John Jay was an American revolutionary and statesman. Although initially opposed to independence, he became an ardent revolutionary politician. He served in the Continental Congress, became a diplomat, wrote five of the 85 Federalist Papers essays, and was the first Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. He was the second governor of New York, but ill health prevented more service. John Jay was an honest and honorable man who devoted his working life to the service of America and was a true patriot and hero.
John Jay was born on 12 December 1745 in New York City into a prominent family of wealthy merchants and New York government officials. His father was Peter Jay of French Huguenot descent. Peter was a successful trader of commodities such as furs, grains, and timber. His mother was Mary Van Cortlandt of Dutch descent. The wealthy Cortlandt family was involved in New York politics and military.
Three months after John Jay’s birth the family moved to Rye, New York. Peter Jay had retired from business following a smallpox epidemic in New York City. Unfortunately, two of their children contracted smallpox which resulted in blindness.
John Jay was educated by his mother until he was eight years old when he was sent to New Rochelle, New York to study under Anglican priest Pierre Stoupe. After three years of extremely strict discipline and Spartan living conditions in New Rochelle, he returned to homeschooling. In 1760 at 14 years old, He entered King’s College (Columbia University today). At King’s college, Jay made many influential friends, including Robert Livingston whose father became a Justice of the Supreme Court.
After graduating in 1764, Jay became a law clerk and student of Benjamin Kissam, a prominent lawyer, politician, and law instructor. Kissam’s other students included Lindley Murray who became a prominent lawyer, writer, and grammarian. His grammar books were widely used in England and America.
Jay was admitted to the New York bar in 1768 and in 1771 established his own law practice. Politically he was a staunch Whig and conservative and became secretary of the New York Committee of Correspondence. He worked to protect property rights and the rule of law while resisting what he regarded as British violations of American rights. He did not favor independence and feared the prospect of “mob rule.”
In 1774, Jay became a delegate to the First Continental Congress, where he sided with the faction that favored reconciliation with Britain. However, violent British actions against the colonists pushed him to support independence. Once war began, he became a radical patriot and worked tirelessly for the “Glorious Cause.”
John Jay married Sarah Van Livingston on 28 April 1774. Sarah was the daughter of New Jersey Governor William Livingston. She was seventeen years old, and John was twenty-eight. They had six children. Their relationship was close, and Sarah and the children accompanied him on his assignments to Spain and France.
Upon the conclusion of the Continental Congress in 1774, Jay returned to New York where he again became involved in New York politics. He was elected to the third New York Provincial Congress where he helped draft the New York Constitution. On 8 May 1777, he was elected Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature. He served for two years.
On 10 December 1778, the Second Continental Congress elected Jay president of the congress. The position was mostly ceremonial with no real power but was an honor. He served until he was appointed Minister to Spain on 27 September 1779.
His diplomatic mission to Spain was to obtain financial aid, commercial treaties, and recognition of American independence. The Spanish royal court refused to officially receive Jay as the Minister of the United States fearing that recognition would spark revolution in Spanish colonies. He did, however, convince the Spanish to loan the United States government $170,000. The Jay family departed Spain on 20 May 1782.
Jay’s diplomatic duties did not end when he left Spain. On 23 June 1782 he arrived in Paris where negotiations to end the American War for Independence would take place. The Congress had appointed five negotiators, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Laurens. Jefferson did not travel to Paris and Laurens joined the team two days before the treaty was signed. The active American negotiators were Franklin, Adams, and Jay. Franklin was the most experienced American diplomat and Jay wanted to learn from him, so he and his family resided with Franklin.
The American Revolutionary War was a world war since it involved Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands who all had colonies in the New World. The Americans agreed to negotiate with Britain separately and in July, the Earl of Shelburne proposed terms for peace. Jay rejected the offer because it did not recognize American independence. This rejection delayed negotiations until fall of 1782.
The final treaty established that Britain agreed that the thirteen colonies were free and independent and that British troops would be withdrawn from American soil. Also, the Americans were granted Newfoundland fishing rights. The Americans agreed to end seizures of loyalist property and to honor private debts.
The Treaty of Paris was signed on 3 September 1783 and ratified by congress on 14 January 1784. It granted the United States independence but left some borders in dispute and many provisions were never enforced. The British did not withdraw all their troops and in practice did not accept American independence. The British did not treat the US as a sovereign state until the Americans defeated them again in the War of 1812.
What the treaty did do was end the long and bloody war and officially free the British colonies to become a new nation, which was what all Americans wanted. John Adams credited Jay with having the leading role in the treaty negotiations, and he was publicly praised for his peacemaking skills.
While in Paris, Jay’s father died, greatly adding to his family responsibilities. His two blind siblings became dependent on him, his brother Fredrick had perpetual financial problems, and his brother Augustus had severe mental problems. He had to support all financially and emotionally, which had to be a significant strain on him, his wife, and children. In addition, his brother James was an ardent loyalist, and a family embarrassment.
John Jay did not get much rest after the Treaty of Paris because he became the second Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation in 1784. He served until 1789. The US Constitution was ratified in June 1788 and Jay’s office was designated the Department of State which made him acting Secretary of State.
During his five-year tenure in foreign affairs, Jay began to establish a strong foreign policy, sought recognition of the great powers of the day, helped establish a stable American currency and international credit. He also wanted to pay-off the war debt, secure the nation’s borders, and solve regional differences among the states. If that was not enough, he wanted to establish robust maritime trade, protect shipping from piracy, establish and preserve America’s reputation at home and abroad, and hold the country together under the weak Articles of Confederation.
Jay did not attend the Constitutional Convention, but joined Alexander Hamilton and James Madison arguing for a strong, powerful, and balanced central government. They presented their opinions in a series of articles that we know as The Federalist Papers, which were published under alias. Jay authored five of the eighty-five essays. The Federalist Papers are still used today for constitutional and historical research since they are a window into the thinking and intentions of those involved in developing the Constitution.
President George Washington offered Jay the position of Secretary of State, but he refused. Washington responded by offering him the position of Chief Justice of the United States which he regarded as the “keystone of our political fabric.” Jay accepted, was confirmed by the Senate, and was sworn in on 19 October 1789. Five Associate Justices were also sworn in completing the Court. (The Constitution does not establish the size of the Court. That responsibility was given to Congress.)
Being the first Supreme Court, much time was involved in establishing rules and procedures and the duties of the justices. In the early years of the Court, the justices also had circuit court duties in the federal judicial districts and they physically “rode the circuits.”
It was three years before the first case came to the Supreme Court and it was soon followed by three more. None were momentous but they were significant. The Court’s judicial decisions reinforced the principle of “separation of powers,” established that states were subject to judicial review, and clarified jury responsibilities.
Probably the most important decision made by Chief Justice Jay was not related to case law. In 1790 Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton wrote to him asking for the Court’s endorsement of proposed legislation. Jay replied that the Court’s business was restricted to ruling on the constitutionality of cases brought before it and could not take a position on legislation. This was a clear statement of the principle of separation of powers and clearly established that the Supreme Court should stay out of partisan politics.
Although he was still Chief Justice, Jay was the Federalist candidate for New York governor in 1792. Democratic-Republican George Clinton defeated him. He received more votes than Clinton but votes in three counties were disqualified on technicalities giving Clinton a narrow win.
By 1794 relations with Britain again verged on war. British goods dominated the American market while American goods were blocked from British markets. The British still occupied forts that they had agreed in the Treaty of Paris to leave, they were seizing American supplies bound for France, and were impressing American sailors. These were overt acts of war. James Madison proposed a trade war of “commercial hostility” to retaliate. He believed the British were weakened by their war with France and would not declare war on the US but would concede to American demands.
President Washington rejected Madison’s proposal and chose diplomacy. He assigned John Jay to negotiate a treaty with the British and Alexander Hamilton wrote the administration’s guidance for Jay. Hamilton, in an ill-advised attempt to improve relations with Britain, secretly informed them that the US would be willing to compromise on most issues. This undercut Jay’s ability to negotiate by removing the little leverage he had.
Jay brought the final draft of the treaty, amazingly known as “Jay’s Treaty,” to Philadelphia in March 1795. The treaty was very strongly opposed. Since he was Chief Justice, Jay did not take part in the debates. The treaty ended Britain’s control of northwestern forts, although they again ignored this provision. It granted the US “most favored nation” trade status; however, the US agreed to restricted commercial access to the British West Indies. The treaty did not resolve American grievances about neutral shipping rights and US sailor impressment. The Royal Navy was free to continue interference with American shipping and to impress American sailors.
The Democratic-Republicans severely denounced the treaty and Jay. Southerners bitterly opposed the treaty because there was no compensation for slaves that were freed and transported away by the British during the Revolutionary War. Jefferson and Madison led this disparate but strong opposition because they feared a commercial alliance with a monarchy would undercut republicanism.
The Jay Treaty was sure to be defeated, but President Washington put his prestige behind it and Alexander Hamilton, and the Federalists mobilized public opinion. Despite this support, the senate ratified the treaty by exactly a two-thirds majority, the minimum required.
The Democratic-Republicans were enraged by ratification and protesters denounced Jay with slogans like: “Damn John Jay! Damn everyone who won’t damn John Jay!!!” One newspaper wrote: “John Jay, ah! The arch traitor – seize him, drown him, burn him, flay him alive.” Jay joked that he could travel at night from Boston to Philadelphia solely by the light from his burning effigies.
In May 1795, while still in Britain, Jay was elected the second governor of New York on the Federalist ticket. He resigned from the Supreme Court on 29 June 1795 and served six years as governor.
Shortly after Jay took office, Hamilton sent him a letter proposing that he gerrymander the New York districts for the 1796 presidential election. Proving again that he was a principled public servant, Jay marked the letter “Proposing a measure for party purposes which it would not become me to adopt.” He then filed the letter without replying.
Politics in New York were highly partisan and corrupt when Jay was elected and to the chagrin of his party, he eliminated corrupt practices whenever he could. He insisted that the only criterion for office was ability and he regularly overruled party bosses.
Governor Jay was extremely popular with the people because he worked to improve business and the quality of life. He streamlined government and the judicial system, improved canal navigation, reformed the prison system and the treatment of prisoners, supported efforts to abolish debtors’ prison and to eliminate slavery. His tenure was characterized by honor and principle.
John Adams lost the 1800 election and was making “midnight” judicial appointments before leaving office. He nominated Jay to his former position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the Senate quickly confirmed him. Jay declined citing ill health and the Court’s “lack of relevancy.” Adams then made the best appointment of his career by nominating John Marshall to be Chief Justice. Jay also declined renomination for New York governor and retired in 1801.
Jay turned to farming in Westchester County, New York. Soon after on 18 May 1802 his beloved wife Sarah died. Jay continued farming and stayed out of politics except in 1819 when he wrote a letter opposing Missouri’s bid for admission to the union as a slave state.
The later years of Jay’s life were marred by poor health, but his mind remained clear. On 14 May 1829, he was stricken with palsy, probably the result of a stroke. He died three days later. He had chosen to be buried at his boyhood home of Rye, New York. In 1807 he had moved the remains of his wife Sarah and those of his colonial ancestors from the family vault in Manhattan, New York to Rye establishing a private cemetery. Today this cemetery is closed to the public and is still maintained by Jay descendants. It is the oldest active cemetery associated with a revolutionary figure.
John Jay contributed much to the early development of the US and earned a special position among America’s founders. Politics and diplomacy are deceitful and double-dealing professions, but Jay always tried to act honestly and with honor. He certainly was not perfect but maintained a powerful sense of honor throughout his life no matter the consequences. He was a loving and loyal family man who accepted personal and family responsibility without complaint.
America has appropriately remembered and honored John Jay. Many towns, other geographic features, and schools bear his name. Exceptional graduates at Columbia University are known as “John Jay Scholars.” The John Jay Liberty Issue postage stamp was printed in 1958. Statues, busts, and portraits of Jay are found throughout the US, including in the New York Capital, the US Capital, and the US Supreme Court.