Celebrating January 20th: America’s First Day of Peace

Fireworks in front of the Art Museum, July 4, 2004 by Link Harper. (PhillyHistory.org)

Declaring Independence, you have to admit, was Founding Father bluster—a grand and gutsy act of defiance. Before the colonies could actually and truly claim independence, there’d be a whole lot of bloodshed and years of uncertainty.

So maybe, come the next 4th of July, when folks celebrate the anniversary of this declaration with parades, picnics, concerts and (of course) fireworks, they might consider that there’s another day in the American calendar equally worthy of patriotic revelry. That’s the day America could claim the trifecta: independence, liberty and, most important of all, peace.

Today, January 20th, is that day.

What? No fireworks?

For all intents and purposes, the Revolutionary War ended when the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781. But there’d be no lasting or meaningful peace until the players: Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, as well as the would-be United States of America, agreed to all kinds of arrangements, concessions and processes. Until that delicate, negotiated moment, Britain withheld recognition of American sovereignty and maintained military forces on American soil.

In Paris, “two months of hard bargaining” by negotiators (including Americans John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, William Temple Franklin, John Adams and Henry Laurens) “resulted in preliminary articles of peace in which the British accepted American independence and boundaries.” We’re told by the State Department’s official historian that the terms of this agreement also resolved “prewar debts owed British creditors… restitution of property lost during the war by Americans loyal to the British…and provided for the evacuation of British forces from the thirteen states.” On January 20, 1783, six-and-a-half years after July 4, 1776, Americans could finally stop holding their breath and get on with the job of becoming a free nation. The “Definitive Treaty of Peace” would be signed formally the following September.

Eleazer Oswald’s broadside declaring peace had broken out. (The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

Imagine Eleazer Oswald’s relief and excitement upon hearing the news on March 23, 1783, shortly after the Triumph docked at the port of Philadelphia. Oswald, a Revolutionary War veteran, had paid his dues as a lieutenant colonel of artillery and, for a time, as prisoner of war. More recently, he had set himself up as a printer above the London Coffee House at Front and Market Streets.

Not only was the war finally and officially over, but the United States was, in the eyes of its former enemies, a free and sovereign nation. No matter that the day was Sunday. As soon as Oswald heard the news, he ran to his print shop and set his headline in the largest font he could find.

“Peace, Liberty and Independence,” it screamed. Oswald’s broadside hit the streets the following morning, scooping the newspapers. “Yesterday arrived, after a passage of 32 days from Cadiz, a French Sloop of War…with the agreeable Intelligence of PEACE.” There was little more to add, other than to list the “particular Articles respecting this happy and glorious Event….of January 20, 1783,” which included the long awaited words: “Great-Britain acknowledges the Sovereignty and Independence of the Thirteen United States of America.”

No better a reason to light up the sky over Philadelphia this January 20th. It’s nothing less than the 231st anniversary of the First American Peace.

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