Jay, John (b New York City, 12 Dec 1745; d Bedford, Westchester Co, 17 May 1829). First chief justice of US Supreme Court, diplomat, and governor.
Educated at King’s College (now Columbia University), Jay graduated in 1764, trained in the law office of loyalist Benjamin Kissam, and was admitted to the bar in 1768. There was little sign that the strife that began with the Stamp Act (1765) would catapult him to the forefront of American leadership. His personal background seemed to point him toward the British, and he appeared content to practice law. Nevertheless, he joined such figures as Robert R. Livingston, whose cousin Sarah he married, in what might be described either as the radical wing of the old elite or the conservative wing of the revolutionary leadership. Their stance toward Britain was militant; their concern, in the face of rising popular radicalism, was to thwart what they saw as a serious challenge to the power and the property of their own sort.
Jay accepted independence reluctantly but led the committee given the vital task of drafting a new state constitution, which was adopted in 1777. The document he produced provided a strong governorship, an independent state senate elected by substantial property holders, and property requirements for voting for the new state assembly.Perhaps reflecting Jay’s Huguenot and Dutch Calvinist heritage, the new constitution also contained a veiled attack on Catholicism, though not an outright exclusion of Catholics from voting or holding office.
Jay became chief justice of the supreme court of New York State in 1777 but left after two years for service in Congress, including its presidency. Congress sent him to Spain as informal American minister,where he endured great frustration from the Spanish government’s refusal to recognize him or the United States. He joined Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in Paris to negotiate the treaty of 1783 making peace with Britain. Returning home, he became secretary for foreign affairs, holding the office until Thomas Jefferson became secretary of state in 1790.He also joined the New York Manumission Society, founded in 1784.
A supporter of the movement that led to the federal constitution, Jay wrote five of the eightyfive essays of “The Federalist” series. George Washington appointed him as the first chief justice of the US Supreme Court, a post he held concurrently with the foreign secretaryship until Jefferson arrived from France. Jay returned to diplomacy once more, when Washington sent him to London to negotiate a new treaty with Britain. Jay’s Treaty of 1795 was the result.
Jay was the Federalist candidate for governor in 1792, and he apparently did win the vote, only to lose after the totals in some counties were challenged. He was elected governor in 1795, however, and reelected in 1798. In 1800, when Jeffersonians won the state legislature and the right to choose New York’s presidential electors, Jay scornfully rejected a suggestion from Alexander Hamilton that he convene the outgoing Federalist legislature so that it could choose the electors and keep Jefferson from the presidency.
When Jay left the governorship in 1801 his public career ended.His wife died the same year, and he lived as a quiet widower in Westchester Co until his own death in 1829.
Johnson, Herbert A. John Jay, Colonial Lawyer (New
York: Garland Publishing, 1989)
Morris, Richard B. John Jay, the Nation, and the Court (Boston: Boston Univ Press, 1967)
Morris, Richard B., et al, eds. John Jay: The Making of a Revolutionary (New York:Harper & Row, 1975)
Peter Eisenstadt, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York State
(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), [p. 809].
© Syracuse University Press. Reproduced with permission from the publisher.