious aim of the Americans, but in terms of the territorial settlement, they were still asking for quite a lot, really. They were asking of course for independence for the 13 colonies, but also for the grant, or the control, of territory to the west of those colonies; around the Appalachian Mountains up to the Mississippi River. So there's a territorial demand on the American side, with some more modern resonances - there's also quite a lot of negotiation over fishing rights, around the coast of Newfoundland and things like that. On the British side, the main items of concern - apart from trying to kind of reduce American territory and keep hold of Canada and things like that - the main items of concern are really what's going to happen to the loyalists. What's going to happen to the British citizens, British subjects, who were living in North America who are now kind of displaced by the war; who are refusing to become part of the United States. Many of them are already refugees in Canada, or they've taken refuge in Britain; what's going to happen to them, their land, their property, and also what's going to happen to debts and business relationships that predated the war between Americans and British citizens. Basically the question is, will American debtors continue to pay their debt to British subjects who are their creditors?

ROB:  Now, we're talking in the moment in light of the ongoing Brexit negotiations. What do you see as key similarities between the two situations, albeit 200 years apart?

TOM:  I was thinking about it earlier today. There are a surprising number of similarities really, if you're willing to suspend the two hundred years of difference. One of them is the weakness, in many ways, of both sides in the negotiation; but especially the side that's leaving, if you want, the existing organisation. Let's say that the British Empire is a little bit like the European Union, in some ways; the United States is attempting to leave that big political/trade/cultural block in some way, so they're a bit more like the situation Britain is in now. One of the things that's really difficult for them is that the three peace commissioners that I mentioned - Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, John Adams - they're not completely secure in their ability to represent the actual will of the American people. They've been appointed by Congress, which is a pretty ad-hoc representative body that draws membership from people appointed by the local governments of each of States. At no point is there really very much kind of direct popular representation - no one held a referendum about "How should we create a new government", "How should we declare independence", "Should we declare independence?", any of those things - and the actual state leadership, the state governments, the state assemblies in each of the thirteen new independent states don't necessarily agree with the policies of the central Congress; and they certainly don't necessarily agree with what the peace negotiators are actually doing and asking for. So they're in quite a delicate position, where they have to claim to the British that they do represent America; they represent what Americans want, and therefore once the treaty is negotiated it will have legitimacy, and it will have kind of legal force in the United States. But they have to spin those claims; they have to position themselves as able to fulfill the agreements that they make, that's one of the similarities that I think is interesting. The other thing that seems interestingly similar, is just how much the negotiation is really ongoing; and even the actual making of the treaty isn't an endpoint to the political difficulties that this enormous change creates. So even after the Treaty of Paris has actually been written, signed and agreed upon, there's still lots of ground to cover in terms of actually putting into place what's agreed; actually creating a new relationship between the United States and Britain. For example, the treaty says that the Brits are supposed to give up control of a variety of forts, up in the Northwest around the Great Lakes, on the American/Canadian border - a number of forts which are now within the territory that they've given over to the United States - but they maintained control of those forts; they keep British troops in those forts for years after the treaty’s actually officially been made. Partly they're doing that because they're saying, “We’ll fulfil our side of the treaty once you fulfill yours”; meaning once the American states actually make their citizens pay the debts that they owe to British subjects. You can make a treaty and you can say “We're going to do these things”, but actually enforcing them and making sure that each side lives up to the agreements that’s made is its own problem.

ROB:  In the negotiations nowadays, they've certainly become quite fractious between Britain and the EU. Did this level of hostility also occur between the American and British negotiators?

TOM:  I think there was less hostility really, in terms of kind of direct social interaction; in terms of “Are they laughing at each other behind their backs, are they trying to kind of generate a feeling of tension?”, those things seemed to me to have been less in the 18th century, partly because Benjamin Franklin and Richard Oswald were kind of old friends. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that all three of the of the American peace commissioners, in many ways, continued to see themselves as British people. They're all born British, they're all part of a continuing cultural world of the British empire; and they have lots of the same assumptions, lots of the same ideas of liberality, virtue and commercial rights and wrongs that the British side do. So in many ways they're on the same page, and they see the world quite similarly; so for example, when they're negotiating this question of “Will Americans pay their debts to the to the Brits, will Americans continue to confiscate land from accused loyalists even after the end of the war?”, John Adams says to the British negotiators, “Well, there's absolutely no way we’re going to dupe anyone; there's no way that we're going to do something unjust in our negotiations. Just because these are American citizens, doesn't mean we're going to allow them to get out of their they're justly made debts, so we're with you on that.” In some ways, that seems like negotiation in much better faith than the negotiation that is going on today.

ROB:  Another aspect of the negotiations today that's been in the news quite a lot recently is the prospect of a potential No-Deal Brexit. What would a failure to reach agreement in 1782 have looked like, and was that countenanced by the parties?

TOM:  Like I said, the military issue was in a place where fighting had basically stopped at this point; so we're not negotiating in the midst of ongoing fighting. What we do have is the British armies still in control of a couple of American cities, most notably New York - the main British occupation is is it the city of New York - so if they hadn't come to a deal, probably that occupation would have continued. I suppose you can imagine a world where there's no deal on an American independence, and the British Army and Navy continues to occupy and hold the city of New York; that would have been a really serious problem for creating the United States - because it's a key commercial port, obviously - but also because it's right in the middle of the colonies, it divides New England from not only Pennsylvania, but from the South. It would have made it much harder to form a Union that brought together the whole continent. Obviously it's difficult to look back and imagine how they could have not come to an agreement at some point, partly because the British were quite a lot of pressure to deal with the American situation; to get a deal, so that they could go on and sort out the kind of larger global war that they were involved in with France and Spain. In some ways, the Americans were a little bit of a distraction from the much larger ongoing conflict with the French and Spanish empires.



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