Jay displayed marked adroitness as a negotiator in dealing with the issues growing out of past differences, but he made an extraordinary slip in providing for commercial relations between the two countries. In their general tenor the articles displayed broad liberality. Between all British dominions in Europe and the territories of the United States there was to be “a reciprocal and perfect liberty of commerce and navigation.” American vessels were to “be admitted and hospitably received” in the ports of East India, and, although participation in the coasting trade was prohibited, it was provided that this restriction should not prevent ships going from one port of discharge to another. The East Indian trade was not, however, so important as the nearer West Indian trade, and with respect to the latter the treaty provisions were narrow and exacting. American vessels were limited to seventy tons burden, and it was provided that “the United States will prohibit and restrain the carrying away of molasses, sugar, coffee, or cotton in American vessels, either for his Majesty’s Islands or the United States, to any part of the world except the United States, reasonable sea-stores excepted.” Jay, in a letter to Washington, excused his acceptance of this restraint on the ground that “the commercial part of the treaty may be terminated at the expiration of two years after the war, and in the meantime a state of things more auspicious to negotiation will probably arise, especially if the next session of Congress should not interpose fresh obstacles.”
The treaty was silent on the subject of impressment, but Jay’s failure on that point was just what was to have been expected in view of the unwillingness of the United States to defend its commerce. Impressment was not abandoned until many years afterwards, and then not through treaty stipulation but because the United States had a navy and could resist aggression on the seas. In its treatment of the subject of contraband, the treaty took positions in accord with the international law then received, but in one respect it made a distinct advance. Provision was made that war between the two countries should never become the pretext for confiscation of debts or annulment of contracts. This position involves the noble principle that war should never supersede justice but should be the servant of justice. Great practical advantage was experienced from it in the War of 1812, when the United States was a creditor nation.
On the whole, Jay’s diplomacy was as enlightened as it was shrewd, but at the time it exposed him to furious denunciation which he disdained to notice. “I had read the history of Greece,” he wrote to a friend, “and was apprised of the politics and proceedings of more recent date.” The philosophic composure which he drew from his knowledge of history enabled him to behave with calm dignity while he was being burned in effigy, and while mob orators were heaping insult and calumny on his name.