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Uproar Over Senate Approval of Jay Treaty

June 24, 1795

John Jay

A howling, stone-throwing mob marched on the Philadelphia home of Pennsylvania Senator William Bingham. In Frankfort, Kentucky, the state legislature denounced Senator Humphrey Marshall and demanded that the Constitution be amended to allow for the recall of United States senators. So angry were his constituents, as one writer observed, that Marshall was "burned in effigy, vilified in print, and stoned in Frankfort." Many of the other senators who, on June 24, 1795, had provided the exact 20-to-10 two-thirds majority necessary to approve John Jay's treaty with Great Britain experienced similar popular outrage.

A year earlier, at President George Washington's request, Chief Justice of the United States John Jay had sailed to London to negotiate a reduction of tensions between the two nations. The president wanted Great Britain to withdraw its troops from the United States' northwestern territories, to compensate slave holders for slaves British soldiers had abducted during the Revolutionary War, to pay shipowners for trading vessels seized by its navy, and to allow free trade with the British West Indies. Jay achieved only a limited success, however, gaining the withdrawal of troops and compensation to American merchants. He failed to obtain protections for American shipping or reimbursement for stolen slaves, and he prematurely conceded American responsibility to pay British merchants for pre-Revolutionary War debts.

Jay's treaty contained provisions that many considered humiliating to the United States, but President Washington sent it to the Senate for formal approval. The president and his supporters argued that Jay had obtained the best possible deal and that the nation could ill afford another war with Britain. The treaty's opponents, members of the Senate's anti-administration Democratic-Republican minority, demanded that the treaty be renegotiated because—among other reasons—it failed to protect America's trading agreements with France. The president's allies among the Senate's Federalist majority rejected this proposal and narrowly approved the treaty.

When the text of the treaty became public, mobs took to the streets to condemn George Washington, John Jay, and the United States Senate. Even John Rutledge, Washington's recess appointee to replace Jay as chief justice, criticized ratification of the treaty as a sellout. When the Senate reconvened in December 1795, it retaliated by immediately rejecting the imprudent Rutledge's pending nomination. Although debate over the flawed pact deepened the nation's political divisions and destroyed relations with France, its ratification likely saved the still-fragile republic from a potentially disastrous new war with Britain.