In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the United States and Great Britain had many unresolved grievances. An agreement known as Jay’s Treaty of 1794 holds great significance in how it helped to address some of these issues and temporarily avert war between the two nations.
Both nations were justifiably frustrated with the state of affairs at the time. From the British standpoint, the United States had failed to uphold its obligations to compensate for pre-revolutionary war debts owed.
As the British were still the eminent global power, they refused to vacate their frontier outposts in American territory and engaged in the impressment of US sailors to help them in their fight against France.
The United States’ list of complaints was much longer. The refusal to vacate the frontier outposts and impressment of US sailors drew outrage across the nation.
In addition, the US demanded compensation for the British seizure of nearly 300 merchant ships carrying French goods in 1793-1794. The affair nearly resulted in a US trade embargo of British goods, though the measure was defeated in the Senate with Vice President John Adams casting the deciding vote.
Other grievances included the lack of an established border with Canada in the north, the British failure to compensate for escaped slaves, and the restriction of trade the British placed on the US during its war with France.
There were two distinct preferences in the American political sphere. One faction wanted closer ties to Britain, while the other wanted closer ties to France.
In order to settle these disputes, President George Washington sent John Jay to negotiate a treaty with Britain. The resulting Jay’s Treaty of 1794 was significant in that it averted war with Britain, but caused intense divisions among the American populace.
Who Was John Jay?
When discussing the founding fathers of the United States, John Jay is an often-overlooked figure. While the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and others take the spotlight in the history books, John Jay was a powerful and noteworthy figure in his own right.
John Jay was born in the American colony of New York to a wealthy merchant family. After graduating from King’s College (now Columbia University), he began his own law firm and entered the political realm.
Given his influence and moderate stance he was a logical choice to represent New York at the First and Second Continental Congresses.
As opposed to his colleague John Dickinson, who wrote the 1775 Olive Branch Petition, John Jay gradually shed his moderate ideology and became more pro-independence once he realized reconciliation with Britain was not possible. From there, Jay gained notoriety and even more influence. Eventually he became President of the Continental Congress in 1778.
The Second Continental Congress then appointed Jay as Minister to Spain in 1779 to help secure Spanish support in the United States’ bid for independence. He would serve in this post until 1782 when he became part of the delegation for the peace commission to end the war.
Along with Ben Franklin, John Adams, and Henry Laurens, John Jay helped negotiate the 1783 Treaty of Paris which ended hostilities and officially ended the American Revolution.
Afterwards, Jay served as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and then as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1789 when the new Constitution was ratified. He even helped write some of the Federalist Papers that strongly supported ratification.
It was in this position (Chief Justice) that John Jay was sent to Great Britain to negotiate a treaty on behalf of the United States.
The resulting Jay’s Treaty of 1794 would prove to be very divisive among the American populace.
What Was Jay’s Treaty?
Jay’s Treaty of 1794 helped to address some of the grievances left over between the United States and Great Britain from the American Revolution.
Jay negotiated with British Foreign Secretary William Grenville over the terms of the treaty. Unfortunately, the United States did not have many cards to play to obtain the most desired outcome.
As a new nation, the US was weak and could not deliver ultimatums to the British without risking another war. Without a standing army or functioning navy, war was not something President George Washington was willing to risk.
The result was that Jay’s Treaty was not necessarily considered favorable to US interests, but to prominent leaders such as Washington and Hamilton, it was the best the US could hope for.
In the treaty the British agreed to vacate the forts it still held in US territory. This included eight total forts, six in the Great Lakes regions and two just north of Lake Champlain. The British also agreed to stop arming Native Americans to attack frontier settlers.
Britain agreed to arbitration at a later date to determine debts owed to the US and Britain and to establish a firm Canadian boundary in the northeast.
What is most important in this context is what the treaty did not cover. Namely, Jay was only able to secure limited trading privileges with Britain in the West Indies and was unable to convince the British to stop the impressment of American sailors.1
Further, he conceded that the British had the authority to seize US merchant ships headed to France, so long as they paid for the goods. French goods on American ships could be taken without recompense.
These last provisions were met with firm resistance from many members of the American populace.
Why Was Jay’s Treaty Unpopular?
Jay’s Treaty was extremely unpopular with the American public as it did not address some of its biggest grievances including compensation for freed slaves during the American Revolution, the impressment of American sailors, and settlement of debts owed.
The two nations signed Jay’s Treaty in November 1794, though it would take months before Washington received a copy. Washington called a special session of Congress to ratify the treaty in June 1795.
When details of the treaty leaked, public outrage ensued. The American populace was split at the time on how to handle relationships with the British and French.
The Federalists, led largely by Alexander Hamilton, favored a pro-British stance. They figured good relations with their former “mother” would help avoid war and establish the US as a primary trade partner.
The Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, instead favored a pro-French stance. The “Jeffersonian Democrats” didn’t trust the British and wanted to maintain close ties with their French allies from the revolution.
In the eyes of the Jeffersonians the treaty did little to address the most immediate grievances of the US. Arbitration could take years, and the results would be unknown. Thus, the only notable accomplishment of the treaty was the British vacating frontier forts—something they should have already done a decade earlier, per the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
Furthermore, Jay was an opponent of slavery and completely dropped the issue of compensation for slaves that the British freed at the end of the war.
The Democratic-Republicans were successful in organizing mass protests in the hopes of convincing the Senate to reject the treaty. In the end, the effort failed as the treaty passed in the Senate on a 20 to 10 vote, or exactly the two-thirds majority needed to ratify a treaty.
George Washington was instrumental in passing Jay’s Treaty. He threw all his political might to convince the public that the treaty was in the United States’ best interests.2
Although he did not see it necessarily as a favorable treaty for the US, it was the best the nation could hope for given the situation and avoiding was with Britain was of utmost importance.
The Significance of Jay’s Treaty
Jay’s Treaty of 1794 would have great significance in shaping the United States over the subsequent years. Although the Jeffersonians were defeated in their opposition to the treaty, the group showed organization and coordination on levels unseen before.
Many historians believe the outcry and protests over Jay’s Treaty are what moved the political sides further away from each other. Whereas before political parties were loosely defined and unorganized, the treaty provided the grounds for partisan divisions and for the political parties to become more organized.
The timing also coincided with the 1796 presidential election, the first one without George Washington. Though Washington warned against a two party system in his farewell address, the dissatisfaction with Jay’s Treaty helped to aid in the establishment of the long-lasting dynamic.
While the uproar over the initial terms of the treaty were somewhat justified, the arbitration commissions appeared to work out quite well for the United States.
It would take nearly a decade, but Britain would eventually pay the US ~$11.7M for the interference in American shipping. The US also agreed to pay Britain ~600,000 pounds for pre-revolution debts. The northeast boundary was also officially settled in 1802.3
Jay’s Treaty also had severe ramifications for the US relationship with France. The treaty all but nullified the American alliance with France signed in 1778 following the 1777 Battle of Saratoga.
The deteriorating relationship further led to the XYZ Affair and Quasi-War of 1798-1800 with France.
Ultimately, Jay’s Treaty of 1794 bought a brief respite of hostilities between the US and Britain. During this decade, the United States could avoid war, improve trade relations, and increase its commercial capacity.
Unfortunately, since the treaty did not resolve the core causes of the animosity with Britain, the two nations inevitably ended up on a crash course to conflict, culminating with the important War of 1812.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Josiah T. Newcomb. “New Light on Jay’s Treaty.” The American Journal of International Law, vol. 28, no. 4, 1934, pp. 685–92. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2190755.
2) Estes, Todd. “The Art of Presidential Leadership: George Washington and the Jay Treaty.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 109, no. 2, 2001, pp. 127–58. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4249911.
3) Lillich, Richard B. “The Jay Treaty Commissions.” St. John’s Law Scholarship Repository, vol. 37, Number 2, May 1963. https://scholarship.law.stjohns.edu/lawreview/vol37/iss2/2/.