A Brief Biography of John Jay
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 cultural concerns.
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 handicaps.
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 of 1793.
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.