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John Jay

John Jay

John Jay (1745-1829), American diplomat and politician, guided American foreign policy from the end of the Revolution until George Washington's first administration was under way. Jay headed the U.S. Supreme Court during its formative years.

Long accustomed to a colonial status, Americans were ill-prepared to negotiate with foreign powers after the Revolution. The handful of men with diplomatic skill who emerged worked from a difficult position as the new nation experienced crises of credit and unity. John Jay's tenacity helped him survive the sectional battles and placed him in the inner councils of the Federalist party. Inclined to favor northern interests, he worked in a trying atmosphere until the Constitutional Convention of 1787 set a firmer tone for both domestic and diplomatic concerns. Jay's treaty with England, though highly controversial, probably avoided war. As chief justice, he gave the Supreme Court a national approach under the new Constitution.

John Jay was born on Dec. 12, 1745, in New York; he was the eighth child in a wealthy merchant family. Descended from French-Dutch stock and reared in the Huguenot tradition, Jay had few of the sentimental ties with England that made some Americans ambivalent in their allegiance after 1765. He graduated from King's College (later Columbia University) and trained in the law by a 5-year apprenticeship.

Admitted to the bar in 1768, Jay was briefly in partnership with Robert R. Livingston. Before 1774 Jay served on a royal commission formed to settle a boundary dispute between New York and a neighboring state, thus gaining his first experience as a negotiator. As a member of the "Moot Club" in New York, he associated with the lawyers who led the resistance movement against England a few years later. He married the beautiful and ambitious Sarah Livingston, daughter of William Livingston, on April 28, 1774.

Coming of Revolution

Almost before his honeymoon was over, Jay was serving on the New York Committee of Fifty-one, organized to control local anti-British measures. The committee manifesto, reportedly drafted by Jay, urging a convocation of deputies from all the Colonies to aid Boston and seek a "security of our common rights," led to the First Continental Congress. The cautious tone of the manifesto, however, brought some criticism from more militant groups that favored immediate boycott of British goods.

The Congress began Sept. 4, 1774; as Jay saw it, the Colonies were bound to try negotiations, to suspend commerce with Great Britain if these failed, and to go to war only when all other methods proved futile. Prudent to the point of timidity, Jay favored the narrowly defeated Galloway Plan of reconciliation. In Congress, Jay won a reputation as a skillful writer and moderate Whig, qualities that bore him into the New York Convention of 1775 and back to the Second Continental Congress. Meanwhile, the first battles of the Revolution at Lexington-Concord made discussion of a peaceful solution academic.

Jay's capacity for hard work brought him into the vortex of the congressional struggle. He served on the committee that drafted the July 6 declaration justifying armed resistance against England, but he also worked for one last attempt at reconciliation. By November 1775 he was on a secret congressional committee charged with engendering friendship abroad.

In May 1776, upon his return to New York, Jay cautiously supported a motion that disavowed any declaration favoring independence from Great Britain. However, the votes of his colleagues back in Philadelphia compelled Jay to submerge his views and work for independence.

President of the Continental Congress

In 1777 Jay took a leading part in drafting the New York constitution, an essentially conservative document peppered with Jay's concept of justice and blended with the mercantile spirit of the Dutch-Huguenot merchants. Jay himself became chief justice of New York in the transition government, but because of wartime circumstances the court functioned in desultory fashion. In 1778 he was chosen president of the Continental Congress. While Congress tottered on the verge of bankruptcy, many private citizens made paper fortunes in land dealings and mercantile speculations. Jay wrote Washington that there was "as much intrigue in this State House as in the Vatican, but as little secrecy as in a boarding-school." On Aug. 10, 1779, Jay resigned as chief justice of New York, and on Oct. 1 he left the Congress to resume his law practice.

Instead of returning to private life, however, Jay was appointed minister to Spain in October 1779. He was instructed to seek a commercial treaty with Charles III which would establish American rights to Mississippi navigation and to secure a sizable loan. The Spanish court withheld formal recognition (possibly because of its own colonial interests), and Jay ended his mission in May 1782 on a note of failure.

Sectional jealousy had made the negotiations with Spain difficult, for New England congressmen were eager to trade away navigation rights on the Mississippi provided their fisheries gained a Spanish market. Jay showed little sympathy for the Kentuckians, who insisted that they needed a waterway to market their products, and ultimately their anger brought into focus the conflict of interests between the North and South. Jay found the Spanish ministry too arrogant to negotiate anyway, and he journeyed to Paris in June 1782 for the preliminary peace negotiations then in motion. Suspicious of French motives, Jay led the American commissioners in Paris to sign a separate agreement with England, in violation of their instructions from Congress. The French were not pleased.

Secretary of Foreign Affairs

Jay declined posts as minister to both France and Great Britain, but Congress would not permit him to retire from public service. In July 1784 he was appointed secretary of foreign affairs, although New York had also elected him to serve in Congress. Jay resigned the congressional seat and took the foreign affairs assignment.

Jay's immediate concerns as foreign secretary were the British occupation of western posts (in defiance of a treaty) and the festering Mississippi problem. Jay made indiscreet remarks supporting British complaints that they would hold the forts until prewar debts were paid, and the Spanish emissary, Diego de Gardoqui, reported that Jay was "a very self-centered man" with a vain and domineering wife. The Spanish emissary had instructions that permitted negotiation of a treaty that would have pleased the North because it promised hard cash for fish but would have kept the gateway to the West closed. The gift of a prized stallion from Charles III to Jay may have been only incidental; at any rate, Jay decided to recommend concessions which the Spaniards believed would restrict America's western expansion.

Jay explained the commercial treaty to Congress in August but did not mention the military alliance Gardoqui also sought. Congress, voting along sectional lines, approved the pact, but by less than the required two-thirds majority. Tempers on both sides were heated, and the matter was unresolved when the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification.

The Federalists

Though not a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Jay was to be an outspoken supporter of its handiwork. He joined Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in supplying articles for New York newspapers in support of the Constitution under the pen name "Publius." Of these Federalist papers, Jay wrote Publius 2, 3, 4, 5, and 63. He might have contributed more but for an injury received in the "Doctor's Riot" of April 1788.

Jay recovered in time to write An Address to the People of New York, which pointed out the unique dangers inherent in New York's failure to ratify the Constitution. Such a prospect was likely, as a 2-to-1 Antifederalist majority had been elected to go to the state ratifying convention scheduled for June. Jay himself was a delegate from New York and, with Hamilton, worked a political miracle: the convention voted for ratification by a slender majority. The Federalist victory was tempered by instructions to Jay to prepare a circular letter to all the states seeking a second constitutional convention. Though some Federalists feared that this device would create trouble, its effect was dissipated by the general goodwill apparent in the winter of 1788/1789.

Supreme Court

In the interim period Jay continued to serve as foreign secretary to the expiring Continental Congress, more as a caretaker than a policy maker. American relations with France had remained generally on an excellent footing, but Jay's policy toward the Barbary pirates was ineffective. Jay served as acting secretary of state until Thomas Jefferson returned from France and assumed the office in March 1790. Meanwhile, George Washington had prevailed on Jay to accept the position of chief justice of the Supreme Court. Jay held this office until 1796 and presided over several fundamental cases.

While still chief justice, Jay undertook negotiations to end Anglo-American differences stemming from irritating events that had followed their 1783 peace treaty. Known to history as Jay's Treaty, the new document bore Jay's signature, but it was chiefly the work of Alexander Hamilton, whose advice and information leaks allowed the British diplomats to move confidently. Jay became a special envoy at Washington's request. He left for England in 1794 and signed a treaty with Lord Grenville that gained a British promise to evacuate western posts and negotiate boundaries but made considerable concessions to British creditors and to the British concept of neutrality. France interpreted the treaty as a direct rebuff, and its hostile reception in America strengthened the rising opposition to Washington's government by followers of Thomas Jefferson. The treaty was ratified by the Senate after a stormy debate.

Meanwhile, Jay had been elected governor of New York. Four years earlier Jay had won the popular vote for governor, but a legislative board had nullified his election. His victory in 1795 was clear-cut, however, and Jay gave up his Court position to serve in his last public office. His administration (1795-1801) was conservative and consolidating, marked by a refusal in 1800 to rig an election at Hamilton's suggestion. After two terms Jay announced his retirement and declined the offer to resume his old place on the Supreme Court. Within a year after his long-delayed return to Bedford, N.Y., Jay's wife (who had seven children) died. But for this, Jay's long retreat from public life bore out his repeated expectations of a pleasant "domestic life in rural leisure passed." He died on May 7, 1829, at Bedford.

Further Reading

Frank Monaghan, John Jay (1935), is readable but uncritical. A good short account is in Samuel Flagg Bemis, ed., The American Secretaries of State, vol. 1 (1927). Also valuable is Bemis's Jay's Treaty (1923; rev. ed. 1962). See also Henry P. Johnston, ed., Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay (4 vols., 1890-1893).

Additional Sources

Johnson, Herbert Alan, John Jay, colonial lawyer, New York: Garland Pub., 1989.

McLean, Jennifer P., The Jays of Bedford: the story of five generations of the Jay family who lived in the John Jay Homestead, Katonah, N.Y.: Friends of John Jay Homestead, 1984.

Pellew, George, John Jay, New York: Chelsea House, 1980. □

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Jay, John (1745-1829)

John Jay (1745-1829)


First chief justice of the supreme court

Early Years. John Jay was born on 12 December 1745 in New York City. The son of a prosperous merchant family and nephew of a judge, Jay benefited from a solid and well-rounded education. He graduated from Kings College (now Columbia University) in 1760 fluent in French, Greek, and Latin. Jay began his apprenticeship in the law in 1764, serving as clerk to Benjamin Kissam, and soon became known for quickness of mind and the strength of his reasoning. After being licensed to practice law on 26 October 1768, he began a partnership with Robert Livingston, a friend since their college days. Jay and Livingston became a preeminent New York law firm, taking on all manner of cases and building important reputations.

Public Service. Jays public career began in 1774 as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. There followed afterward a virtual explosion of public service. In 1775 he attended the Second Continental Congress and served on the New York Provincial Congress. The following year Jay collaborated with Gouverneur Morris and William Duer to draft a new state constitution for New York. Jay served as chief justice of New Yorks Supreme Court from 1777 to 1779 and in 1778 served as president of the Continental Congress. He was sent to Paris in 1782, along with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, to negotiate a peace treaty with England. Upon his return to America in 1784 he was named Secretary of Foreign Affairs for the United States under the Articles of Confederation.

Staunch Federalist. The significant question of those first years of independence was whether the former colonies, now loosely connected by the unsatisfactory Articles of Confederation, should adopt a new constitution in order to form a more perfect union. Jay joined with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to write The Federalist (1788), a series of newspaper essays that addressed the question. Overcome by illness in the fall of 1787, Jay wrote only five of the eighty-five papersnumbers 2 through 5 and 64. Nevertheless, he penned one of the most memorable lines of the series. In essay number 2 he wrote This country and this people seem to have been made for each other.

Supreme Court. Jays contributions to the formation and development of the new nation, and his renown as a lawyer, made him a clear candidate for selection to the Supreme Court. President George Washington, who had been lobbied by Livingston and others for the post of chief justice, turned to Jay for this high honor. In his letter of appointment to Jay, Washington wrote: In nominating you for the important station which you now fill, I not only acted in conformity to my best judgment, but I trust I did a grateful thing to the good citizens of these United States. Jay accepted Washingtons appointment and was quickly confirmed by the Senate in late 1789. He joined with Associate Justices William Cushing and James Wilson for the first meeting of the Supreme Court in New York City on 1 February 1790.

Tenure. Jays service as Americas first chief justice is largely unremarkable. Few cases of any importance came before the Supreme Court during his tenure. Much time and energy went into the grueling requirement that the justices ride the circuit, that is, travel throughout a designated region to hold court in places not easily accessible. Jays circuit assignment required him to travel throughout New York and New England, a challenging task in a time when roads were either poor or nonexistent. Perhaps Jays most important contribution as chief justice was his firm but polite refusal to advise President Washington and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton on questions of public policy. Jays refusal affirmed the separation of powers.

Test Case. The most significant decision to come before the Jay Court, and the first great case to be decided by that body, occurred in 1793. Chisholm v. Georgia raised important issues of state sovereignty. The question to be decided by the Court was whether a citizen of another state could sue the State of Georgia in federal court. Jay and the Court (except Judge James Iredell) said yes, that Georgia had abandoned its sovereignty when it joined the Union and thus could be sued. This first expression of federal primacy caused a stir throughout the states and prompted congressional reversal through the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment. In a less celebrated case Jay wrote the Courts opinion in Glass v. The Sloop Betsey (1794), where the question was whether foreign consuls or U.S. courts had authority over captured vessels brought to American ports by foreign ships. Jay struck an important blow for American sovereignty when he held that foreign consuls had no admiralty jurisdiction in the United States.

Treaty. Washington sent Jay to England in 1794 to negotiate several matters still outstanding between the new nation and the old mother country. Antagonism was particularly strong over British trade restrictions in the Caribbean and boundary lines in the Northwest. Jays Treaty was roundly criticized by many Americans who believed he had given too much away. The most notorious item was Jays agreement that American molasses, sugar, cotton, and coffee would not be shipped to Europe. The Senate adopted the treaty in the summer of 1795, but without the offending trade restrictions. That same year Jay resigned as chief justice to become governor of New York, a post he held until 1801.

Reappointment. On 18 December 1800 President John Adams offered Jay reappointment as chief justice to replace Oliver Ellsworth. In his letter to Jay, President Adams urged him to accept the position for a second time in order to maintain a Federalist point of view at the highest levels of government. The firmest security we can have against the effects of visionary schemes will be in a solid judiciary, wrote Adams, and nothing will cheer the hopes of the best men so much as your acceptance of this appointment. Jay declined the honor. The rigors of riding the circuit and the relative lack of consequence of court proceedings up to that time made the post singularly unattractive, and Jay retired from public service. He died in New York on 17 May 1829.


Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions (New York: Chelsea House, 1969);

Frank Monighan John Jay (New York: AMS Press, 1935).

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Jay, John


John Jay was a politician, statesman, and the first chief justice of the Supreme Court. He was one

of the authors of The Federalist, a collection of influential papers written with james madison and alexander hamilton prior to the ratification of the Constitution.

Jay was born in New York City on December 12, 1745. Unlike most of the colonists in the New World, who were English, Jay traced his ancestry to the French Huguenots, His grandfather, August Jay, immigrated to New York in the late seventeenth century to escape the persecution of non-Catholics under Louis XIV. Jay graduated from King's College, now known as Columbia University, in 1764. He was admitted to the bar in New York City in 1768.

One of Jay's earliest achievements was his participation in the settlement of the boundary line between New York and New Jersey in 1773. During the time preceding the Revolutionary War, Jay actively protested against British treatment of the colonies but did not fully advocate independence until 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was created. Jay then supported independence wholeheartedly. He was a member of the continental congress from 1774 to 1779, acting as its president from 1778 to 1779.

In 1776, Jay was a member of the Provincial Congress of New York and was instrumental in the formation of the constitution of that state. From 1776 to 1778, he performed the duties of New York chief justice.

"A distinctive character of the National Government, the mark of its legitimacy, is that it owes its existence to the act of the whole people who created it."
—John Jay

Jay next embarked on a foreign service career. His first appointment was to the post of minister plenipotentiary to Spain in 1779, where he succeeded in gaining financial assistance for the colonies.

In 1782, Jay joined benjamin franklin in Paris for a series of peace negotiations with Great Britain. In 1784, Jay became secretary of foreign affairs and performed these duties until 1789. During his term, Jay participated in the arbitration of various international disputes.

Jay recognized the limitations of his powers in foreign service under the existing government of the articles of confederation, and this made him a strong supporter of the Constitution. He publicly displayed his views in the five papers he composed for The Federalist in 1787 and 1788. Jay argued for ratification of the Constitution and the creation of a strong federal government.

In 1789, Jay earned the distinction of becoming the first chief justice of the United States. During his term, which lasted until 1795, Jay rendered a decision in chisholm v. georgia, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419, 1 L.Ed. 440 (1793), which subsequently led to the enactment of the eleventh amendment to the Constitution. This 1793 case involved the ability of inhabitants of one state to sue another state. The Supreme Court recognized this right but, in response, Congress passed the Eleventh Amendment denying the right of a state to be prosecuted or sued by a resident of another state in federal court.

During Jay's tenure on the Supreme Court, he was again called upon to act in foreign service. In 1794 he negotiated a treaty with Great Britain known as Jay's Treaty. This agreement regulated commerce and navigation and settled many outstanding disputes between the United States and Great Britain. The treaty, under which disputes were resolved before an international commission, was the origin of modern international arbitration.

In 1795 Jay was elected governor of New York. He served two terms, until 1801, at which time he retired.

He died May 17, 1829.

further readings

Bernstein, R.B. 1996. "Documentary Editing and the Jay Court: Opening New Lines of Inquiry." Journal of Supreme Court History (annual): 17–22.

——. 1996. "John Jay, Judicial Independence, and Advising Coordinate Branches." Journal of Supreme Court History (annual): 23–9.

Jay, William. 1833. The Life of John Jay. New York: Harper.

Monaghan, Frank. 1935. John Jay: Defender of Liberty. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

Morris, Richard B., ed. 1985. Witnesses at the Creation: Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and the Constitution. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

——. 1975. John Jay: The Making of a Revolutionary. New York: Harper & Row.

Pellew, George. 1997. John Jay. Broomall, Pa.: Chelsea House.

Rossiter, Clinton Lawrence. 1964. Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.


Constitution of the United States; Federalist Papers; New York Constitution of 1777.

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Jay, John

John Jay, 1745–1829, American statesman, 1st chief justice of the United States, b. New York City, grad. King's College (now Columbia Univ.), 1764. He was admitted (1768) to the bar and for a time was a partner of Robert R. Livingston. His marriage to Sarah, daughter of William Livingston, allied him with that influential family. In pre-Revolutionary activities he reflected the views of the conservative colonial merchant, opposing British actions but not favoring independence. Once the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed, however, he energetically supported the patriot cause. As a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses he urged a moderate policy, served on various committees, drafted correspondence, and wrote a famous address to the people of Great Britain. Returning to the provincial congress of New York, he guided the drafting (1777) of the first New York state constitution. Jay was appointed (1777) chief justice of New York but left that post to become (Dec., 1778) president of the Continental Congress. In 1779 he was sent as minister plenipotentiary to Spain, where he secured some financial aid, but failed to win recognition for the colonial cause. He was appointed (1781) one of the commissioners to negotiate peace with Great Britain and joined Benjamin Franklin in Paris. Jay declined further diplomatic appointments in Europe and returned to America to find that Congress had appointed him Secretary of Foreign Affairs, a post he held (1784–89) for the duration of the government under the Articles of Confederation. Although he was able to secure minor treaties, he found it impossible under the Articles of Confederation to make progress in the settlement of major disputes with Great Britain and Spain, a situation that caused him to become one of the strongest advocates of a more powerful central government. He contributed five papers to The Federalist, dealing chiefly with the Constitution in relation to foreign affairs. Under the new government Jay became (1789–95) the first chief justice of the United States. He concurred in Justice James Wilson's opinion in Chisholm v. Georgia, which led to the passing of the Eleventh Amendment. When the still-unsettled controversies with Great Britain threatened to involve the United States in war, Jay was drafted for a mission to England in 1794, where he concluded what is known as Jay's Treaty. After having unsuccessfully opposed George Clinton for governor of New York in 1792, Jay was elected and served (1795–1801) two terms. He declined reelection and also renomination to the U.S. Supreme Court and retired to his farm at Bedford in Westchester co. for the remaining 28 years of his life.

See H. P. Johnston, ed., Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay (4 vol., 1890–93, repr. 1970); biographies by G. Pellew (1890, repr. 1980), F. Monaghan (1935, repr. 1972), and D. L. Smith (1968); R. B. Morris, John Jay: The Nation and the Court (1967) and Witnesses at the Creation (1989).

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Jay, John

Jay, John (1745–1829) US statesman, first chief justice of the Supreme Court (1789–95) and president of the Continental Congress. With Alexander Hamilton and James Madison he wrote the Federalist Papers (1787–88), urging ratificiation of the US Constitution. In 1794 he concluded Jay's Treaty, which settled outstanding disputes with Britain and restored trade relations.

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