The Jay Treaty

As Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the 1780s, John Jay confronted many of the issues that would later be addressed by the treaty of 1794 that bore his name. Despite their signing the Treaty of Paris of 1783, both the British and Americans continued to breach its terms in a host of ways. Britain's continued occupation of military posts on American territory had Jay warning Congress to prepare for war in 1786 (see John Jay to Congress, 5/8/1786, Jay ID #4567). Jay was well aware, too, of demands by their former owners for the return of slaves taken by the British. For their part, in contravention of the treaty's terms, American state courts impeded the collection of debts owed the British and upheld the confiscation of Loyalist estates. Jay himself, in a report that he prepared for Congress, affirmed that the Americans had been first to breach the peace treaty, an opinion that he indiscreetly shared with Sir John Temple, the British consul general in New York. The failings of the states in these matters contributed powerfully to Jay's support for a strengthened national government, a government that might, in addition, be able to negotiate a commercial treaty with Britain, something that had proved impossible under the Articles of Confederation (see John Adams to John Jay, 7/19/1785, Jay ID #11846). By 1794 a turbulent international context augmented these residual tensions. Now at war with France, Britain had by an Order in Council issued on November 6, 1793, widened its attacks on neutral ships to include any trading with the French West Indies. Widespread depredations followed – over 250 American ships were seized. At much the same time, news arrived of British incitement of Indians on the Northwest border. President Washington responded to these threats by urging Congress to take defensive measures while at the same time sending an envoy to London to explore the possibility of reaching an accommodation with the British. John Jay, by that time the Chief Justice, was chosen for the mission (see George Washington to John Jay, 4/19/1794, Jay ID #4962).

Jay was briefed by Alexander Hamilton to seek compensation for spoliations of American ships and to clarify the rules governing British seizure of vessels. He was also to insist that the British relinquish their posts in the Northwest and so adhere to the terms of the Treaty of Paris. In return, the United States would take responsibility for pre-Revolutionary debts owed to British merchants and others. In addition, if possible, Jay was to seek limited access for American ships to the British West Indies (see Alexander Hamilton to John Jay, 5/6/1794, Jay ID #10765). Arriving in London in the summer of 1794 (see John Jay to Edmund Randolph, 6/23/1794, Jay ID #4272), Jay found it difficult to secure the British ministry's full attention. War with France, after all, took precedence over negotiations with the largely impotent United States. Eventually proceeding through several drafts (see John Jay to Lord Grenville, 8/6/1794, Jay ID #3991, Lord Grenville to John Jay, 8/30/1794, Jay ID #8531, and John Jay to Edmund Randolph, 9/13/1794, Jay ID #4312), the treaty that emerged from these discussions was a bit of a mixed bag, but probably the best America could have hoped for, given the realities of the situation. Jay made little headway in attempts to get compensation for slaves taken by the British during the War of Independence and was unable to secure British recognition of the neutral rights of American ships. Neither did he succeed in persuading the British to remove their naval vessels from the Great Lakes or desist from aiding the Indians during times of war. Nonetheless, he did achieve the key objectives outlined by Hamilton. The British were to relinquish their military posts on the Northwest frontier, mixed commissions were to resolve the spoliation, pre-Revolutionary debt, and boundary issues, while vessels under seventy tons would be allowed access to the markets of the British West Indies for a limited number of years.

Jay's concessions on the West India question, as well as agreement to surrender the right of commercial retaliation for ten years, fueled opposition to the treaty when its terms were leaked by a Democratic Republican senator and so became known to the wider public in the summer of 1795. For the incipient Republican interest, any concessions to the British were intolerable. Meetings were organized to denounce the treaty, Jay was burned in effigy, and Republican newspapers railed against the treaty's perceived surrender to the British. As Jay himself realized, differences in the way the treaty was received played a significant role in the development of political parties (see John Jay to General Henry Lee, 7/11/1795, Jay ID #12870). Though the opposition was intense, it was also short lived. By 1796, after the treaty had been ratified, America was enjoying a buoyant prosperity as a result of its dominance of the Atlantic carrying trade while European powers continued to wage war. Moreover, with the removal of the British from their posts, Americans began to pour into the Old Northwest to settle rich farm lands. By 1796, then, many Americans had come to view the Jay Treaty as a significant success.

James Baird
Columbia University