Jefferson and the Nuclear Treaty with Iran

The most remarkeable political occurrence with us has been the treaty with England, of which no man in the US. has had the effrontery to affirm that it was not a very bad one except A.H. under the signature of Camillus. It’s most zealous defenders only pretend that it was better than war. As if war was not invited rather than avoided by unfounded demands. I have never known the public pulse beat so full and in such universal unison on any Subject since the declaration of Independance. The House of representatives of the US. has manifested it’s disapprobation of the treaty. We are yet to learn whether they will exercise their constitutional right of refusing the means which depend on them for carrying it into execution.

Jefferson to James Monroe
March 2, 1796

Many Americans are discontented with the treaty that Secretary of State John Kerry has concluded with the Iranian government in the summer of 2015. Critics have argued that we did not exact enough concessions from the Iranian government, that in concluding a bad treaty we give up the only real tool we had at our disposal, the Draconian trade sanctions that have severely damaged the Iranian economy, and that we have now made it much more likely that Iran will be able to produce nuclear weapons. Critics of the treaty are loudly demanding that the U.S. Senate refuse to ratify the treaty come September. 

Meanwhile, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, has made the case for the treaty by saying that a: it is the best treaty we are likely to achieve; b: that if we don't ratify the treaty we will be unable to convince our European allies to continue the trade sanctions, and c: that the collapse of the treaty negotiations will make it much more likely that Iran will obtain nuclear weapons.

The Obama administration has not exactly built a record of credibility in its Middle East diplomacy, particularly after the president failed to follow up on his now famous "red line" threats against Bashar al-Assad's Syrian oppressions.

It may be useful to think about this diplomatic crisis through the lens of the Jay Treaty of Jefferson's time. 

The French Revolution destabilized Europe for a quarter of a century between 1789 and 1815. As England and France fought a world war for national survival, the fledgling American republic, the United States, was repeatedly buffeted by one of the belligerents or the other, and sometimes both. Britain had been doing whatever it could to keep the U.S. in economic bondage following the Revolution. The added pressures of the wars of the French Revolution made things much worse.

Although President Washington was appalled by British depredations in the Atlantic and the Caribbean--more than 200 American merchant trips were captured by the British Navy--he did not want war. Washington sent the chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay, to Britain to try to work out some accommodation that would protect American interests and American honor.

Jay did what he could. It was not much. England made no concessions about its practices on the high seas, including seizing American trade vessels. It agreed to establish joint commissions to work out boundary issues along the Canadian frontier, to settle America's pre-1776 debts to British merchants, and to determine how to resolve American claims about confiscated merchandise. The British did agree to vacate its trade and military forts on the American side of the Great Lakes. (This had been promised in the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution, but Britain had never complied). The British refused to consider compensating southern slave holders for slaves captured during the war.

Although nobody in America was very happy with Jay's treaty, the party in power (the Federalists) put the best face on an imperfect situation and rallied to support the president. The emerging opposition party, the Republicans (informally founded by Madison and Jefferson), was loud in its denunciation of Jay, the treaty, and to a certain extent President Washington. Jay was burned in effigy in larger American cities. When Alexander Hamilton rose in public in New York to defend the treaty, he was pelted with stones and had to withdraw to safety.

Bowing to President Washington's enormous national prestige, the U.S. Senate ratified the Jay Treaty on June 24, 1795.

Jefferson and Madison were livid. Madison had called it a "ruinous bargain," sponsored by "a British party [i.e. the Federalists], systematically aiming at an exclusive connection with the British government and ready to sacrifice. . . the dearest interests of our commerce [and] the most sacred dictates of national honor."

Sound familiar?

But here's the part worth careful consideration.

Scholars, including Jefferson biographers and diplomatic historians, have long concluded that the unpopular Jay Treaty was the best deal we could possibly have obtained without recourse to war, that the treaty, however imperfect, enabled the United States to build its confidence and national economy for a generation before lingering issues brought on the War of 1812. Because the United States had a weak navy and a tiny army, Britain felt no need to grant concessions to its rebellious former colonies. Jay may not have pleased the American people, and he positively offended the emerging Republicans, but he did manage to clarify a number of important issues, and maintain the peace in a very troubled Atlantic world.

Historians conclude that Washington did the right thing to send Jay to London in spite of unpropitious circumstances, and to work hard for ratification of a treaty he knew to be imperfect.

When the alternative is between a bad treaty and war, as President Obama has  repeatedly admonished, sometimes you have to hold your nose and ratify what nobody finds altogether satisfying. Although the Senate has the constitutional right to reject any treaty brought before it, for any reason, good or bad, generally speaking our constitutional "protocol" is to grant the executive the benefit of the doubt, because he and his agents have been involved in the international deliberations, understand the issues more fully than anyone standing on the outside can possibly do, and deserve a fair level of deference in international relations.

That is not to say that Jefferson and Madison were wrong to decry the Jay Treaty. My point is that the Iran crisis is not the first time such a seemingly unpalatable treaty has been presented to the U.S. Senate, and anyone who feels instinctively antagonistic to the Iran Treaty should spend some time reflecting on how the larger trajectory of American history may regard the painstaking and frustrating negotiations that Secretary Kerry and European diplomats have recently concluded.

Jefferson had a visceral and principled aversion to war as a tool in international relations. His view (then) was that time is on the side of the United States, that war should be used only as a "last melancholy resort," and that peace, however tense, is almost always preferable to armed combat.


Read Jefferson’s grumbling letter to James Monroe.

Further Reading:

The Jay Treaty Debate: Public Opinion, and the Evolution of Early American Political Culture
by Todd Estes

Madison's Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America
by David O. Stewart

The Federalist Era, 1789-1801
by John C. Miller