Jay’s Treaty: APUSH Topics to Study for Test Day

Young scholars, this post will be relatively short and sweet, just like the name of the man who this treaty was named after: John Jay. Although you may not be explicitly asked about Jay’s Treaty on the APUSH exam, it’s likely that you will be asked about the United States after the Revolutionary War and before the War of 1812 and in that way, Jay’s Treaty packs a big punch.

What lead to Jay’s Treaty?

jays treaty apush
1795 pamphlet containing text of Jay Treaty. Published Philadelphia. Source: here.

After the Revolutionary War, the United States had its independence, but not much else. After all, imagine the context: you’re a young country that just embarrassed the Brits and declared your autonomy from Mother England, but you still need to interact with the British. Why?

1. For starters, their exports are the primary way your countrymen and women get goods. After all, the Triangular Trade didn’t stop with the Revolution.
2. If that weren’t bad enough, you are not longer a part of the great British Empire, which means that the Navigation Acts that limit imports from outside of the Empire into Great Britain’s vast colonial holdings excludes you.
3. Finally, it doesn’t really matter that you beat Great Britain in this Revolutionary War since they still hold the great naval power. And, to add insult to injury, that great naval power is impressing your sailors and taking over your ships when those ships are en route to enemy territories.

Those three issues come to a head when Great Britain and France get into another war in 1793. As you should remember from colonial history, some founding fathers, like Jefferson, were big fans of the French. Others (Can you guess who would oppose Jefferson? Just take a guess. Yup; it’s Hamilton), including George Washington, did not want to incite the Brits into another war with the fledgling United States.

This is where Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay, comes in.

What is Jay’s Treaty?

The above clip shows a fictionalized reenactment of the Senate debate of Jay’s Treaty from the HBO miniseries John Adams. Source: here.

Leveraging the US bargaining position that they could remain neutral in this spat between two European powers, John Jay went into negotiations with the British government confident that he could secure a favorable outcome for the US. Unfortunately, Hamilton let the Brits know that Jay was essentially bluffing; the United States had no intention of joining the Danes and the Swedes as a neutral actor.

This outcome led to a treaty that many found unfavorable to the United States. This included:

1. Although Britain agreed to stop encouraging Native Americans to attack U.S. settlers in the Northwest Territories, the Brits did not agree to stop seizing sailors and U.S. goods.
2. The Brits agreed to not interfere with American trading in the West Indies, but that was only a small piece of the entire British Empire.
3. For these very limited concessions on the part of the Brits, the US agreed to grant Great Britain “favored nation” status in trading, not interfere with the war between the Brits and France, and to reconcile prewar debts owed to British merchants.

While Hamilton believed this was the best the young country could hope for from a global power that was still pissed about the whole Revolution thing, the Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson’s crew) were incensed by the treaty (as you can see from the clip above).

What was the significance of Jay’s Treaty?

Ultimately, the Treaty was ratified. Many historians believe it helped decrease the possibility of a war between the United States and Great Britain in the 10 years it lasted. However, the unresolved issues of the Treaty still strained the relationship between the two countries and were factors in the War of 1812.

More than these immediate events, though, Jay’s Treaty shows us that nothing was certain about the beginning of the United States, especially not its relationship to Great Britain. The United States today formed as the result of choices, missteps, and the actions of individuals, not because of some preordained sense of inevitability. If anything, that is what you should take away from this discussion of Jay’s Treaty and how it pertains to the APUSH exam.

What kinds of questions will I be asked about Jay’s Treaty on the APUSH exam?

To the critics [of Jay’s Treaty], Jay had compromised the republic’s independence by moving to a closer (some would say dependent) relationship with the former mother country and had scuttled the opportunity to use commercial sanctions to punish Great Britain’s violation of American neutrality.
Historian James Roger Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis, p. 117. Source: here.

Answer (a), (b), and (c) .

(a) Explain ONE historical actor who would agree with the historian’s assessment of Jay’s Treaty.
(b) Explain ONE historical actor who would disagree with the historian’s assessment of Jay’s Treaty.
(c) Explain ONE consequence of the limitations of Jay’s Treaty as described by the historian above.

Possible Answers:

(a) Thomas Jefferson would agree with the historian’s account. You should be able to explain why.
(b) Alexander Hamilton would disagree with the historian’s account. You should be able to explain why.
(c) One consequence of the limitations of Jay’s Treaty was the War of 1812. You should be able to explain why.

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  • Allena Berry

    Allena Berry loves history; that should be known upfront. She loves it so much that she not only taught high school history and psychology after receiving her Master's degree at Stanford University, she is now studying how students learn history at Northwestern. That being said, she does not have a favorite historical time period (so don't bother asking). In addition to history, she enjoys writing, practicing yoga, and scouring Craigslist for her next DIY project or midcentury modern piece of furniture.

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