WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- "Insulting to the dignity, injurious to the interests, dangerous to the security and repugnant to the Constitution of the United States" was how the treaty was described in Richmond, Va.

"A cage constructed to coop up the American eagle" was the denunciation in Boston, where burnings in effigy were common.


They weren't talking about the Chemical Weapons Convention, though the rhetoric was familiar last week when the Senate debated and approved the pact to ban the production, storage and use of poison gas.

It was the Jay Treaty of 1795 they were talking about, a treaty that made suspicious Jeffersonians think that the Federalists were trying to establish an American monarchy.


Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Republican friends were following a hallowed American tradition in their apocalyptic warnings last week.

Helms said, "Instead of halting the spread of poison gas, this treaty will be aiding in its proliferation."

Conrad Burns of Montana declared that "Iran will be permitted to have access to our chemical secrets." Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas called the pact "unilateral disarmament."

Treaties have always had an odd place in the American system.

Indeed, the American system for dealing with them often frustrates other nations, which first negotiate, cut deals and compromise with the executive branch, and then sit by and watch Congress decide whether to revoke the United States' word.

The extreme arguments, while they sound similar, may have a different basis today than in the republic's early years, said Joel Silbey, a Cornell University historian.

Then, foreign affairs, and the British threat, were deeply held concerns.

These days, when even primitive isolationism is a lesser force, exaggeration may be needed just to get attention for foreign affairs.


The fury over the Jay Treaty, the nation's first, was not just over its provisions and how tough or weak it was toward Britain on issues ranging from free trade to delivery of the mail.

It was also over the fact that the Washington administration and the Federalist Senate used the treaty power (as the Constitution provided) to make law that they could not have persuaded the House, controlled by Jefferson's Republicans, to pass.

It was the nation's first experience with that less-than-democratic constitutional approach, but that same concern about elite judgments has been behind many subsequent fights over treaties.

The typical argument by treaty proponents is that not only will untold harm flow from rejection, but that by going back on the president's word, the Senate will make the nation unworthy of trust ever again.

But sometimes the direst warnings don't get offered publicly.

Robert Pastor, an Emory University political scientist who worked in the Carter administration, recalled last week being asked to prepare two statements for the president to use: one if the Panama Canal treaties were approved in 1978 and one if they were rejected.


As he set to work on the rejection speech, he concluded that if the Senate spurned the treaties, Panama would blow up the canal.

That argument would have seemed like cheap blackmail of the Senate and was never used publicly.

The treaties were approved, with one vote to spare, and the rejection speech was never needed.

But not long ago, memoirs from Panamanian leaders made it clear that he was right in his suspicions; they planned to blow up the canal's locks.

Pub Date: 4/27/97