In the aftermath of the American Revolution, trade was a wild and woolly matter as the British harassed and seized American ships and blocked them from British ports altogether. George Washington, trying to stabilize the country’s economy, wanted to resolve the issue. He asked New York Senator John Jay to make a treaty with Britain and New Hampshire Senator Samuel Livermore to ram it through the Senate.
Washington got what he wanted, but not without cost to his prestige. Jay brought the treaty to the Congress in 1794. Washington had managed to keep the terms of the treaty secret until a Philadelphia newspaper got wind of them and published the details.
Up and down the coast of the northern states especially, the protests were loud as the country learned the details of the trade deal. Britain would have unlimited access to American ports. America’s ships would have limited access to ports in England, but her many ports in the West Indies and other colonies were strictly off limits.
Further, British ships were free to harass American ships and seize French goods found aboard them. In return, America got virtually nothing, other than a pledge from the British to make good on their earlier promise to abandon western outposts in America.
In Portsmouth, N.H. the treaty was denounced. New England ports were filled with businesses that made their living off trade. They were not happy to go back to dealing with sources dictated by the English government. To some it seemed that the freedoms, hard-won during the Revolutionary War, were being surrendered – and for nothing in return.
As Congress debated the treaty in 1795, the Water Street carving shop of William Deering in Portsmouth, N.H. became a flashpoint for protesters. Deering was a carver who made figureheads for the ships that traveled in and out of the port. He turned his attention to carving two figures that weren’t designed to leave the port.
Deering carved likenesses of Samuel Livermore, the New Hampshire senator who supported the treaty, and Jay. A group of 300 furious protesters marched the figures, accompanied by fife and drum, to one of the city’s wharves. There they held a trial and execution, during which they burned the two senators.
When charges were brought against the protesters, the courtroom was filled with angry supporters eager to see how the judge would handle the matter. Fearing another riot, the charges were not heard.
But the effort to alter the treaty were in vain. Washington got the vote he needed from the Senate and the treaty established a shaky state of peace with Britain. For American business, the treaty was a mixed bag. Trade with Britain increased, while trade with other countries cooled. But the sea captains now had new enemies. In addition to continued harassment by the British, they now faced new adversaries: the French. Angered by the treaty, the French now began harassing American ships, as well. To them, it seemed cutting off French trade was an odd way to thank an ally.