The treaty, designed by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, was ratified by both counries in 1795. It averted threatened war, solved many issues left over from the American Revolution, and opened ten years of peaceful trade in the midst of the wars of the French Revolution. It was hotly denounced by Jeffersonians as too pro-British, but passed Congress and became a central issue in the formation of the First Party System. Signed in November 1794, ratified and put into effect in 1795, it was a major success for early American diplomacy.
The treaty included three major provisions:
- Withdrawal of British troops from America's Western posts
- The establishment of a commission to settle border issues between the United States and Canada
- The establishment of a commission to resolve American losses in British ship seizure and loyalist losses during the American Revolutionary War.
The terms were designed primarily by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, with strong support from President George Washington and chief negotiator John Jay. Both sides achieved some of their objectives (especially averting possible war and increasing trade), but Jeffersonians thought it aligned the new nation too closely with Britain and thus threatened republican values. Jay obtained the primary American requirements, chiefly British withdrawal from the posts they occupied in the Northwest Territory of the United States, which they had promised to abandon in 1783. Wartime debts and the US-Canada boundary were sent to arbitration--one of the first major uses of arbitration in diplomatic history. The British also granted some rights to trade with British possessions in India and the Caribbean, in exchange for American limits on the export of cotton. The treaty averted possible war but immediately became one of the central issues in domestic American politics, with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison leading the opposition. They feared that closer economic ties with Britain would strengthen the Federalists and might undercut republican values. The treaty encouraged trade between the two nations for a decade; but it broke down after 1803; efforts to agree on a replacement treaty failed in 1807 as tensions escalated to the War of 1812.
From the British perspective, the war with France made it imperative to improve relations with the U.S., lest that country fall into the French orbit. From the American viewpoint, the most pressing foreign policy issues were normalizing trade relations with Britain, America's leading trading partner, and resolving issues left over from the American Revolution. As one observer explained, the British government was "well disposed to America....They have made their arrangements upon a plan that comprehends the neutrality of the United States, and are anxious that it should be preserved." Even more serious were the issues arising from the ongoing war between Britain and France. In 1793-1794, the British Navy captured hundreds of American neutral ships and the British in Canada were supporting Indian tribes fighting the U.S. in Ohio (territory the British gave the U.S. in 1783). Congress voted an embargo for two months. Hamilton and the Federalists favored Britain over France, and sought to normalize relations. Hamilton designed the plan and Washington sent Chief Justice Jay to London to negotiate a comprehensive treaty.
The American government had a number of issues it wanted dealt with:
- Britain was still occupying a number of forts on U.S. territory in the Great Lakes region.
- American merchants wanted compensation for 350 ships confiscated during 1793-94.
- Southerners wanted compensation for the slaves the British had taken from them during the Revolution.
- Merchants wanted the British West Indies reopened to American trade.
- The boundary with Canada was too vague and needed delineation.
Both sides achieved many objectives. The British agreed to vacate the six western forts by June 1796 (which was done), and to compensate American ship owners (the British paid $10,345,200 by 1802). In return, the Americans gave "most favored nation" trading status to the British, and acquiesced in British anti-French maritime policies. The United States guaranteed the payment of private prewar debts owed by Americans to British merchants that could not be collected in U.S. courts (the U.S. paid £600,000 in 1802). Two joint boundary commissions were set up to establish correctly the boundary line in the northeast (it agreed on the Saint Croix River) and in the northwest (this one never met). Jay, a strong opponent of slavery, dropped the issue of compensation for slaves, which angered Southern slaveowners. Jay was unsuccessful in negotiating an end to the impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy, which later became one of the key issues that led to the War of 1812. Article III declared the right of Indians to trade and travel between the United States and British Canada.
Approval and dissent
Washington submitted the treaty to the Senate for ratification in June 1795. The treaty was unpopular at first, and gave the Jeffersonians a platform to rally new supporters. As Varg (1963) explains, "The Jay Treaty was a reasonable give-and-take compromise of the issues between the two countries. What rendered it so assailable was not the compromise spelled out between the two nations but the fact that it was not a compromise between the two political parties at home. Embodying the views of the Federalists, the treaty repudiated the foreign policy of the opposing party." The Jeffersonians feared that close economic ties to Britain would strengthen monarchism in the U.S.; they strongly supported France in the war between Britain and France that began in 1794, and arguing the treaty with France from 1778 was still in effect. They looked at Britain as the center of aristocracy and the main threat to America's republican values. Therefore they denounced Hamilton and Jay (and even Washington) as monarchists who betrayed American values. They organized public protests against Jay and his treaty; one of their rallying cries went: Damn John Jay! Damn everyone that won't damn John Jay! Damn every one that won't put lights in his window and sit up all night damning John Jay!  Jefferson and Madison strongly opposed the Treaty--they favored France--thus setting up foreign policy as a major dispute between the recently established Federalist party and the new Republican party. Furthermore they had a counterproposal designed to establish "a direct system of commercial hostility with Great Britain," even at the risk of war. The Jeffersonians raised public opinion to fever pitch by accusing the British of promoting Indian atrocities on the frontier. The fierce debates over the Treaty in 1794-95, according to one historian, "transformed the Republican movement into a Republican party." To fight the treaty the Jeffersonians "established coordination in activity between leaders at the capital, and leaders, actives and popular followings in the states, counties and towns." Jay's failure to obtain compensation for "lost" slaves galvanized the South into opposition.
The Federalists fought back and Congress rejected the Jefferson-Madison counterproposals. Washington threw his enormous prestige behind the treaty, and Federalists rallied public opinion more effectively than the opponents. Hamilton convinced President Washington it was the best treaty that could be expected. Washington, who insisted the U.S. must remain neutral in the European wars then raging, signed it and his prestige carried the day in Congress. The Federalists made a strong, systematic appeal to public opinion which rallied their own supporters and shifted the debate. Washington and Hamilton outmaneuvered Madison as opposition leader. Hamilton, now out of the government, was the dominant figure who helped secure its approval in the Senate by the needed 2/3 vote. In mid-August, the Senate ratified the treaty 20-10. President Washington signed it in late August. The Treaty was proclaimed in effect on February 29, 1796 and in the series of close votes after another bitter fight the House funded the Treaty in April 1796.
After defeat in Congress, the Jeffersonian Republicans fought and lost the 1796 presidential election on the issue, as John Adams narrowly defeated Jefferson.
When Jefferson became president in 1801 he did not repudiate the treaty, and instead kept the Federalist minister in London Rufus King to negotiate a successful resolution to outstanding issues regarding cash payments and boundaries. Jefferson sent James Monroe to broker an extension of the treaty, which Monroe accomplished. But Jefferson distrusted Britain and rejected Monroe's treaty, so the Jay Treaty expired in 1805. Relations with Britain turned hostile, leading to the War of 1812. In 1815, the Jay treaty was replaced by the Treaty of Ghent.
Historian Marshall Smelser argues that the treaty effectively postponed war with Britain for ten years and more (war finally did break out in 1812).
Bradford Perkins argued in 1955 that the treaty was the first establishment of a special relationship between Britain and America, with a second installment under Lord Salisbury. In his view, the treaty worked for ten years to secure peace between Britain and America: "The decade may he characterized as the period of "The First Rapprochement." As Perkins concludes, "For about ten years there was peace on the frontier, joint recognition of the value of commercial intercourse, and even, by comparison with both preceding and succeeding epochs, a muting of strife over ship seizures and impressment. Two controversies with France... pushed the English-speaking powers even more closely together." Starting at swords' point in 1794 the Jay treaty reversed the tensions, Perkins concludes: "Through a decade of world war and peace, successive governments on both sides of the Atlantic were able to bring about and preserve a cordiality which often approached genuine friendship."
Perkins gives more weight than other historians to valuable concessions regarding trade in India and the concession on the West Indies trade. In addition, reports Perkins, the Royal Navy treated American commerce with "relative leniency" during the wars, and many impressed seamen were returned to America. Furthermore, Spain, seeing an informal British-American alliance shaping up, became more favorable regarding American usage of the Mississippi River and signed Pinckney's Treaty which the Americans wanted. When Jefferson took office he gained renewal of the commercial articles that had greatly benefitted American shipping.
Joseph Ellis finds the terms of the treaty "one-sided in Britain's favor" , but asserts a consensus of historians that it was
"a shrewd bargain for the United States. It bet, in effect, on England rather than France as the hegemonic European power of the future, which proved prophetic. It recognized the massive dependence of the American economy on trade with England. In a sense it was a precocious preview of the Monroe Doctrine (1823), for it linked American security and economic development to the British fleet, which provided a protective shield of incalculable value throughout the nineteenth century. Mostly, it postponed war with England until America was economically and politically more capable of fighting one."
- Bemis, Samuel Flagg. Jay's Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy (1923) remains the standard narrative of how treaty was written
- Charles, Joseph. "The Jay Treaty: The Origins of the American Party System," in William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 12, No. 4. (Oct., 1955), pp. 581-630. online at JSTOR
- Combs, Jerald. A. The Jay Treaty: Political Background of Founding Fathers (1970) (ISBN 0-520-01573-8) Focusing on the domestic and ideological aspects, Combs dislikes Hamilton's quest for national power and a "heroic state" dominating the Western Hemisphere, but concludes the Federalists "followed the proper policy" because the treaty preserved peace with Britain
- Elkins, Stanley M. and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800. (1994), ch. 9
- Estes, Todd, "The Art of Presidential Leadership: George Washington and the Jay Treaty," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 2001, vol 109, no. 2.
- Estes, Todd, "Shaping the Politics of Public Opinion: Federalists and the Jay Treaty Debate." Journal of the Early Republic (2000) 20(3): 393-422. ISSN 0275-1275; online at JSTOR
- Estes, Todd. The Jay Treaty Debate, Public Opinion, And the Evolution of Early American Political Culture (2006)
- Farrell, James M. "Fisher Ames and Political Judgment: Reason, Passion, and Vehement Style in the Jay Treaty Speech," Quarterly Journal of Speech 1990 76(4): 415-434.
- Fewster, Joseph M. "The Jay Treaty and British Ship Seizures: the Martinique Cases." William and Mary Quarterly 1988 45(3): 426-452. ISSN 0043-5597 22:09, online at JSTOR
- Perkins, Bradford. The First Rapprochement: England and the United States, 1795-1805 1955.
- Perkins, Bradford. "Lord Hawkesbury and the Jay-Grenville Negotiations," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 40, No. 2. (Sep., 1953), pp. 291-304. JSTOR
- Varg, Paul A; Foreign Policies of the Founding Fathers. 1963.
- Jay's Treaty and related resources at the Library of Congress
- Jay Treaty of 1794 -- relevant documents from The Avalon Project.
- Marshall Smelser, The Democratic Republic: 1801-1815 (1968) p 139, 145, 155-56
- Gouverneur Morris quoted in Perkins (1955) p. 22; the British foreign minister felt, "this Country is anxious to keep the Americans in good humour." ibid.
- Wayne S. Cole, An Interpretive History of American Foreign Relations, (1974) P. 55.
- Varg, 1963 p. 95
- William Weeks, Building the Continental Empire, p. 23
- Elkins and McKitrick, p. 405
- William Nisbet Chambers. Political Parties in a New Nation: The American Experience, 1776-1809 (1963), p. 80
- Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy (2006) 67-68
- Estes 2001
- Estes pp 398-99
- Marshall Smelser, The Democratic Republic, 1801-1815 (1968)
- Perkins (1955) p. vii
- Perkins (1955) p 1
- Perkins, Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations I: The Creation of a Republican Empire. (1995) p. 99, 100, 124
- Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (2000) pp 136-7