The Jay Papers Ii: The Forging Of The Nation


Would the Articles of Confederation prove a viable instrument of government? Could the thirteen newly independent states forge an effective union? Would America enjoy a lasting peace? These were some of the questions that concerned responsible statesmen in the years following the Treaty of Paris of 1783. By reason of his central role in the administration of the nation’s foreign affairs, John Jay played a crucial, if not decisive, role in shaping the Confederation’s destiny. Perhaps no better illumination is cast on the shape and course of events in those years than is provided by the Jay Papers. Now housed in Columbia University’s Special Collections, Jay’s correspondence plots the nation’s fever chart. When a new Constitution had been adopted and a durable union forged, the fever broke.

In the first installment of selections from the Jay Papers, in the February, 1968, A MERICAN H ERITAGE , we shared Jay’s frustrating experiences in Spain, where he attempted to secure recognition and aid from the autocratic court of Charles III for the rebellious thirteen states. We then journeyed with Jay to Paris, where his tenacity and acumen were key factors in the negotiations with the British, to end the American Revolution.

The arduous and protracted sessions in Paris left Jay run-down physically and mentally, and the reports he was receiving of intrigue and dissension in America did nothing to lift his spirits. As much as a year before, at the height of the preliminary peace negotiations, Jay had written his close friend, the New York lawyer-patriot Egbert Benson: “Our power, respectability, and happiness will forever depend on our Union.” But after the treaty had been signed it became apparent that the “United States,” as the new nation styled itself, was far from united. Under the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781 it was merely a congeries of governments which did not always see eye to eye and had difficulty in acting together. And Jay’s remark to Benson about respectability had point: the great powers of Europe, not only Britain but France and Spain as well, had very little respect for the new nation, weak and insignificant as it was. They were, in fact, rather hoping that it would fail. For one thing, the success of America’s revolt against its monarchical motherland might arouse similar expectations among their own subjects; for another, there would be some attractive pieces to be picked up should the house so divided against itself come tumbling down.

Of all these things John Jay was conscious as he affixed his signature to the definitive treaty of peace with England on September 3, 1783. When he took ship for America the following May with his wife and family, planning to return to private life and the practice of law, he had no way of knowing that many of his country’s problems were soon to be dumped into his lap. Reaching, New York on July 24, 1984, he was greeted by the news that Congress had appointed him Secretary for Foreign Affairs. A letter from Charles Thomson, secretary of the Congress, apprised Jay of the gloomy prospects for the Confederation.

Philadelphia, September 8, 1784

Dear Sir,

… I wish exceedingly to see and converse with you not only on the subject of your acceptance but on the general State of our Affairs. There is at present no person whose business or whose duty it is to attend to matters of National Concern. The Committee of the states have in my opinion very unwarrantably separated, and though the Chairman has written to the several states to send on a delegate to form a Committee at Philadelphia, I have little hopes of their meeting. The Superintendant of Finance is busy in winding up his Affairs so as to quit his Office; as to the department of foreign affairs our Ministers abroad are left wholly to themselves without the least information of what is passing here. And the several States seem to be acting as if there was nothing beyond their respective bounds which claimed their attention or deserved their notice. Our public credit is again verging to a precipice and the seeds of jealousy and internal commotions seem to be springing up while at the same time I am far from thinking we are secure from the insidious designs of our late enemy [Britain], or the deep rooted jealousy of our Southern neighbour [Spain]. Yet gloomy as the prospect appears it only wants a little common sense, and common attention in the states to brighten the scene, to ensure public tranquility and private happiness and to render our situation enviable; and on your acceptance I greatly rely for these purposes.

… Be pleased to make my most respectful compliments to Mrs. Jay and accept the assurance of the unfeigned affection of

Dear Sir, Your friend and Servant C HA. T HOMSON