Frisia Leads the Way in Recognizing U.S. Independence
Soon after the American Revolution began, the Continental Congress recognized that it was imperative to establish diplomatic relations with the nations of Europe, and over the course of the war Congress sent envoys to every major European power. The results of these diplomatic missions were mixed at best. France was American diplomacy’s big success story, with that nation becoming America’s most important ally in the war. Spain, although it helped America unofficially, refused to extend formal diplomatic recognition to the U.S. Prussia, a longtime British ally, offered America neither recognition nor help, although it did trade with the new nation in a limited fashion.
Of the remaining nations of Europe, Americans saw the Netherlands as their best remaining prospect for recognition. In 1780 future American president John Adams took charge of negotiations with ”The Republic of the Seven United Provinces,” as the Dutch Republic was called. However, the negotiations moved slowly because of the Dutch Republic’s federal structure. Each of the seven provinces had to be persuaded separately to support recognition, and some provinces were less than enthusiastic about the idea.
Finally on February 26, 1782, the province of Frisia or Friesland in the northern part of the Netherlands decided to act. Frisia was and is linguistically and culturally distinct from the southern provinces of the Dutch Republic, and often chose to go its own way. Frisia’s recognition of the U.S. was an event that had significance in internal Dutch politics as well as in the field of international affairs. Support for the ideals of the Revolution was widespread in the Netherlands, but the conservative oligarchs who dominated some of the provinces feared that encouraging revolution abroad might also encourage revolution at home.
At the end of the day, Frisia’s action tipped the scales in favor of recognition, and on April 19, 1782, the United Provinces accepted the credentials of John Adams as the first U.S. minister to The Hague. Most Dutch citizens seem to have supported this decision with enthusiasm. The Leeuwarden Citizen’s Society for Liberty and Glory had a silver medal struck commemorating Frisia’s historic action. The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation has acquired one of these 1782 medals and will be placing it on exhibit in the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown galleries, planned to open in 2016.
The iconography of the medal is anything but subtle. The face of the medal shows three allegorical figures. The central figure is a Frisian warrior who holds the hand of an Indian princess representing America. The warrior turns his back to the other female figure, who is the goddess Britannia, a symbolic representation of Great Britain. Below the figure of the Indian princess is a set of broken shackles. Below the figure of Britannia is a snake in the grass. The burghers of Leeuwarden clearly believed, as many in continental Europe did, that the American Revolution was not just a dispute between Britain and her American colonies. In their eyes, as in ours, the Revolution was part of a larger moral struggle between liberty and tyranny.