In October 1776, Benjamin Franklin sailed from Philadelphia to France on a diplomatic mission that would influence the fate of America’s quest for independence from Great Britain. At the same time, building strategic alliances with Native American nations was equally as important. Throughout the revolutionary era, diplomacy was essential.

The First American Diplomats

Did you know that some of America’s Founding Fathers also served as our nation’s earliest diplomats? Their vast knowledge and cultural awareness proved essential in gaining the support of other nations.

Benjamin Franklin is one of those Founding Fathers. He is also recognized as our nation’s first official diplomat. Even before the United States declared independence from Great Britain, Franklin served as a colonial representative for Pennsylvania in the King’s court for 15 years. During that time, he honed his diplomatic skills and studied the power relationships in the British government. He later used this knowledge against them when he negotiated with Britain’s chief European rival: France.

A depiction of Franklin’s Reception at the Court of France in 1778, by Anton Hohenstein
Franklin’s Reception at the Court of France in 1778, by Anton Hohenstein (ca. 1860s). Courtesy of Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Franklin’s reputation as a scientist and inventor made him well-known to his peers throughout Europe and an instant favorite in Paris. Franklin’s skillful negotiation and persuasion led to the French signing trade and military treaties with the United States of America. These treaties helped America defeat the British in the War for Independence and build its economy through trade after.

Another Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, followed in Benjamin Franklin’s diplomatic footsteps. After the war, he went to Paris with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to continue commercial negotiations with the French. He then became Minister Plenipotentiary in 1785, where he was enormously popular with the French public. His successes included a treaty with Prussia in 1785 and a Consular Convention with France in 1788. Jefferson left in 1789 to become the first Secretary of State at our nation’s first cabinet agency, the U.S. Department of State. 

A depiction of American diplomats during the signing of the treaties with France.
This print shows American diplomats Benjamin Franklin (center), Arthur Lee (right), and Silas Deane (far right) during the signing of the treaties with France. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The United States’ First Foreign Policy Document

The Haitian Declaration of Independence was inspired by the American Declaration of Independence and the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Courtesy of the National Archives.

People gathered in America’s town squares to hear the Declaration of Independence read aloud, but did you ever consider that the Founders were also making the new nation’s first diplomatic statement? The first sentences of the Declaration explained that the Founders felt required “out of a…decent respect to the opinions of mankind” to speak to the world. It explained to the world why the former 13 North American British colonies sought to become a free and independent nation and “assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station.”

American leaders knew that international recognition of their independence was vital to the nation’s survival when the military odds were stacked against them. They rushed copies of the Declaration to Europe, where it was translated into many languages.

The global impact of the Declaration of Independence continues to this day. Since 1776, the Declaration of Independence has inspired independence movements around the world. Many new nations have used the declaration as a model for their own declarations of independence. Others have held up the Declaration’s words to challenge the United States to live up to its democratic principles.

Negotiating with Native Americans during the Revolutionary Era

Did you know that the United States’ earliest treaty was with a Native American nation? On July 19, 1776, the Malisett and Mi’kmaq nations of New England and Canada signed a military treaty, the Treaty of Watertown, with the United States after listening to a translated reading of the Declaration of Independence. The treaty promised mutual aid and respect for each nation’s sovereignty and remains in force to this day.

Unlike the Treaty of Watertown, the 1778 Treaty of Fort Pitt between the United States and the Lenape nation quickly fell apart. The treaty of alliance allowed the American army to pass freely through Lenape land in the Ohio Valley. In return, the Americans promised protection and to trade goods.

Why did the 1778 French alliance endure and the Lenape alliance dissolve? Through poor communication and broken promises. Learn more about how the Treaty of Fort Pitt unfolded.


Treaties with France

The Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance created military and commercial alliances with France. This copy was printed in 1778 by John Dunlap. The original documents are preserved in the National Archives.
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America’s Official Symbol

Sometimes symbols speak louder than words. That’s why the Founding Fathers created the Great Seal, which conveys meaningful symbols of its own.

Today, the Great Seal appears on treaties, passports, diplomatic commissions, the outside of embassies, and more. Since 1789, the Secretary of State has been the official custodian of the Great Seal.

Where have you seen the Great Seal?

the great seal
  • The olive branch represents the power of peace. The eagle always faces the olive branch, signifying that the United States desires peace but stands ready to defend itself in war.
  • The arrows symbolize the power of war.
  • The number 13 is prominent in the design, representing the 13 original states. The eagle holds 13 arrows and an olive branch with 13 leaves and 13 olives. The shield on the eagle’s breast has 13 stripes. And the constellation above has 13 stars.
  • The Latin motto E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) is written on the ribbon clenched in the eagle’s beak. This represents the union of the states.

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