American reformer William Jay (1789-1858) was an abolitionist whose prestige and understanding of constitutional law gave vital support to the cause.
William Jay was born in New York City on June 11, 1789. His father was the illustrious statesman John Jay. Young Jay attended Yale College and studied law but gave up the profession because of weak eyes. He then devoted himself to philanthropic causes and to writing. His life was dominated by love of family, devout and evangelical Episcopalianism, and patriotism. In 1810 he helped organize the American Bible Society and often wrote on the duty of churchmen to support just causes.
An early adopter of abolitionist principles, in 1818 Jay was appointed a judge of Westchester County, a position he retained until 1843, when the governor conceded to proslavery pressure and refused to reappoint him. Jay saw putting limits on slavery territory as a primary target for abolitionists. In 1826 he aided the successful movement to help Gilbert Horton, a free African American, who had been arrested as a fugitive slave in Washington, D.C. Jay also sponsored a petition for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia that became a major abolitionist cause.
Jay also took up conservative causes, including temperance, education, and Sabbath observance. In 1833 he published a biography of his father. The next year he wrote one of his most influential books, Inquiry into the Character and Tendency of the American Colonization and American Anti-slavery Societies. Widely used, the book did severe harm to the movement to create colonies for Negroes in Africa, which had been considered a gradual and painless means of ending slavery.
Jay added many influential writings to the abolitionist cause and during the 1840s was thought of as a presidential figure by political abolitionists. However, Jay himself doubted the value of political action. By 1853, when his Miscellaneous Writings on Slavery was issued, other political forces dominated the scene.
Jay was also an ardent pacifist. His major pacifist works were War and Peace: The Evils of the First, with a Plan for Securing the Last (1842) and Review of the Causes and Consequences of the Mexican War (1849). The earlier pamphlet, in which he advanced arguments favoring mediation and arbitration in peace efforts, was influential in peace congresses abroad and during peace negotiations following the Crimean War. It was recalled during the Hague Peace Conference of 1899 and reprinted in 1917 as a contribution to pacifist thinking in that period.
On Oct. 14, 1858, Jay died. African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, eulogizing Jay, said that "he was our wise counsellor, our fine friend, and our liberal benefactor."
Further Reading on William Jay
The only study of Jay is Bayard Tuckerman, William Jay and the Constitutional Movement for the Abolition of Slavery (1894), which has a preface by Jay's son John Jay.