Book: Jay’s Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy

“America’s Advantage from Europe’s Distress.” Samuel Flagg Bemis, the most influential historian of early American foreign policy, thus summarized the essence of that policy as he understood it. The United States took advantage of Europe’s quarrels and its own detached geographical situation to achieve objectives that suited America’s interests and character. In an academic career spanning over three decades at Yale, Bemis developed that thesis through a number of influential works and through his students. He twice received the Pulitzer Prize, once for history, Pinckney’s Treaty (Yale University Press, 1926, rev. ed. 1960), and once for biography, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy (1950). His Diplomacy of the American Revolution remains the standard in the field; A Diplomatic History of the United States (1936, 5th ed. 1965) long dominated the university classroom. He was also the editor of the highly-regarded collection, American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy (18 vol., 1963–72).

In his classic analysis of one of the most controversial diplomatic agreements in U.S. history—Jay’s Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy (1923, rev. ed. 1962)—Bemis applied the “distress/advantage” criterion of American diplomatic success. But as always, he did so in a way that did not interfere with the presentation of the essential facts. He offered an unsurpassed examination of the strategic background and diplomatic record, after examining American, Canadian, British, French, and Scandinavian archives with the sort of detail and clarity of presentation that marked Henry Adams’ History of the United States during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

John Jay As a point of departure of his study, Bemis recalls Adams’ judgment: “That Mr. Jay’s Treaty was a bad one few persons even then ventured to dispute; no one would venture on its merits to defend it now.” The Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation was negotiated by Lord Grenville, the British Foreign Secretary, and John Jay, the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. It was signed in November 1794, although the ratification process delayed its implementation until 1796. Jay had been dispatched to London in the spring of 1794 by President Washington in a last-ditch attempt to forestall war between the two countries, which had enjoyed at best a cold peace since the end of the American Revolution. For the past year, Britain had seized American merchant vessels as part of its naval campaign against Revolutionary France. The Governor-General of Canada had recently made a speech to a delegation of western Indians indicating that he expected to support them in an impending war with the United States. No major U.S. leader wanted war with Britain but there was also no political consensus about how to meet the crisis. The so-called Republican interest in Congress, led by James Madison with the private support of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, favored the French cause and supported legislation that would retaliate severely against British commercial and economic interests. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and his Congressional allies, known as the Federalists, thought that a rupture with Britain, America’s largest trading partner, would destroy American credit and undermine the nationality so tenuously created by the Constitution of 1787. Hamilton’s recommendations strongly influenced the formulation of Jay’s official instruction, as well the unofficial understanding of what he should seek.

The final version of Jay’s Treaty made provision for some outstanding issues between the two parties, including the question of Revolutionary war debts, Britain’s evacuation of the northwest frontier posts, and compensation for certain British maritime spoliations. But the Republicans were outraged by what they regarded as Jay’s capitulation to London. He had abandoned the principle of the Model Treaty of 1776—free ships make free goods—which the United States had long sought to make the centerpiece of its neutrality policy; and which was an integral part of the 1778 alliance with France, as well as in America’s other commercial treaties. The Treaty had moved substantially toward acceptance of the illiberal British definition of the maritime law of nations, including the definition of foodstuffs as contraband and the legitimacy of paper blockades. The Treaty explicitly foreswore the use of coercive economic instruments—including commercial discrimination against the ships and goods of the other nation, and debt sequestration—which the Republicans believed were essential instruments with which to confront the British.

Federalist diplomat John Quincy Adams, who reviewed a draft of the Treaty in London with Jay, was shocked. “It is much below the standard which I think advantageous to the country.” He could not understand why Jay had not obtained much more advantageous terms from Grenville because Britain was then in high distress. The anti-French coalition in Europe seemed on the verge of defeat and Britain itself appeared on the verge of a popular revolt. Hamilton, when he learned of the terms, privately called it “execrable” and “an old woman’s treaty” (or at least so Jefferson heard). But John Quincy Adams and Hamilton wholeheartedly supported the ratification of the Treaty. “The national honor will be maintained,” however minimally, and “the national interest will suffer infinitely less than it would by the most successful war we could wage,” Adams explained. Despite an enormous public outcry against the Treaty, the U.S. Senate (by a bare constitutional majority, 20-10) agreed, along with President Washington and the House of Representatives, which debated withholding funding for the implementation of the Treaty. The case for ratification was greatly aided by the near-simultaneous, and much more favorable, agreement with Spain (Pinckney’s Treaty, the subject of another major study by Bemis.) The political controversy over the British Treaty lingered for decades, however. Almost thirty years later, Jefferson told Madison that he approved the sentiments in George Washington’s Farewell Address—save its favorable view of Jay’s Treaty.

Jay’s Treaty can be fairly characterized as appeasement of Britain, according to Bemis. Jay could have obtained a better treaty, at least at the margins. But as to the major Republican criticisms, Bemis believed that it was hopeless to expect Britain to relinquish her position on maritime rights unless compelled to do so by force. Jay did the best he could in that respect, because he knew that the United States had neither the capacity or will to do so; whereas Britain would have gone to war on this point. Republicans argued that in that case, no treaty was better than a bad one. But Bemis cites Alfred Thayer Mahan’s judgment—the signature by England of any treaty at all with the United States was of “epochal significance,” recognition of the existence of American nationality of far greater import than the technical recognition of independence forced from George III in 1783. Bemis agreed with critics of Hamilton that the Treasury Secretary seriously undercut Jay’s negotiating leverage by telling the British representative in Philadelphia that Washington’s Cabinet had agreed not to try to join the Armed Neutrality of European states opposed to Britain’s naval practices. And Grenville, in Bemis’ opinion, was a more able and more experienced diplomatist than Jay. All that said, Bemis concludes that Jay and Hamilton (“more aptly the treaty might be called Hamilton’s Treaty”) met the “distress/advantage” standard of American statesmanship:

“The United States needed peace and commercial expansion more than anything. The new nationality was still in danger. The political and economic foundations of the American nation had been laid by the hands of genius, but those foundations in 1794 were by no means unshakeable. The power of the federal Government to hold the Union together under the Constitution depended on the financial system which Hamilton had created. The elixir of national credit which energized the Government depended, let us remark for the last time, almost wholly on imports, which a war or even commercial hostility with Great Britain would have destroyed. … That is what Alexander Hamilton realized, with the clear eye of the realpolitiker.… it must be recognized that in 1794 the United States had far more at stake in a war with Great Britain than did the latter nation. The treaty of 1794 served to postpone hostilities to another remove and to give the United States in the meantime an opportunity to develop in population and resources, and above all in consciousness of nationality, to a degree which made possible in the War of 1812 a far more effective resistance than could have been afforded in 1794.”