John Jay's long and eventful life, from 1745
to 1829, encompassed the movement for American independence and
the creation of a new nation both processes in which he
played a full part. His achievements were many, varied and of
key importance in the birth and early years of the fledgling nation.
Although he did not initially favor separation from Britain,
he was nonetheless among the American commissioners who negotiated
the peace with Great Britain that secured independence for the
former colonies. Serving the new republic he was Secretary
for Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation, a contributor
to the Federalist, the first Chief Justice of the United
States, negotiator of the 1794 "Jay Treaty" with Great
Britain, and a two-term Governor of the State of New York.
In his personal life, Jay embraced a wide range of social and
His paternal grandfather, Augustus (1665-1751),
established the Jay family's presence in America. Unable to remain
in France when the rights of Protestants were abolished by the revocation
of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, Augustus eventually settled in New York
where, with an advantageous marriage and a thriving mercantile business,
he established a strong foundation for his descendants. His son Peter,
like Augustus a merchant, had ten children with his wife Mary Van Cortlandt,
seven of them surviving into adulthood. John was the sixth of these
seven. Shortly after John's birth, his family moved from Manhattan
to Rye in order to provide a more salubrious environment for the raising
of John's elder siblings, two of whom had been struck by blindness following
the smallpox epidemic of 1739 and two others of whom suffered from mental
Educated in his early years by private tutors,
Jay entered the newly-founded King's College, the future Columbia University,
in the late summer of 1760. There, he underwent the conventional
classical education, graduating in 1764, when he became a law clerk in
the office of Benjamin Kissam. On admission to the bar in 1768
Jay established a legal practice with Robert R. Livingston, Jr., scion
of the "Lower Manor" branch of the Livingston family, before
operating his own law office from 1771. Among other tasks during
these years, Jay served as clerk of the New York-New Jersey Boundary Commission.
In the spring of 1774, Jay's life took two momentous
turns. In April he married Sarah Livingston (1756-1802), the daughter
of New Jersey Governor William Livingston, thus gaining important connections
to a politically powerful Colonial family. In May he was swept into New
York politics, largely as a result of the worsening relations with Great
Britain. New York conservatives, seeking to outmaneuver more radical
responses to the Intolerable Acts, nominated a "committee of 50,"
including Jay, to arrange the election of delegates to a Continental Congress.
Throughout the revolutionary struggle, Jay followed a course of moderation,
separating himself clearly from loyalists but resisting what he considered
the extremism of more radical politicians. Thus, in the months
before Independence he favored exploring the possibilities of rapprochement
fully, helping to draft the Olive Branch Petition as a delegate to the
second Continental Congress. As a delegate to the New York Convention
of 1776-77, Jay had a formative influence in shaping the new state's constitution.
Jay remained an important actor at the state level, becoming the
Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court before moving to the national
arena to assume the Presidency of Congress in late 1778.
The fall of 1779 found Jay selected for a
mission to Spain, where he spent a frustrating three years seeking
diplomatic recognition, financial support and a treaty of alliance
and commerce. He was to spend the next four years abroad
in his nation's service both as commissioner to Spain and then
in Paris, where he was a member of the American delegation that
negotiated the peace terms ending America's War of Independence
with Britain. This process culminated with the signing
of the Treaty of Paris in September 1783.
He returned to the United States in July, 1784
to discover that he had, in his absence, been elected Secretary for Foreign
Affairs. In that role he was confronted by difficult issues stemming
from violations of the Treaty of Paris by both countries issues
that he would later revisit in negotiations with Britain in 1794 and which
would be addressed again in the resulting "Jay Treaty."
Beyond his dealings with Great Britain, Jay succeeded in having the French
accept a revised version of the Consular Convention that Franklin had
earlier negotiated; he attempted to negotiate a treaty with Spain in which
commercial benefits would have been exchanged for a renunciation of American
access to the Mississippi for a number of years; and he endeavored, with
limited resources, to secure the freedom of Americans captured and held
for ransom in Algiers by so-called Barbary pirates. The frustrations
he suffered as Secretary for Foreign Affairs, a post he held until 1789,
clearly impressed upon him the need to construct a government more powerful
than that under the Articles of Confederation. Though not selected
to attend the Philadelphia Convention, he was a leading proponent of the
principles that the new Constitution embodied and played a critical role
in its ratification.
In 1787 and 1788 Jay collaborated with Alexander
Hamilton and James Madison on the Federalist, authoring
essays numbers two, three, four, five and, following an illness,
sixty-four, thus contributing to the political arguments and intellectual
discourse that led to Constitution's ratification. Jay
also played a key role in shepherding the Constitution through
the New York State Ratification Convention in the face of vigorous
opposition. In this battle Jay relied not only on skillful
political maneuvering, he also produced a pamphlet, "An Address
to the People of New York," that powerfully restated the
Federalist case for the new Constitution.
In 1789, Washington appointed John Jay Chief
Justice of the new Supreme Court. Though none too pleased
with the rigors of riding circuit, Jay used his position to expound
upon the inviolability of contracts whether in the supportive
climate of New England or the hostile environment of Virginia. He
was always a committed nationalist, and indeed the opinion he
rendered in Chisholm v. Georgia provoked the adoption of
the states rights-oriented Eleventh Amendment. Throughout
his time on the bench, Jay was an outspoken presence in national
politics, actively interceding, for example, in the Genet affair
In April of 1794 Washington selected John Jay to
negotiate a treaty with Great Britain aimed at resolving outstanding issues
between the two nations. The resulting "Treaty of Amity, Commerce
and Navigation," commonly referred to as the "Jay Treaty,"
was extremely controversial. Critics charged that it failed to address
British impressment of American sailors or provide compensation for those
slaves that the British had taken with them during the Revolutionary war.
The Treaty's unpopularity played a significant role in the development
of an organized opposition to the Federalists.
On his return from London in 1795, Jay discovered
that, in his absence, he had been elected the new Governor of
New York, a position that he had sought three years earlier only
to be frustrated, in controversial circumstances, by the incumbent,
George Clinton. During his two terms as governor, Jay confronted
issues ranging from Indian affairs, to the fortification of the
city's harbor in advance of a suspected French attack, to the
construction of a new state prison.
On his retirement from public life in 1801, Jay
maintained a close interest in state and national affairs, evidenced in
his correspondence with his sons, Peter Augustus, who was active in local
Federalist political circles, and William, who, among other things, became
an outspoken abolitionist. In his retirement Jay also pursued
a number of intellectual and benevolent interests, becoming President
of the American Bible Society, maintaining an interest in the anti-slavery
movement and keeping up a correspondence with agricultural reformers about
latest developments in that field.
Jay died on May 17, 1829, at the age of 83. His longevity enabled
biographers and early historians of the founding era to draw directly
upon his personal recollections of the people and events of the early
years of the nation. In his later years, Jay's own correspondence
with various members of the founding generation revealed a keen interest
in ensuring an accurate appraisal of his own role in the momentous events
of that time.
Copyright © 2002 Columbia University