History, History Column

Jay’s Treaty

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

In February 1790 Benjamin Franklin, on behalf of Pennsylvania’s anti-slavery society, petitioned Congress to abolish slavery; “to devise means for removing the Inconsistency from the Character of the American People.” The petition triggered a national debate and slave owners were displeased. President Washington’s cabinet—which included Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia Democratic-Republican, and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, a New York Federalist—divided politically.

The slavery debate coupled with Hamilton’s post-Revolutionary War debt remedies confirmed the conundrum. “That I have utterly, in my private conversations, disapproved of the system of the Secretary of the treasury, I acknowledge [sic] & avow: and this was not merely a speculative difference,” Jefferson wrote on September 9, 1792.

The Secretaries squabble was fueled by partiality; Jeffersonian newspaper editor Jon Freneau and a partisan press. President Washington was hopeful “some line could be marked out by which both [men] could walk.” But he could not resolve their disputes.

“I do not require the evidence of the [enclosed] extracts to convince me of your attachment to the Constitution….,” Washington wrote Jefferson on October 18, 1792. “But I regret—deeply regret—the difference in opinions which have arisen, and divided you and another principal Officer of the Government….”

Virginia Congressman James Madison and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, fearing Hamilton’s influence, “launched an orchestrated attack on the [Washington] administration.” Jefferson, also a former Minister to France and then retired, opposed not only Hamilton’s handling of the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion but also Envoy Extraordinary and US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay’s November 1794 commercial treaty with Great Britain. The Treaty, its publicly debated pros and cons marked the organizational beginning of America’s two-party system.

The pro-Jefferson newspaper “Aurora joined the chorus of criticism, going so far as to suggest that Jay had been chosen because sending the chief justice to London would make impeachment proceedings again President Washington impossible.” Washington spoke of “infamous scribblers.” Cartoonists showed the President guillotined.

Jefferson condemned Jay’s Treaty “as wearing a hostile face to [revolutionary] France.” Both France and Great Britain violated America’s declaration of neutrality, especially Britain’s impressment of American sailors. President Washington first stated his neutrality policy on April 22, 1793:

“Whereas it appears that a state of war exists between Austria, Prussia, Sardinia, Great Britain and the United Netherlands, of the one part, and France on the other;…the interest of the United States require[s], that [it] should with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward belligerent powers…”

Jay, a New Yorker like Hamilton, authored many of the pro-constitutional Federalist Papers. He was an ardent abolitionist and one of three Commissioners dispatched to negotiate the American Revolution’s preliminary articles of peace. From the Democratic-Republican perspective Jay was a Federalist caricature, a monacrat. “From the Federalist perspective,” Ron Chernow wrote, “[Jay] had won peace with Britain at a time when [another] war seemed suicidal for an ill-prepared America.” Washington did not receive his London-signed copy of the Treaty until March 7, 1795.

“Mr. Jay’s treaty has at length been made public, so general a burst of dissatisfaction never before appeared against any transaction,” Jefferson wrote Minister to France James Monroe in 1795. “It has, in my opinion, completely demolished the monarchial [Federalist] party here. The Chamber of Commerce of New York, against the body of the town, the merchants of Philadelphia, against the body of their town, also, and our town of Alexandria have come forward in its support…Some individual champions [like] Alexander Hamilton also appear. [Vice-President John] Adams holds his tongue [and] we do not know whether the President has signed it or not.” President Washington defended Jay’s Treaty despite Jefferson’s disapproval.

Jay’s Treaty guaranteed British withdrawal “from all Posts and Places within the Boundary Lines assigned by the [1784] Treaty of Peace” especially America’s Northwest Territory; provided for British restitution “of irregular or illegal Captures or Condemnations of vessels and other property” seized during the Revolutionary War, and “entirely perfect Liberty of Navigation and Commerce…except as specified.”

To southerners’ dismay, Negro slaves were not on the property list. Cotton cargo was conditional, and American access to the British Islands and the West Indies was limited to ships of seventy tons or less. Impressment was not addressed.

Secretary of State Edmund Jennings Randolph, the former Virginia Governor who succeeded Thomas Jefferson on January 2, 1794, disliked the terms; advised delay, then paid the political price. Randolph, like Jefferson, favored France. Because of this he became the subject of scandal. The United States Senate passed Jay’s Treaty on June 24, 1795 by a controversial vote of 20 to 10.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart
George Washington by Gilbert Stuart

“Party disputes are now carried to [such] length, and truth is so enveloped in mist, and false representation that it is extremely difficult to know through what channel to seek it,” President Washington wrote to the Secretary of War on July 25, 1795. “This difficulty to one, who is of no political party, and whose sole wish is to pursue, with undeviating steps a path which would lead this Country to respectability, wealth and happiness is exceedingly to be lamented. But such (for wise purposes it is presumed) is the turbulence of human passion in party disputes; when victory, more than truth, is the palm contended for.”

Federalist Alexandria appreciated planter Jefferson’s good work. When Thomas Jefferson, Minister to France, returned to the United States in 1789 to become Secretary of State, the city celebrated his arrival. “As a commercial town, we feel ourselves particularly indebted to you for the indulgences which your enlightened representations to the Court of France have secured to our trade,” the Mayor said.

But Alexandria was also George Washington’s hometown. Local merchants supported the President’s policies, Hamilton’s bias, and Jay’s Treaty. “Perfect Liberty of Navigation and Commerce” was critical to their success.

Alexandria in the 1790s—George Washington’s Presidential years—was America’s tenth largest city, the country’s seventh largest seaport, and the third largest exporter of flour. Trading partners included Spain, Great Britain, Portugal, the West Indies and the Caribbean.   By 1795 Alexandria’s grain exports—grain grown in Fauquier, Loudoun and Prince William counties—totaled $948,000. Great Britain’s political and maritime practices were at least if not more important than France’s.

“It would not be frank, candid, or friendly to conceal, that your conduct has been represented as derogatory,” President Washington wrote Thomas Jefferson on July 6, 1796. “If Mr. Jefferson would retrace my public conduct while he was in the Administration, abundant proofs would occur to him, that truth and right decisions were the sole objects of my pursuit.”

It was an embattled George Washington who birthed the notion of executive prerogative; a qualified communications privilege upheld in U.S. v. Nixon 418 U.S. 683 (1974). President Washington, weary of the on-going north-south two-party rancor, refused to surrender Treaty-related documents to the House of Representatives for review.

“Why,” Washington asked Jefferson in 1792, “should…you be so tenacious of your opinions as to make no allowances for those of the other?”

Former President George Washington died at Mount Vernon on December 14, 1799. Thomas Jefferson, at home at Monticello, did not attend his funeral. Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican Party assumed the Presidency on March 4, 1801. Jay’s Treaty expired in 1805, on President Jefferson’s watch.

Written by: Sarah Becker ©
Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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