Defending “this damned treaty”: Jay, Washington, and the 1794 Anglo-American Treaty

The Selected Papers of John Jay is pleased to feature a guest blog post written by David Hoth, Senior Editor, The Papers of George Washington.

The treaty that John Jay negotiated with Great Britain in 1794 was among the most important events of George Washington’s second term as president—significant not only as a matter of foreign policy but also for its effect on domestic politics. This post, however, will focus on GW’s relationship with Jay in connection with the treaty.

Once GW began considering the appointment of a special envoy to adjust differences with Great Britain, Jay was on his list of possibilities. Few could match Jay’s varied diplomatic and governmental experience. Federalists, however, preferred Alexander Hamilton, and Jay was opposed by some Republicans as too pro-British. On 14 April 1794 Hamilton wrote a long letter to GW, arguing the necessity of an envoy, declining the post, and recommending Jay.[1] The next morning, GW wrote Jay, requesting a meeting to converse “on an interesting subject.”[2] Presumably the two men discussed what an envoy might do and Jay accepted the post. GW submitted his nomination to the Senate on 16 April. Jay thus embarked on his mission not only with “full knowledge of the existing temper and sensibility of our Country”,[3] but with knowledge of GW’s views as well.

Such clarity was important because any treaty would be very much the result of decisions made by Jay alone. Any negotiator sent to Europe had to be given discretion to respond to unexpected proposals or events—slow ship passages did not allow close monitoring from America—and Jay’s instructions were pretty open-ended. He was to address the “vexations and spoliations committed on our commerce” and seek compensation, and he was to try to obtain the British withdrawal from frontier posts promised in the 1783 peace treaty. He was given “discretion” to consider a commercial treaty, but he was to agree to nothing that would “derogate from” U.S. treaties with France.[4]

Nonetheless, the information about negotiations in Jay’s letter to the State Department of 13 September so horrified Secretary of State Edmund Randolph that he immediately (on 12 November) sent Jay “remarks” objecting to a number of points, and he followed with another short letter on 3 December and then a detailed and very negative analysis on 15 December. Presumably Washington shared many of Randolph’s reservations. His 18 December response to Jay’s September letter, merely referred Jay to Randolph’s correspondence. Jay, however, had signed the treaty on 19 November.

While at London, Jay was careful to maintain his connection to GW, writing him nine letters from 23 July through 19 November, mostly conveying optimism about the negotiations. On the dates of Jay’s most significant reports to Randolph, he also wrote GW, giving information and referring him to the State Department letter. After receiving Randolph’s critiques, he wrote GW on 25 February, noting that treaty ratification would be decided before any reply could arrive, but assuring GW that only considerations of “public Good, under the Directions of my Instructions” had influenced his judgment and reminding him that no “attainable” treaty could have given “universal Satisfaction” and that “Demagogues” were likely “to employ improper arts against those who will not be their Instruments”.[5]

In fact (Jay having entrusted the treaty to ships whose arrival was inordinately delayed) that letter likely arrived (as did Jay himself) before GW’s ratification decision. News of the treaty reached New York by the end of January 1795, but the official copy did not arrive until after Congress had adjourned in early March, necessitating a special Senate session. Then the Senate ratification in June was conditional, requiring renegotiation of article 12, about trade with the West Indies. All the while, a vigorous newspaper debate raged, based on British reports of the treaty’s provisions (and later Senate leaks). When the hitherto-secret treaty was published by an opposition Senator in early July, citizen meetings were promptly organized to urge GW not to ratify. GW, who still had reservations about the treaty[6] and about his authority in light of the conditional ratification, turned to Hamilton for a “dispassionate” analysis of the treaty’s strengths and weaknesses.[7]

GW’s choice of an advisor suggests that he was already inclined toward ratification, for he must have known Hamilton’s leanings. Hamilton’s replies have not been found, but a surviving draft indicates that he assured GW it was in “the true interest of the U States” to ratify the treaty.[8] Not long after, GW announced that he would ratify.

And a storm broke. The anonymous newspaper writers who had criticized the treaty now opened up on GW as a president “whose austere inflexibility of character” had led to ratification “in defiance of the loud thunders of popular indignation.” Some writers now attacked the entirety of GW’s presidency as productive of numerous “public evils”.[9]

Such criticism was painful to GW, but it seems to have strengthened his belief in the treaty’s benefits and the opponents’ demagoguery. Certainly, neither the critics nor his own concerns about the treaty’s provisions reduced his trust in Jay’s judgement. He soon thought Jay’s views on the appointment of commissioners under the treaty and on rumors of possible French actions in response to the treaty, because, as he wrote Hamilton, “I have great confidence in the abilities, and purity of Mr Jays views, as well as in his experience.”[10]

Where not otherwise specified, citations are to The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series.

[1] (Hamilton to GW, 14 April, 15:581-94).

[2] (GW to JJ, 15 April, 15:596).

[3] (GW to the Senate, 16 April, 15:608-9).

[4] (American State Papers, Foreign Relations, 1:472-74).

[5] (JJ to GW, 25 February, 17:577-80).

[6] (GW to Hamilton, 13 July, 18:337-41).

[7] (GW to Hamilton, 3 July, 18: 282-83).

[8] (Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 18:404-54).

[9] “Valerius” to GW, 22 Aug.; “Belisarius” to GW, 11 Sept., 18:580-81, 660-61).

[10] (GW to Hamilton, 26 June 1796, DLC: Hamilton Papers).

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