Study Guide

Treaty of Paris Historical Context

By Joint effort of British-American diplomacy

Historical Context

Colonial Free-For-All

For a couple hundred years before (and, um, after) the Treaty of Paris, European powers saw the rest of the world as one big power-expanding playground. Basically, they went somewhere new, said they discovered it, and informed all the people already living there that—surprise!—they now owned it.

Colonialism 101, y'all.

The British did this in North America and India (and a ton of other places), the Spanish in Central and South America, the Portuguese in Brazil, and so forth and so on. It was a colonial feeding frenzy. And it was super-problematic for a whole slew of reasons.

But we're going to focus on one teensy-weensy, eeny-meeny problem with colonies: they're really far away.

Back in the 18th century, the only way to communicate was in letters, and those had to be physically carried from one spot to the next. Also, colonies were expected to exist to enrich the motherland, meaning they put wealth out rather than took any in.

You can see how this might not be popular.

England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands had all been jockeying over North America for some time. The Dutch had been kicked out (New York's original name was New Amsterdam), and Spain was confined to Florida, Texas, and California. The French owned vast swaths of Canada, and "Louisiana," which was a massive chunk of the Ohio River Valley. A major question for Europe was who was going to control the New World. Or at least most of it.

Tensions between England and France exploded in the Seven Years War, which in the colonies was called the French and Indian War.

The war ended in defeat for France. Quebec was handed over to the British, and the French symbolically kept Louisiana…but there wasn't much they could do to exploit or guard them. The British reasoned that, since they just spent a ton of cash defending the colonies, the colonists should foot the bill.

To quote Pretty Woman: Big mistake. Huge.

The new taxes the crown levied were unpopular—and we're talking Star Wars prequel levels of unpopular. The Stamp Act in particular helped galvanize anti-British sentiment into Patriot groups.

Ten years after the Stamp Act was repealed, the Patriots issued their Declaration of Independence. And we all know how that one turned out: with us re-watching Independence Day every Fourth of July while wearing a spongy Statue of Liberty crown.

You Say You Want A Revolution

But what you might not know about the move from "thirteen colonies" to "U-S-A! U-S-A!" is that the revolution would have been a crashing failure without France.

The French saw the American Revolution as a chance to weaken England, and a way to avenge their loss in the Seven Years War. They started out surreptitiously supplying the Patriots with handy-dandy things like arms, gunpowder, and uniforms. And on February 2, 1778, France formally recognized the U.S.A. as a country, making it the first to do so.

Britain—understandably ticked off—then declared war on France, and it was game on. The French largely assisted the American patriots on the seas. Basically, in order for Britain to get supplies or reinforcements to North America, they had to get past the French Navy to do so…which was easier said than done.

Eventually, both Spain and the Netherlands also declared war on Britain, though their contributions to the U.S.'s independence were nowhere near as great as France's. They also had similar motives: kick the big kid on the block (Britain) in the teeth.

On October 19, 1781, Patriot forces trapped British General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. He couldn't retreat because the French had him hemmed in from the water. He surrendered, and this is considered to be the final blow against Merry Old England in the Revolution.

Treaty Time

Remember when we said things moved slooooowly back in the moldy old 18th century? We weren't being hyperbolic. A preliminary peace treaty wasn't signed until 1782, the Treaty of Paris wasn't signed until the following year, and it wasn't ratified until the year after that.

So, while the United States was officially a sovereign nation, it wasn't quite the country we all know and presumably love. From 1781 to 1789, the Articles of Confederation was the original constitution, before it was replaced by the modern version that every Social Studies teacher has tacked up on the corkboard.

Wait—but how does the Treaty of Paris factor into all this slow-as-molasses America-building? Answer: in a big freaking way.

It's sort of hard to overstate the importance of the Treaty of Paris, because the ramifications were absolutely huge. At the time the Treaty was signed, the world didn't know what had happened. France assumed the Revolution had just been a blow against Britain and maybe, just maybe, they'd have a minor ally in the New World. Britain pretty much had the same thought. And it's unlikely Spain or the Netherlands cared a whole lot.

But we know what happened.

The colonies became the United States—you know, the eventual superpower who put a man on the moon. But before then, the U.S. spent a lot of years as a second-rate power, really only getting a modicum of respect with the Spanish-American War, when America defeated an actual European power.

There were, however, some pretty immediate consequences of the Treaty of Paris…ones that affected Paris pretty much directly. France supported a revolution to weaken a traditional enemy and ended up getting a revolution of its own.

The French Revolution owes a huge debt to the American Revolution, because it was the first time a colony got independence from a European mega-power. Before a bunch of colonists decided that they wanted sweet, sweet freedom, people didn't even think that kind of thing was possible.

And the French thought this whole idea of throwing off a tyrannical monarch's power was awesome. They started up the French Revolution, hoping that the United States would support their revolutionary brothers. (The U.S., though, was indebted to the French crown for aid and didn't want to get embroiled in European wars.)

The so-called Age of Revolutions had begun.

The first colony to follow suit was what eventually became Haiti. An independence movement started at the same time as a slave revolt, and—what do you know, within a decade the world saw a new country being run by the formerly enslaved.

Other revolutions followed. While the United States wasn't the direct cause, the success the U.S. enjoyed was an inspiration. It showed that freedom was a possible goal—you just had to grab it.