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Art, History

Ashamed of peace?: Benjamin West’s unfinished picture of the Treaty of Paris delegation.

Two hundred and thirty-one years ago today, on November 30, 1783, the American and British delegations of peace commissioners, meeting in Paris, signed a treaty that ended the Revolutionary War and settled (for a time) the various issues resulting from that long and bloody conflict. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were among the American delegates; less well-known were David Hartley and Richard Oswald representing Great Britain. According to American law and tradition, what had once been the American colonies ceased to be so on July 4, 1776, but the British did not formally recognize the separation until the Treaty of Paris went into effect. To say they were somewhat uncomfortable with the whole idea–and embarrassed that they lost the war–is an understatement.

Above is a painting made of the treaty signing. It was painted by Benjamin West, a Pennsylvania-born painter and close friend of Benjamin Franklin who moved to England just before the Revolution and became an important artist in the court of King George III. West was commissioned to memorialize the treaty signing, and did his best–but then Hartley and Oswald, having concluded the (to them) unpleasant business of inking the treaty, refused to sit for the portrait. As a result it remained unfinished, and what you see above is as far as West got.

Adams and Franklin got a big kick out of the British delegates’ haughty refusal to sit for the portrait. In fact, when he returned to the United States, John Adams took the picture home with him and hung it on his wall. Though it’s been hung in various places around the Adams residences (including, I believe, in the White House, though I’m not sure of that), today it hangs on the wall of the Stone Library at Peacefield, which I visited in August and wrote about on this blog. The unfinished portrait is a highlight of the tour and visitors today get a chuckle out of it.

Though it’s a punchline today, Britain’s antagonism toward the early United States was no laughing matter in 1780s and on through the 1810s. One can make a strong argument (as historian Alan Taylor did in his book The Civil War of 1812) that Britain never really accepted American independence until the War of 1812 completed the separation between the two countries. Nevertheless, it seems strange to me that Hartley and Oswald, whatever their nationalistic feelings, would have shirked from being recognized for making peace, which is a monumental positive achievement in any age. As the Bible says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” That is as true today as it was in 1783.


  1. Interestingly Hartley was apparently well known for his opposition to the war in America and a friend of Franklin. Oswald in his turn had lived in America, corresponded with Franklin, and shared his views on free trade. He was heavily criticized in England for giving too much away in the treaty. One wonders if there was more behind the refusal to sit for the painting than injured national pride?

  2. Rebecca Haggard

    Thanks I enjoy learning!😊 That was interesting!

  3. David J Gill

    Unfinished works are uniquely compelling. The reasons why or the question of why are important. This painting in in its unfinished state is the entire meaning of the Treaty of Paris, its incomplete peace that lead to the War of 1812 and a biographic monument to the burden of criticism added to the unpleasant task carried by the British delegates.

    That it wasn’t finished and that it has always resided with John Adams and his descendants seems symbolic of the unacknowledged magnitude of Adams’ role in the creation of this country. Washington takes a boat across a river and is monumentalized in an iconic painting. His portrait have names: Lansdowne, Atheneum. Jefferson, despite the self serving and self aggrandizing agenda always present in his public career, is worshipped for his first draft of a much edited document. Hamilton, merely among the second generation of founders, is on the ten dollar bill. But Adams who was the visionary who compelled the act of independency out of the Continental Congress then gave the whole revolutionary act a capstone with the Treaty of Paris is immortalized in a painting that wasn’t finished and has only ever hung in Adam’s own house.

  4. Laurel Riegel

    The original Benjamin West portrait of the Preliminary Signing of the Peace Treaty 1783 hangs in the dining room of Winterthur Museum, the former home of collector, Henry Francis du Pont in Delaware. This is the documented original painting. Come visit!

  5. GRRalph

    **Benjamin West was my 7x Great Uncle**
    The dates for the Treaty of Paris:
    -Drafted November 30, 1782
    -Signed September 3, 1783
    -Effective May 12, 1784

  6. Guin Hartley

    Whoa! My last name is Hartley and I never knew David Hartley existed and I probably never would have found out if it weren’t for this article. Thanks!

    • Guin Hartley

      I looked it up and evidently I actually am related to David Hartley! How cool is that? I knew I had British ancestry, but I found this very interesting and good to know. Thanks again!

  7. Hannah

    Nice definitly helped out a lot with my research project thanks!

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