Jay Treaty

Jay Treaty
Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, Between His Britannic Majesty and The United States of America

Facsimile of the first page of the Jay Treaty

First page of the Jay Treaty
Context To relieve post-war tension between Britain and the United States
Signed November 19, 1794 (1794-11-19)
Location London
Effective February 29, 1796 (1796-02-29)
Jay's Treaty at Wikisource

The Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America, commonly known as the Jay Treaty, and also as Jay's Treaty, was a 1795 treaty between the United States and Great Britain that is credited with averting war,[1] resolving issues remaining since the Treaty of Paris of 1783 (which ended the American Revolutionary War),[2] and facilitating ten years of peaceful trade between the United States and Britain in the midst of the French Revolutionary Wars, which began in 1792.

The terms of the treaty were designed primarily by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and strongly supported by chief negotiator John Jay and also by President George Washington. The treaty gained many of the primary American goals. This included the withdrawal of British Army units from pre-Revolutionary forts in the Northwest Territory it had failed to relinquish under the Paris Peace Treaty as a result of the United States reneging on Articles 4 and 6 of the treaty; American state courts impeded the collection of debts owed the British creditors and upheld the continued confiscation of Loyalist estates in spite of an explicit undertaking that the prosecutions would be immediately discontinued.[3] The parties agreed that disputes over wartime debts and the American–Canadian boundary were to be sent to arbitration — one of the first major uses of arbitration in diplomatic history. The Americans were granted limited rights to trade with British colonies in the Caribbean in exchange for some limits on the American export of cotton.

The treaty was hotly contested by the Jeffersonians in each state. They feared that closer economic ties with Great Britain would strengthen Hamilton's Federalist Party, promote aristocracy, and undercut republicanism. Washington's announced support proved decisive, and the treaty was ratified by a two-thirds majority of the U.S. Senate in November 1794 without a single vote to spare. The treaty became a central issue of contention, leading to the formation of the "First Party System," with the Federalists favoring the British and the Jeffersonian republicans favoring France. The treaty was for ten years' duration. Efforts failed to agree on a replacement treaty in 1806 when Jefferson rejected the Monroe–Pinkney Treaty, as tensions escalated toward the War of 1812.[4] The treaty was signed on November 19, 1794, the Senate advised and consented on June 24, 1795; it was ratified by the President and the British government, and it took effect February 29, 1796, the day when ratifications were officially exchanged.


The outbreak of war between France and Great Britain (and other countries) in 1793 ended the long peace that had enabled the new nation to flourish in terms of trade and finance. The United States now emerged as an important neutral country with a large shipping trade.[5] From the British perspective, improving relations with the United States was a high priority lest it move into the French orbit. British negotiators ignored elements that wanted harsher terms in order to get a suitable treaty.[6]From the American viewpoint, the most pressing foreign policy issues were normalizing the trade relations with Britain, the United States' leading trading partner, and resolving issues left over from the Treaty of Paris. 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."[7]

Nevertheless, the Royal Navy had captured hundreds of neutral American merchant ships in recent months as part of its blockade of France, and British officials in Canada were supplying firearms to Indian tribes in their resistance to American settlers in the Ohio River Valley, territory which Britain had explicitly ceded to the United States in 1783. Congress voted for a trade embargo against Britain in the spring of 1794, which affected the commerce of the Northeastern states in particular.

At the national level American politics was divided between the factions of Jefferson and Madison, which favored the French, and the Federalists led by Hamilton, who saw Britain as a natural ally and thus sought to normalize relations with Britain, especially in the area of trade. Washington sided with Hamilton. Hamilton devised a framework for negotiations, and President George Washington sent Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay to London to negotiate a comprehensive treaty.

The American government had several outstanding issues:[8]

Treaty terms

Both sides achieved many objectives.[9] The British agreed to vacate the western forts by June 1796 (which was done), and to compensate American ship owners (the British paid $10,345,200 by 1802).[10] In return, the United States gave most favored nation trading status to Britain, 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). American merchants obtained limited rights to trade in the British West Indies.

Two joint boundary commissions were set up to establish the boundary line in the Northeast (it agreed on one) and in the Northwest (this commission never met and the boundary was settled after the War of 1812).[11]

Jay, a strong opponent of slavery, dropped the issue of compensation for slaves, which angered Southern slaveholders and was used as a target for attacks by Jeffersonians.[12] Jay was unsuccessful in negotiating an end to the impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy, which later became a key issue leading to the War of 1812.

American Indian rights

Article III states, "It is agreed, that it shall at all times be free to His Majesty's subjects, and to the citizens of the United States, and also to the Indians dwelling on either side of the said boundary line, freely to pass and repass, by land or inland navigation into the respective territories and countries of the two parties on the continent of America, (the country within the limits of the Hudson's Bay Company only excepted)... and freely carry on trade and commerce with each other." Article III of the Jay Treaty declared the right of Indians, American citizens, and Canadian subjects to trade and travel between the United States and Canada, which was then a territory of Great Britain.[13] Over the years since, the United States has codified this obligation in the provisions of Section 289 of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 and as amended in 1965. As a result of the Jay Treaty, "Native Indians born in Canada are therefore entitled to enter the United States for the purpose of employment, study, retirement, investing, and/or immigration".[14] Article III of the Jay Treaty is the basis of most Indian claims.[15]

Approval and dissent

Washington submitted the treaty to the United States Senate for its consent in June 1795; a two-thirds vote was needed. The treaty was unpopular at first and gave the Jeffersonians a platform to rally new supporters. As historian Paul Varg 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."[16]

The Jeffersonians were opposed to Britain, preferring support for France in the wars raging in Europe, and they argued that the treaty with France from 1778 was still in effect. They considered Britain as the center of aristocracy and the chief threat to the United States' Republican values. 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 said: 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![17]

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison strongly opposed the Treaty, as they favored France; foreign policy became a major dispute between the new Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties; it became a core issue of the First Party System. Jefferson and his supporters had a counter-proposal 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.[18] 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."[19] Jay's failure to obtain compensation for "lost" slaves galvanized the South into opposition.[20]

The Federalists fought back and Congress rejected the Jefferson–Madison counter-proposals. Washington threw his great prestige behind the treaty, and Federalists rallied public opinion more effectively than did their opponents.[21] Hamilton convinced President Washington that it was the best treaty that could be expected. Washington insisted that the U.S. must remain neutral in the European wars; he 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, who was opposition leader.[22] Hamilton by then was out of the government, and he was the dominant figure who helped secure the treaty's approval by the needed 2/3 vote in the Senate. The Senate passed a resolution in June, advising the President to amend the treaty by suspending the 12th article, which concerned trade between the U.S. and the West Indies. In mid-August, the Senate ratified the treaty 20–10, with the condition that the treaty contain specific language regarding the June 24 resolution. President Washington signed it in late August. The Treaty was proclaimed in effect on February 29, 1796 and the House funded it in April 1796, in a series of close votes and after another bitter fight.[23]

James Madison, then a member of the House of Representatives, argued that the treaty could not, under Constitutional law, take effect without approval of the House, since it regulated commerce and exercised legislative powers granted to Congress. The debate which followed was an early example of originalism, in which Madison, the "Father of the Constitution," lost.[24] One interesting feature of this nationwide constitutional debate was an advisory opinion on the subject written by Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth, in which he rejected any alleged right of the House of Representatives to decide upon the merits of the treaty.[25] After defeat on the treaty in Congress, the Jeffersonian Republicans lost the 1796 presidential election on the issue.

When Jefferson became president in 1801, he did not repudiate the treaty. He kept the Federalist minister, Rufus King, in London to negotiate a successful resolution to outstanding issues regarding cash payments and boundaries. The amity broke down when the treaty expired in 1805. Jefferson rejected a renewal of the Jay Treaty in the Monroe–Pinkney Treaty of 1806 as negotiated by his diplomats and agreed to by London. Relations turned increasingly hostile as a prelude to the War of 1812. In 1815, the Treaty of Ghent superseded the Jay treaty.


Historians Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick note that, in conventional diplomatic terms and as a "piece of adversary bargaining", Jay "got much the worst of the 'bargain'. Such a view has to a great degree persisted ever since."[26] They conclude that Jay did not succeed in asserting neutral rights, but he did obtain "his other sine qua nons"; he got none of things that were "desirable, but not indispensable."[27] They add that Jay's record on the symbolic side was open to many objections. However, on the "hard" (or realistic) side, "it was a substantial success, which included the prevention of war with Great Britain."[28]

Historian Marshall Smelser argues that the treaty effectively postponed war with Britain, or at least postponed it until the United States was strong enough to handle it.[29]

Bradford Perkins argued in 1955 that the treaty was the first to establish a special relationship between Britain and the United States, 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 be 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."[30]

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."[31] Perkins suggests that, except perhaps the opening of trade with British India, "Jay did fail to win anything the Americans were not obviously entitled to, liberation of territory recognized as theirs since 1782, and compensation for seizures that even Britain admitted were illegal". He also speculates that a "more astute negotiator than the Chief Justice" would have gotten better terms than he did.[32] He quoted the opinion of "great historian" Henry Adams that the treaty was a "bad one":

"No one would venture on its merits to defend it now. There has been no time since 1810 when the United States would not prefer war to peace on such terms."

Perkins gave more weight than other historians to valuable concessions regarding trade in India and the concession on the West Indies trade. In addition, Perkins noted that the Royal Navy treated American commerce with "relative leniency" during the wars, and many impressed seamen were returned to America. As Spain assessed the informal British-American alliance, it softened its previous opposition to the United States' use 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 benefited American shipping.[33]

Elkins and McKitrick find this more positive view open to "one big difficulty": it requires that the British negotiated in the same spirit. Unlike Perkins, they find "little indication of this".[34]

George Herring's 2008 history of US foreign policy says that, in 1794, "the United States and Britain edged toward war" and concludes, "The Jay Treaty brought the United States important concessions and served its interests well."[35] Joseph Ellis finds the terms of the treaty "one-sided in Britain's favor," but asserts with 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."[36]

See also


  1. Jean Edward Smith, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation (1998) p. 177
  2. Todd Estes, The Jay Treaty Debate, Public Opinion, and the Evolution of Early American Political Culture (2006) p. 15
  3. Encyclopedia of the Age of Political Revolutions and New Ideologies, 1760-1815 Gregory Fremont-Barnes P.438
  4. Marshall Smelser, The Democratic Republic: 1801–1815 (1968) pp. 139, 145, 155–56.
  5. Samuel Flagg Bemis, Jay's Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy (1923) ch 1
  6. Perkins (1955) pp. 2-4
  7. Gouverneur Morris quoted in Perkins (1955) p. 22; the British foreign minister felt, "this Country is anxious to keep the Americans in good humour." Perkins (1955) p. 22
  8. Bemis, Jay's Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy (1923) ch 2
  9. Thomas A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People (10th Ed. 1980) pp 77-78.
  10. Wayne S. Cole, An Interpretive History of American Foreign Relations, (1974) p. 55.
  11. The Treaty also allowed people to pass freely across the US-Canada border to carry on trade and commerce.
  12. Paul Finkelman (2014). Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. pp. 171–72.
  13. INA, Cornell.
  14. "First Nations and Native Americans". United States Embassy, Consular Services Canada. Retrieved 2009-03-03.
  15. Karl S. Hele, Lines Drawn upon the Water: First Nations and the Great Lakes Borders and Borderlands (2008) p. 127
  16. Varg, 1963 p. 95.
  17. William Weeks, Building the Continental Empire, p. 23.
  18. Elkins and McKitrick, p. 405.
  19. William Nisbet Chambers. Political Parties in a New Nation: The American Experience, 1776–1809 (1963), p. 80.
  20. Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy (2006) 67–68.
  21. Estes 2001.
  22. Estes pp. 398–99.
  23. "Jay’s Treaty", American Foreign Relations.
  24. Rakove, pp 355–365
  25. Casto, William. "Two Advisory Opinions by Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth", The Green Bag, Vol. 6, p. 413 (2003).
  26. Elkins and McKitrick
  27. Elkins and McKitrick, p. 410.
  28. Elkins and McKitrick. The Age of Federalism. p. 412.
  29. Marshall Smelser, The Democratic Republic, 1801–1815 (1968).
  30. Perkins p. vii
  31. Perkins p. 1.
  32. Perkins: The First Rapprochement p. 3.
  33. Perkins, Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations I: The Creation of a Republican Empire,(1995) pp. 99, 100, 124.
  34. Elkins and McKitrick, pp. 396–402.
  35. George Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 (2008) p 73, 78
  36. Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (2000) pp. 136–7.


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