The American Peace Commissioners, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay, and Henry Laurens, signed the preliminary articles of peace in Paris with Richard Oswald, the British Commissioner, at the Hotel de York on November 30, 1782. The French Foreign Minister, Count de Vergennes, learned of the treaty and wrote to the French minister to the United States, Chevalier de la Luzerne, on December 19. 1 His letter was on the General Washington, the same packet vessel that brought news of the treaty to Philadelphia on March 12, 1783; the actual treaty arrived on March 24 aboard the French cutter Triumph. 2 Between the 12th and the 24th, la Luzerne remonstrated against the secret conduct of the American ministers to Robert R. Livingston, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs for the United States, and to sundry members of Congress, but it had little effect. On April 15, the preliminary articles of peace were approved by the Continental Congress.
There were nine articles in the treaty, eight of which were as follows:
Article 1 declared the United States to be free, sovereign, and independent;
Article 2 delineated the borders of the United States;
Article 3 permitted United States citizens to fish off all the banks of Newfoundland;
Article 4 stated that creditors were not to be impeded in the recovery of their debts;
Articles 5 recommended to the states that all land and properties confiscated be returned to their rightful owners;
Article 6 recommended that there be no future confiscations or prosecution against any person or persons for their part in the war;
Article 8 stated that navigation of the Mississippi River forever would remain free;
Article 9 stated that any place or territory taken by the other side after November 30, 1782 but before the arrival of these articles in America would be restored without difficulty, or requiring any compensation.
Each of these articles fell under the direction of either the Continental Congress or the state legislatures. Article 7, however, fell under the direction of General Washington. It stated, “all hostilities both by sea and land shall … immediately cease; all prisoners on both sides shall be set at liberty, and his Britannick Majesty shall, with all convenient speed, and without causing any destruction, or carrying away any negroes or other property of the American inhabitants, withdraw all his armies, garrisons and fleets … and from every port, place and harbour within the same.” 3
On April 5, Sir Guy Carleton, who replaced Sir Henry Clinton as Commander-in-Chief of all British forces in North America, received a dispatch from Thomas Townshend, Secretary of State for the Colonies. It contained a copy of George III’s Proclamation, dated February 14, declaring “a Cessation of Arms as well as by sea as by land” and “all prisoners of war are to be set at liberty.” 4 The next day, Carleton declared the cessation “be published in all places under [my] command”. 5 The Continental Congress approved a similar resolve six days later.
On April 14, Carleton reached out to Washington in a letter to Robert R. Livingston, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs. He wrote,
as embarkations of persons and property are on the point of being made, I am to request that Congress would be pleased to empower any person or persons, on behalf of the United States, to be present at New York, and to assist such persons as shall be appointed by me to inspect and superintend all embarkations, which the evacuations of this place [New York] may require. 6
On April 15, the Continental Congress, after approving the preliminary articles, directed Washington to meet with Carleton and make all of the necessary arrangements:
Resolved, that the Commander in Chief be, and is hereby instructed to make the proper arrangements with the Commander in Chief of the British forces for receiving possession of the posts in the United States occupied by the troops of his Britannic Majesty; and for obtaining of all negroes and other property of the inhabitants of the United States in the possession of the British forces. 7
On the 18th, Washington issued a general order for the cessation of hostilities to commence at noon the following day;8 on the 19th, he met with Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, the Secretary of War, to discuss the arrangements that needed to be made with Carleton regarding the delivery of the British post at New York City. 9 On the 21st he wrote to Carleton informing him that prisoners from General Burgoyne’s Saratoga army and Lord Cornwallis’ Yorktown army would be immediately released but because they had been “removed to the interior of the country [a] … far distant from New York” it was Carleton’s option to have them either march “the whole distance through the Country, or to have them delivered at the nearest water which may be convenient for your ships to receive them.” He also wrote, “Respecting the other subjects contained in the … resolution of Congress, as they may be discussed with more precision & dispatch … I propose a personal interview between your Excellency and myself at some convenient time and immediate place.”10
On April 24, the Continental Congress resolved to appoint a committee to reply to Carleton’s request of the 14th. The committee was made up of Alexander Hamilton, John Rutledge and Nathanial Gorham. Before the day was out they recommended the appointment of three commissioners who with their British counterparts would “inspect and superintend all embarkations” and report to Carleton “every infraction of the letter or spirit” of Article 7. 11
On the same day, Carleton responded to Washington’s letter of the 21st:
Considering the quantity of tonnage necessary for the evacuation of this place, and that most part of what we have at hand is now actually employed in this business, and in the removing of incumbrances, which must be sent off previous to our departure, I am reduced to the necessity of adopting the march of those prisoners by land … I cannot decline the personal interview proposed by your Excellency, and purpose being in a frigate as near Tappan as may be … and if I hear nothing from you to occasion an alteration, I intend being up on the 5 of May. 12
Because the “contingents of a Water passage in a frigate” prevented Carleton from arriving at Orangetown until the evening of the 5th, the two men conducted their “interview” on the 6th. Afterwards, Washington described the interview as “diffuse and desultory.” The two commanders decided that the specifics on the release and forwarding of prisoners to New York City were to be handled by the Secretary of War and Carleton. On the subject of evacuating New York, Carleton explained that the quantity of transports needed to remove troops and stores, and when sufficient transports would arrive, were yet unknown, making it impossible to fix on “a determinate period within which the British would be withdrawn from the City of New York.” Washington also learned that Carleton had permitted many negroes to embark and sail away ten days earlier; Carleton offered that if this was in violation of the treaty, then compensation would be demanded. Carleton justified his decision: “He conceived it could not have been the Intention of the British Government … to reduce themselves to the Necessity of violating their Faith to the Negroes who came into the British Lines under the Proclamation of his Predecessors.” 13 Negroes had served as laborers, scouts, messengers, spies, wagon drivers, and in exceptional situations as soldiers, with the understanding that the British in return offered them protection and their freedom. Carleton also claimed that Article 7 only applied to the Negroes that came within the British lines after November 30.
After the interview Washington wrote two letters, the first to Governor Benjamin Harrison of Virginia and the second to Sir Guy Carleton. He told Harrison, “I wrote to you from Newburgh and informed you of the meeting I was to hold with Sir Guy Carleton … This meeting I have had … I have discovered enough however, in the course of the conversation … to convince me that the slaves which have absconded from their masters will never be restored to them.” 14 In his letter to Carleton he wrote,
to prevent Misapprehension or misconstruction, and that I may be enabled to fulfill my Instructions with fidelity and with Candor … [I] propose that your Excellency … give me in writing Information of what measures are adopting on your part for carrying into execution … the evacuation of the Posts now in possession of the British troops; and also what Time it is probable those Posts may be relinquished
Concerning the embarkation that had already taken place, he wrote,
Whether this Conduct is consonant to, or how far it may be deemed an Infraction … is not for me to decide … I cannot however conceal that my opinion, is that the measure is totally different from the Letter and Spirit of the Treaty … I find it my Duty to signify my readiness … to enter into any Agreements, or take any Measures which may be deemed expedient to prevent the future carrying away any Negroes or other property of the American Inhabitants. 15
Two days later, Washington sent the president of the Continental
Congress, Elias Boudinot, copies of his communications with Carleton and wrote “I have appointed Daniel Parker, Esqr. [army contractor], Egbert Benson Esqr. [the Attorney-General for the state of New York], and Lieut. Colo. Wm. S. Smith [a former aide-de-camp and an attorney] as Commissioners on the part of the United States, to attend and inspect the Embarkations that in future may be made at N York … a Copy of their Appointment and Instructions … inclosed.” 16 Boudinot had already been informed by Thomas Walke, a justice of the peace of Princess Anne County, Virginia that he, Capt. John Willoughby, Jr. a sheriff of Norfolk County, and a number of others had already been to New York and been informed by Carleton that “no slaves were to be given up who claimed the benefit of their former proclamations for liberating such Slaves as threw themselves under the protection of the British Government.” 17
On May 10, the American Commissioners arrived in New York City. On the 12th, Carleton informed Washington that he was no closer to determining “when the evacuation of this City can be completed … I cannot guess the quantity of shipping that will be sent me, nor the number of persons that will be forced to abandon this place.” As to the Negroes that would be permitted to embark in the future, he said “an accurate register was taken of every circumstance respecting them, so as to serve as a record of the name of the original proprietor of the Negro, … and as a rule by which to judge of his value.” 18
The British Commissioners appointed by Carleton were Capt. Richard Armstrong, Capt. Thomas Gilfillan, Maj. Nathaniel Phillips, and Capt. Wilbur Cook. This author has been unable to discover the exact date of their appointment, but it had to occur between the meeting on May 6 and May 22 because on the latter date, Oliver Delancey, Carleton’s Adjutant-General, issued orders that the commissioners were to meet at “Fraunce’s Tavern every Wednesday at ten Oclock [to hear] any Person claiming property embarked, or to be embarked … Should any Doubts arise in Examination the circumstances of the case to be minuted down” for a possible settlement in the future. 19
Two weeks later, the Continental Congress, having read the recent letters between Washington and Carleton, wrote to the Peace Commissioners in France:
Resolved, That copies of the letters between the Commander-in-Chief and Sir Guy Carleton, and other papers on the subject be transmitted to the ministers plenipotentiary of these states for negotiating a peace in Europe; and that they be directed to remonstrate thereon to the Court of Great Britain, and use their utmost endeavors to take proper measures for obtaining such reparation as the nature of the case will admit. 20
In the last week of May, the Commissioners in New York City submitted their first claim to Carleton. His response by way of Delancey was an omen of the difficulty the Commissioners would have submitting any claim in the future: no property was going to be delivered until it was shown to be in danger of being carried away. In a letter to Washington they stated,
It appeared to us improbable that Sir Guy Carleton ever intended to afford Redress against his own Orders and Measures … We cannot forbear observing to your Excellency that in our sentiment no valuable purpose will be effected by representing, at this Juncture, violations of the Treaty – Cases where we are certain Redress will be denied, when we have it not in our power to enforce it.21
The commissioners were quick to discover that every negro granted the privilege of embarking had been given a signed certificate. It read
New York, April 1783
This is to certify to whomsoever it may concern that the bearer hereof __________________________, a Negro restored to the British Lines in consequence of the proclamation of Sir William Howe and Sir Henry Clinton, late Commanders-in-Chief in America; and that the said Negro has hereby his Excellency’s Sir Guy Carleton’s permission to go to Nova Scotia or wherever else __________________________ may think proper.
By order of …. 22
On June 2, Washington sent Carleton a copy of the May 26 Continental Congress resolution that was sent to the American commissioners in France.
One week later the American commissioners submitted another claim to Carleton and again the claim was denied, this time because a British officer produced a certificate from the commandant of New York City that the negro, previously a known slave, came within the British lines on November 2 under the sanction of Clinton’s proclamation. In a letter to Washington they wrote, “We conceive it is now reduced to a certainty that all applications for the Delivery of Property will be fruitless.” 23
On June 1O, Washington received a letter from Carleton and wrote a letter to Egbert Benson, one of the commissioners in New York, in response to their letter of May 30. Carleton, rather than being obliging as he had been, went on the offensive in his letter. He said that he understood the actions taken by Congress but,
I have already, for my own part, referred to the King’s Servants those points wherein I judged that on your side, the true intent and meaning of this treaty has not been preserved, and in particular the consideration of those impediments which have been found in the execution of the 5th and 6th Articles, even in cases where the stipulations contained therein are absolute, both in the meaning and expression, but whose effect has been opposed, both by Laws now subsisting in the different States, and by the resolves of different bodies of men, who seem to act without control. 24
A week would pass before Washington wrote back to the American commissioners. His letter was supportive but filled with equal frustration:
That you find Embarrassments in the Execution of your Instructions, is no more than I expected … It is exceedingly difficult for me … to give you a precise Definition or Character of the Acts which you are to represent as Infractions of the Treaty … As [to] your Instructions from me are given in Consequence of the Directions of Congress, and are grounded entirely on their Resolutions … I must be silent on the Subject; leaving it to your own good Judgment & Discretion, to execute your Commission in the best manner you can … 25
On June 17, the Commissioners again submitted a claim to Carleton. Fourteen transports had recently departed with 173 Negroes aboard. This time they simply made a point, knowing the outcome was going to be the same.
By the Articles of Peace His Britannic Majesty is to withdraw his Armies, Garrisons and Fleets, and [we] do not suppose any Embarkation requisite to the Evacuation of this place which is made for the purpose of removing persons who do not properly belong to the British Army, Garrison or Fleet, and if, by permitting Transports to be employed in removing persons of this description, the withdrawing of the British Army is delayed, [we] must view such delay as an Infraction of the Treaty. 26
On June 23, Washington believed the American commissioners’ efforts were a failure but in no way due to them. He raised the question of their recall with president of the Continental Congress, Elias Boudinot.
Finding that merely the superintendance of Embarkation … without the power of restraining the Property … from being carried away, could be of little utility – having been also informed that the departure of all Negroes indiscriminately and without examination, in private Vessels is, if not publickly allowed, at least connived at … I cannot think there will be much advantage in continuing Commissioners any longer at New York, and I take the liberty therefore to suggest whether it would not be eligible to revoke the Commission. 27
Benson, Smith and Parker agreed to continue to meet with their counterparts until all of the British forces had evacuated the city.
The board of commissioners that met at Fraunces’s Tavern heard only fourteen recorded cases; of these two were decided in favor of the slave(s), nine in favor of the owner(s), and three were referred to Brig. Gen. Samuel Birch, commanding officer in the City of New York, for a decision. 28 The inspection rolls (or registers) made by the British and American Commissioners of the Negroes show that 1,336 negro men, 914 negro women, and 750 negro children were carried away. 29 The rolls contain information such as their names, ages, former legal status, distinguishing physical characteristics, names of former owners, the circumstances under which they entered a British camp and the names and destinations of the vessels they boarded. There are two sets of rolls; the first begins April 23 and ends on July 31, the second begins on July 31 and ends on November 30. Each set was originally bound into a book. Shortly afterwards, they were combined into one book, The Book of Negroes. There are two versions of the book; the British copy is in the National Archives in Kew, England, the American copy is in the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington DC.
1 Mary A. Giunta, The Emerging Nation: A Documentary History of the Foreign Relations of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, 1780-1789 (Washington DC: National History Publication and Records Commission, 1996), 1:728-29.
2 Robert R. Livingston to George Washington, March 24, 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-10910 .
3 Journals of the Continental Congress, April 15, 1783, 24:241-251.
4 Livingston to Washington, April 15, 1783, enclosure 1, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11068 .
5 Guy Carleton to Washington, April 6, 1783, Founders Online, National Archives,
6 Jared Sparks, ed., The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution (Boston: Nathan Hale and Gray & Bowen, 1830), 11:335.
7 Journals of the Continental Congress, April 15, 1783, 24:242-43.
8 General Orders, April 18, 1783, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11097.
9 John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799, Volume 26, January 1, 1783 – June 10, 1783 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1938), 342-43.
10 Ibid, 345-48.
11 Journals of the Continental Congress, April 24, 1783, 24:274-6.
12 Carleton to Washington, April 24, 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11153 .
13 Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 26:402-05. Proclamations promising freedom to slaves to fled their masters and served the British cause were issued by Lord Dunmore in November 1775, by General Clinton in June 1779, and by General Leslie in June 1782.
14 Ibid., 401-02.
15 Ibid., 408-09.
16 Ibid., 410-14.
17 William T. Hutchinson and William M. E. Rachal, eds., The Papers of James Madison, 3 May 1783 – 20 February 1784 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 5-7.
18 Carleton to Washington, May 12, 1783, Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11252 .
19 Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), 167-71.
20 Journals of the Continental Congress, May 26, 1783, 24:364.
21 William Stephens Smith to Washington, May 30, 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders/archives.gov/documernts/Washington/99-01-02-1135 .
22 James W. St. G Walker, The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870 (New York: Africana Publishing Co., 1976), 11.
23 Egbert Benson to Washington, June 14, 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11449 .
24 Carleton to Washington, June 10, 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11422 .
25 Washington to Benson, June 10, 1783, Founders Online, National Archives,
26 “Benson to Washington, June 28, 1783, Founders Online, National Archives,
27 Elias Boudinot to Washington, June 23, 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11497 .
28 British Headquarters Papers, Manuscript Room, New York Public Library, Documents 3653, 5243, 5568, 7301, 7419, 7448, 7490, 7680, 8123, 8132, 9056,
9158, 9656, 9687, 10098, and 10427.
29 Benjamin Quarles, Negro in the American Revolution, 172.