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George Washington
The Jay Treaty
by Thayer, William Roscoe


There is no doubt that Washington in his Olympian quiet took a real satisfaction in his election. On January 20, 1793, he wrote to Governor Henry Lee of Virginia:
A mind must be insensible indeed not to be gratefully impressed by so distinguished and honorable a testimony of public approbation and confidence; and as I suffered my name to be contemplated on this occasion, it is more than probable that I should, for a moment, have experienced chagrin, if my reŽlection had not been by a pretty respectable vote. But to say I feel pleasure from the prospect of commencing another term of duty would be a departure from the truth,--for, however it might savor of affectation in the opinion of the world (who, by the by, can only guess at my sentiments, as it never has been troubled with them), my particular and confidential friends well know, that it was after a long and painful conflict in my own breast, that I was withheld, (by considerations which are not necessary to be mentioned), from requesting in time, that no vote might be thrown away upon me, it being my fixed determination to return to the walks of private life at the end of my term.[Footnote: Ford, XII, 256.]
Washington felt at his reŽlection not merely egotistic pleasure for a personal success, but the assurance that it involved a triumph of measures which he held to be of far more importance than any success of his own. The American Nation's new organism which he had set in motion could now continue with the uniformity of its policy undisturbed by dislocating checks and interruptions. Much, very much depended upon the persons appointed to direct its progress, and they depended upon the President who appointed them. In matters of controversy or dispute, Washington upheld a perfectly impartial attitude. But he did not believe that this should shackle his freedom in appointing. According to him a man must profess right views in order to be considered worthy of appointment. The result of this was that Washington's appointees must be orthodox in his definition of orthodoxy.

His first important act in his new administration was to issue a Proclamation of Neutrality on April 22d. Although this document was clear in intent and in purpose, and was evidently framed to keep the United States from being involved in the war between France and England, it gave offence to partisans of either country. They used it as a weapon for attacking the Government, so that Washington found to his sorrow that the partisan spites, which he had hoped would vanish almost of their own accord, were become, on the contrary, even more formidable and irritating. At this juncture the coming of GenÍt and his machinations added greatly to the embarrassment, and, having no sense of decency, GenÍt insinuated that the President had usurped the powers of Congress and that he himself would seek redress by appealing to the people over the President. I have already stated that, having tolerated GenÍt's insults and menaces as far as he deemed necessary, Washington put forth his hand and crushed the spluttering Frenchman like a bubble.

Persons who like to trace the sardonic element in history--the element which seems to laugh derisively at the ineffectual efforts of us poor mortals to establish ourselves and lead rational lives in the world as it is--can find few better examples of it than these early years of the American Republic. In the war which brought about the independence of the American Colonies, England had been their enemy and France their friend. Now their instinctive gratitude to France induced many, perhaps a majority of them, to look with effusive favor on France, although her character and purpose had quite changed and it was very evident that for the Americans to side with France would be against sound policy and common sense. Neutrality, the strictest neutrality, between England and France was therefore the only rational course; but the American partisans of these rivals did their utmost to render this unachievable. Much of Washington's second term see-sawed between one horn and the other of this dilemma. The sardonic aspect becomes more glaring if we remember that the United States were a new-born nation which ought to have been devoting itself to establishing viable relations among its own population and not to have been dissipating its strength taking sides with neighbors who lived four thousand miles away.

In the autumn of 1793 Jefferson insisted upon resigning as Secretary of State. Washington used all his persuasiveness to dissuade him, but in vain. Jefferson saw the matter in its true light, and insisted. Perhaps it at last occurred to him, as it must occur to every dispassionate critic, that he could not go on forever acting as an important member of an administration which pursued a policy diametrically opposed to his own. After all, even the most adroit politicians must sometimes sacrifice an offering to candor, not to say honesty. At the end of the year he retired to the privacy of his home at Monticello, where he remained in seclusion, not wholly innocuous, until the end of 1796. Edmund Randolph succeeded him as Secretary of State.

Whether it was owing to the departure of Jefferson from the Cabinet or not, the fact remains that Washington concluded shortly thereafter the most difficult diplomatic negotiation of his career. This was the treaty with England, commonly called Jay's Treaty. The President wished at first to appoint Hamilton, the ablest member of the Cabinet, but, realizing that it would be unwise to deprive himself and his administration of so necessary a supporter, he offered the post to John Jay, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The quality, deemed most desirable, which it was feared Jay might lack, was audacity. But he had discretion, tact, and urbanity in full share, besides that indefinable something which went with his being a great gentleman.

The President, writing to Gouverneur Morris, who had recently been recalled as Minister to France, said:
My primary objects, to which I have steadily adhered, have been to preserve the country in peace, if I can, and to be prepared for war if I cannot, to effect the first, upon terms consistent with the respect which is due to ourselves, and with honor, justice and good faith to all the world.

Mr. Jay (and not Mr. Jefferson) as has been suggested to you, embarked as envoy extraordinary for England about the middle of May. If he succeed, well; if he does not, why, knowing the worst, we must take measures accordingly.[Footnote: Ford, XII, 436. Mount Vernon, June 25, 1794.]
Jay reached London early in June, 1794, and labored over the treaty with the British negotiators during the summer and autumn, started for home before Christmas, and put the finished document in Washington's hands in March. From the moment of his going enemies of all kinds talked bitterly against him. The result must be a foregone conclusion, since John Jay was regarded as the chief Anglo-maniac in America after Hamilton. They therefore condemned in advance any treaty he might agree to. But their criticism went deeper than mere hatred of him: it sprang from an inveterate hatred of England, which dated from before the Revolution. Since the Treaty of 1783 the English seemed to act deliberately with studied truculence, as if the Americans would not and could not retaliate. They were believed to be instigating the Indians to continuous underhand war. They had reached that dangerous stage of truculence, when they did not think it mattered whether they spoke with common diplomatic reticence. Lord Dorchester, the Governor-General of Canada, and to-day better known as Sir Guy Carleton, his name before they made him a peer, addressed a gathering of Indian chiefs at Quebec on the assumption that war would come in a few weeks. President Washington kept steady watch of every symptom, and he knew that it would not require a large spark to kindle a conflagration. "My objects are, to prevent a war," he wrote to Edmund Randolph, on April 15, 1794, "if justice can be obtained by fair and strong representations (to be made by a special envoy) of the injuries which this country has sustained from Great Britain in various ways, to put it into a complete state of military defence, and to provide eventually for such measures as seem to be now pending in Congress for execution, if negotiations in a reasonable time proves unsuccessful."[Footnote: Ford, XIII, 4-9.]

The year 1794 marked the sleepless anxiety of the Silent President. Day and night his thoughts were in London, with Jay. He said little; he had few letters from Jay--it then required from eight to ten weeks for the mail clippers to make a voyage across the Atlantic. Opposition to the general idea of such a treaty as the mass of Republicans and Anti-Federalists supposed Washington hoped to secure, grew week by week. The Silent Man heard the cavil and said nothing.

At last early in 1795 Jay returned. His Treaty caused an uproar. The hottest of his enemies found an easy explanation on the ground that he was a traitor. Stanch Federalists suffered all varieties of mortification. Washington himself entered into no discussion, but he ruminated over those which came to him. I am not sure that he invented the phrase "Either the Treaty, or war," which summed up the alternatives which confronted Jay; but he used it with convincing emphasis. When it came before the Senate, both sides had gathered every available supporter, and the vote showed only a majority of one in its favor. Still, it passed. But that did not satisfy its pertinacious enemies. Neither were they restrained by the President's proclamation. The Constitution assigned the duty of negotiating and ratifying treaties to the President and Senate; but to the perfervid Anti-Britishers the Constitution was no more than an old cobweb to be brushed away at pleasure. The Jay Treaty could not be put into effect without money for expenses; all bills involving money must pass the House of Representatives; therefore, the House would actually control the operation of the Treaty.

The House at this time was Republican by a marked majority. In March, 1796, the President laid the matter before the House. In a twinkling the floodgates of speechifying burst open; the debates touched every aspect of the question. James Madison, the wise supporter of Washington and Hamilton in earlier days and the fellow worker on "The Federalist," led the Democrats in their furious attacks. He was ably seconded by Albert Gallatin, the high-minded young Swiss doctrinaire from Geneva, a terrible man, in whose head principles became two-edged weapons with Calvinistic precision and mercilessness. The Democrats requested the President to let them see the correspondence in reference to the Treaty during its preparation. This he wisely declined to do. The Constitution did not recognize their right to make the demand, and he foresaw that, if granted by him then, it might be used as a harmful precedent.

For many weeks the controversy waxed hot in the House. Scores of speakers hammered at every argument, yet only one speech eclipsed all the rest, and remains now, after one hundred and thirty years, a paragon. There are historians who assert that this was the greatest speech delivered in Congress before Daniel Webster spoke there--an implication which might lead irreverent critics to whisper that too much reading may have dulled their discrimination. But fortunately not only the text of the speech remains; we have also ample evidence of the effect it produced on its hearers. Fisher Ames, a Representative from Massachusetts, uttered it. He was a young lawyer, feeble in health, but burning, after the manner of some consumptives, with intellectual and moral fire which strangely belied his slender thread of physical life. Ames pictured the horrors which would ensue if the Treaty were rejected. Quite naturally he assumed the part of a man on the verge of the grave, which increased the impressiveness of his words. He spoke for three hours. The members of the House listened with feverish attention; the crowds in the balconies could not smother their emotion. One witness reports that Vice-President John Adams sat in the gallery, the tears running down his cheeks, and that he said to the friend beside him, "My God, how great he is!"

When Ames began, no doubt the Anti-British groups which swelled the audience turned towards him an unsympathetic if not a scornful attention--they had already taken a poll of their members, from which it appeared that they could count on a majority of six to defeat the Treaty. As he proceeded, however, and they observed how deeply he was moving the audience, they may have had to keep up their courage by reflecting that speeches in Congress rarely change votes. They are intended to be read by the public outside, which is not under the spell of the orator or the crowd. But when Fisher Ames, after what must have seemed to them a whirlwind speech, closed with these solemn, restrained words, they must have doubted whether their victory was won:
Even the minutes I have spent in expostulating, have their value [he said] because they protract the crisis and the short period in which alone we may resolve to escape it. Yet I have, perhaps, as little personal interest in the event as any one here. There is, I believe, no member, who will not think his chance to be a witness of the consequences greater than mine. If, however, the vote should pass to reject--even I, slender and almost broken as my hold on life is, may outlive the government and Constitution of my country.[Footnote: Elson, 359.]
The next day when the vote was taken it appeared that the Republicans, instead of winning by a majority of six, had lost by three.

The person who really triumphed was George Washington, although Fisher Ames, who won the immediate victory, deserved undying laurel. The Treaty had all the objections that its critics brought against it then, but it had one sterling virtue which outweighed them all. It not only made peace between the United States and Great Britain the normal condition, but it removed the likelihood that the wrangling over petty matters might lead to war. For many years Washington had a fixed idea that if the new country could live for twenty years without a conflict with its chief neighbors, its future would be safe; for he felt that at the end of that time it would have grown so strong by the natural increase in population and by the strength that comes from developing its resources, that it need not fear the attack of any people in the world. The Jay Treaty helped towards this end; it prevented war for sixteen years only; but even that delay was of great service to the Americans and made them more ready to face it than they would have been in 1795.

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