The Jay Papers Ii: The Forging Of The Nation


… The clauses of the Convention of 1784, cloathing Consuls with the privileges of the law of nations, are struck out, and they are expressly subjected, in their persons and property, to the laws of the land.

That giving the right of Sanctuary to their houses is reduced to a protection of their Chancery room and its papers.

Their coercive powers over passengers are taken away: and over those whom they might have termed deserters of their nation, are restrained to deserted seamen only.

The clause allowing them to arrest and send back vessels is struck out, and instead of it they are allowed to exercise a police over the ships of their nation generally. … And the Convention is limited to 12. years duration. …

With John Jay’s endorsement, the revised consular convention would be ratified by the new federal Senate in 1789. It was the first treaty ratified by the Senate under the Constitution.

While a good part of his attention was quite naturally directed toward America’s relations with the great powers of the world, John Jay never lost sight of the nation’s domestic problems, especially the central one: the essential weakness of the Articles of Confederation as an instrument of stable self-government. In the year or two before the Constitutional Convention a sense of crisis gripped the country. Business had yet to rebound from the acute depression of the postwar years. Unemployed seamen haunted the dockyards of Boston seeking work; noisome jails in western Massachusetts were overcrowded with debtors; and farmers were being evicted by foreclosure proceedings. In the West, conspiracy and separatism were in the air. The frontier seemed ripe for Indian risings. England curtly rejected every American effort to settle outstanding differences; even lowly Algiers contemptuously disputed America’s power on the seas. How could Congress deal with these threats to security if it was unable even to levy an impost?

From his central post in the Confederation, John Jay saw the issues in the large, and his correspondence with George Washington at Mount Vernon and with Jefferson and Lafayette in France discloses the concern of statesmen that events like Shays’ Rebellion, which began in the late summer of 1786, might trigger a general movement of disruption and even anarchy. The solution: a federal convention. Jay’s anxious letters to Mount Vernon clearly reflect the growing apprehension that gripped the nation’s Founding Fathers. The General’s replies contain ample evidence that he shared these concerns; from New York on March 16, 1786, Jay wrote to Washington.

Dear Sir

… Although you have wisely retired from public Employments, and calmly view from the Temple of Fame, the various Exertions of that Sovereignty and Independence which Providence has enabled you to be so greatly and gloriously instrumental in securing to your Country; yet I am persuaded you cannot view them with the Eye of an unconcerned Spectator.

Experience has pointed out Errors in our national Government, which call for Correction, and which threaten to blast the Fruit we expected from our “Tree of Liberty.” … An opinion begins to prevail that a general Convention for revising the articles of Confederation would be expedient. Whether the People are yet ripe for such a Measure, or whether the System proposed to be attained by it, is only to be expected from Calamity and Commotion, is difficult to ascertain. I think we are in a delicate Situation, and a Variety of Considerations and Circumstances give me uneasiness. It is in Contemplation to take Measures for forming a general Convention. The Plan is not matured; if it should be well concerted and take Effect, I am fervent in my wishes, that it may comport with the Line of Life you have marked out for yourself, to favor your Country with your Counsels on such an important and single occasion. I suggest this merely as a Hint for Consideration, and am with the highest Respect and Esteem

Dear Sir, your most obedient and very humble Servant


On May 18 Washington answered:

Dear Sir,