New York City, November 16, 1783. It was finally here, Evacuation Day. The British, who had occupied Manhattan for seven long years, were finally leaving town. General George Washington and his troops paraded down Broadway, terminating their triumphant return at Fraunces Tavern at the southern tip of Manhattan. A raucous 120-person celebration, hosted by New York Governor George Clinton, ensued. The toasts came fast and furious. “The United States of America.” Huzzah! “His most Christian Majesty (Louis XVI of France).” Huzzah! “The United Netherlands”. Huzzah! “The King of Sweden.” Huzzah! “The Continental Army”. Huzzah! They kept rolling until thirteen toasts in all rang out, one representing each colony.
Hold on! Back that up for a second. The King of Sweden? Coming in at number four yet? What role did the King of Sweden, Gustav III, have in supporting the Revolution? Given his position in the pecking order of Evaluation Day honorees, the answer might be surprising. Sweden, ostensibly a neutral nation (but then again, so supposedly was France for a long time), had a minor and largely unmemorable role in the waging of the war itself. So why drink to the King of Sweden? The answer is that Sweden was the first country, neutral in the just-concluded conflict, to recognize, by its own initiative, the United States by negotiating a treaty of amity and commerce.
But all was not as it appeared. And now, as Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story.” How did the treaty happen and how did the King really feel about America and its Revolution? What role did Sweden play in the Revolution itself?
Although his inclusion in this toast seems to cement Gustav III’s place in the pantheon of America’s most ardent foreign supporters, the reality was quite the reverse. The King did express early curiosity, if not support, for the Revolution. And while he grudgingly marveled at the daring of the American project, expressing a large measure of admiration as to the building of a new republic against such long odds and presciently wondering if upcoming centuries would belong to America, he very quickly overcame any romantic admiration he might have had for the colonists in the early stages of their revolt. Gustav Ill’s early fascination quickly turned to a marked aversion.
As George III did, and as Louis XVI, in retrospect, should have considered for his own longevity as King, Gustav III reflexively opposed the American colonists because of his inherent regal prejudices about the right of kings. Some sources even identify him as the European ruler most hostile to the Revolution. He indeed regarded the colonists as rebels, who could become free and independent only through the release of their oath of allegiance to the King of England. He wrote to his minister at Paris in late 1778, reluctantly offering military support while at the same time expressing his ambivalence about the whole enterprise:
The action of the French ministry (in recognizing American independence) it seems to me, has deviated both from the principles of justice and practical interests, and from state principles of nations that have been in force for centuries. I cannot admit that it is right to support rebels against their king. The example will find only too many imitators in an age when it is the fashion to overthrow every bulwark of authority. But I presume I shall have to give in in this matter [that is, agree to join the conflict].
As it was with the French, much of Sweden’s motivation for entering the fray stemmed from resentments of British high-handedness in trade and maritime rights left simmering from the Seven Years’ War. This, combined with prospects for lucrative trade with the belligerents and slim hopes of obtaining an island possession in the West Indies, made a self-interested case for Swedish involvement, hence Gustav III’s grudging agreement to let his countrymen join the conflict.
There was also one specific person whose involvement may have influenced Gustav III’s decision to extend limited support to the American cause. France’s foreign minister driving the war effort from that country’s point of view happened to be Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, the former French envoy to the Swedish Court. Vergennes had provided last minute help, including money and advice, to Gustav III in completing the 1772 coup d’etat which brought him to power.
Gustav III’s reluctant support opened the door to Swedish nationals participating in the Revolution, though they did so mostly under the flags of other countries. This gave the King what in modern terms would be called “plausible deniability” and came in handy later, enabling the United States to celebrate Sweden as the first “neutral” country to honor it with a commercial treaty. Sketchy records make it difficult to determine exactly how many participated, but it was thought to be around 200 to 300 serving with France, the Dutch or with American privateers. The French Navy, for one, was on a ship-building binge and desperately needed experienced sailors. Of these, two in particular stood out: Axel de Fersen and Curt von Stedingk. Their service to the American cause earned each election to the Society of the Cincinnati, the military society formed by Continental and French officers. They were the only two from Sweden to achieve this honor. Upon their return to Sweden, however, the King did not allow them to wear the medals signifying their induction into the Society. He wrote that he could not countenance them wearing “a public mark of the success of a revolt of subjects against their rightful ruler, and above all a revolt whose cause and narratives were so unfair and so unfounded.”
De Ferson had the more colorful career of the two. He had a close (rumored in some quarters intimate) relationship with Marie Antoinette, was appointed the first aide-de-camp for General Rochambeau, and served with the American rebel army at the Siege of Yorktown. The coup de grace, upon his return to France, was his role in planning and personally participating in (driving the coach) the flight of the royal family from Paris during the French Revolution. We all know how that turned out. De Ferson was informed of the failure of the royals’ escape plot after his successful escape to Belgium, writing to Gustav III on June 23, 1791 that “Everything has failed. Sixteen leagues from the frontier the King was arrested and taken back to Paris.”
Von Stedingk served in the French navy under Count D’Estaing in 1779, first in the successful takeover of Grenada from the British and later in a losing effort at the Siege of Savannah, which he led, where he planted the American flag before the attack was repulsed. Returning to his native Sweden, Stedingk ended up having a long, distinguished career in service to his country, highlighted by a long ambassadorial posting in Russia, and a leadership role in the Swedish Army as they participated in the Napoleonic Wars. He died at the age of ninety in 1837.
After the Revolution concluded, and shortly after the Treaty of Paris formally made that official, the commercial treaty with Gustav III and Sweden was signed, though it had been in the works since 1782. Though Gustav III’s motivations were strictly commercial, the claim of “first neutral nation to treat with the United States” was enough to vault him into the high status he had in the order of celebratory toasts at Fraunces. As one foreign observer commented, “if Washington’s and Franklin’s actions had impaired commerce, there would have been nothing but scorn for American independence” from Gustav III. Even the limited military support earlier provided by Sweden also had a distinctly self-serving character, as opposed to the wide-eyed ideological commitment communicated by other foreign participants such as Lafayette or Steuben.
So, how did the treaty come about? It started on the initiative of the Swedish King, who contacted Benjamin Franklin through his envoy to France, Comte Gustaf Philip Creutz, on April 23, 1782, inquiring whether Franklin had the power to treat with the Swedes. Franklin naturally jumped at the opportunity, writing to Robert R. Livingston in Congress more to ask for forgiveness than permission, having already informed Creutz the next day that he had the power. “Recollecting a general Power that was formerly given to me with the other Commissioners, I answer’d [Creutz’s question] in the Affirmative.” Franklin had been provided the draft agreement by Creutz that same month and Gustav III had insisted that Creutz negotiate with Franklin, whom he held in high esteem. Congress eventually confirmed that Franklin had the authority to reach an agreement.
One motivation for the King to hasten the process was the impending recognition of John Adams as minister plenipotentiary by their commercial rivals the Netherlands. In fact, the proposed treaty Congress subsequently gave Franklin as his template for Sweden, was little more than the proposed Netherlands treaty, with Netherlands crossed out and Sweden inserted! Congress had discussed Franklin’s request on September 9, 1782, and appointed a committee consisting of Arthur Lee, Ralph Izard, and James Duane to prepare the proposed treaty. Franklin received this proffering, along with a letter from Congress dated September 28, 1782, which he received in November. The instructions were signed by John Hanson, then “President of the United States in Congress Assembled,” the first President of the Confederation Congress. Coincidentally, Hanson was for a long time treated by historians as being of Swedish descent, though more recent scholarship has shed serious doubt upon this claim.
Formal negotiations with Creutz commenced December 18, 1782. Both parties to the negotiation had the same objective. Franklin’s instructions from Congress stated that “the direct & essential object of the treaty is to obtain the Recognition of our Independency by another European power.” The King, according to notes Franklin made at the time, “desir’d it might be taken notice of in favour of Sweden that it was the first Power not at War with England that had sought our Alliance.”
The fruit of the King’s pragmatic support was the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, agreed to by Franklin and Creutz on April 3, 1783, some five months after the Preliminary Articles of Peace that effectively ended the Revolution were agreed upon. Gustav III ratified the treaty in Stockholm on May 23, and Congress, having some trouble assembling the necessary quorum of nine states, formally signed on July 29.
The fifteen-year pact was fairly routine, as agreements of this type were structured, and negotiations between Franklin and Creutz had ran smoothly, despite the fact the Sweden initially proposed twenty-seven articles and Congress’s template was eighteen. The final product included twenty-seven articles plus five more added by Congress. As John Adams wrote in late 1782, expressing the enthusiasm for the pact that landed the King the cleanup spot in the batting order of Evacuation Day toasts that evening at Fraunces,
The King of Sweden has done the United-States great honor . . . by inserting, that he had a great desire to form a Connexion with States, which had so fully established their Independence, and, by the wise & gallant Conduct, so well deserved it; and his Minister desired it might be remembered, that his Sovreign was the first who had voluntarily proposed a Treaty with us.
The treaty got “The Thirteen United States of North America” (as they were referred to in the document) on the board, so to speak, as far as support from neutral countries. Thus the celebratory toasts to the King of Sweden. As for Gustav III, he would be “toasted” in a different way nine years later, meeting a fate similar to that of Louis XVI. He was assassinated in March 1792, surviving the initial attack but dying two weeks later of an infection from the wound he sustained. This event does not appear to have been a reaction against monarchical power inspired by the American example, as Gustav III might have feared (and if so, it would have been a quite delayed reaction!). Internal politics within Sweden seem to have been the precipitating factor, but more idealistic factors cannot totally be ruled out. One member of the cabal which plotted the assassination, Adolph Ludvig Ribbing, fought as a naval officer in the Revolution and is considered by some historians as one of the few Swedish participants who was “genuinely inspired by the revolution in America.”
C. Stedingk, et al, Posthumous memoirs of the Feldmarechal Count of Stedingk: written on letters, dispatches and other authentic pieces left to his family (translated title) (Paris: A. Bertrand, 1844-47), 72. This is from a letter Stedingk received directly from the King, written March 26, 1784.
The Swedish-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce, with Translation, 3 April [i.e., 5 March] 1783, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-39-02-0154.
Franklin to the Comte de Creutz, Franklin Papers, franklinpapers.org/yale?vol=37&page=204b.