Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

The Art of Presidential Leadership: George Washington and the Jay Treaty

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

The Art of Presidential Leadership: George Washington and the Jay Treaty

Article excerpt

NOT long after the House of Representatives approved funding for the much-maligned and once wildly unpopular Jay Treaty with Great Britain on 30 April 1796, opponents as well as supporters of the measure attributed the remarkable turnabout to the stature of its most prominent backer: President George Washington. As Benjamin Rush, a treaty opponent, recalled to John Adams years later, "no sooner did General Washington ratify it than a majority of our citizens defended it." Likewise, Thomas Jefferson, another opponent, noted the decisiveness of "the Colossus of the President's merits with the people."1

George Washington's influence in the Jay Treaty debate has not been in dispute, either by contemporaries or by later historians. But if the fact of Washington's influence has been taken for granted, what has not been established is exactly how the president's leadership and persuasion on behalf of the treaty worked, either with the public or with Congress. This article explores the specific ways in which Washington responded to critics of the treaty, shaped a response that placed him in the nearly impregnable position of defender of the Constitution, and skillfully traded on the deep admiration that most Americans held for him.

Washington and the Federalist backers of the treaty deliberately constructed a campaign to conflate support for a popular president with support for an initially unpopular treaty. But beyond allowing Federalist supporters to use his prestige and status and invoke his name to win converts, Washington himself acted boldly and forthrightly at several key junctures in the public debate, each time strongly helping the pro-treaty side. The president sent letters that were widely reprinted, delayed sending the treaty to Congress so as to let public support in favor of the treaty coalesce, and then unhesitatingly refused the House call for full documents on the negotiations, an act that bolstered the treaty's fortunes and proved decisive in the end. In short, it was not only Washington's unique prominence, influence, and stature that contributed to the triumph of the Jay Treaty, but also his skillful deployment of particular political skills that turned the tide of public opinion and helped bring about the climactic 51-48 House vote to approve funding for the Jay Treaty.2

While detailing the precise nature of Washington's effective action on the treaty, this paper also makes a second point. Conventionally, scholars have portrayed Washington as a largely symbolic president, distant and detached, who provided the new nation with few tangible or substantive contributions beyond his incalculable prestige.3 Much recent scholarship, however, has argued that Washington was more directly involved in the actions of his administration and that he played a far more engaged role, although sometimes behind the scenes, than we have been led to believe.4 As Stuart Leibiger observes, "Because his governance was in many ways so subtle-he seemed reluctant to assume political office, acted behind the scenes, and often wrote unrevealing letters-Washington himself is partially responsible for many historians' decision to relegate him to the background."5 The perspective on Washington's part in the debate on the Jay Treaty represented here reinforces this newer interpretation by providing a detailed examination of the president's role in this controversy and further strengthens the revisionist position. In short, then, this article will examine for the first time Washington's actions in the treaty debate with an eye not only toward how they shaped and affected the outcome of the debate itself but also toward how those actions illuminate his style of presidential leadership.

The stakes in the Jay Treaty controversy were enormous. For many years the United States and Great Britain had argued over commercial and trading rights and policies and had several other issues dividing them as well. Americans were infuriated with British seizures of United States ships and the impressment of sailors. …

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