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September 2nd, 2018

George Washington and the Jay Treaty

I haven't thought of a catchy title for this month's theme, but our subject is events in history when a president has had to stand behind an unpopular policy or decision. Polarization is not a new phenomena, and as we have seen, even George Washington had to make difficult choices that did not please everyone, as in the case of the Whiskey Rebellion. Another example of this type of divisive issue that Washington was confronted with was "The Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America", better known as the Jay Treaty, or Jay's Treaty. This was a 1795 treaty between the United States and Great Britain that was entered into in order to prevent another war with Britain and to resolved issues left over from the Treaty of Paris of 1783 (which ended the American Revolution.)

In 1792 yet another war began between France and Great Britain (and other countries), known as the War of the First Coalition. The United States opted for neutrality in that conflict at Washington's direction, despite please from the French to join them, just as they had come to American aid during the revolution. The United States was a neutral country with a large shipping trade. The British were not anxious for the Americans to join the side of France, nor was Washington anxious to sever relations with his country's largest trading partner.

But relations between Britain and the United States worsened when, without warning American officials, the British government used the Royal Navy to capture nearly 250 neutral American merchant ships carrying goods from French colonies in the West Indies. Americans immediately became were outraged. Republicans (those who supported Thomas Jefferson) demanded a declaration of war. With loyalties to both Washington and Jefferson, James Madison called for an embargo on trade with Britain.

US-British relations strained even further when British officials told First Nations near the Canada–U.S. border that the border no longer existed and sold weapons to them. Some on the British side believed that this would occupy American troops at home, making their entry into the war on the side of France less likely. Congress acceded to Madison's suggestion and voted for a trade embargo against Britain in March 1794.

The nation became polarized politically between divided between the factions of Jefferson and the Republicans, which favored the French, and the Federalists led by Hamilton, who saw Britain as a natural ally and wanted to rebuild relations with Britain, especially in the area of trade. Washington sided with Hamilton, in part because he knew that the nation was not prepared for war and because he knew how much Americans relied on trade with Britain. Washington decided to send Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay to London to negotiate a comprehensive treaty.

From Washington's perspective, there were a number of outstanding issues needing to be resolved. These included the following:

(1) British occupying forts on U.S. territory in the Great Lakes region, at Detroit and Mackinac in modern-day Michigan, Niagara and Oswego in New York, and Maumee in modern-day Ohio. Britain said it was doing so in response to American refusals to pay debts that had been agreed upon.

(2) The British were continuing to impress American sailors into the Royal Navy to fight against France. American merchants wanted compensation for 250 merchant ships which the British had confiscated in 1793 and 1794.

(3) Southern states wanted monetary compensation for slaves owned by Loyalists who were taken away to the West Indies along with their masters in 1781–83.

(4) American merchants wanted the British West Indies to be reopened to American trade.

(5) The boundary with Canada needed to be set out more clearly in many areas.

(6) The British were providing weapons to First Nations, used in armed attacks on settlers in the Northwest (Ohio and Michigan).

Jay entered negotiations, knowing that he was not negotiating from a position of strength. Several issues were sent to arbitration, which were not immediately resolved, requiring years of discussion (though most were resolved in favor of the U.S.) The two nations did reach agreement on some financial and other issues:

1. Britain paid $11,650,000 for damages to American shipping and received £600,000 for unpaid pre-1775 debts.
2. The British also agreed to vacate its forts in United States territory by June of 1796. These were composed of six in the Great Lakes region and two at the north end of Lake Champlain.
3. The treaty allowed Americans to trade with Great Britain on a "most-favored-nation" basis, while in return, the United States gave most favored nation trading status to Britain.
4. American merchants obtained limited rights to trade in the British West Indies.
5. Two joint boundary commissions were set up to establish the boundary with Canada.
6. Citizens of the two nations as well as First Nations dwelling on either side of the border were given the right to pass freely and to carry on trade and commerce with each other.
Jay was a strong opponent of slavery, and elected to give away the issue of compensation for slaves. This would anger Southern slaveholders and was a key point of attack by Jeffersonians. Jay was unsuccessful in negotiating an end to the impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy, something which later became a key issue leading to the War of 1812.

When Jay returned with the treaty, Washington submitted the treaty to the United States Senate for its consent in June 1795. This required a two-thirds majority vote. The treaty was unpopular at first and gave the Jeffersonians an issue to rally new supporters. Jeffersonians were opposed to Britain, and considered Britain as the chief threat to Republican values. They denounced Hamilton and Jay and even Washington as monarchists. They organized public protests against Jay and his treaty.

The treaty was a catalysts for the promotion of the two-party system. The Federalist Party, led by Hamilton, supported the treaty, while the Democratic-Republican Party, led by Jefferson and Madison, opposed it. Jefferson and his supporters called for a policy of "commercial hostility with Great Britain," oblivious to the risk of war. The Jeffersonians inflamed public opinion by accusing the British of promoting Indian atrocities on the frontier.

Federalists fought back as Washington threw his great prestige behind the treaty. Federalists rallied public opinion effectively and Washington realized that it was the best treaty that could be expected. Washington insisted that the U.S. must remain neutral in the European wars. The Senate passed a resolution in June, advising the President to amend the treaty by suspending the 12th article, which concerned trade between the U.S. and the West Indies. In mid-August, the Senate ratified the treaty 20–10 (the narrowest margin of victory), with the condition that the treaty contain specific language regarding the June 24 resolution. President Washington signed the treary in late August. The Treaty was proclaimed in effect on February 29, 1796 and the House funded it in April 1796, in a series of close votes and after another bitter fight.

James Madison, then a member of the House of Representatives, argued that under Constitutional law, the treaty need the approval of the House, since it regulated commerce and exercised legislative powers granted to Congress. An advisory opinion on the subject was written by Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth, in which he rejected any alleged right of the House of Representatives to decide upon the merits of the treaty.

Years later, when Jefferson became president in 1801, he did not repudiate the treaty. He kept the Federalist minister, Rufus King, in London to negotiate a successful resolution to outstanding issues regarding cash payments and boundaries. When the treaty expired in 1805, Jefferson rejected a renewal of the Jay Treaty, negotiated by his diplomats and agreed to by London. Relations turned increasingly hostile, a prelude to the War of 1812.

Though not universally popular, the Jay treaty reduced tensions with Britain, and allowed the trading relationship to continue, something that was likely vital to the economic health of the new American nation.


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