The Jay Treaty and the Courage of George Washington

Allan Nevins wrote in the foreword to Senator John F. Kennedy’s fine book, “Profiles In Courage”, that “Senator Kennedy treats of a special kind of courage:  the moral courage of a parliamentary leader who on behalf of principle confronts the passions of colleagues, constituents and a majority of the general public.”  He may well have had George Washington in mind as a prime example.

In last week’s installment, we discussed the courage and success of two members of the Adams Family, John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams.  Both became United States Presidents, each exhibited courage in his own way.  John Quincy, as a member of the U.S. senate, had broken with his own Federalist Party to follow the Thomas Jefferson Administration in its support of the 1807 embargo on British goods as a result of their continuing depredatons against U.S. merchants and their goods in the run-up to the War of 1812.

In this installment, we again address the depredations of the British against U.S. merchants.  These acts ultimately resulted in the Jay Treaty of 1894-1895.

John Jay, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was appointed by President George Washington in 1794, after the appointment had been declined by two others, including James Monroe, as Special Envoy to negotiate a treaty with Great Britain.  Jay was highly criticized for making too many concessions to the British after the treaty, delayed by the long trans-Atlantic crossing from London, finally became known to the public.  Of all the cries of protest none was perhaps louder than that which arose concerning Jay’s giveaway of  one proviso deemed unalterable, that the British must open their West Indian islands to American shipping.  The British had agreed to admit only small American ships, seventy tons or less. In return for this  small concession, Jay had agreed that no American ships would carry goods to Europe which were also produced in the West Indies, including cotton, dealing a major blow to American commerce.  He had also granted favored-nation status to British imports while failing to secure the equivalent benefit for America imports.  Further, he had thrown away the right to sequester private British funds in the United States used as security for payment of British debts.

Another long-smoldering issue was the Canadian border.  The British had agreed to remove border outposts by June 1, 1776, a distant date.  But Jay had agreed to perpetuate Canadian fur interests by allowing the British to continue trading with the Indians in American territory.

While the treaty facilitated ten years of peaceful trade with Britain in the midst of the French revolutionary wars,  it was deemed a sell out by many protesters including those who saw it as a capitulation to British hegemony which endangered America’s long-standing friendship with France.  It angered France and bitterly divided Americans.  It fueled the growth of two opposing factions in virtually every state,  the pro-Treaty Federalists and the anti-Treaty Democratic Republicans.

Nevertheless, in the face of a storm of widespread public protests and even personal attacks, Washington supported and ultimately signed the treaty as being in the national interest to avoid war with the English, a war the United States was ill prepared to wage.  It also guaranteed neutrality in the ongoing hostility between Britain and France.  Washington’s support and great prestige helped to carry the day in the Senate  which ratified the treaty by the necessary two thirds vote, paving the way for its enactment into law.

But it should be noted that the Jay Treaty proved to be a stopgap measure at best.  It was only of ten years duration and a new replacement treaty attempted in the Jefferson Administration in 1806 failed as tensions escalated toward the War of 1812.

Arnold G. Regardie

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