Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox

By John C. Miller | Go to book overview

27.
Jay's Treaty

In the summer of 1794, it was well within the realm of possibility that the United States would find itself involved in a foreign as well as a civil war. True, John Jay was in London, but it was far from certain that he could save the peace against the evident determination of the Republicans to extort concessions from Great Britain and the equally strong determination of the British government to tolerate no neutral rights that interfered with the prosecution of the war against revolutionary France. In part at least, the issue of peace or war depended upon how far the United States was prepared to go toward adjusting its policies to meet the changed world situation. If this country insisted upon asserting its neutral rights as broadly and as uncompromisingly as it had done in its treaties with France, Prussia and Sweden, war with Great Britain was probably unavoidable. And if war came, the British would have the advantage not only of sea power but the possession of the Northwest posts and the alliance of some of the most formidable Indian tribes upon the continent. 1

The instructions given John Jay by the United States government were therefore of crucial importance. Fortunately for the cause of Anglo-American harmony, these instructions were largely the work of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, of course, was not Secretary of State, but that circumstance had never prevented him from determining the course of American foreign policy. Jefferson's retirement in December, 1793, made it easier for Hamilton to play a decisive role in this field: Edmund Randolph, Jefferson's successor in the State Department, prided himself upon being above party, but he succeeded only in offending both parties. Although Randolph drew up the original instructions to Jay, Hamilton deleted everything which might have given umbrage to the British: "Energy, without asperity," Hamilton observed, "seems best to comport with the dignity of national language. . . . We are still in the path of negotiation: let us not plant it with thorns."2

In contrast to Jefferson and Madison, who thought that when dealing with Englishmen the proper accouterment of an American diplomat was a chip prominently displayed upon the shoulder, Hamilton never forgot that he was confronted by proud and confident men who looked upon Americans

-415-

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