The Jay Papers Ii: The Forging Of The Nation


Aside from the northeastern boundary, much other territory was in dispute with England: the northern and western frontier forts, principally those at Dutchman’s Point, Oswego, Niagara, Erie, Detroit, and Fort Michilimackinac. These forts fell inside the territory ceded to the United States by the Treaty of 1783, and the British had agreed to evacuate them “with all convenient speed.” But the day before George III officially proclaimed the ratification of the treaty, the British government, as a result of Canadian pressure, ordered that the posts be retained. With Spain pressing its claims to the lower Mississippi and the British refusing to budge from the northern and western border posts, the independence of the new nation was seriously threatened. One of Adams’ first acts as minister to the Court of St. James’s was to request the British to evacuate them. The British demurred, quite pertinently citing as justification the legal impediments put up by the states to collecting the debts owed by Americans to British merchants and the widspread refusal of the states to follow the treaty’s recommendation that the confiscated property of American Loyalists be restored to them. In a long report to Congress, Jay confessed that he felt that the British had justice on their side.

On the issue of the return of Negroes carried away by the British troops, Jay held that humanitarian considerations supported a liberal interpretation of the treaty, and that compensation might properly be accepted in lieu of the Negroes themselves, who presumably had been freed by the British. Both these points were consistent with Jay’s moral position regarding debts, which he felt should be paid, and slavery, which he abhorred. While he did not disclose to the British the details of this secret report to Congress, he was indiscreet enough to reveal its substance to Sir John Temple, the British consul in New York. Jay’s indiscretion could have had no result other than to stiffen the British determination to hold the forts as hostage to treaty compliance by the Americans, for Temple promptly relayed the information to Lord Carmarthen, the Foreign Secretary.

New York, 7 December 1786.

… I am upon such a footing of Acquaintance with Mr. Jay as that the other evening, when by ourselves at his own House, I asked him what Question Congress had come to, if any, concerning the State of grievances drawn up and given to Mr. Adams, by My Lord Carmarthen? Then he frankly told me (but with desire that I would not mention it in this Country) that he had reported fully upon the matter, that his report … upon the whole was, a full acknowledgment that many of the most important Articles in your Lordships Statement were just. Must be admitted as fact—and consequently a violation of the subsisting Treaty. That His Majesty was every way justifiable in still holding the Western Posts untill these States should Manifest a fair and honorable disposition to fulfill their part of the said Treaty. That he also in his report entered largely into the Complaint on the American side of the question, particularly of the Negroes being carried off contrary to an Article in the Treaty, and upon the whole, as far as I could judge from his verbal accot. of the Report , (which will doubtless be adopted by Congress) it seems, he has stated matters in such a light as will I trust be more pleasing to his Majesty and his Ministers than I expected it would be. The Report is I understand upon the Table of Congress, but nothing can be done concerning it till the beginning of next month, when they will meet, chuse a President, and then proceed to Business, soon after which, ’tis probable their Resolution and doings upon this Business will be transmitted to their self sufficient, wrong headed Minister in London [Adams], who by his Mulish disposition, has lost ground in every respect, with Congress as well as in the particular state he belongs to. It is more than probable that both himself and his useless Secretary [William Stephens Smith] will soon be called Home, at any Rate, that after the expiration of their three Years appointment (12 months hence) they never will be reappointed to the Court of London. It is now pretty generally thought that had a Man of a Modest conciliatory disposition been sent to London a much better understanding would have long before this have subsisted between His Majesty and these States.

Adams had indeed been experiencing difficulties at court. Within six months of his letter to Jay describing his cordial reception by the King, he had written another, in cipher, which told a far different, sadder story.

Grosvenor Square, Westminster, 3 December, 1785. Dear Sir,—

I am anxious to convey to you, if I can, in as strong a light as that in which I see it myself, the impossibility of our doing any thing satisfactory with this nation, especially under this ministry.…