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 on John Jay

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 Biography 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.