Today in history, on Nov. 19, 1794, the Jay Treaty was signed, sparking a fierce debate that further entrenched partisan politics into the American system.

Formally titled, the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America, the Jay Treaty addressed several continuous issues that were left unresolved by the Treaty of Paris at the end of the American Revolution.

Under the treaty, the British agreed to withdraw troops from forts in the Northwest Territory. It also granted America a “most-favored-nation” status, opening up trade in the British West Indies.

The treaty didn’t resolve all of the disputes between the two countries, but it did set up a framework to settle several issues through arbitration, including the exact location of the American-Canadian border, the issue of wartime debts, and British seizures of American ships.

Alexander Hamilton developed the terms of the treaty, and George Washington appointed John Jay as a special envoy to negotiate with the British using instructions penned by Hamilton. At the time, Jay was serving as the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Washington’s choice of Jay to negotiate the treaty effectively cut then secretary of state Thomas Jefferson out of the process.

While the treaty led to the resolution of significant disputes between England and the United States and eased tensions between the two countries, it was extremely controversial and widened the political divide in the U.S. At the time the treaty was negotiated, the American political system was already separating into rival factions. The debate surrounding the Jay Treaty sharpened the partisan divide.

While the Federalist Party generally supported the treaty, Democrat-Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson opposed it. The debate over the treaty brought foreign policy differences between the two parties into sharp focus.

The Democrat-Republicans tended to sympathize with France, while the Federalists supported Great Britain. Making matters more tense, the French and British were engaged in a war and were both vying for American support. As historian Paul Varg noted in his book Foreign Policies of the Founding Fathers, the treaty resolved issues with the British, but it exacerbated domestic divisions in the United States.

The Jay Treaty was a reasonable give-and-take compromise of the issues between the two countries. What rendered it so assailable was not the compromise spelled out between the two nations but the fact that it was not a compromise between the two political parties at home. Embodying the views of the Federalists, the treaty repudiated the foreign policy of the opposing party.

During the debate over ratification of the Jay Treaty, James Madison argued that it needed the approval of not only the Senate, as required by Article 11 Sec. 2 of the Constitution, but also of the House because it regulated commerce. Madison’s view did not prevail.

From a practical standpoint, opponents of the treaty argued that it gave too many concessions to the British and that it would ultimately weaken U.S. trade. They were particularly angered by the commitment to repay pre-revolution debts.

The partisan debate over the treaty drove home concerns about factions – something the Constitution was supposed to minimize. John Adams’ warning seems particularly poignant in the context of the Jay Treaty debates.

“There is nothing I dread So much, as a Division of the Republick into two great Parties, each arranged under its Leader, and concerting Measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble Apprehension is to be dreaded as the greatest political Evil, under our Constitution.”

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