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.

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