John Jay (December 23, 1745 (December 12, 1745 OS) – May 17, 1829) was an American statesman, Patriot, diplomat, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, signer of the Treaty of Paris, and first Chief Justice of the United States (1789–95).
Jay was born into a wealthy family of merchants and government officials in New York City. He became a lawyer and joined the New York Committee of Correspondence and organized opposition to British rule. He joined a conservative political faction that, fearing mob rule, sought to protect property rights and maintain the rule of law while resisting British violations of human rights.
Jay served as the President of the Continental Congress (1778–79), an honorific position with little power. During and after the American Revolution, Jay was Minister (Ambassador) to Spain, a negotiator of the Treaty of Paris by which Great Britain recognized American independence, and Secretary of Foreign Affairs, helping to fashion United States foreign policy. His major diplomatic achievement was to negotiate favorable trade terms with Great Britain in the Treaty of London of 1794.
Jay, a proponent of strong, centralized government, worked to ratify the U.S. Constitution in New York in 1788 by pseudonymously writing five of The Federalist Papers, along with the main authors Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. After the establishment of the U.S. government, Jay became the first Chief Justice of the United States, serving from 1789 to 1795.
As a leader of the new Federalist Party, Jay was the Governor of the State of New York (1795–1801), where he became the state’s leading opponent of slavery. His first two attempts to end slavery in New York in 1777 and 1785 failed, but a third in 1799 succeeded. The 1799 Act, a gradual emancipation he signed into law, eventually granted all slaves in New York their freedom before his death in 1829.
John Jay was born on December 12, 1745 in New York City; he moved with his family to Rye, New York when he was 3 months old following his father’s retirement from business and on the heels of a smallpox epidemic that blinded two of his siblings. Jay’s father, Peter Jay, had been born in New York City in 1704, and became a wealthy trader of furs, wheat, timber, and other commodities.
On the paternal side, the Jays were a prominent merchant family in New York City, descended from Huguenots who had come to New York to escape religious persecution in France. In 1685 the Edict of Nantes had been revoked, thereby abolishing the rights of Protestants and confiscating their property. Among those affected was Jay’s paternal grandfather, Augustus Jay. He moved from France to New York, where he built a successful merchant empire.
John’s mother was Mary Van Cortlandt, who wed Peter Jay in 1728, in the Dutch Church. They had ten children together, seven of whom survived to adulthood. Her father, Jacobus Van Cortlandt, was born in New Amsterdam in 1658. Van Cortlandt served on the New York Assembly, and twice as mayor of New York City. He also held a variety of judicial and military titles. Two of his children: Mary and his son Frederick, married into the Jay family.
On April 28, 1774, Jay married Sarah Van Brugh Livingston, eldest daughter of the New Jersey Governor William Livingston and his wife. At the time of the marriage, Sarah was seventeen years old and John was twenty-eight. She accompanied Jay to Spain and later was with him in Paris, where they and their children resided with Benjamin Franklin at Passy.
Jay’s brother-in-law Henry Brock Livingston was lost at sea through the disappearance of the Continental Navy ship Saratoga during the Revolutionary War. While in Paris, as a diplomat to France, Jay’s father died. This event forced extra responsibility onto John Jay. Jay’s brother and sister Peter and Anna, both blinded by smallpox in childhood, became the diplomat’s responsibility.
John Jay’s brother Augustus suffered from mental disabilities that required Jay to provide not only financial but emotional support. Jay’s brother Fredrick was in constant financial trouble, causing John additional stress. Meanwhile, his brother James was in direct opposition in the political arena, joining the loyalist faction of the New York State Senate at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, which made him an embarrassment to the John Jay family.
While in Britain, Jay was elected in May 1795, as the second governor of New York State (following George Clinton) as a Federalist. He resigned from the Supreme Court service on June 29, 1795, and served six years as governor until 1801.
As Governor, he received a proposal from Hamilton to gerrymander New York for the presidential election of that year;[when?] he marked the letter “Proposing a measure for party purposes which it would not become me to adopt”, and filed it without replying.
President John Adams then renominated him to the Supreme Court; the Senate quickly confirmed him, but he declined, citing his own poor health and the court’s lack of “the energy, weight and dignity which are essential to its affording due support to the national government.”
While governor, Jay ran in the 1796 presidential election, winning five electoral votes, and in the 1800 election, winning one vote.
On the night of May 14, 1829, Jay was stricken with palsy, probably caused by a stroke. He lived for three days, dying in Bedford, New York, on May 17.
Jay had chosen to be buried in Rye, where he lived as a boy. In 1807, he had transferred the remains of his wife Sarah Livingston and those of his colonial ancestors from the family vault in the Bowery in Manhattan to Rye, establishing a private cemetery. Today, the Jay Cemetery is an integral part of the Boston Post Road Historic District, adjacent to the historic Jay Estate. The Cemetery is maintained by the Jay descendants and closed to the public. It is the oldest active cemetery associated with a figure from the American Revolution.