The Peacemakers: The Great Powers and American Independence
America may be accomplished in the arts and sciences of mankind, but peace-making has never been her forte. After both World Wars opportunities were lost and complexities created that could easily have been avoided; suspicion and naiveté both contributed their quota of mistakes, yet by Yalta the American government had over a century of diplomatic experience, time enough one might have thought to build up a formidable and confident diplomatic machine. The Founding Fathers, lacking all experience of the diplomatic complexities of Europe, did far better; but then they were guided by principle rather than the pursuit of principle and power, often a poisonous and dangerous mixture that needs a professional sense of historical processes to exploit with any hope of success. Wilson, Roosevelt, and their State Departments lacked historical nous. Fortunately the Founding Fathers did not require an historical sense, for their purpose was both limited and, as political situations go, pure. America wanted to be free, to decide its own fate, to rule itself by institutions of its own devising. For this Americans had fought and died in the fields, woods, and creeks against the most formidable military power the world then knew, a power which had only recently broken france and wrested from her a commercial empire that stretched across the world. To contemporaries it seemed absurd that the Americans might one day win; sooner or later British might must prevail. And America’s allies, France and Spain, cared little whether America remained free or not, once they had achieved their own aims to weaken Britain.
So the cards were stacked against Adams, Franklin, and Jay. To the French or Spaniards they were insignificant pawns in an elaborate diplomatic game that had been adroitly played for centuries; of use perhaps to check Britain or to wring concessions from her. Indeed, neither Spanish nor French ministers hid their contempt for the American representatives. Jay was kept waiting at Cadiz, and when he reached Madrid he was given no recognition at all, while Aranda and Floridablanca explored every hypothetical peace feeler put forward by spies, double agents, or diplomatic pirates out for a quick guinea: underworld types which abounded in Europe.
INDEED one of the most baffling aspects of the world into which Jay was plunged must have been the weird assortment of agents, official and unofficial, that flitted like bats across the diplomatic scene, from the devious Roman Catholic priest Thomas Hussey to the mysterious Montague Fox, whose extravagant forgeries laid the French and Spanish Chancelleries by the ears for months. What his purpose was is as mysterious as his name and Professor Morris has probably got as near to the truth about this strange efflorescence of the diplomatic underworld as one can ever get. Montague Fox, however, is typical of the slimy web of chicanery that entangled the diplomatic relationships of the great powers. A cog in the British government’s espionage system, Montague Fox’s purpose, Professor Morris thinks, was partly to sow suspicion between France and Spain, who were about as happy together as allies of America as China and Russia are as supporters of the Vietcong, and partly to discredit the opposition to George III’s government by supplying to France fictitious but treasonable documents, purporting to come from Shelburne, Fox, Richmond, and Barré (rather as if the State Department were selling letters to Russia purporting to come from Robert Lowell and others, describing their contacts with Ho Chi Minh in the hopes that Russia would publish them). Is it surprising that in a world of such deceit, hypocrisy, and corruption either Jay or Adams should feel first bewildered and lost and then utterly determined not to lose one scrap of America’s moral or military advantage at the council table? It proved a hard fight and the American peace commissioners learned a lifetime’s diplomacy in a few months.
The Spanish government viewed the prospect of America’s independence with distrust, well realizing that a strong and powerful neighbor to the north of her colonies could do her no good. Spain wanted Gibraltar and, if possible, a constant thorn in Britain’s flesh. For the former she would have deserted her ally promptly, for the latter her idea was that each State of America should enjoy the same independence that the Electors or Free Cities of the Empire did in relation to the Holy Roman Emperor. If only that could be achieved, the Spanish ministers believed that constant bickerings, turmoil, and revolts might be confidently expected, and so weaken Britain.
Naturally once they heard of such ideas, Adams and Jay regarded them as bordering on lunacy, but it gave them a healthy idea of the nature of European alliances. France was more subtle but no more dependable. Republican sentiments and revolting colonies were not Louis XVI’s idea of the natural order, nor that of his minister Vergennes. And France viewed with approval a Spanish scheme to exclude Americans from the Mississippi valley and confine the States to the Eastern seaboard, preferably with an odd State such as Georgia detached and left in British hands in order to make mischief. Naturally the British were not slow to fish in such troubled waters, but fishing got them nowhere. Unlike the Spaniards and the French they had an intractable lump of reality to face—the military situation. They had lost battles and they had won battles, whichever happened they continued to be defeated. Military advantages and naval advantages slipped from their hands. Their vast financial resources proved useless even against the States teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. They had to learn the bitter lesson, so hard, it would seem, to learn, that against a revolting nation you can hold all the advantages and lose. By 1782, however, the British ministers knew that America must be free: The question only remained to avoid too acute a humiliation for George III and to try to keep the boundaries, at least in the North, to Britain’s advantage and exclude, if possible, the Yankees from the Newfoundland fisheries.
BY THIS TIME Jay, if not Franklin, was beginning to move about the diplomatic chessboard with the skill of a master. He appreciated more quickly than anyone else that the prospect of commercial advantages—free trade on the Mississippi as well as with the sea-board States—would entice Britain. As a sine qua non of that enticement, he demanded a prior recognition of America’s independence whatever effect it might have on George III’s head or heart. This was essential, far more so than Franklin realized, not only because it was what America had been fighting for but also because without independence it was impossible to loosen the ties he still had with France and Spain. America had to sit at the conference table as an equal, not as a protégé of powers wishing to sell her short.
Once that was done—for Jay got his way George III notwithstanding—the infighting started and here Britain proved something of a match for the American commissioners. But even so, concessions were few and America’s peacemakers emerged triumphant: recognition, no dismemberment, the West wide open. A puny David had slain a Goliath.
It is an astonishing story and Professor Morris makes the most of it. His knowledge of the sources is remarkably thorough. He has been everywhere and read everything. He handles the enormous amount of detail with panache and his characterization is astute. His book ought to be compulsory reading from the President downwards for it illuminates the present as well as the past. It is full of overtones and ominous echoes. And when, and if, the Vietcong sit down at the conference table, it will be tough going if their commissioners possess the skill and vision of Jay and Adams. That they will match them in dedication and integrity few can doubt. But there are other lessons too: America, after independence was secured, had little use for her erstwhile allies; and trade flourished with her old enemy as never before. The acknowledgement of defeat is often far less disastrous morally or economically than the leaders of nations imagine.