On this day in 1795, the United States and Great Britain signed the Jay Treaty, resolving lingering issues from the American Revolutionary War that almost escalated to another war.
Named after John Jay, who negotiated the treaty, it was drafted by Alexander Hamilton and supported by President George Washington, although Thomas Jefferson and many Americans bitterly opposed it. The Treaty achieved the withdrawal of British forces from parts of the Northwest Territory that were supposed to be relinquished to the U.S. under the 1783 peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War; the British were retaliating against Americans for reneging on Articles 4 and 6 of that treaty, in which U.S. courts prevented the repayment of debts to British subjects and upheld the confiscation of Loyalist property.
Instead of continuing this unsustainable tit for tat, the parties agreed that disputes over wartime debts, as well as over the exact boundary between the U.S. and British Canada, were to be settled by arbitration (i.e. outside the courts but with legal binding). This was one of the first major uses of arbitration in modern diplomatic history, and set the precedent for other states to resolve disputes. Both countries granted one another “most favored nation” status and facilitate ten years of peaceful relations and commerce—an absolute shock to people on both sides of the Atlantic, whose wounds from the war were literally only a little over a decade old.
Indeed, the treaty was hotly contested by Jefferson and his supporters across every state, who failed to block its approval in the House, which ultimately failed; following one of the first constitutional debates in American history, it was decided that only a two thirds vote from the Senate was required to ratify a treaty. (Amusing to think that even while they were still alive, the Founders debated what the Constitution meant.)
The “Jeffersonians” feared that closer economic or political ties with Great Britain would strengthen promote aristocracy and undercut republicanism; they supported France in the Revolutionary Wars that were raging in Europe, and saw the French as their natural allies, not the monarchical British. Hamilton, Jay, and even Washington were denounced as monarchists who sold out American values; one rallying cry among protesters was “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”. So much for the golden age of civility!
The controversy and subsequent polarization over the Jay Treaty crystallized an already emerging partisan division: despite disliking political parties, and designing the Constitution without them in mind, the Founders and their fellow Americans began to form two camps within the so called the “First Party System.” The pro-Jay Treaty Federalists, typified by Hamilton, favored closer ties with the British, as well as a strong central government; those against the treaty, called “Jeffersonian Republicans”, favored France and a weaker national government. As we now know, these proto-political parties would mark the beginning of an increasingly sophisticated and entrenched division between two major national parties—something largely unforeseen by the Founders.
In any event, the Jay Treaty went into effect in February 1796 and lasted for its entire ten year duration. When Jefferson became president in 1801, he did not initially repudiate the treaty he had so despised; in fact, he even retained the Federalist ambassador in London to settle some outstanding issues. Unfortunately, when 1806 rolled around and the Monroe–Pinkney Treaty was proposed as a replacement to the Jay Treaty, Jefferson rejected it due to its perceived failure to resolve certain pending matters. The subsequent tensions escalated toward the War of 1812—which likely would have started sooner but for the Jay Treaty.
The Jay Treaty confers many interesting historical lessons.
First, it shows that the Founders, contrary to revisionist interpretations, were far from militant and nationalist; they favored and prioritized diplomacy even with a mortal enemy. (Indeed, most were initially receptive to remaining within the British Empire had their demands for autonomy been met.) By a similar token, international affairs and relations were always seen as crucial, not something to be dismissed as hokey globalism.
Second, the Founders were far from monolithic or agreeable, and in fact were downright nasty to each other. There was never some golden age of civil and rational statesmanship. Politics were as petty and personal and acrimonious as ever.
Finally, political parties were never meant to be a thing, and emerged almost accidentally by virtue of Americans have very different attitudes and visions about certain things; perhaps this is with the benefit of hindsight, but this likely should have been an obvious possibility given human tribalism.
(Also, the Treaty’s full name was the “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America”, but that is unwieldy as hell, so we’ll stick with Jay!)