A Biography of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)

The Jay Treaty Controversy (April-August 1795)

Hamilton moved his family back to New York City and immediately began to rebuild his private law practice. Soon he was among the most sought-after attorneys in the city, taking on mostly complicated financial and commercial cases and retaining many large companies as clients. One of the cases he handled, LeGuen vs. Gouverneur and Kemble garnered the largest settlement in American legal history to that date. Hamilton won for Louis LeGuen, his client, a settlement of $120,000. Despite a steadily growing caseload, Hamilton's political career was far from over.

When the provisions of Jay's Treaty were made public in April of 1795, the public uproar was deafening. It seemed that Jay had not accomplished anything he had set out to do, and instead handed over what amounted to an affront to the national dignity. There were no provisions for compensation for wartime damages, illegal captures of ships and impressment of American sailors, or for the protracted Indian wars caused by the British occupation of the western posts. The British agreed to abandon the posts, but only after eighteen months. Especially insulting to the American people was a seventy ton limit on American ships trading in the British West Indies, effectively locking Americans out of the lucrative lumber trade.

Such was the public rage that Jay was burned in effigy, and Hamilton was pelted with stones when he tried to speak in favor of the treaty outside of City Hall in New York. Although the senate approved the treaty, Washington was hesitant to sign it, and asked Hamilton for his opinion. Hamilton responded with an article by article defense of the treaty. Consistent with his general philosophy of treaties, Hamilton pointed out that signing would be in the interest of the United States by preventing a war which would "give a serious wound to our growth and prosperity." The contested points aside, Jay's treaty "closes and upon the whole as reasonably as could have been expected the controverted points between the two Countries," and signing the treaty, Hamilton added, would not be contrary to the national honor.

Hamilton understood that the Jay Treaty was the best a new nation could expect from a world power, which was not obligated in the least to even consider its trading rights let alone treat with it like an equal. Hamilton's defense did not work its usual immediate magic: Washington thought on it for several weeks before signing the document and putting into effect what was essentially Hamilton's treaty.