Treaty of Paris Period (1783-87): The Bridge Between the Revolution and the Constitution

The National CONTINENTAL CONGRESS Historical Society

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The Annapolis Era of the American Evolution

The Revolutionary War officially ended when the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783 by British parliamentarian David Hartley and three American “presidents”: John Adams, minister to France at the time who would go on to be the 2nd President of the United States after the Constitution was written; Benjamin Franklin, the future President of Pennsylvania (1785-88), accompanied by his grandson William Franklin Temple; and John Jay, who had served as the 6th President of the Continental Congress from Dec. 10, 1778 to September 28, 1779.

 

Presidents before George Washington? Most people are not aware that there were 14 men who served 16 terms as President of Congress before Washington became the first independent executive. Jay’s successor, Samuel Huntington, was the President of Congress when the Articles of Confederation were ratified; thus, many in Connecticut—especially the late State Senator Bill Stanley—considered him to be America’s “first” president of the United States. Huntington’s health issues forced him to resign; the length of his term was finished by Thomas McKean of Delaware, who was President of Congress when Cornwallis and the British surrendered to General George Washington. John Hanson of Maryland was the first President of Congress elected to a one-year term as specified under the ratified Articles of Confederation; therefore, many in Maryland claim that Hanson is the "first" president of the United States. Because Adams did not speak French, Elias Boudinot—Hanson’s successor—sent Jay and Franklin to negotiate with the British at the insistence of France, where Adams’ ministerial appointment was not recognized. Jay’s presence insured that the delegation sent by President Boudinot would be treated with respect because Jay was the most recent former president still healthy and active at the national level, since by September of 1783 Huntington was still quite sick, although he would recover and later serve as  Governor of Connecticut; McKean was concurrently serving as Delaware’s Chief Justice when he was elected to serve what would have been the rest of Huntington’s term and had gone back to that position full-time; and the retired Hanson would be near death by the time the Treaty of Paris was signed. Boudinot, however, would not be the president to ratify the Treaty to make American independence official; that honor would fall to Thomas Mifflin, who was president when the Congress met in Annapolis from 1783-84. After serving as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Mifflin would go on to become Vice President of Pennsylvania under Benjamin Franklin, President of Pennsylvania in 1788 and the first Governor of Pennsylvania in 1790 after the Constitution went into effect.

 

Thomas Mifflin and the 1783-86 “Annapolis Era” represent the most significant events between the end of the Revolutionary War and the Constitutional Convention. The ratification of the Treaty of Paris was by no means a foregone conclusion; it stipulated that the United States would honor its debts to Great Britain at a time when it was broke from the war; that the newly independent nation would recognize maritime boundaries with the other British colonies in North America, despite the stated invitation to Canada in the Articles of Confederation to join the United States; it prevented future confiscation of property in the U.S. that once belonged to Loyalists who had fled to Canada; it prevented the seizure of all British property in the United States, including slaves; it called for all territories captured by the United States to be returned without compensation; and it provided for a strict 6-month period to be ratified at a time when traveling to conduct meetings was problematic and exchanging written correspondence was a time-consuming process. Non-ratification could mean the re-initiation of hostilities, a real fear for soldiers like George Washington, who would not resign from the Army for almost another four months, until ratification was assured.

 

When the time finally came for Washington to resign, it was quite a dramatic affair. Ratification of the Treaty of Paris meant the formal end of the entire Revolutionary period, and with it the transformation of Congress from a war council to a full-time governing body. History books are full of stories profiling battlefield heroes who took control of a new nation after the fight for freedom had ended. Congress had gone through a series of mostly ineffectual leaders, despite some recognizable names—men like John Hancock and Henry Laurens, along with Jay, Huntington and Hanson. Even Thomas Mifflin was a former Brigadier General and then Quartermaster General under Washington who had served on the original Continental Congress in 1774. The Articles of Confederation did not create an executive branch, let alone a solitary figure with any significant power—the national government began as essentially a small, weak parliament. When Washington traveled to Annapolis to resign from the military, Congress was not entirely sure how he would react to the sight of Mifflin, who had once criticized his leadership of the war effort as early as 1777 (the so-called “Conway Cabal”, the first of General Horatio Gates’ bids to replace Washington as commander-in-chief).  Nonetheless, on December 23, 1783 Washington resigned from the Army before President Mifflin and Congress in Annapolis, the first real transfer of leadership from the military to a civilian government in history. It set an example for a world soon in need of one with the impending French Revolution.

 

As Washington galloped home in time for Christmas, the falling snow symbolized the tremendous responsibility descending on Annapolis, a bustling, waterfront city that was about to become—if the Treaty could be ratified—the first peacetime capital of the United States. Congress moved quickly to ratify the Treaty; within three weeks—and after considerable difficulty achieving a required quorum—Mifflin signed fifteen separate copies of the Treaty of Paris Proclamation on January 14, 1784 in Annapolis, a new document that contained the re-written Treaty of Paris with a paragraph stating that nine states had approved it. One went to the King of England; one stayed with Congress, which was a traveling body at that time; and one went to each of the thirteen colonies. Only a handful of the Treaty of Paris Proclamations remain today; two fading copies are at the National Archives and the Library of Congress; one slightly tattered version is at the Maryland State Archives; and one pristine manuscript, with the signatures of both President Mifflin and Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson and the embossed seal of Congress clearly visible, is in private hands.

 

With independence a reality, Mifflin and the Congress concentrated on building a new nation. Mifflin authorized Thomas Jefferson, appointed to Congress in 1783, to author what would become the 1784 Land Ordinance that split the territory west of the Appalachian Mountains into slave and non-slave zones along a north-south line. Mifflin then appointed Thomas Jefferson as a minister to France on May 7 before the Congress left Annapolis. By November 1784 Congress had relocated to Trenton, New Jersey, yet Annapolis continued to play an important role in forming the United States. In March of 1785, Maryland sent a prominent delegation to a meeting at Mount Vernon: Thomas Stone, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who had rejoined the Congress in Annapolis while also serving in Maryland’s Senate; Samuel Chase of Annapolis, another signer of the Declaration whose brother, Jeremiah Chase, had voted to ratify the Treaty of Paris while simultaneously serving in Maryland’s Senate and the Congress while Mayor of Annapolis; and Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer. Waiting at George Washington’s home were Virginians George Mason and Alexander Henderson (James Madison and Edmund Randolph were also invited, but did not attend) to discuss maritime boundaries, water rights, fishing, and other commercial interests in the Potomac and Pocomoke Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, similar to the points of contention with Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris. The Mount Vernon Compact, as it came to be known, resolved those issues between two neighboring states by drawing on the experience of men with ties Annapolis and the negotiation and ratification process between the U.S. and Great Britain.

 

The success of the Mount Vernon Compact led to the appointment of twelve delegates from five states—Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia—to go to the September 11-14, 1786 Annapolis Convention to discuss the overall weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. Unable to agree on how to improve the Articles, the five states sent a summary of their findings to Congress and all thirteen states that called for another convention the following year in Philadelphia to be attended by all of the states. This time, Virginia’s Edmund Randolph (nephew of the first president of the Continental Congress, Peyton Randolph), George Mason and George Washington would join Maryland’s Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer and Daniel Carroll, who had signed the Articles of Confederation and whose cousin, Charles Carroll, was a third Maryland signer of the Declaration (William Paca was the fourth), to meet with 51 other men that included former Presidents of Congress Thomas Mifflin and Nathaniel Gorham and such notable figures as Roger Sherman, William Paterson, Benjamin Franklin and future presidents (along with Washington) James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

 

What had started as two states at Mount Vernon grew to five states in Annapolis and then to all of the states in Philadelphia, the most illustrious assembly of individuals ever convened in American history. Philadelphia rightly sought to honor their legacy by creating a state-of-the-art, interactive facility called the National Constitution Center, where the two-year convention can be studied, analyzed, experienced and commemorated throughout the year with festivals, seminars, special exhibits and live entertainment. It is been a phenomenal success and has revitalized the neighborhood across the Mall from Independence Hall. Boston and Philadelphia celebrate the beginning and the end of the independence process, but what about the middle—the peaceful transition? There is no national institution that focuses on the 1774-87 period, let alone the 1783-86 “Annapolis Era” that symbolizes the important role that Maryland played in our nation’s evolution: the signing of the Treaty of Paris and its ratification by Proclamation; the resignation of George Washington; the 1784 Land Ordinance; the appointments of Thomas Jefferson to France and the Maryland delegation to Mt. Vernon; and the 1786 Convention that paved the way to constitutional rebirth in Philadelphia. Without that middle period, the beginning and the end have no continuity, no consistency, no experience to draw from—no bridge for connection—and as a result, we are forgetting the legacies of the people who made that connection; the delegates of all the early Congresses, the 14 men who served as its president, the importance of the Treaty of Paris and its ratification by Proclamation, the early conferences on the ineffectual Articles of Confederation that led to the Constitution, and through those events the invaluable contributions Annapolis made to the new nation's foundation.

 

Bill Stanley had wanted to build such a place in Connecticut before he died, centered around Samuel Huntington, but Annapolis is the shining city in that period, and it is in Annapolis that the National Continental Congress Center should be built. It is time to honor the connection between bravery and greatness. Only by emphasizing the many struggles, and some important successes, of governing a newly independent nation as it began a peaceful transition can the complexities of how rapid growth could cause an emerging power to outgrow its first constitution be fully understood. We need to build a bridge between America’s early bravery and its eventual greatness.  The Constitutional Convention tells only one part; there are two parts, told by two cities, of one story: how the United States became AMERICA.

 

Mark Croatti is the Director of the Annapolis Continental Congress Society. Last fall, the ACCS hosted the 2012 Continental Congress Festival in Annapolis from Nov. 26-28 at Calvert House, sponsored by Bill Stanley’s Forgotten Founders, Inc. and many others. For more information on the Annapolis Continental Congress Society, the 2013 Continental Congress Festival and the creation of a National Continental Congress Center Founders' Association, see: www.annapolisccs.org