Here is what I will say today about Jay and Jay’s Treaty.
President Washington faced many serious foreign policy challenges. The British had agreed, in the treaty of peace negotiated by Jay and Franklin and Adams, to evacuate the western forts, at Niagara and Detroit and so on. They did not: and they had Indian allies that made these forts especially dangerous, prevented western settlement. The Spanish closed the Mississippi River in 1784 and it remained closed in the early 1790s. Perhaps most dangerous, there was an all-out war between Britain and France, and in the United States there were people who sided with one side or the other; there were real risks that the United States would find itself drawn into the war.
In the spring of 1794 another war with Britain seemed imminent and inevitable. There were reports that British warships were seizing American merchant vessels in the West Indies. There was a report that the British governor of Canada, in a speech given to a delegation of Indian allies, predicted a new war and and promised to draw a new border between Canada and the United States. A border that might mean we would be sitting in Canada rather than the United States.
So war seemed likely: and some people (the French-leaning Republicans) said “bring it on.” Washington, who knew more about war than most men, said “just a moment.” Let us send someone to Britain to see if we can negotiate a peaceful resolution; get the British out of the forts; get the British to stop seizing American ships and seamen; get trade access if possible to British Caribbean.
Who to send? Alexander Hamilton? He is the Secretary of the Treasury, an able diplomat, trusted adviser. Thomas Jefferson? He recently resigned as secretary of state, but in that sense he is more available, just appointing him would silence the war critics. Jay? Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, not usually thought of as home of diplomats, but trusted adviser. Hamilton to Washington: “Mr. Jay is the only man in whose qualifications for success there would be thorough confidence and him alone it would be advisable to send.”
So Jay goes to England, negotiates treaty, returns. Not a perfect treaty but avoids a war US would certainly have lost, for we had no army, no navy. What is most interesting about the treaty is the reaction: Republican outrage. Jay is hanged in effigy. There are scandalous poems, accused Jay of kissing the King’s back side. The outrage (in my view) is not over the details of treaty; it is not based on a line by line analysis. The outrage is over the idea of entering into a treaty with Britain, our enemy in the revolutionary war, and implicitly siding with Britain in its war against France, the revolutionary ideal of the Republicans. The outrage dies down, however, after the Senate ratifies the treaty, and people start to see its benefits, notably the British leaving the western forts, thereby opening those lands up for settlement.