The Jay Papers Ii: The Forging Of The Nation

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The business of the Office is done by his Deputy and two Clerks, and whatever Time can be spared from the ordinary and daily Business, is employed in recording the Letters received from the american Ministers abroad. …

The Office is constantly open from q in the Morning to 6 O’clock in the Evening; and either his Deputy or one of the Clerks remains in the Office while the others are absent at Dinner.

By inspection…your Committee find…upon the whole … neatness, method and perspicuity throughout the Department.

From this distance it seems extraordinary that Jay could have conducted the foreign relations of the United States government for a half-dozen years in a two-room office. Nevertheless, the record of his scrupulously efficient little department compares favorably with that of its more recent successors housed in the palatial grandeur of “Foggy Bottom” and manned by an army big enough to overawe a Burgoyne or a Cornwallis. Modest though his quarters and incredibly minute though his staff were, Jay was to make of the office the most important administrative post in the land.

First and foremost among the new Secretary’s problems were America’s relations with the erstwhile mother country. The major piece of unfinished business arising out of the peace settlement was the writing of a trade treaty. The United States had already made such a treaty with France, and would soon do the same with Holland, Sweden, Prussia, and Morocco, but all these countries, even France, were peripheral as far as America’s external commerce was concerned. Unless the new United States was to fashion entirely new patterns of trade relations, its prosperity depended heavily on securing reciprocal trade concessions from England, including the right to resume the once lucrative trade with the British West Indies. Lord Shelburne, who had made the preliminary peace treaty with America, was dedicated to reciprocity and ultimately to free trade, but once he was out of office, protectionism was in the saddle in England. In fact, even prior to signing the final treaty the British, in July of 1783, inaugurated a restrictive trade policy against the United States. Jay pronounced it “impolitic and ill timed” and proposed to Thomson in a letter from London that “if Britain should adopt and persist in a monopolizing system, let us retaliate fully and firmly. This nation, like many others, is influenced more by its feelings than reasonings.” Sound advice, but once back in the United States and charged with the responsibility for implementing it, Jay soon perceived that the impotent Congress of the Confederation could not unite on such a measure.

A number of other issues complicated the restoration of peaceful relations with England. When the British armies left American soil, they carried with them some 3,000 American slaves; these had never been returned to their owners, nor had the owners received any compensation. There was also disagreement over the boundary line between the United States and Canada in the Northeast. A more serious cause of discontent in this country was the British refusal to give up a whole string of strategic northern and western forts stretching from Lake Champlain all the way west to the vital Straits of Mackinac between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron; these posts controlled America’s whole Canadian frontier.

On all these points Secretary Jay pressed for continued negotiations by our emissary to the Court of St. James’s, the redoubtable John Adams. As the first minister from the former British colonies, Adams was in a ticklish spot, meeting face to face with his former sovereign, the man whom American patriots had denounced as a tyrant and struggled against so long and bitterly. In a letter to Jay, Adams recounted his presentation to George III.

Bath Hotel, Westminster, June 2, 1785

Dear Sir,

… At one, on Wednesday, the first of June, the master of ceremonies called at my house and went with me to the Secretary of State’s Office, in Cleveland Row, where the Marquis of Carmarthen received me and … invited me to go with him in his coach to Court. When we arrived in the Anti-Chamber, the Oeil de Boeuf , of St. James’s, the master of the ceremonies met me and attended me, while the Secretary of State went to take the commands of the King. While I stood in this place, where it seems all Ministers stand upon such occasions, always attended by the master of ceremonies, the room very full of Ministers of State, Bishops, and all other sorts of courtiers, as well as the next room, which is the King’s bed-chamber, you may well suppose, I was the focus of all eyes…until the Marquis of Carmarthen returned and desired me to go with him to his Majesty. I went with his Lordship through the levee room into the King’s closet. The door was shut and I was left with his Majesty and the Secretary of State alone, I made the three reverences, one at the door, another about halfway, and the third before the presence, according to the usage established at this and all the northern Courts of Europe, and then addressed myself to his Majesty in the following words:

“Sir,