The American Revolution
The American Revolution
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Diplomacy in The American Revolution

Looking at the Past Through the Lens of Diplomacy

The End of the Middle Ground

For centuries, since Europeans had landed on their shores, the Indians of North America had negotiated with, battled with, traded with, and sought to maintain a mutually agreeable dynamic with whites (and vice versa). Some tribes favored certain tactics over others, and many of them experimented with different approaches to their white neighbors, from seeking a coexistence with them to trying to conquer them. Until 1763, many Indian nations had carefully played the English and French off each another, but the total defeat of the French in the Seven Years' War ended the viability of this strategy for tenuous coexistence by leaving the British without a real rival for colonial power in North America.

The American Revolution presented a new opportunity for tribes who sought to capitalize on conflict among the whites by forcing each side to present them with gifts and postwar promises. Even the tribes that tried to remain neutral were forced to take sides. Most ultimately allied with the British, who were better connected to tribal representatives and had more of the trade goods—such as firearms, alcohol, blankets, and knives—upon which the Indians had long since become dependent. When the British lost the war, those Native American allies of England were even more thoroughly dispossessed of land and property than their white Loyalist counterparts.153 Many of those who took up arms with the Americans were also forced to cede their lands anyway. The Revolutionary War, which replaced the British Empire with the American nation-state, proved to be disastrous for American Indians. The Empire had been willing to negotiate alliances with Indian tribes along its borders; the nation-state was interested only in displacement and conquest.

Before, during, after the Revolution, white settlers along the frontier continued to group all Indians together into a single, bloodthirsty and savage stereotype. Pontiac's Rebellion of 1763 only aggravated the already tense Indian-settler relations during the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. Pontiac's Rebellion was an Ohio country alliance of several tribes into one pan-Indian group that attacked white settlers and British forts to retaliate against European encroachment on Indian lands and culture. Ironically, by uniting in order to combat white encroachment, the Indians inadvertently ensured that whites would take the most brutal measures possible to push them further westward or simply wipe them off the map. Pan-Indian alliances fostered the white perspective of Indians as a barbarous horde that could not be reasoned with but must be exterminated entirely. Of course, nothing the Native Americans had done prior to uniting had helped much to prevent white encroachment, either. By the Revolutionary War, colonists had so homogenized the Indians that they killed influential Indian leaders who were actually working towards peace, such as Cornstalk of the Shawnees and White Eyes of the Delawares.154 White Eyes was actually killed while guiding American troops through Ohio country, as he had promised to do. Such thoughtless actions understandably turned many Indians against the Americans.

Yet when it came to the question of a Native American ally, the British were not a much better alternative to the colonists, if they were any better at all. Tribal alliances had taken place before Pontiac, as in the 1675 Indian alliance that sparked King Philip's War. But Pontiac's Rebellion, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of white backcountry settlers, also prompted the English government to issue the Proclamation of 1763, which banned colonial settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. The lands to the west of the mountains were reserved for the Indians. This was one of the first British policies to meet with strident opposition from the colonists. The British were actually less concerned with protecting the Indians and more worried about establishing a secure colonial realm, free of expensive and drawn-out frontier conflicts.

Whether in revenge for previous attacks or to thwart what they feared were imminent Indian attacks, frontier whites ravaged the backcountry with murderous raids on Indian villages. Even when American militia officers objected to these murders, it became apparent by 1778 that officials had no ability to restrain the settlers. The British only aggravated the situation by inciting Indians of the Great Lakes region, the Ohio River Valley, and Kentucky to join local Tories in raids against western colonial settlements. Unsurprisingly, given this level of bloodshed, the colonists estimated that some 8,500 Indians were allied against them in the Great Lakes region alone, not counting the Sauks, Fox, Winnebagos, Menominees, or several Illinois tribes. The Americans actually overestimated, because they assumed that Indian raiders in the backcountry who had been supplied by the British were actually allied with the British. But this was not necessarily so; such raiders may have been serving their own purposes and simultaneously benefiting from British "encouragement" to do so.155

No matter whether Native Americans were acting as British allies or independently, and regardless of the internal divisions that occurred within their tribes, the white colonists' response tended to be the same. In early 1776 a delegation of Delawares, Shawnees, and Mohawks from the north—all allies of the British—brought a nine-foot war belt to the capital of the Overhill Cherokees in eastern Tennessee. They convinced the younger generation of Cherokee warriors to attack backcountry settlements in the Carolinas and Virginia. Although the older Cherokees tried to maintain peace with the Americans, colonists in South Carolina responded to the attacks by indiscriminately burning Cherokee towns and destroying as much of their corn as the colonists could find. In 1780, militiamen from Virginia and North Carolina killed 29 Cherokees and burned over 1,000 towns and 50,000 bushels of corn. This was all nominally to prevent the Indians from aiding General Cornwallis's British army, but its most immediate effect was to literally starve the Indians to death.156

Over the summer of 1778, Mohawk leader Joseph Brant led Iroquois attacks along the Pennsylvania frontier that killed hundreds of militiamen. Brant had been educated at a Christian missionary school, and he proved instrumental in securing Mohawk support for the British. In retaliation, American General John Sullivan led 4,000 colonial soldiers in a successful attack against the Iroquois at Newton (present-day Elmira), New York on 29 August 1779. But the American response did not stop there; George Washington himself had instructed that Iroquois country be not "merely overrun but destroyed."157 So Sullivan's men burned some 40 Cayuga and Seneca villages down to the ground, along with their food supplies. The Indians were left to starve and without shelter, and for generations, they remembered George Washington by the name of "Town Destroyer."158 These actions devastated the Iroquois federation but did not stop the violence that persisted along the frontier for decades. In 1782, at Gnadenhutten, Ohio, American militiamen murdered 96 Delaware Indians who, as historian Colin Calloway explains, "had converted to the Moravian faith and as pacifists refused to participate in the fighting."159

Despite white Americans' tendency to see all Indians as a menace to be eradicated, some Native American tribes did choose to support the colonists in the Revolutionary War. In Stockbridge, Massachusetts, local Indians even enlisted as minutemen. General William Heath reported to John Adams in October 1775 that Rhode Island—one of the only colonies with a long history of reaching out to and peacefully coexisting with its local indigenous population—"has a number of...Indians" in its regiments, and that a few Indians were also fighting in the regiments from New Hampshire.160 The Oneidas of New York sided with the Americans, although that meant they had to fight some of their own relatives from other nations in the Iroquois federation. Other American allies included the Catawbas in South Carolina and the Micmacs, Penobscots and Passamaquoddies of the northeast.

Through their own deceptive practices, the Americans managed to gain and then lose some indigenous allies. Before they murdered White Eyes, the Americans had negotiated a treaty with the Delawares that would have granted the Delawares territorial rights and even, perhaps, an Indian state with representation in Congress. But the final version of the 1778 treaty actually committed the Delawares to a military alliance with the Americans without including any of the aforementioned promises. George Morgan, the white American Indian agent who acted as a go-between for the Delawares and the Americans, denounced the treaty as a fraud. Delawares were already writing complaints about the treaty to Morgan when White Eyes was killed, thus ensuring his tribe's realignment with the British. After the Americans massacred their relatives at Gnadenhutten, Ohio, the Delawares captured Colonel William Crawford—who had been present as a witness to the Treaty of 1778—and ritually tortured him.161

In the Great Lakes region, Algonquian Indians did reap some benefit during the Revolutionary War, despite the precarious new presence of an American empire bent on westward expansion. During the conflict the Algonquians could take advantage of their strategic position and negotiate for the best terms from the British and the Americans. They could also capitalize on the Revolution in order to gain more power on a local level, as different Indian villages in the region vied for tribal dominance. But when the British signed the peace treaty with the Americans in 1783, they simply ordered their Indian allies to stop their attacks. Though tribal groups like the Algonquians specifically asked the British to remember them in the peace negotiations, the British instead ceded virtually all of the Algonquians' land to the Americans.

Even American allies were betrayed; when the Mahicans from Stockbridge, Massachusetts were off fighting in the militia, white neighbors continued to encroach upon their lands. By the end of the war, as historian Colin Calloway describes, "Stockbridge ceased to exist as an Indian town. The Mahicans petitioned their former allies for help, but to no avail. They migrated first to New York and then to new homes in Wisconsin."162 The ultimate effect of the Revolution was devastating to most tribes; the fierce frontier battles left thousands homeless and near starvation, which only eased the way for white encroachment of trans-Appalachian lands after the war was over. Paradoxically, while the American Revolution secured liberty for white colonists, it ensured a loss of freedom for Native Americans.

The Treaty of Paris

Native Americans were not the only disappointed party in the peace negotiations that followed the French and American victory at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781. The Americans were also less than forthcoming with their French allies, though France was hardly as devastated by the outcome as the Native Americans. The Treaty of Paris, signed on 3 September 1783, entailed a number of tricky and even deceptive negotiations. Once Parliament authorized the crown to make peace in March 1781, the Continental Congress appointed a five-person commission to negotiate with the British. The only active members of the commission were John Jay (minister to Spain), John Adams (on state business in the Netherlands), and Benjamin Franklin (already in Paris).

Jay and Franklin did most of the negotiating, and Jay was concerned that France might try to make a separate peace with England. Since Spain was allied with France (but not America), France (but not America) was bound to honor Spain's terms. The Spanish particularly sought to recover Gibraltar (a strategic location on the southern coast of Spain), which was under English possession. Jay feared that France might use the trans-Appalachian west as a bargaining chip, agreeing to cede that territory to England in return for Gibraltar. Franklin went along this rationalization for pursuing a separate peace with the English, and the negotiators commenced talks without keeping the French fully informed. Technically this was not a violation of the treaty that allied the United States and France, since the negotiators did notify the French minister the day before the preliminary treaty was signed, and France and Britain had to make a final settlement before the treat could be official. But clearly it undercut the spirit of the original French alliance, which was supposed to ensure that both sides would consult fully with one another throughout the process of negotiation.

Under the terms of the final treaty, England recognized the United States as a free and independent country. The two nations resolved the territorial boundaries in the Great Lakes region. The American Congress agreed to recommend the restitution of property to rightful owners, even if they were Loyalists, although this provision of the treaty was not really enforced. The United States also pledged to prevent any future property confiscation and offered the somewhat weak promise that British merchants seeking to collect on debts should "meet with no legal impediment."163 Both countries were granted access to the Mississippi River, and Britain recognized that the Mississippi was the western boundary of the United States. Florida was restored to Spanish possession.

Matters Extending Beyond Treaties

The Treaty marked the formal conclusion of the Revolution's military phase, but the political, social, and ideological implications of independence remained to be worked out. Throughout the years that followed, colonists debated what form their new state governments should take, and how representative they ought to be. Revolutionary War veterans would challenge their government to be more understanding of their plight when postwar economic crises made it hard for struggling farmers to make rent or pay their debts. Abolitionists, black and white, continued to attack the existence of slavery in a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Women like Abigail Adams strived to remind their husbands that tyranny exists in many forms, and that the patriarchy which had predominated under the old order ought to be reexamined in the new.

No treaty, not even a federal constitution, would be able to resolve these lingering and oftentimes unforeseen dilemmas over how to realize the promise of liberty that the Revolution unleashed. The United States became celebrated for that promise, which simultaneously motivated citizens at home and abroad to press the country to fully realize its revolutionary potential. In the hundreds of years to follow, many patriots died for the cause of realizing a better America that truly lived up to its founding principles of liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness.

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