The Republican Campaign: The Fallout of Jay’s Treaty


By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D.Gettysburg College

Once the treaty with Britain, which came to be known as John Jay’s treaty, was received by the American government, there was a fear that there would be an explosive reaction. But, the actual proceedings in the Senate were comparatively tame. Federalists held a safe majority there, and the Senate took only two weeks of debate before advising and consenting to Jay’s Treaty on June 24. The real explosion came once the Senate adjourned and unsympathetic anti-treaty senators released their copies of the treaty to the newspapers.

Washington's Farewell Address
The decision of Washington to resign after his second term gave impetus to the Republican party, which gained ground in the uproar following the Jay Treaty. (Image: George Washington/Public domain)

Electrifying News

Benjamin Franklin Bache’s Aurora hit the streets of Philadelphia with an abstract of the treaty on June 29, followed by a 25-cent pamphlet version of the full text, and from there wrote Madison it “flew with an electric velocity to every part of the Union.”

Electric was putting it mildly. A Fourth of July parade in Philadelphia turned into a protest riot; on July 18, a mob in New York City burned a copy of the treaty on John Jay’s front door, and when Alexander Hamilton offered to debate the treaty publicly, he was greeted with a volley of stones. Another public meeting in Philadelphia on July 25 featured Blair McClenachan announcing, “What a damned treaty. I make a motion that every good citizen kick this damned treaty to hell.”

Learn more about the reaction to Jay’s Treaty.

Randolph’s Treachery

It did not help, either, that Washington was delaying putting his signature to the treaty. He had been advised by Edmund Randolph, the Secretary of State, that a new order in Council had been issued which contradicted the treaty’s 12th article. Washington could not bring himself to sign the treaty until the British assured him that this new order would be revoked.

What Washington did not know was that Randolph had been passing information on to the French minister in Philadelphia. But the French diplomatic correspondence was itself intercepted at sea by the British, and the incriminating revelation of Randolph’s duplicity was put into the hands of Washington’s Secretary of War, Timothy Pickering. He met with Washington on August 11 to unveil what the French called “the precious confessions of Mr. Randolph.”

Thus, on August 18, Washington signed the treaty, and the following day, he personally accused Randolph of treachery and demanded his resignation. The wind went out of the anti-treaty sails with Randolph’s exposure, and “the Storm, which the business of the treaty threatened to raise, seemed to be blown over.”

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding FathersWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Parties Form

The elections of 1792 were the first intimation of a “struggle between the Treasury department and the republican interest;” the Democratic-Republican societies of 1794 were a much clearer sign that Americans would cheerfully abandon self-denying public-spiritedness in exchange for organizing in their own self-interest.

“The existence of two parties in Congress are apparent,” warned Colonel John Taylor in a pamphlet that he published in the spring of 1794, “A Definition of Parties, or The Political Effect of the paper System Considered.” The uproar over the Jay Treaty only gave party polarization an unlooked-for boost.

A month after signing the Jay Treaty, Washington released an announcement that he would retire from the presidency in March 1797. This only set off the party race even harder. But the final thread was sewn in the spring of 1796, when the anti-treaty members of Congress, now calling themselves simply Republicans, held their own caucus to  endorse candidates for the upcoming presidential election.

Copy of the Jay's Treaty.
The uproar over the Jay Treaty only gave party polarization an unlooked-for boost. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Learn more about Jefferson’s party.

The Republican Campaign

The principal Republican candidate, it was clear, would be Thomas Jefferson. Since the Constitution mandated that presidential electors vote for two candidates, the caucus supplied a second name from its newer ranks, Aaron Burr of New Jersey. And as if to point up still more new ways for a party to organize, a new cadre of campaign promoters and managers volunteered for election service.

In Pennsylvania, John Beckley a disciple of Jefferson’s sowed 50,000 Republican ballots and handbills across Pennsylvania, urging the “friends of the people, who love liberty” to go to the polls on November 4 and elect “fifteen good Republicans” as presidential electors who “will vote for a republican President.” Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s John Smith, a hatter by trade undertook and performed an election campaign of 600 miles.

An Unequal Yoke

But what was sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander. The Federalist majority in Congress held their own caucus, and produced their own nominees for the presidency: John Adams, the sitting vice-president, and Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina. What was more, Adams enjoyed the blessing of Washington.

But balanced against Washington’s prestige was the tumult over the Jay Treaty, and one member of the Federalist caucus, William Bingham of Pennsylvania, warned Rufus King, who was now American minister to Great Britain, that “The friends of Mr. Adams may calculate on a majority in his favor, but so small, that on so momentous an occasion, it would be risking too much to trust entirely thereto.” And when the electoral votes were counted on February 8, 1797, it turned out to have been a near-run thing after all. Adams won 71 votes in the electoral college, but Pinckney had tallied only 59. Sixty-eight had gone to Jefferson, thus making the two loggerhead opponents president and vice-president, in what would turn out to be the most unequally-yoked presidential administration in American history.

Common Questions about the Reaction to the Jay Treaty

Q: What was the public reaction to the Jay Treaty?

The public reaction to the Jay treaty was one of anger followed by violent protests. Copies of the treaty were burnt, riots broke out in some places, and people publicly reviled the treaty as probably the worst one in the history of the United States.

Q: Why did Washington finally agree to sign Jay’s Treaty?

It was revealed to Washington that Edmund Randolph, who was advising him not to sign the treaty, was collaborating with the French. Upon realizing this, Washington called for a discussion and confirmed his intention to sign the treaty.

Q. What was unique about the presidential elections of 1797?

The presidential elections of 1797 were the first time when there were distinct parties, who held independent caucuses to select their own candidates. One party called themselves the Republicans who fielded Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The Federalists fielded Adams and Pinckney.

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