The rise and fall of a founding friendship.
The Revolutionary War ended more than a decade ago, but America and Britain were still working out the kinks of this whole “peace” thing. George Washington sent John Jay to negotiate a treaty with Britain in 1794 to prevent an all-out war with our former motherland. These were his main objectives:
- Stop British ships from kidnapping American sailors and impressing them into service.
- Make British soldiers leave their forts around the Great Lakes.
- Make Britain pay for American ships they stole.
- Make Britain pay for American slaves they freed in Revolutionary War.
Jay succeeded in #2 and #3, totally failed in #1, and didn’t even try for #4 because he couldn’t care less about compensating slaveowners.
Even though the treaty was better than nothing, its terms were so favorable to Britain that Washington knew it would be extremely unpopular. He and the Senate quickly and quietly approved it, hoping maybe no one would notice.
When details of the treaty got out, the American people were outraged we would accept a deal so one sided that it basically accepted the Royal Navy’s God-given right to abduct American sailors whenever they wanted. John Jay said he could travel across America guided only by the light of his burning effigies. Washington’s house was surrounded by angry citizens cursing his name, and Alexander Hamilton – defending the treaty in public – was hit in the head with a rock.
|Detail of a 1795 drawing of John Jay being burned in effigy. This is what angry people did before the internet.|
No one was more furious with Jay’s Treaty than James Madison. One of the greatest differences between his Democratic-Republican party and Washington’s Federalist party was who they sided with in the ongoing war between Britain and France – Democratic-Republicans were all about that France, and the business-oriented Federalists wanted to make nice with Britain because they accounted for 75% of our trade. Not only did Jay’s Treaty strongly favor Britain, but it also heavily favored the economic interests of the northern states while screwing the southern ones.
Madison was determined to take advantage of the widespread public outcry to stop the treaty and take down the Federalists. Despite the fact that the House of Representatives had no treaty-making power, he drafted a House resolution formally requesting that Washington hand over the Jay Treaty and records of the negotiations leading up to it.
Washington had zero tolerance for Madison’s shit. Having presided over the Constitutional Convention, Washington knew exactly what power the House was granted and he schooled Madison: “The nature of foreign negotiations requires caution, and their success must often depend on secrecy.” The Constitution vests “the power of making treaties in the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, the principle on which that body was formed confining it to a small number of members.” (That’s “small number of members.” Not “small members,” Jemmy.)
Translation: Treaties are too important for you kids in the House to be messing with, son.
Then Washington brought out the big guns:
“It does not occur to me that the inspection of the papers asked for can be relative to any purpose under the cognizance of the House of Representatives, except that of an impeachment, which the resolution has not expressed.”
|You don’t have the brains to understand the Constitution, but do you have the balls to impeach George Washington?|
Madison’s cheeks must have smarted from Washington’s passive-aggressive dick slap. He knew impeaching Washington would be political suicide and could literally destroy the fledgling government, so he would have to find another way to derail this treaty.
Madison’s next tactic was to do what the House still tries to do if it doesn’t like a law – refuse to fund it. The House might not have treaty-making power, but it makes the budget decisions and could simply not allocate any funds to enforce the treaty, rendering it useless. The Latin term for this legal maneuver is dick move and it never goes out of style.
But Madison underestimated one thing: George Washington’s colossal popularity. He had entered a pissing contest with the wrong man. The sheer force of Washington’s influence was too powerful for the House and Madison’s frail little jockey body. As the nation slowly warmed to the war-preventing treaty simply because Washington supported it, more and more members of the House decided to fund it.
Vice President John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, “The Anarchical Warriours are beat out…by the Arguments of the Friends of Peace and order… Mr. Madison looks worried to death. Pale, withered, haggard.” He had gone up against Washington and suffered a humiliating loss. Recharging his feeble frame with some Mount Vernon and Chill (like he did after the exhausting Virginia Ratification Convention eight years earlier) was no longer an option – that open invitation was closed.
The last straw for Washington came when Madison wrote him a rambling embarrassment of a reply that tried to show respect for his old friend while still insinuating he was abusing or misunderstanding his executive power. “Though Madison would attend a few state dinners at the presidential mansion,” author Richard Brookhiser explained, “he and Washington exchanged no more letters, paid no more visits. The collaboration had been effectively over for years; now so was the friendship.”
|According to author Joseph Ellis, Madison “experienced firsthand the cardinal principal of American politics in the 1790s: whoever went face-to-face against Washington was destined to lose.”|
Defeated, Madison wrote to Jefferson explaining that the House lost their battle against the Jay Treaty because the people “have thence listened to the summons ‘to follow where Washington leads.’” Washington was too damn beloved. There was no winning for the Democratic-Republicans as long as he was in the picture.
Luckily for them, Washington was about to retire – but he wasn’t about to leave the public stage without using his old ghostwriter’s services one last time. Washington’s Farewell Address would be both an homage to, and a scathing indictment of, Little Jemmy Madison.
Sources: James Madison by Richard Brookhiser; Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham; John Adams by David McCullough; Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner; Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis; The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800 by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick; founders.archives.gov