What Was Jay’s Treaty?

Jay’s Treaty was an agreement between the United States and Great Britain signed on November 19, 1794 intended to avert war and resolve issues between the two countries that had lingered since the end of the American Revolutionary War. While it was unpopular with the American public, the treaty succeeded in ensuring a decade of peaceful and mutually profitable trade between the United States and Britain during the French Revolutionary Wars. The treaty was signed by President George Washington on November 19, 1794 and approved by the U.S. Senate on June 24, 1795. It was then ratified by the British Parliament and took effect on February 29, 1796. Officially titled, “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America,” and also called “Jay Treaty,” the pact draws its name from John Jay, its chief U.S. negotiator.

Key Takeaways: Jay's Treaty

  • Jay’s Treaty was a diplomatic agreement reached in 1794 between the United States and Great Britain.
  • Jay’s Treaty was intended to resolve disputes between the two nations that remained after the 1783 Treaty of Paris had ended the American Revolutionary War.
  • The treaty was signed on November 19, 1794, approved by the U.S. Senate on June 24, 1795, and approved by the British Parliament, thus placing it into full effect on February 29, 1796.
  • The treaty draws its name from its chief U.S. negotiator, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay

Bitter objections to the treaty by the French government led to the XYZ Affair of 1797 and the 1798 Quasi-War with France. In the United States, political conflict over ratification of the treaty contributed to the creation of America’s first two political parties: the pro-treaty Federalist Party, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the anti-treaty Democratic-Republican Party led by Anti-federalists Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

International Issues Driving Jay’s Treaty

After the American Revolutionary War ended, tensions between the United States and Great Britain remained understandably high. Specifically, three main issues remained unresolved even after the 1783 Treaty of Paris had ended military hostilities:

  • Goods exported from America were still being blocked by Britain’s wartime trade restrictions and tariffs. At the same time, British imports were flooding American markets, leaving the U.S. facing a significant trade deficit.  
  • British troops were still occupying several forts on U.S.-claimed territory from the Great Lakes region to modern-day Ohio, which they had agreed to vacate in the Treaty of Paris. The British occupation of the forts left American frontier settlers living in those territories open to recurrent attacks by Indian tribes.
  • Britain continued to seize American ships carrying military supplies and force or “impress” the American sailors into the service of the British Royal Navy to fight against France.

When France went to war with Great Britain in 1793, the long period of global peace that had helped the newly-independent United States flourish in both trade and revenue ended. America’s intent to remain neutral in the European war was tested when between 1793 and 1801, the British Royal Navy, without warning, captured nearly 250 American merchant ships carrying goods from French colonies in the West Indies.

The combination of these and other lingering issues and animosities brought the U.S. and Britain back to the brink of war in the late 1700s.

US Response and Politics

The American public was outraged, especially by Britain’s seizure of American ships, cargo, and impressment of sailors. In Congress, Thomas Jefferson demanded passage of a declaration of war. James Madison, however, called for a trade embargo on all British goods as a more moderate response. At the same time, British officials made matters even worse by selling rifles and other weapons to the First Nations Indian tribes near the Canadian—American border and telling their leaders that they no longer needed to respect the border.

American political leaders were bitterly divided on how to respond. Led by Jefferson and Madison, the Democratic-Republicans favored aiding the French in its war with Britain. However, Hamilton’s Federalists argued that negotiating for peaceful relations with Britain—especially trade relations—could turn the British into a lasting and powerful ally. President George Washington agreed with Hamilton and sent Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay to London to negotiate an all-encompassing treaty—Jay’s Treaty.

Negotiations and Terms of the Treaty

Despite his well-known command of diplomacy, Jay faced a daunting negotiating task in London. He believed that his best bargaining chip was the threat that America would assist the neutral Danish and the Swedish governments in preventing the British from forcibly seizing their goods. However, what Jay did not know was that in a well-intentioned attempt to establish good-will with Britain, Hamilton had independently informed British leadership that the U.S. government had no intention of helping any of the neutral European nations. In doing this, Hamilton left Jay with little clout in demanding concessions from the British.

When Jay’s Treaty was finally signed in London on November 19, 1794, the American negotiators had won only two immediate concessions. The British agreed to vacate its forts in the northern United States territories by June 1796. In addition, Britain agreed to grant the United States the advantageous “most favored nation” trading status, but greatly limited U.S. trade to emerging lucrative markets in the British West Indies. 

Most other outstanding issues, including British seizures of American ships and repayment of U.S. pre-Revolutionary War debts to Britain, were left to be decided later through the relatively new process of international arbitration. Jay was forced to concede that during the undefined period of arbitration, Britain could continue to seize U.S. goods headed for France on American ships if they paid for them and could seize French goods transported on American ships without payment. However, Jay failed in his attempt to negotiate an end to Britain’s impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy, a sore point which would slowly fester into a key issue driving the War of 1812.

While the American public, feeling it overly advantageous to Britain loudly objected to Jay’s Treaty, it passed in the U.S. Senate by a 20 to 10 vote on June 24, 1795. Despite the many objections against doing so, President Washington implemented the treaty, considering it to be the price of a period of peace during which the United States could rebuild its funds and military forces in the event of future conflicts.

Jay’s Treaty and Indian Rights

Article III of Jay’s Treaty granted all Indians, American citizens, and Canadian subjects the perpetual right to freely travel between the United States and Canada, then a British territory, for purposes travel or trade. Since then, the United States has honored this agreement by codifying its provision in Section 289 of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, as amended. As a result of Jay’s 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.” Today, Article III of Jay’s Treaty is cited as the basis of many legal claims filed against the U.S. and Canadian governments by Indians and Indian tribes.

Impact and Legacy of Jay’s Treaty

Historians generally agree that in terms of modern international diplomacy, Jay got the “short end of the stick,” by having achieved only two minor immediate concessions from the British. However, as Historian Marshall Smelser points out, Jay’s Treaty did achieve President Washington’s primary goal—preventing another war with Great Britain, or at least delaying that war until the United States could become financially, politically, and militarily able to fight it. 

In 1955, historian Bradford Perkins conclude that Jay’s treaty brought the United States and Great Britain from within a sword’s point of war in 1794 to the brink of the true and lasting friendship and cooperation that endures today. “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,” he wrote. 

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