The First Countries to Diplomatically Recognize the United States

“Diplomacy is seduction in guise …”, whispered Benjamin Franklin to his fellow commissioner John Adams. “One improves with practice.”

Although the quote isn’t real and was written into the script of the HBO/Playtone miniseries John Adams, the spirit of the words rang very true when it came to the infant “United American-States”[1] trying to find its place alongside the other countries of the late-eighteenth century. The world of America’s Founders looked totally different than what we’re used to today and really emphasizes how unique the concept of “The United States of America” was compared to other countries of that time. As you’ll see, many of those other names began with “The Kingdom of …”

Before America could be inaugurated as its own country, it first had to be officially recognized as an independent and sovereign entity by, preferably, another powerful global force apart from Great Britain. That country had to be France, the archenemy of Britain and the only country that was roughly equal in military might to Britain, despite losing much to that same country in the French and Indian War.[2] Secretly since 1776, France had been supplying limited money and arms to the United States through a dummy company. But to openly show support, France would be risking another war with Britain. Nonetheless—in the private circles of Versailles, France smelled the possibility of a vengeance opportunity by using America for its own gain. Otherwise, quite obviously, King Louis XVI had no interest in supporting a revolutionary movement to throw off a ruling royal king—that would be bad for the monarchy business.

So in a mutual, self-interested way, France and America both needed each other. France wanted revenge, and as well to possibly reclaim territories lost in the most recent war. America needed “foreign alliances”[3] from countries like France for financial loans, for naval support, for military arms of cannons, balls, muskets, powder, tents and clothes—and for recognition of independence. As John Adams clearly put it, “it was the Interest and Policy of France, to Support our Independency.”[4] That important status would make it more likely for America to attract new loans and possibly other military assistance from other countries. But, throughout the War for American Independence, that important status of “independence” was the single stipulation that Britain refused to budge on.

In poker talk, no foreign country would show its hand until America could demonstrate that it could win a decisive battle. That point came with the two battles of Saratoga in fall 1777, which brought a crucial American win. That engagement opened the door for France to openly support the United States of America in men and materials – and for France to recognize America, not as a rebelling colony, but as an independent country.

And so, the first country to formally recognize the independence of The United States of America was:

(1) Kingdom of France. On February 6, 1778, American independence was formally recognized in a double treaty-signing ceremony in the Hôtel de Coislin in Paris. The American envoy signers were Silas Deane, Arthur Lee, and (possibly our greatest diplomat ever) Benjamin Franklin.[5] Signing for France was Secretary of His Majesty’s Council of State, Conrad Alexandre Gérard. The next month, March 1778, the first consular[6] post was established in Bordeaux, France, although no consul assumed the post until 1781[7]. Formal bilateral (two-way) diplomatic relations were established on August 6, 1778 when Gérard presented his credentials to the U.S. Continental Congress as “Minister-Plenipotentiary and Consul-General” from France. The following month, September 14, 1778, Benjamin Franklin was officially appointed by Congress “Minister Plenipotentiary from the United States of America at the Court of Versailles.” On March 23, 1779 Franklin, in turn, presented his credentials to the French court. Franklin’s credentials were accepted, thereby establishing the first diplomatic mission.

Establishing full, formal recognition and diplomatic relations was (and still is) like choreographed dance steps between two countries … assuming the new country had met the basic requirements of a want-to-be country.[8] After that, there are usually four ordered diplomatic steps:

Formal recognition
Treaties of amity and/or commerce (or equivalent)
Diplomatic relations
Consular relations

But those steps can occur separately, concurrently with each other, or even out of order by decades—as are shown in this timeline of America’s post-France diplomatic relations:

(2) The Republic of the United Netherlands (also States General of the Netherlands) was the second country to recognize American independence on April 19, 1782. The same day, diplomatic relations were also established when the credentials of United States Minister-Plenipotentiary John Adams were accepted in The Hague. A United States legation[9] building (the first American “embassy” in Europe) was also opened in The Hague “situated upon the Canal called the Fleweele Burgwal” at “the Hôtel des Etats Unies de l’Amerique.”[10] Adams then began negotiating loans from the new ally, a tiresome feat of “innumerable Vexations”[11] to which Adams wrote, “I can represent my Situation in this Affair of a Loan, by no other Figure than that of a Man in the midst of the Ocean negotiating for his Life among a School of Sharks.”[12] (It should be noted, however, that the first minister to the Netherlands was Henry Laurens in 1779. The British captured Laurens en route to the Netherlands along with his draft of a treaty proposal, and they threw him into the Tower of London. Not appreciating the hostile gesture of American recognition from the Netherlands and an associated trade agreement, Great Britain declared war against that republic the next year).[13] American consular relations weren’t established until 1798 when offices were opened in Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

(3) The Kingdom of Spain finally entered the war as France’s ally[14] on June 21, 1779. John Jay was sent to Madrid as Minister-Plenipotentiary just a few months after that event, but his credentials weren’t recognized by the Spanish court for fear of retaliation by Britain. Jay spent two years in Spain vainly waiting for Spanish recognition of America. But Spain’s King Charles III wouldn’t take that step until he was almost sure that Britain and America would be signing a peace treaty recognizing American independence.  In the international poker game of diplomacy, Spain held her cards closely, showing a cautious poker face: “Spain very naturally developed a policy of procrastination and delay … She leaned on France for protection.”[15] One evening during a diplomatic reception in The Hague, John Adams recalled that he, “Fell into Conversation naturally with Don Joas Theolonico de Almeida, Envoy Extraordinary of Portugal. He said to me … ‘Spain will be the most difficult to satisfy, of all the Powers. Her Pretensions will be the hardest for England to agree to.’”[16] (Spain was holding out to regain Gibraltar.) Spain didn’t recognize American independence until February 20, 1783, just seven months before Great Britain. Spain also established diplomatic relations the same day, receiving William Carmichael as U.S. “Chargé d’Affaires ad interim” to the Spanish court. The first American consulate opened on December 29, 1797 in Barcelona.

(4) The Kingdom of Sweden (which also ruled Finland) surprised everyone. In 1782, when the British-American terms of peace were still being hammered out, Swedish King Gustavus III directed his minister in Paris, Gustav Filip, Count Creutz, to make contact with Benjamin Franklin. He was to approach Franklin with the secret proposal for a treaty of amity and commerce between the two countries. The prospect that the King of Sweden wanted to negotiate a friendship treaty with America was only matched by the remarkable reason that fueled the King’s desire—he was a huge fan of Benjamin Franklin! Franklin wrote, “The Ambassador from Sweden to this Court, applied to me lately to know if I had Powers that would authorize my making a Treaty with his Master in behalf of the United States … the King had directed him to ask the Question, and had charged him to tell me, that he had so great an Esteem for me, that it would be a particular Satisfaction to him to have such a Transaction with me.”[17] Congress was so enthusiastic with this prospect that it granted Franklin full negotiating powers for crafting the treaty’s provisions. By early February 1783, Franklin and comte de Creutz had finalized much of the secret treaty. It was kept secret for two reasons: 1.) Because Sweden was a member of Russian Empress Catherine the Great’s “League of Armed Neutrality” (see Endnote 13); and 2.) So that Sweden could avoid British backlash until after the Anglo-American treaty was signed. The Swedish treaty was signed and sealed, but it was left undated until the diplomatic coast was clear. However, fellow commissioner John Adams (not knowing the secrecy of the treaty’s nature), let the Swedish cat out of the bag when he wrote to the president of Congress, Thomas McKean, on Feb. 6, 1783 proclaiming the joyous news: “a Treaty of Commerce was Signed Yesterday with Sweeden, by the Sweedish Ambassador here and Dr Franklin.”[18] Oops. Franklin and Creutz quickly wrapped up the treaty’s tiny details, penned the advanced date of April 3, 1783 and dispatched copies off to their respective bosses. To this day, Sweden is still proud of the fact that it was the first neutral, non-warring country to recognize the United States and hoped that it would always be remembered for that. As Dr. Franklin reported to Congress, “The Ambassador added, that it was a pleasure to him to think, and he hop’d it would be remember’d, that Sweden was the first Power in Europe, which had voluntarily offer’d its Friendship to the United States, without being sollicited.”[19]

(5) The Kingdom of Great Britain finally gave in and gave up with The Definitive Treaty of Peace Between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the United States of America, signed and sealed in the Parisian Hôtel d’York on September 3, 1783. Britain and America had actually begun secret negotiations for peace terms some time before the signing. His Brittanic Majesty’s government was already looking to make America a valuable trading partner again and was very interested in separating America from its allies for the settling of peace terms. The American negotiators (Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay) saw their poker-hand advantage in the British stance and leveraged it to gain the maximum for America in concessions. Those included enlarged boundaries for the country, fishing rights, and the handling of Loyalist property rights and prisoners of war. But the crown jewel in the British concessions would have to be—and was—Article 1 of the 10 article treaty: recognition of the “United States” as “free, sovereign and independent states.”[20] The preamble of that same treaty even set the warm and fuzzy “forgive and forget” feeling that both sides wanted, that we should “forget all past misunderstandings and differences.” King George III even accepted John Adams as the first “United States Minister to the Court of St. James’s,” thereby establishing diplomatic relations on June 1, 1785. And except for some future minor “misunderstandingsand differences” like the War of 1812, and when Britain nearly recognized the Confederate States of America as an independent country, the diplomatic relationship between the two countries has been one of the longest and strongest of all world bonds.

(5a) The Principality of Brunswick-Lüneburg. What we know today as “Germany” was, in the eighteenth century, “more than 300 independent kingdoms, duchys, principalities and free cities.”[21] So it’s interesting that one of the tiny dominions among them was one of the first to recognize American independence—until you realize that on the very same day The Kingdom of Great Britain finally recognized American independence, this principality (later known in 1814 as “The Kingdom of Hanover”) did so as well, automatically. That’s because King George III wore two hats, er, crowns. He was also the “Duke and prince-elector of Hanover.” This goes way back in the line of English Hanoverian kings who came from this German region instead of (ironically) from England. Very complicated. Anyway, this Hanoverian principality also recognized the United States on September 3, 1783, with the signing of The Definitive Treaty of Peace Between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the United States of America.

(6) The Papal States (also called The States of the Church). The country we know of as Italy didn’t exist in the late-eighteenth century. Instead, it was a hodge-podge of little kingdoms and republics squeezed between France, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire. From 1775 to 1799, Pope Pius VI was the “temporal” (political and secular) ruler of the Papal States, which was a swatch of Italian land in the central and northern areas of the Italian “boot,” including Rome and San Marino. The Papal States also owned the two little southern enclaves of Pontecorvo and Benevento, embedded down inside the Kingdom of Sicily; back then, that kingdom took up the whole lower half of the Italian peninsula. To round out its patchwork nature, the Papal States also included the isolated town of Comtat Venaissin, up near Avignon in modern day France! On December 15, 1784 Franklin, still in Paris, was approached by the “Papal Nuncio,” the permanent diplomatic representative from the Pope to France, a Roman Catholic country. Franklin wrote of the encounter, “I send also a Copy of a Note I recd from the Pope’s Nuncio. He is very civil on all Occasions and has mentioned the possibility of an advantageous Trade America might have with the Ecclesiastical State which he says has two good Ports, Civita Vecchia and [blank].”[22] That simple, civil gesture signaled recognition of the “young republic of America”[23] and a bilateral[24] agreement by both America and Pope Pius VI and his Ecclesiastical States. Starting in 1797, American consuls to the Papal States were received with full honors as those of official diplomatic representatives, even though that step hadn’t occurred yet. That event happened in 1848 when full bilateral diplomatic relations were established.

To round out the list, here are the next nation-states with the initial date of the first officially-recognized unilateral or bilateral diplomatic overture:

(7) The Kingdom of Prussia – July 9, 1785[25]

(8) The Sultanate of Morocco – June 23, 1786[26]

(9) The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg – June 17, 1790[27]

(10) The Kingdom of Portugal – May 13, 1791[28]

(11) The Republic of Genoa – October 25, 1791[29]

(12) The Kingdom of Denmark (also the United Kingdoms of Denmark-Norway – June 9, 1792[30]

(13) The Free and Hanseatic City of Bremen – March 28, 1794[31]

(14) The Grand Duchy of Tuscany – May 29, 1794[32]

(15) The Barbary State of Tunis (also the Kingdom of Tunis) – March 28, 1795[33]

(16) The Regency of Algiers – September 5, 1795[34]

(17) The Kingdom of Naples – May 20, 1796[35]

(18) The Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary (also the Kingdom of Tripoli) – November 4, 1796[36]

(19) The Archduchy of Austria (also Trieste) – February 17, 1797[37]

(20) The Kingdom of Sardinia (also the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia) – September 29, 1802[38]

(21) The Imperial Russian Empire – October 28, 1803[39]

 

My sincere thanks to Dr. Sara E. Berndt, Historian – Policy Studies Division, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State for her kind assistance with this article.

 

[1]General Orders, May 5, 1778, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 15, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0039, accessed April 6, 2018.

[2]The “French and Indian War” had the Euro-name of “The Seven Years’ War.”

[3]John Adams to Edmund Jenings, July 18, 1780, The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 10,Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-10-02-0005, accessed April 7, 2018.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Gordon S. Wood wrote, “He [Franklin] was the greatest diplomat America has ever had.” In Revolutionary Characters – What Made the Founders Different(New York, Penguin Books, 2006), 86.

[6]A consul, different from a minister-ambassador’s duties of national representation, looked after American business needs abroad as well as the needs of Americans within that country’s borders.

[7]William Palfrey of Massachusetts had been appointed the first official consul to France on November 4, 1780, but Palfrey and his transport ship were lost at sea. Thomas Barclay of Pennsylvania was then appointed consul on October 2, 1781.

[8]Having a defined territory, a permanent population, a government, and an ability to interact with other countries.

[9]A “legation” could mean either a minister (who was below a “diplomatic ambassador”) or an entire staff working for the minister; or the official residence/office of a legation.

[10]John Adams to Robert R. Livingston, May 16, 1782, The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 13, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-13-02-0020 accessed April 26, 2018.

[11]“1782 September 14. Saturday.” The Adams Papers, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, vol. 3, Diary, 1782–1804; Autobiography, Part One to October 1776, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-03-02-0001-0002-0001, accessed April 7, 2018.

[12]John Adams to Robert R. Livingston, May 16, 1782, The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 13, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-13-02-0020, accessed April 26, 2018. A treaty of amity and commerce was signed with the Netherlands on October 8, 1782.

[13]In 1781, the Netherlands had planned to join Russian Empress Catherine the Great’s “League of Armed Neutrality,” a group of countries which had banded together to protect their neutral shipping interests from British incursions to its own blockades. But Britain declared war upon the Netherlands first, knocking that republic out of the “neutral” classification. The countries who successfully joined the League from 1780 to 1783 however, were Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Prussia, Austria, Portugal, the Ottoman Empire and Naples/Sicily (later “The Two Sicilies”). Spain was already at war with Britain, as was France.

[14]However, notan ally of the United States.

[15]Samuel Flagg Bemis, A Diplomatic History of the United States, Third Edition (New York, Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1950), 13.

[16]“1782 September 14. Saturday.” The Adams Papers, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, vol. 3, Diary, 1782–1804; Autobiography, Part One to October 1776, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-03-02-0001-0002-0001, accessed April 7, 2018.

[17]Benjamin Franklin to Robert R. Livingston, June 25, 1782, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 37, March 16 through August 15, 1782, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-37-02-0337, accessed April 10, 2018.

[18]John Adams to Thomas McKean, February 6, 1783, The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 14, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-14-02-0156, accessed April 11, 2018.

[19]Benjamin Franklin to Robert R. Livingston, June 25, 1782, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 37, March 16 through August 15, 1782, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-37-02-0337, accessed April 10, 2018.

[20]The Definitive Treaty of Peace 1783, text of the treaty provided by Yale Law School’s Avalon Project, avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/paris.asp, accessed April 10, 2018.

[21]history.state.gov/countries/germany, accessed April 15, 2018.

[22]The second port was Ancona; Benjamin Franklin to Elias Boudinot, September 13,1783, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 40, May 16 through September 15, 1783,Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-40-02-0393, accessed April 13, 2018.

[23]history.state.gov/countries/papal-states, accessed April 12, 2018.

[24]A bilateral agreement is a formal two-way contract, in this case, between two nations or city-states.

[25]havalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/prus1785.asp, accessed April 12, 2018. The Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the U. S. and Prussia was a four-signature process. In Paris, Franklin and Jefferson signed on July 9 and July 18, 1785 respectfully; then Adams in London signed on August 5, 1785. The treaty was then signed by the envoy for the King of Prussia at The Hague, the Netherlands on September 10, 1785. Adams then went to the Netherlands to officiate a mutual ratification exchange with Prussia on August 8, 1786.

[26]According to State Department records, “Morocco recognized the United States on June 23, 1786, when a [bilateral] treaty of peace and friendship was signed by U.S. Minister Thomas Barclay and Sidi Muhammad, Sultan of Morocco, at Marrakech.” However there are conflicting records that the treaty was re-signed on January 25, 1787, and at this time it was accompanied with an anti-piracy “tribute” protection payment. history.state.gov/countries/morocco, accessed April 21, 2018. “On 20 December 1777, Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah commissionned the Dutch consul in Salé to write letters to the European merchants and consuls in Tangier, Salé, Larache and Mogador stating that vessels sailing under the American flag could enter Morocco’s ports, alongside those of European countries with which Morocco had no diplomatic ties, such as Russia and Prussia, under the same conditions as those enjoyed by the nations that had treaty relations. Information about the Sultan’s desire for friendly relations did not reach Benjamin Franklin, the American emissary to the Kingdom of France in Paris before April 1778 at the earliest.” In some circles, it’s reported that Morocco was the first country to officially recognize American independence, however “… that[unilateral]‘recognition’ did not include the necessary treaty nor the exchange of ambassadors, only the admission of American ships.” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morocco%E2%80%93United_States_relations#1777_%E2%80%93_1787, accessed April 21, 2018.

[27]history.state.gov/countries/hanseatic-republics, accessed April 21, 2018.

[28]history.state.gov/countries/portugal, accessed April 21, 2018.

[29]history.state.gov/countries/genoa, accessed April 21, 2018.

[30]history.state.gov/countries/denmark, accessed April 21, 2018.

[31]history.state.gov/countries/hanseatic-republics, accessed April 21, 2018.

[32]history.state.gov/countries/grand-duchy-tuscany, accessed April 21, 2018.

[33]history.state.gov/countries/tunisia, accessed April 21, 2018.

[34]history.state.gov/countries/algeria, accessed April 21, 2018. Article 22 of this Treaty of Peace and Amity requires that the United States pay “Consideration” to Algiers “annually the Value of twelve thousand Algerine Sequins” (or “$21,600”) in order to “keep the Articles Contained in this Treaty Sacred and inviolable”. avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/bar1795t.asp#b1, accessed April 21, 2018.

[35]history.state.gov/countries/two-sicilies, accessed April 21, 2018.

[36]history.state.gov/countries/libya, accessed April 21, 2018. As early as 1786 Jefferson and Adams, both in London, had attempted to negotiate a treaty to protect American shipping from Tripoli pirates. But it failed because “tributes” or “presents” could not be paid to the envoy of the sultan. Finally on November 4, 1796, a Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed in Tripoli by Joel Barlow and Hassan Bashaw Dey. The treaty was in effect with the receipt by Jussuf Bashaw-Bey of “forty thousand Spanish dollars, thirteen watches of gold, silver & pinsbach, five rings, of which three of diamonds, one of saphire and one with a watch in it, One hundred & forty piques of cloth, and four caftans of brocade.” The ending “Note” also stipulated that “On the arrival of a consul of the United States in Tripoli he is to deliver … twelve thousand Spanish dollars;” avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/bar1796t.asp, accessed April 21, 2018.

[37]history.state.gov/countries/austrian-empire, accessed April 21, 2018.

[38]history.state.gov/countries/piedmont-sardinia, accessed April 21, 2018.

[39]history.state.gov/countries/russia, accessed April 21, 2018. John Quincy Adams (along with Francis Dana, the American minister to Russia) had traveled to Russia in August 1781 to try to negotiate official American recognition. However Catherine the Great refused to accept Dana’s credentials because of Russia’s neutral status.

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8 Comments

  • Another hit for you John- I always enjoy your niche with the “intimate” lives/relationships of the Founders, but this was a pleasant detour. I would have thought Russia would have been one of the first, definitely not last..

    • Thank you and as I mentioned to Cynthia below, I also learned quite a bit from the research done on this subject. I figured France would’ve been first (no brainer there), but I agree – Russia so low on the list? Another thing that struck me was the bizarre names of the countries & kingdoms!

      The American Revolution really started a ball rolling in the world. Thank you again,
      John

  • Great article. Very interesting and informative. Articles such as yours are the top reason I love JAR and am a subscriber. I learn so much that I have not already come across in my varied readings regarding the colonies post-AR, the actual American Revolution and the USA as a young country. Thank you JAR and Mr. Smith!

  • Thank you for the nice words, Cynthia and I’m glad it piqued your interest! I have to admit – I learned a lot too, in researching this article!

    Thank you again.
    John L. Smith Jr.

  • To this very comprehensive list of European and Mediterranian nations, I would like to add the Republic of Ragusa. Ragusa was then the name of the current city of Split, Croatia, on the Adriatic Sea, in the province of Dalmatia, now the Republic of Croatia. Having recently won its independence from the Duchy of Venice, Ragusa was interested in communications with another republic. Under Jefferson we had sent a diplomacy service to Ragusa, until it was taken over by the Hapsburg Empire about 1810.

    • John Smith’s list consists of countries that established diplomatic relationships with the United States using the US State Department as his primary source. What you mention is a trade agreement and an attempt to initiate commerce with Ragusa, the modern day city of Dubrovnik. For a description, see:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diplomacy_in_the_American_Revolutionary_War

      However, you make a very good point that both formal diplomatic recognition and trade agreements were vital to establishing the US as a sovereign nation.

      In another link to Ragusa, up to 3000 men from the Dalmatian Coast may have served in the British Navy during the American Revolution, principally in the Mediterranean theater.

      • Gene, you very well summed up the diplomatic combination that, “both formal diplomatic recognition and trade agreements were vital to establishing the US as a sovereign nation.”

        Excellent, thank you!

    • George, thank you for your inclusion. The article needed to be cut off at Russia for brevity’s sake, but your addition is well taken.

      Many thanks!

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