Milestones: 1776–1783

The Model Treaty, 1776

The Model Treaty was a template for commercial treaties that the United States Continental Congress sought to make with France and Spain in order to secure assistance in the struggle against the British in the American Revolution. Congress approved the treaty on September 17, 1776. The Model Treaty did not contain provisions for direct military support, but rather for the supply of weapons and other indirect assistance, in addition to favorable commercial terms. The Treaty of Amity and Commerce that the United States and France concluded in 1778 was based on this treaty and was signed concurrently with the Treaty of Alliance that included provisions of a military nature. The Model Treaty also served as a template for further commercial treaties the United States would make in the coming years.

19th Century Map of France and Spain

19th Century Map of France and Spain

As the delegates to the Continental Congress became more amenable to declaring independence, they considered forging foreign alliances to assist in the struggle. Virginia delegate George Wythe originally advanced the suggestion of seeking a foreign alliance in early 1776, and the idea was referred to committee. This suggestion inspired other leading statesmen, including Massachusetts delegate John Adams. Adams noted the advantages of trade with France in his diary in February and March of 1776, and speculated that a separation of the colonies from Great Britain would be advantageous to France. Between March and April, Adams drafted a preliminary version of the Model Treaty in his diary. As an example, he outlined conditions for an alliance between France and the not-yet-independent colonies. In this draft, the United States was to accept no troops from France, nor submit to French authority, but only to present commercial terms.

John Adams

John Adams

Adams presented a more formal draft of a general model treaty before the Continental Congress on July 18, 1776. The template treaty sought reciprocal trade terms, although not free trade, and made no mention of direct military assistance. Congress adopted a formal version of the Model Treaty on September 17. On September 24, Congress drafted instructions to commissioners on how to negotiate a treaty with France based on the template provided in the Model Treaty. The commissioners were also instructed to seek a most-favored-nation trade clause in the absence of the slightly more liberal trade clauses of the Model Treaty, which could be construed as seeking a free trade agreement between the two countries. The commissioners were to seek additional military aid, and also to assure any Spanish diplomats present that the United States had no designs on Spanish territory—Spain was a traditional ally of France and would join the war in the hopes of regaining territories lost in earlier wars and in the interest of maintaining a secure frontier on the northern border of its American Empire. The Congress then appointed commissioners to execute the terms on September 25.

The United States would have to wait until early 1778 for France to formally agree to a treaty. The formal treaty differed from the Model Treaty in that the two countries granted each other most-favored-nation trading privileges, and also allowed for the presence of consuls in each other’s cities. In addition, the Treaty of Alliance provided additional military stipulations relating to the terms of the alliance, ceding any military gains in North America to the United States, and any gains in the Caribbean to France. More importantly, France agreed not to seek peace with Great Britain without British acknowledgement of American independence, and neither allied country was to seek peace without the other’s consent. The Treaty encouraged other countries to join the alliance, but only if both French and American negotiators were present. The 1778 treaty also included a secret clause allowing for articles to be altered if Spain chose to join the alliance.

The Model Treaty served as a successful starting point for negotiations. The United States was able to obtain most of the conditions it wanted, and the treaty that resulted proved beneficial to U.S. trade until the disruptions caused by the Haitian and French revolutions in the 1790s. The treaty also served as a model for future trade compacts, especially the Convention of 1800 between France and the United States that terminated the undeclared Quasi-War with France and restored peace between the two countries.