The Jay Treaty

Essential Question: How did the Founders struggle to be neutral?

Common Core Standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.6 Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.


The Jay Treaty is one of the most controversial treaties ever put before the Senate for ratification. It can serve to highlight two important developments for students: the difficulties the Founders had in having their ideals of neutrality match the reality of living in a world torn by war and the growing divide in the early republic about how to deal with the British. These will be ongoing themes in the nation’s foreign relations through the conclusion of the War of 1812.

The treaty was an attempt to resolve the differences between the United States and Britain over British attempts to restrict trade to France. Soon after war broke out between Britain and France in 1793, the vast majority of American policymakers wanted the United States to remain neutral. At issue, however, was the nature of that neutrality. There was still a treaty in force between the United States and France, but the pro-British Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, urged President Washington to renounce the French alliance. Hamilton thought it best to proclaim neutrality quickly to assuage British fears that the US would fight with France. The Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, while also wanting the US to follow a neutral course, felt no need to placate the British so quickly and easily. They wanted to use the crisis to gain concessions from the British. Washington compromised by issuing a Proclamation of Neutrality but not renouncing the treaty with the French.

As the war moved forward, however, the British began a series of actions that violated the neutral rights asserted by the US government. When the British began to seize ships bound for French ports, Washington sent John Jay, a prominent Federalist and chief justice of the Supreme Court, to London to negotiate a treaty.

Jay was a weak negotiator and unwilling to provoke the British. He was also undercut by Alexander Hamilton’s communication to the British that the United States would not join an international group ready to fight over neutral rights. Jay returned to the United States with a treaty that removed some British outposts from the Northwest (posts that the British had promised to abandon in the Treaty of 1783 that ended the Revolution), but did relatively nothing to confirm the neutral rights of American ships.

The reaction to Jay’s Treaty was severe. Democratic-Republicans cried foul, arguing that the pro-British Federalists had caved to the British and undermined American sovereignty. Hamilton and others responded that while the treaty was not perfect, it did avert a war that would have been costly and may have led to defeat. Once news of the terms became public after a razor-thin ratification in the Senate, there were a series of mass demonstrations against Jay and the treaty.


Students will display knowledge of the difficulties of maintaining neutrality by completing questions on Washington’s options.

Students will evaluate the difference of opinion on how to treat the British by explaining the reasons for each.


Show an image of John Jay being hung in effigy.

After making sure they understand that this wasn’t an actual hanging, ask students to write about what would cause a mob to be so angry that they would resort to this.

Learning Activities:

1. The students might need some direct instruction depending on their level of prior knowledge. See introduction and further reading sections.

2. Distribute this secondary source on the early US Navy:

First Naval Legislation under the Constitution

The last ship of the Continental Navy, the frigate Alliance, was sold in 1785, and its commander, Captain John Barry, returned to civilian life. The navy disappeared and the army dwindled to a mere 700 men. . . . [I]n 1792, the only naval force the United States possessed was the Revenue Cutter Service, a forerunner of the United States Coast Guard.

In his annual address to Congress on 3 December [1793], President Washington spoke in general terms of the nation's need to prepare to defend itself: "If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace..., it must be known, that we are at all times ready for War." . . .

The pro-navy side was strengthened when the President sent documentation supporting his view that a navy was essential, and by the almost simultaneous arrival of distressing news that the British had prohibited all neutral trade with the French West Indies. The "Act to provide a naval armament," authorizing the President to acquire six frigates, four of forty- four guns each and two of thirty-six, by purchase or otherwise, passed the House of Representatives by a vote of fifty to thirty- nine. Those Congressmen who voted in favor came principally from cities that depended on maritime trade, and from the northern and eastern regions. Opponents came from rural areas, the south, and the frontier. The act passed the Senate and was signed by the President on 27 March 1794.

The Reestablishment of the Navy, 1787-1801: Historical Overview and Select Bibliography

Why might different regions support or not support the creation of a navy?

How would the status of the navy affect what options Washington had in dealing with the British?

Inform students that the British Navy at this time had close to 100 ships. (Jeremy Black and Phillip Woodfine ed., The British Navy and the Use of Naval Power in the Eighteenth Century. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1988.)

3.  Have two different groups of students read and answer the questions on each of these letters.

George Washington to Secretary of State Edmund Randolph, July 22, 1795

Dear Sir:

. . . In my hurry, I did not signify the propriety of letting those Gentlemen know fully my determination with respect to the ratification of the Treaty. . . . My opinion respecting the treaty, is the same now that it was: namely, not favorable to it, but that it is better to ratify it in the manner the Senate have advised . . . than to suffer matters to remain as they are, unsettled.

Why would Washington tell Randolph something he wouldn’t tell “those Gentlemen” (who were members of groups he spoke to earlier)?

Evaluate this letter as a historical source.

Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, September 6, 1795

Monticello. Sep. 6, 95.

Dear Sir,--

. . .Mr. Jay's treaty has at length been made public. So general a burst of dissatisfaction never before appeared against any transaction. Those who understand the particular articles of it, condemn these articles. Those who do not understand them minutely, condemn it generally as wearing a hostile face to France. This last is the must numerous class, comprehending the whole body of the people, who have taken a greater interest in this transaction than they were ever known to do in any other. It has in my opinion completely demolished the monarchial party here.

Compare this source to the 1794 image at the start of class. How certain can we be that people of the time opposed Jay’s Treaty?

Who do you think Jefferson means when he mentions “the monarchial party”?


Sometimes conducting foreign policy involves balancing ideals, interests, and practical options. Write for three minutes on this:

What might have been the advantages and disadvantages of pushing the British harder to recognize American neutral rights? Use evidence from today’s class.


Using Political Cartoons to Understand History (George Washington's Mount Vernon)

This cartoon was drawn in 2005 as part of a project on political cartoons by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, a private foundation that runs George Washington’s home in trust for the people of the United States.

Why is this not a good source about Jay’s Treaty?

Given what you now know about the treaty, how would you caption this cartoon?

Additional Primary Sources:

Further Reading:

Bukovansky, Mlada. “American Identity and Neutral Rights from Independence to the War of 1812.” International Organization 51 (Spring 1997): 209-43.

Combs, Jerald A. The Jay Treaty: Political Battleground of the Founding Fathers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.