The View From 1776

The Full Story: John Adams, John Jay, and the 1783 Treaty of Paris

The following commentary provides background details to make clearer the point of the posting titled John Adams and John Jay.

A skilled lawyer by profession, John Jay looked upon the United States as his client, for whom he was determined to get the best possible deal, consistent with moral rectitude, in the 1783 treaty that ended the war with England.  His actions are a good example of the proper way to conduct foreign policy. 

As I noted in Misunderstanding Alliances, basing our foreign policy upon a theoretical ‘community of nations’ and assuming that the aim is to make other nations our friends is suicidal folly.  It’s fine to deal justly with everyone, but the first necessity of foreign policy is to understand clearly what our national interests are.  The second necessity is to take the required actions to protect those interests.

Had the socialist internationalism underlying today’s UN been operative in 1783, Jay’s decisive and effective action would have been impossible.  Politicians and the media would have clobbered him for alienating French and Spanish public opinion.

The following commentary is by my wife, Judy Brewton, who is a national-award-winning writer and producer of historical videos.  One of her current projects is working with the John Jay Homestead in Katonah, NY, to produce a video about Mr. Jay’s manifold contributions to the United States and to the state of New York.

I must point out that my wife does not share all of my political views, so she is not to be blamed for my opinions about foreign policy stated above.


Judy Brewton’s background notes regarding the 1783 Treaty of Paris:

In 1781 while in Spain seeking financial help in the war, John Jay had been asked by the Continental Congress to serve in Paris as one of five delegates seeking a peace treaty between America, France, Spain and Britain. ?It was specified that, in these negotiations, any agreements on America’s behalf must be approved by the Count Vergennes, the French foreign minister.

Jay wrote back to Congress that he could not serve on those terms. ?While in Spain he had come to realize that neither France nor Spain was fully committed to the fact of American independence; rather both saw America’s allegiance as a powerful bargaining chip in negotiations with England—one that could certainly be bargained away if it should come to seem profitable. ??

Congress never replied to Jay’s refusal to serve in Paris, but soon Franklin began to write imploring him to come. ?(The other three negotiators had not come; Henry Laurens had been captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London; Thomas Jefferson never intended to come; and John Adams was in the Netherlands negotiating for a loan.) ?Jay set sail.

From the moment he arrived in Paris, Jay found himself at odds with Franklin, who could not be persuaded that France might not take good care of America and her interests. (And who, even more alarmingly, did not find it important for Britain to formally acknowledge America’s independence!) ?

Franklin, however soon fell ill. ?Jay, learning of secret communications with England by the Spaniards and the French, used a contact of his own to send a message to the English Prime Minister, saying, essentially “make no agreements until I arrive.” ?Without Franklin’s knowledge, he hurried to England, where he successfully sold the English on the greater economic advantage of a separate treaty with America—something the British much preferred, but had been unable to achieve as long as America remained politically tethered to France. ?This has been described as the riskiest action of Jay’s career, since it directly disobeyed the Congress’ strict instruction to enter into no agreement or negotiation without French approval.

Returning to Paris Jay then worked furiously with the British envoy in drawing up a provisional treaty. ?Adams, who had always been of a mind with Jay, arrived in Paris the following month, where he and Jay worked together to polish the terms.

Franklin knew nothing of Jay’s trip to England until it was over, and the provisional agreement underway. ?He was unhappy about it at first, but soon came around. ?(Explaining things to the French must have been unpleasant, though.)

John Adams, April, 1783 (to Abigail, his wife):
“Mr. Jay has been my only Consolation. ?In him I have found a Friend to his Country, without Alloy. ?I shall never forget him, nor cease to love him, while I live.”

Arthur Lee on July 23, 1783 (speaking of Jay to the Earl of Shelburne):
“America owes immortal gratitude to that gentleman’s firmness, spirit and integrity.”