An Enduring Amity

Editor’s Note: Jennifer E. Steenshorne is our third and final contributor to “John Jay at SHEAR 2018.” Steenshorne is the Director & Editor in Chief of the George Washington Papers. Previous to this post, she served as Associate Editor of the John Jay Papers.

The standard accounts of the Jay Treaty negotiations depict a sporadic series of private one-on-one meetings with British Foreign Secretary William Grenville, resulting in the signing of the treaty on 19 November 1794. However, Jay’s letters and dispatches, his son Peter Augustus’s diary and letters, invitations and calling cards, newspaper accounts, and his secretary John Trumbull’s memoirs reveal a more complicated series of events. Jay was reunited with the Shelburne circle, courted by both the radical opposition and the cabinet, and entertained by bankers, merchants, and aristocrats. While they tried to cultivate Jay to press their own interests, Jay strategically mined these contacts in American interests.

After a crossing of twenty-five days, Jay arrived at Falmouth on the evening of 8 June 1794. Accompanying Jay was his secretary, the painter John Trumbull; his 18-year-old son Peter Augustus Jay; and his enslaved manservant, Peter (or Peet) Williams.

Surviving calling cards, invitations to play cards, attend the theater, and dine, and lists of calls made and received, and the letters and diaries of those they encountered, show the mixture of business and pleasure in their socializing. John Julius Angerstein, Jeremy and Samuel Bentham, Sir Joseph Banks, Sir John Sinclair, Lord Amherst, the Penns, Sir Charles Blagden, Benjamin West, John Singleton Copely, Thomas Brand Hollis, Elizabeth Montagu, Baron Inchiquin, John and Lucy Paradise, and Sir Ralph Payne make frequent appearances. Cabinet ministers and the international diplomatic corps are represented. And of course, merchants and bankers with an interest in the outcome of the treaty and the American trade predominate. Merchants such as slave trader John Anderson, Patrick Colquhoun, Effingham Lawrence, James Bourdieu, and William Manning Jr. Bankers, such as David Barclay, Sir Francis Baring, Thomas Coutts, Sir William Curtis, and Sir Robert Herries.

One such encounter resulted in a lasting relationship: with William Wilberforce. Wilberforce (1759-1833), Member of Parliament and ally/friend of Pitt’s, had become increasingly critical of the British war with France (despite his relationship with Pitt), while his opposition to the slave trade and evangelicalism grew. In his diary of 7 July 1794, Wilberforce records dining at the Quaker merchant banker Samuel Hoares’s. Hoare shared Wilberforces’s anti-slavery and anti-war beliefs. The dinner was held specifically to introduce Jay and Wilberforce. Wilberforce found the Jay party to have “Simplicity of manners—” and to be “very pleasing well inform’d Men—” Peter’s diary records dining with Wilberforce several times and the two men continued to meet in other circumstances. On 22 December, Wilberforce records having breakfast with Jay “tête–à–tête” and “heard openly his opinion in Politics Friend to Peace– Many American War Anecdotes– He swore when grew more easy–” Wilberforce was clearly sounding Jay out on his feelings on the war and the U.S.’s commitment to neutrality. That night, Wilberforce would meet with Pitt for a long political discussion.[1]

The two would continue to meet for conversation and dinner for the rest of Jay’s stay. A comparison of Wilberforce’s and Peter Augustus Jay’s diaries indicates that the two men often met alone. On 9 February, they met at master of ceremonies Clement Cottrell Dormer’s country house party (although PAJ does not mention Wilberforce) and discussed France.[2] Their relationship was close enough that Wilberforce shared sensitive information with Jay. On 2 April, shortly before Jay’s departure on the 12th, Wilberforce recorded that “Jay call’d to take Leave returned my Letter, very considerately; shewed him Ld Fitz[maurice] Letter to Ld C— betraying Cab[ine]t. Secrets.”

After Jay’s return, and into the 19thcentury, Jay and Wilberforce continued their correspondence. Again, this was a mixture of the politics, reform, and personal news. They discussed abolition, exchanging pamphlets and urging cooperation on the eradication of the slave trade; the Law of Nations and the aftereffects of the Jay Treaty; religion and the peace movement; and politics and parliamentary reform. One letter in particular stands out for its intimacy, sent from the green suburb of Kensington on 18 July 1810. In it, Wilberforce expresses his satisfaction with his growing family and the happiness that marriage and fatherhood gave him:

I have a most affectionate Wife, who is always very unwilling to be at a distance from me, & Providence having bless’d us with 6 Children, the eldest of whom is not quite 12, the youngest under 2 years of age; my family are breathing pure air, & taking Exercise quietly & without restraint . . .

It seems clear that Jay was not just a political ally, but a model for living a good life.[3]

[1] References to Jay appear on the following dates in Wilberforce’s diary (UkOxU: Wilberforce Family Papers): 7 July, 4 September, 16 and 22 December 1794; 2 and 13 January, 9 February, and 2 April 1795. They would have also encountered each other at the weekly court levees. See also PAJ Diary A and B (D, NNC), 7 July and 4 September 1794 and 13 January 1795.

[2] See PAJ Diary B (D, NNC), 9 February 1795.

[3] For their later correspondence, see JJ to WW, 3 Sept. 1799, Dft, NNC (EJ: 09279); WW to JJ, 7 Nov. 1805,  ALS, NNC (EJ: 09283); JJ to WW, 14 Apr. 1806, Dft, NNC (EJ: 09284); WW to JJ, 1 Aug. 1809, ALS, NNC (EJ: 09282); JJ to WW, 8 Nov. 1809, Dft, NNC (EJ: 09281); WW to JJ, 18 July 1810, AL, NNC (EJ: 09280); WW to JJ, 18 July 1810, ALS, NNC (EJ: 09277); and JJ to WW, 25 Oct. 1810, Dft, NNC (EJ: 09278).

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