Though John Jay was a lawyer by training, and was eventually the first Chief Justice of the United States, he held a number of positions in the government. One of these was Secretary for Foreign Affairs, which meant that George Washington selected him to negotiate a treaty with the British. Though, given the disparity in power between the United States and the British Empire, the treaty was fine, the anti-Federalists touted Jay’s Treaty as a disaster.
John Jay, the Diplomat
Born in New York City, John Jay was a licensed lawyer in the New York courts in 1768, and married into the all-powerful Livingston clan in 1774. He was, one observer wrote, “possessed of a strong understanding by the study of law,” but was touchy and aloof. “You can sooner gain him to your opinion by submitting to be confuted by him, than by a direct attempt to convince him.” Sharp-faced, sharp-nosed, sharp-chinned, Jay was also sharp-tempered. “He is obstinate, indefatigable, and dogmatical.” Still, “by his courage, zeal, and abilities as a writer and speaker he has much popularity.”
He was the youngest member of New York’s delegation in the First Continental Congress and sat on the committee for foreign correspondence that sent the first American emissary, Silas Deane, to Europe in search of aid and allies, and in 1779, Jay turned diplomat himself as minister plenipotentiary to Spain. It was in this position that he was named to the team that negotiated the Treaty of Paris, along with Benjamin Franklin, the American representative to France, and John Adams, the representative to the Netherlands.
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John Jay and Foreign Affairs
Jay expected to return to the practice of the law once the Treaty of Paris was signed, but he had barely stepped off the boat in New York City in July 1784, when he was notified that the Confederation Congress had nominated him to fill the post of Secretary for Foreign Affairs. This was bound to be a thankless task, as Jay discovered in 1785. The Spanish claimed exclusive rights over the Mississippi River and closed the mouth of the Mississippi at New Orleans to American traffic.
Jay stayed on as interim Secretary for Foreign Affairs until the recall of Thomas Jefferson from Paris in 1789. As soon as Jay laid down that office, Washington appointed him to another, as Chief Justice of the new Supreme Court, and in April 1790, Jay commenced his first circuit through New-England. But on May 12, 1794, Jay left for England.
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John Jay in Britain
Jay was formally presented to King George III on July 2, 1794, and for the next four months, Jay and the British Foreign Secretary, William Grenville, pieced together a comprehensive treaty. Grenville assured Jay that “His Majesty’s wish was that the most complete and impartial justice should be done to all citizens of America who may, in fact, have been injured by any of the proceedings above mentioned.”
And this was not just diplomatic fluff. The British did not need a second war with the Americans at that moment, and the trade balance between Britain and America so lopsidedly favored Britain that British merchants would be ruined in the event of a war. The treaty was signed on November 19. At its core, the 28 articles of Jay’s Treaty involved four major deals.
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The Terms of the Treaty
First, Britain would complete the evacuation of the military posts in America it held onto, by June 1, 1796, while debts owed to British merchants since the Revolution would be appraised by a five-member commission and the United States would “make full and complete Compensation”.
Second, disputed boundaries between the United States and British Canada would be resolved by three-member commissions.
Third, there would be “a reciprocal and entirely perfect Liberty of Navigation and Commerce, between their respective People.” Neither nation would confiscate non-military property of the other, and although Britain reserved the right to confiscate French property found on American vessels.
Fourth, Britain would grant most-favored-nation status to the United States in East Indian trade, plus access to the West Indian islands for trade strictly between the United States and the islands.
Given the disparity in power between the United States and the British Empire, this was not a bad arrangement. In fact, one measure of how much it accomplished was the panic that ensued in the minds of Madison and Jefferson when news of the treaty was gradually leaked to the British, French and American press. “If anything of this kind should have taken place, I know the dilemma into which you will all be thrown,” wrote Jefferson’s acolyte, James Monroe.
The western ports are offered you—compensation for losses—free trade to the Islands—under the protection of the all-powerful British flag—Canada is or will be given up, whereby the fisheries become more accessible—England will no longer support Spain in favor of the Mississippi, et cetera. This will be resounded in the public papers and the impudence of the British faction become intolerable.
But the exact terms of the Treaty were not entirely well-known, and they did not arrive in Philadelphia until March 7, 1795. So there was nothing for quite a considerable time to feed upon but suspicion in American opinion. Suspicion, however, was more than sufficient for the Democratic-Republicans to roar that any treaty with the British could only be a sell-out.
Common Questions about Jay’s Treaty
In 1779, John Jay turned diplomat as minister plenipotentiary to Spain. It was in this position that he was named to the team that negotiated the Treaty of Paris.
The British did not need a second war with the Americans at that moment, and the trade balance between Britain and America was so lopsidedly favored Britain that British merchants would be ruined in the event of a war.
Given the disparity in power between the United States and the British Empire, Jay’s Treaty was the best the United States could hope for. In fact, it accomplished so much that panic ensued in the minds of Madison and Jefferson about how well it could be received by the public.