The British government wanted it both ways. They valued American neutrality, they just didn’t want to concede to it the rights traditionally given any neutral nation.
It was still less than a dozen years since England had had to sign the Treaty of Paris of 1783 and suffer the humiliation of conceding America’s independence. British statesmen were not really reconciled to treating the former colonials as sovereigns. In a muddle-headed combination of arrogance, contempt, and self-delusion (somewhat resembling American foreign policy at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries), they thought of Americans both as contemptible renegades who had forfeited their English inheritance and, at the same time, as Britons whose gratitude for their common heritage ought to make them ready and willing to associate themselves with England’s foreign policy of the mother country.
In other words, English statesmen never could decide whether or not the outcome of the Revolutionary War really meant anything.
The continued war with France made better U.S.-British relations essential. Above all things, England wanted to keep the United States from honoring the treaty of alliance with France that had been signed after Saratoga. But it was hard to improve relations in the face of certain stubborn facts:
(1) Eleven years after the peace treaty committing them to withdraw from American territory, British Army forces continued to occupy forts at Detroit, Mackinac, Oswego and Maumee.
(2) British officials in Canada were stirring up and assisting Indian tribes in the Northwest Territory (between the Ohio and the Great Lakes) against settlers from across the mountains.
(3) In blockading the French mainland in 1703 and 1794, the British had captured more than 250 American merchant ships, for which they had not paid compensation.
(4) The Royal Navy continued impressing American sailors.
(5) Britain had promised to pay for the slaves they had removed from the mainland at the end of the Revolutionary War, and had not done so, and the Southern states had not forgotten.
In the spring of 1794, Congress voted for a trade embargo against Britain, and the two countries drifted toward a war neither one wanted.
Unwilling to watch things continue to deteriorate, Washington sent John Jay, who was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to negotiate a treaty with England. Jay may not have been the best possible negotiator, but there, in November, 1794, was the “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, Between His Britannic Majesty and The United States of America.” Now it only remained for the Senate to ratify it.
But when Washington submitted the treaty to the Senate in June, 1795, hot debate flared, not only within the government but throughout the country. Was it the best treaty that could have been obtained? Was it in the best interests of the United States?
The treaty looked to some to be a little one-sided. The British agreed to remove all army units from American territory, and granted certain limited rights to trade with Caribbean colonies and British possessions in India (in exchange for limitation on American cotton exports), and agreed to submit disputes over wartime debts and the boundary with Canada to arbitration. But in return, the United States acquiesced (having little choice) in the British practice of impressment, agreed to pay private prewar debts owed to British merchants, and dropped the issue of compensation for slaves taken out of the country by the British at the end of the Revolutionary War. The treaty also gave Britain most-favored-nation status (meaning that, as new trade agreements were made with various countries, Britain would automatically get terms equal to the best terms extended to anyone).
It could be argued that Jay didn’t make a very good bargain. On the other hand, he didn’t have all that much to bargain with. Most importantly, there was value in a treaty, even an unfavorable treaty, that reversed the drift toward war with Great Britain.
But Jefferson’s party didn’t see it that way, because there was the question — unspoken but central – of the treaty’s effect on the on-going civil war between the party that leaned toward France and distrusted Britain, and the Federalists who saw Britain as the republic’s natural ally. Jefferson’s adherents in various states organized public protests against Jay and his treaty. They argued that the treaty with France from 1778 was still in effect, and saw the policy of reconciliation with Britain as Hamilton’s. They proceeded to demonize Jay, and Hamilton, and even Washington, as closet monarchists who had betrayed America.
Jefferson’s partisans began coordinating activity among local, state and federal leaders and followers. In turn, Federalists rallied their own supporters.
But when Washington announced his support of the treaty, it was all over. The treaty got the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate on June 24, 1795. The exchange of ratifications by the two governments took until February 29, 1796, and the ten-year duration of the treaty went into effect as of that date.
The treaty fight – the struggle over America’s foreign policy – crystallized two philosophies into two contending political parties. The first contested presidential election would be at least partially a referendum on Jay’s Treaty. In 1796, Adams, and inferentially Washington and the treaty, would win the voters’ approval. But that wasn’t the end of the treaty’s political effect. The Republicans would continue to use it as a whipping boy, to establish the monarchical, pro-British tendencies of the Federalists, and the Federalists would use it as a demonstration of true statesmanship as opposed to Jacobin theorizing.
But the fact remained: Jay’s Treaty gained the infant republic a vital ten years’ breathing space. Like Jefferson’s resort to an Embargo in preference to war in 1807, it bought time. If war in 1807 would have been more perilous than war in 1812, how much more so would war in 1794 have been? Jay did his best to spare us that, and his reward was to be pilloried as a secret enemy of his country. But if even Washington could be tarred with that brush, no lesser mortal could expect a better fate.