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.
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 In 1685 the Edict of Nantes had been revoked, thereby abolishing the rights of Protestants and confiscating their property.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. Jay’s father, Peter Jay, born in New York City in 1704, became a wealthy trader in furs, wheat, timber, and other commodities.
John Jay was born on December 12, 1745, in New York City; only three months later the family moved to Rye, New York, when Peter Jay retired from business following a smallpox epidemic that had blinded two of his children.
John’s mother was Mary Van Cortlandt, who had married Peter Jay in 1728, in the Dutch Church.They had ten children together, seven of whom survived into adulthood.Mary’s father, Jacobus Van Cortlandt, had been born in New Amsterdam in 1658. Cortlandt served on the New York Assembly, was twice mayor of New York City, and also held a variety of judicial and military offices. Two of his children (the other one being his son Frederick) married into the Jay family.
Jay spent his childhood in Rye. He was educated there by his mother until he was eight years old, when he was sent to New Rochelle to study under Anglican priest Pierre Stoupe. In 1756, after three years, he would return to homeschooling in Rye under the tutelage of his mother and George Murray.
In 1760, Jay attended King’s College (later renamed Columbia College as the undergraduate college of Columbia University). During this time, Jay made many influential friends, including his closest, Robert Livingston—the son of a prominent New York aristocrat and Supreme Court justice. Jay took the same political stand as his father, a staunch Whig.In 1764 he graduated from King’s College and became a law clerk for Benjamin Kissam (1728–1782), a prominent lawyer, politician, and sought after instructor in the law. In addition to Jay, his students included Lindley Murray
In 1768, after reading law and being admitted to the bar of New York, Jay, with the money from the government, established a legal practice and worked there until he created his own law office in 1771.He was a member of the New York Committee of Correspondence in 1774 and became its secretary, which was his first public role in the revolution.
Jay represented the conservative faction that was interested in protecting property rights and in preserving the rule of law, while resisting what it regarded as British violations of American rights. This faction feared the prospect of “mob rule”. He believed the British tax measures were wrong and thought Americans were morally and legally justified in resisting them, but as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774, Jay sided with those who wanted conciliation with Parliament. Events such as the burning of Norfolk, Virginia, by British troops in January 1776 pushed Jay to support independence. With the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, he worked tirelessly for the revolutionary cause and acted to suppress the Loyalists. Jay evolved into first a moderate, and then an ardent Patriot, because he had decided that all the colonies’ efforts at reconciliation with Britain were fruitless and that the struggle for independence, which became the American Revolution, was inevitable.
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
The life and legacy of John Jay and his descendants can be explored today at two of his homes, both located in Westchester County and each designated a National Historic Landmark.
From the age of three months old until he attended Kings College in 1760, John Jay was raised in Rye, on a farm acquired by his father Peter in 1745 that overlooked Long Island Sound. After negotiating the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, Jay returned to his childhood home to celebrate with his family and friends in July, 1784. Jay inherited this property upon the death of his older brother Peter in 1813 after John had already established himself at Katonah. He conveyed the Rye property to his eldest son, Peter Augustus Jay, in 1822. This property remained in the Jay family through 1904.
What remains of the original 400-acre (1.6 km2) property is a 23-acre (93,000 m2) parcel called the Jay Estate, and the 1838 Peter Augustus Jay House, built by Peter Augustus Jay over the footprint of his father’s original childhood home, “The Locusts.”
Stewardship of the site and several of its buildings for educational use was entrusted in 1990 by the New York State Board of Regents to the Jay Heritage Center.In 2013, the non-profit Jay Heritage Center was also awarded stewardship and management of the site’s landscape which includes a meadow and gardens
As an adult, John Jay inherited land from his grandparents and built Bedford House, located near Katonah, New York where he moved in 1801 with his wife Sarah to pursue retirement. This property passed down to their younger son William Jay and his descendants. It was acquired by New York State in 1958 and named “The John Jay Homestead.” Today this 62 acre park is preserved as the John Jay Homestead State Historic Site.
Both homes in Rye and Katonah are open to the public for tours and programs.
John Jay was a slaveholder, as were many wealthy New Yorkers during the time period. However, in 1774 Jay drafted the Address to the People of Great Britain, which draws upon the image of slavery and compares the British treatment of blacks to the British treatment of all the colonists. Such comparisons between British treatment of blacks and of the colonists was common.
Jay took a more active leadership role to abolish slavery after 1777, when he drafted a state law to that purpose. It failed to gain passage, as did a second abolition law in 1785.Jay was “pushing at an open door”; every member of the New York legislature (but one) had voted for some form of emancipation in 1785, but they differed on what rights to give the free blacks afterward. Aaron Burr both supported this bill and introduced an amendment calling for immediate abolition.Numerous slaveholders independently freed their slaves after the Revolution, but thousands were held in New York City especially.
Jay was the founder and president of the New York Manumission Society in 1785, which organized boycotts against newspapers and merchants involved in the slave trade, and provided legal counsel for free blacks claimed or kidnapped as slaves.
The Society helped enact the 1799 law for gradual emancipation of slaves in New York, which Jay signed into law as governor. “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” provided that, from July 4 of that year, all children born to slave parents would be free (subject to lengthy apprenticeships) and that slave exports would be prohibited. These same children would be required to serve the mother’s owner until age 28 for males and age 25 for females, years beyond the typical period of indenture. The law thus defined a type of indentured servant while providing for eventual freedom for children born to slaves. It did not provide government payment of compensation to the owners. It also provided legal protection and assistance for free blacks kidnapped for the purposes of being sold into slavery. All slaves were emancipated by July 4, 1827. The process in New York may perhaps have been the largest total emancipation in North America before 1861.
The historian Gordon S. Wood has also noted the scale of the emancipation by the British Army, which recruited slaves of rebels during the American Revolution and granted them freedom, as promised.The British followed through on their promise of freedom, evacuating thousands of slaves when its troops withdrew from Charleston and New York. During the Revolutionary War, tens of thousands of slaves escaped to freedom, some to join the British; agriculture was disrupted in South Carolina and Georgia because of the high losses of slaves.Many also escaped from across New England and mid-Atlantic states; the British evacuated 3,000 freedmen from New York to Nova Scotia after the war.
In the close 1792 election, Jay’s antislavery work was thought to hurt his election chances in upstate New York Dutch areas, where slavery was still practiced. In 1794, in the process of negotiating the Jay Treaty with the British, Jay angered many Southern slave-owners when he dropped their demands for compensation for slaves who had been freed and transported by the British to other areas after the Revolution. He had made a practice of buying slaves and freeing them as adults, after he judged their labors had been a reasonable return on their price. In 1798 he still owned eight slaves, the year before the emancipation act was passed.
Jay was a member of the Church of England, and later of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America after the American Revolution. Since 1785, Jay had been a warden of Trinity Church, New York. As Congress’s Secretary for Foreign Affairs, he supported the proposal after the Revolution that the Archbishop of Canterbury approve the ordination of bishops for the Episcopal Church in the United States. He argued unsuccessfully in the provincial convention for a prohibition against Catholics holding office.
Jay, who served as vice-president (1816–21) and president (1821–27) of the American Bible Society,believed that the most effective way of ensuring world peace was through propagation of the Christian gospel. In a letter addressed to Pennsylvania House of Representatives member John Murray, dated October 12, 1816, Jay wrote, “Real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others, and therefore will not provoke war. Almost all nations have peace or war at the will and pleasure of rulers whom they do not elect, and who are not always wise or virtuous. Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”He also expressed a belief that the moral precepts of Christianity were necessary for good government, saying, “No human society has ever been able to maintain both order and freedom, both cohesiveness and liberty apart from the moral precepts of the Christian Religion. Should our Republic ever forget this fundamental precept of governance, we will then, be surely doomed.
Having established a reputation as a reasonable moderate in New York, Jay was elected to serve as delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses which debated whether the colonies should declare independence. He attempted to reconcile the colonies with Britain, up until the Declaration of Independence. Jay’s views became more radical as events unfolded; he became an ardent separatist and attempted to move New York towards that cause.
The Treaty of Paris, Jay stands farthest to the left
In 1774, at the close of the Continental Congress, Jay returned to New York. There he served on New York City’s Committee of Sixty,where he attempted to enforce a non-importation agreement passed by the First Continental Congress. Jay was elected to the third New York Provincial Congress, where he drafted the Constitution of New York, 1777;his duties as a New York Congressman prevented him from voting on or signing the Declaration of Independence.Jay served on the committee to detect and defeat conspiracies, which monitored British Actions. New York’s Provincial Congress elected Jay the Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court f Judicature on May 8, 1777,which he served on for two years.
The Continental Congress turned to Jay, a political adversary of the previous president Henry Laurens, only three days after Jay became a delegate and elected him President of the Continental Congress. In previous congresses, Jay had moved from a position of seeking conciliation with Britain to advocating separation sooner than Lauren. Eight states voted for Jay and four for Laurens. Jay served as President of the Continental Congress from December 10, 1778, to September 28, 1779. It was a largely ceremonial position without real power, and indicated the resolve of the majority and the commitment of the Continental Congress.
On September 27, 1779, Jay was appointed Minister to Spain. His mission was to get financial aid, commercial treaties and recognition of American independence. The royal court of Spain refused to officially receive Jay as the Minister of the United States, as it refused to recognize American Independence until 1783, fearing that such recognition could spark revolution in their own colonies. Jay, however, convinced Spain to loan $170,000 to the US government.He departed Spain on May 20, 1782.
On June 23, 1782, Jay reached Paris, where negotiations to end the American Revolutionary War would take place. Benjamin Franklin was the most experienced diplomat of the group, and thus Jay wished to lodge near him, in order to learn from him. The United States agreed to negotiate with Britain separately, then with France.In July 1782, the Earl of Shelburne offered the Americans independence, but Jay rejected the offer on the grounds that it did not recognize American independence during the negotiations; Jay’s dissent halted negotiations until the fall. The final treaty dictated that the United States would have Newfoundland fishing rights, Britain would acknowledge the United States as independent and would withdraw its troops in exchange for the United States ending the seizure of Loyalist property and honoring private debts.The treaty granted the United States independence, but left many border regions in dispute, and many of its provisions were not enforced
Jay served as the second Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 1784 to 1789, when in September, Congress passed a law giving certain additional domestic responsibilities to the new Department and changing its name to the Department of State. Jay served as acting Secretary of State until March 22, 1790. Jay sought to establish a strong and durable American foreign policy: to seek the recognition of the young independent nation by powerful and established foreign European powers; to establish a stable American currency and credit supported at first by financial loans from European banks; to pay back America’s creditors and to quickly pay off the country’s heavy War-debt; to secure the infant nation’s territorial boundaries under the most-advantageous terms possible and against possible incursions by the Indians, Spanish, the French and the English; to solve regional difficulties among the colonies themselves; to secure Newfoundland fishing rights; to establish a robust maritime trade for American goods with new economic trading partners; to protect American trading vessels against piracy; to preserve America’s reputation at home and abroad; and to hold the country together politically under the fledgling Articles of Confederation
Jay believed his responsibility was not matched by a commensurate level of authority, so he joined Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in advocating for a stronger government than the one dictated by the Articles of Confederation.He argued in his Address to the People of the State of New-York, on the Subject of the Federal Constitution that the Articles of Confederation were too weak and an ineffective form of government. He contended that:
The Congress under the Articles of Confederation may make war, but are not empowered to raise men or money to carry it on—they may make peace, but without power to see the terms of it observed—they may form alliances, but without ability to comply with the stipulations on their part—they may enter into treaties of commerce, but without power tonforce them at home or abroad…—In short, they may consult, and deliberate, and recommend, and make requisitions, and they who please may regard them.
Jay did not attend the Constitutional Convention but joined Hamilton and Madison in aggressively arguing in favor of the creation of a new and more powerful, centralized but balanced system of government. Writing under the shared pseudonym of “Publius,”they articulated this vision in The Federalist Papers, a series of eighty-five articles written to persuade New York state convention members to ratify the proposed Constitution of the United States. Jay wrote the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixty-fourth articles. All except the sixty-fourth concerned the “angers from oreign orce and nfluence”; the sixty-fourth touches upon this matter insofar as it treats the role of the Senate in making foreign treaties.
In September 1789, George Washington offered him the position of Secretary of State (which, though technically a new position, would have continued Jay’s service as Secretary of Foreign Affairs); he declined. Washington responded by offering him the new title—which Washington stated “must be regarded as the keystone of our political fabric”—as Chief Justice of the United States, which Jay accepted. Washington officially nominated Jay on September 24, 1789, the same day he signed the Judiciary Act of 1789 (which created the position of Chief Justice) into law.Jay was unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate on September 26, 1789; Washington signed and sealed Jay’s commission the same day. Jay swore his oath of office on October 19, 1789. Washington also nominated John Rutledge, William Cushing, Robert Harrison, James Wilson, and John Blair as Associate Judges.Harrison declined the appointment, however, and Washington appointed James Iredell to fill the final seat on the Court.Jay would later serve with Thomas Johnson,who took Rutledge’s seat, and William Paterson, who took Johnson’s seat.While Chief Justice, Jay was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1790.
The Court’s business through its first three years primarily involved the establishment of rules and procedure; reading of commissions and admission of attorneys to the bar; and the Justices’ duties in “riding circuit,” or presiding over cases in the circuit courts of the various federal judicial districts. No convention existed that precluded the involvement of Supreme Court Justices in political affairs, and Jay used his light workload as a Justice to freely participate in the business of Washington’s administration. He used his circuit riding to spread word throughout the states of Washington’s commitment to neutrality, then published reports of French minister Edmond-Charles Genet’s campaign to win American support for France. However, Jay also established an early precedent for the Court’s independence in 1790, when Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton wrote to Jay requesting the Court’s endorsement of legislation that would assume the debts of the states. Jay replied that the Court’s business was restricted to ruling on the constitutionality of cases being tried before it and refused to allow it to take a position either for or against the legislation
The Court heard only four cases during Jay’s Chief Justiceship.
Its first case did not occur until early in the Court’s third term, with West v. Barnes (1791). The Court had an early opportunity to establish the principle of judicial review in the United States with the case, which involved a Rhode Island state statute permitting the lodging of a debt payment in paper currency. Instead of grappling with the constitutionality of the law, however, the Court unanimously decided the case on procedural grounds, strictly interpreting statutory requirements.
In Hayburn’s Case (1792), the Jay Court made no decision other than to continue the case to a later date, and in the meantime Congress changed the law. The case was about whether a federal statute could require the courts to decide whether petitioning American Revolution veterans qualified for pensions, a non-judicial function. The Jay Court wrote a letter to President Washington to say that determining whether petitioners qualified was an “act … not of a judicial nature,”and that because the statute allowed the legislature and the executive branch to revise the court’s ruling, the statute violated the separation of powers as dictated by the United States Constitution.
In Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), the Jay Court had to answer the question: “Was the state of Georgia subject to the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and the federal government?” In a 4–1 ruling (Iredell dissented and Rutledge did not participate), the Jay Court ruled in favor of two South Carolinan Loyalists who had had their land seized by Georgia. This ruling sparked debate, as it implied that old debts must be paid to Loyalists.The ruling was overturned when the Eleventh Amendment was ratified, as it ruled that the judiciary could not rule on cases where a state was being sued by a citizen of another state or foreign country.The case was brought again to the Supreme Court in Georgia v. Brailsford, and the Court reversed its decision. However, Jay’s original Chisholm decision established that states were subject to judicial review.
In Georgia v. Brailsford, the Court upheld jury instructions stating “you have … a right to take upon yourselves to … determine the law as well as the fact in controversy.” Jay noted for the jury the “good old rule, that on questions of fact, it is the province of the jury, on questions of law, it is the province of the court to decide,” but this amounted to no more than a presumption that the judges were correct about the law. Ultimately, “both objects are lawfully within your power of decision.
In 1792, Jay was the Federalist candidate for governor of New York, but he was defeated by Democratic-Republican George Clinton. Jay received more votes than George Clinton; but, on technicalities, the votes of Otsego, Tioga and Clinton counties were disqualified and, therefore, not counted, giving George Clinton a slight plurality.The State constitution said that the cast votes shall be delivered to the secretary of state “by the sheriff or his deputy”; but, for example, the Otsego County Sheriff’s term had expired, so that legally, at the time of the election, the office of Sheriff was vacant and the votes could not be brought to the State capital. Clinton partisans in the State legislature, the State courts, and Federal offices were determined not to accept any argument that this would, in practice, violate the constitutional right to vote of the voters in these counties. Consequently, these votes were disqualified
Relations with Britain verged on war in 1794. British exports dominated the U.S. market, while American exports were blocked by British trade restrictions and tariffs. Britain still occupied northern forts that it had agreed to surrender in the Treaty of Paris. Britain’s impressment of American sailors and seizure of naval and military supplies bound to enemy ports on neutral ships also created conflict.Madison proposed a trade war, “A direct system of commercial hostility with Great Britain,” assuming that Britain was so weakened by its war with France that it would agree to American terms and not declare war.Washington rejected that policy and sent Jay as a special envoy to Great Britain to negotiate a new treaty; Jay remained Chief Justice. Washington had Alexander Hamilton write instructions for Jay that were to guide him in the negotiations.In March 1795, the resulting treaty, known as the Jay Treaty, was brought to Philadelphia. When Hamilton, in an attempt to maintain good relations, informed Britain that the United States would not join the Danish and Swedish governments to defend their neutral status, Jay lost most of his leverage. The treaty eliminated Britain’s control of northwestern posts and granted the United States “most favored nation” status, and the U.S. agreed to restricted commercial access to the British West Indies.
The treaty did not resolve American grievances about neutral shipping rights and impressment,and the Democratic-Republicans denounced it, but Jay, as Chief Justice, decided not to take part in the debates. The failure to get compensation for slaves taken by the British during the Revolution “was a major reason for the bitter Southern opposition”. Jefferson and Madison, fearing a commercial alliance with aristocratic Britain might undercut republicanism, led the opposition. However, Washington put his prestige behind the treaty and Hamilton and the Federalists mobilized public opinion. The Senate ratified the treaty by a 20–10 vote (just enough to meet the two-thirds majority requirement).Democratic-Republicans were incensed at what they perceived as a betrayal of American interests, and Jay was denounced by protesters with such graffiti as “Damn John Jay! Damn everyone who won’t damn John Jay!! Damn everyone that won’t put lights in his windows and sit up all night damning John Jay!!!” One newspaper editor wrote, “John Jay, ah! the arch traitor – seize him, drown him, burn him, flay him alive.” Jay himself quipped that he could travel at night from Boston to Philadelphia solely by the light of his burning effigies.
In 1812, relations between Britain and the U.S. faltered. The desire of a group of members in the House of Representatives, known as the War Hawks, to acquire land from Canada and the British impressment of American ships led, in part, to the War of 1812
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 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.
In 1801, Jay declined both the Federalist renomination for governor and a Senate-confirmed nomination to resume his former office as Chief Justice of the United States, retiring to the life of a farmer in Westchester County, New York. Soon after his retirement, his wife died. Jay remained in good health, continued to farm and, with one notable exception, stayed out of politics. In 1819, he wrote a letter condemning Missouri’s bid for admission to the union as a slave state, saying that slavery “ought not to be introduced nor permitted in any of the new states”.
Mid-way through Jay’s retirement in 1814, both he and his son Peter Augustus Jay were elected members of the American Antiquarian Society
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.