The Jay Treaty

What became known as the Jay Treaty — after its chief American negotiator, John Jay — was signed by President Washington this week (Nov. 19) in 1794.  Perhaps no treaty in American history was as unpopular with Americans as it was beneficial to Americans.  Its passage is testament to the leadership and statesmanship of our first president.

To set the stage, although it had lost the American Revolution, in 1794 Britain still had a military presence in America, which, unsurprisingly, angered Americans since it violated the terms of the treaty that ended the revolutionary war.  Yet the British countered that pre-revolutionary war debts owed to British merchants by the colonists had not been paid, which also violated that treaty.

The larger problem, however, was that Britain and France were again at war, and the British Navy was either preventing American merchant ships from trading with France, or impounding the cargoes of American ships that made the attempt.  Americans — who still remembered who fought with them in the American Revolution and who fought against them — wanted war with Britain.

Not so President Washington, who believed his young country could not afford another war with what was still the world’s mightiest power, so he sent Jay to Britain to negotiate a treaty that would settle their differences peacefully.   The resulting treaty, while not all that Washington had hoped for, did meet his two main goals — preventing war and ending the British presence in America.  Britain also agreed to submit to arbitration all claims by American shippers against British impoundment of their cargoes.

In return, the treaty stipulated that Americans would pay their pre-war debts to British creditors, which angered the southern states because southern planters were the largest debtors.  But what was really controversial was the treaty’s recognition that the British navy would continue to dictate the terms of American trade with Europe, meaning America’s primary trading partner would be Britain, not France.

When the treaty’s terms were published Americans exploded in rage. Jay was hung in effigy and two of Washington’s closest political allies, fellow Virginians Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (a southern state, Virginia was deeply in debt to British creditors), led the opposition to the treaty’s approval.  The pressure on Washington to disavow Jay’s handiwork was tremendous, but not only did he sign the treaty, he spent all of his political capital to gain its passage, finally winning a close vote in Congress. It was, arguably, President Washington’s finest hour.

Interestingly, Washington wanted to avoid war with Britain because, as he put it, America would not be ready to tangle with the British “for about twenty years.”   Eighteen years later America fought Britain to a draw in the War of 1812.