John Jay and Grand Strategy

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Den Hartog kicks off our Posts for “John Jay at SHEAR 2018.” Den Hartog is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul and serves as Chair of the History Department.  His published scholarship includes Patriotism & Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation (2015).

It was great to participate in the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) panel on “John Jay and the Construction of American Foreign Policy in the Early Republic” this summer.

For my part of the panel, I presented a paper on “John Jay’s Grand Strategy for American Diplomacy.”

I began my paper highlighting the many ways Jay shaped foreign policy in the Early Republic: as minister to Spain during the War for Independence, as co-negotiator of the Treaty of Paris that ended the war, as Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, as a participant in the conflicts around the French Citizen Genet, and as “Envoy Extraordinary” to England to negotiate the Jay Treaty. I highlighted all these moments to ask, “Did anything tie these events together? What did Jay bring to his diplomacy that linked his various endeavors?”

To think about these activities, I introduced the concept of “grand strategy,” which has become a significant topic of discussion in the field of International Relations. I highlighted also how the term has been used in other settings for the Early Republic. For instance, Charles Edel in his book Nation Builder argued that John Quincy Adams followed a grand strategy for the early republic. In a similar way, I wanted to suggest that Jay had a consistent vision for how to pursue foreign policy in the new nation.

If so, it would be important to define a “grand strategy.” Here, one pithy definition comes from the eminent Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, who defines it as “the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities.” I also found a helpful discussion of the concept from Hal Brands of Duke University. Brands defines it as “the intellectual architecture that gives form and structure to foreign policy.” I highlight that because I do believe we can trace an “intellectual architecture” in the directions Jay pushed his foreign policy.

In detailing the various components of Jay’s foreign policy thinking, I was particularly struck by the distance between some of his use of language and how we receive that language today. That is, Jay’s ideas truly need historical interpretation.

The most obvious one to me was Jay’s use of the concept of national “greatness.” In the midst of the struggle for independence, for instance, Jay told George Washington of his confidence that, “Things will come Right, and these States will be great and flourishing.” <Jay to Washington, 21 April 1779> Such words could be easily misconstrued in our day, when politicians argue over how great the country is or whether we should “make America great again.” Such stylings are far from what Jay intended.

Rather, Jay provided several explanations of his meaning. One of the best came in a letter to Charles Thomson, the Secretary of Congress, where he declared, “it is Time for us to think and act like a sovereign as well as a free People & by temperate and steady self-Respect, to command that of other nations.” <Jay to Charles Thomson, April 7, 1784> Here, Jay is asserting that national greatness was about internal flourishing, the practice of self-government, and earning the respect of other nations.

For Jay, this respect was gained in several ways. It came through making and keeping treaties that were made betweenequals—and Jay worried about this in the 1780s. It was also gained through paying back contracted debts—also a concern in the period. Finally, as Jay stated in the Federalist Papers, it came through being able to defend one’s territory—not to menace other countries.

Another divide came in Jay’s realism. Jay always aimed to be a political realist, but he was no practitioner of realpolitik, nor did he, like twentieth-century Realists, aim to define all things by national power.

Instead, Jay cautioned careful attention to situations—to examine them as they were, not as policy-makers hoped they would be. This also pushed Jay to contextual analysis—he wanted to acknowledge changing conditions and respond accordingly. Thus, both in his negotiations with Spain in the 1780s and in his dealings with England in the 1790s, Jay sought for deals that recognized power imbalances at a given moment but that would also strengthen the United States for renegotiation down the road.

Jay’s foreign policy strategy was not always popular—it had many detractors in its own day. Yet, he still made important contributions for propelling the country toward greater stability and presence in the international arena.

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