A Picture of America’s Defining Treaty

Posted October 8, 2008 at 2:26pm

Elementary school textbooks teach American children that the Founding Fathers won the Revolutionary War and were awarded independence from Great Britain. But what they usually don’t cover is what happened to the losers. A new exhibit at the National Archives tackles this topic and more in “1783: Subject or Citizen?”

In the wake of the Revolutionary War, 225 years ago, British and American negotiators met in Paris to draft a peace deal that would later be known as the Treaty of Paris. The lesser- known document is responsible for ending the feud between the crown and the colonies as well as creating the United States. After it was signed, those residing in North America were forced to decide between remaining loyal to the crown or becoming a U.S. citizen.

These difficult choices are examined at the Archives in a show created in partnership with the Library and Archives of Canada. Interestingly, the exhibit explores the effect the peace agreement had not only on Americans, but also on British North Americans — or Canadians, as we know them today.

“It really is about people and choices and the consequences of those choices,” American curator Lisa Royse said of the exhibit. “We’re looking at a joint history.”

The free exhibit centers on the treaty, which is on display and sports the signatures of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and John Jay. The effects of the peace accord are illustrated through documents such as firsthand accounts of life after the Revolution and a variety of maps that show the continent before and after the war. In fact, one map shows the disputes that later arose over the borders between Canada and the U.S. The map was drawn from Franklin’s memory in an effort to clear up the discrepancy.

While Americans are taught the story of the Revolution from the perspective of those who created the fledgling nation, the exhibit aims to show what happened to those who objected to secession. The main choice that British North Americans had to make was whether to join the Revolution or remain loyal to the crown. If a person lived in one of the 13 colonies and was a loyalist, he was faced with the prospect of either heading back to Europe or moving north to Canada.

The exhibit is designed in three sections. The first section includes maps, letters and documents that show what British North America was like before the colonies seceded. Next, the Treaty of Paris and the negotiations surrounding its creation are explored. Finally, the consequences of the choices people made in the wake of the treaty are illustrated through more maps, letters and newspaper articles. For example, some documents showcase requests made by Americans and loyalists for the money owed to them from their contributions to the war. There are also accounts of people objecting to the treaty before it was even ratified. It is interesting to note that even without the Internet and phones, word still traveled freely throughout the colonies.

On entering the exhibit, visitors are greeted by a large map that shows the Eastern Seaboard. At first glace the map seems familiar, but on further examination one realizes that it is a bit unusual as it features the 13 original colonies as well as the colonies that would become Canada.

“We wanted to break the myths and say ‘There were more than just 13 colonies,’” said Michael Eamon, the Canadian curator.

The Treaty of Paris is responsible for deciding where many borders were drawn between Canada and the United States. Had Franklin gotten his way, the U.S. map would look quite different today. Franklin wanted the province of Quebec to become a part of America so he would have a slice of his beloved France nearby, Eamon said. The elder statesman grew ill during border negotiations and ultimately saw this chunk of land remain in the hands of the crown.

The National Archives will host several events thought the month in conjunction with the exhibit, including the “Treaty of Paris Film Series — 1776,” which will feature the 1972 musical. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will hold “A Salute to the National Film Board of Canada” in partnership with the Charles Guggenheim Center for the Documentary.

The exhibit will remain open to the public through Jan. 25.