Jay and New York

By the time of John Jay's birth, the Jay family had established a place among the social elite of New York City. John's father, Peter, a wealthy merchant, was both a freeman of the city and a vestryman of Trinity Church, while his mother, Mary Van Cortlandt, had been born into one of the colony's great patroon families. Taking advantage of his privileged background, the young John Jay graduated from King's College in 1764 and entered the legal profession, first clerking for Benjamin Kissam, then establishing a legal practice with Robert R. Livingston, and eventually opening his own law office in 1771. During these years, Jay cultivated himself as a young gentleman, participating in elite social clubs, dancing assemblies and debating societies (see John Jay et al., 1/22/1768, Jay ID #886).

With the intensification of colonial resistance following the passage of the Coercive Acts in 1774, Jay found himself propelled into the political arena, being selected as one of a Committee of Fifty that New York's conservatives had created to guide the protest movement within the colony (see John Jay to John Vardill, 5/23/1774, Jay ID #5021). Shortly afterwards, Jay was elected as one of New York's delegates at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, which went on to pass a nonimportation agreement known as the Continental Association. Returning to New York at the close of the First Congress in late 1774, he concentrated his energies, as one of the newly selected Committee of Sixty, on enforcing the Association (see Peter Jay to John Jay, 5/20/1775, Jay ID #7864). Throughout, however, Jay was a cautious, even lukewarm revolutionary, evincing the characteristic moderation that would be a hallmark of his career.

In the spring of 1776, he was elected to the New York Provincial Congress, where he remained even as the Continental Congress was declaring the nation's independence, a move he would probably have voted against had he been in Philadelphia. In the summer of 1776, with British ships and British troops descending on New York City, Jay contributed to a committee whose purpose was to obstruct and harass the British (see [Outlines for plans to obstruct the Hudson River], 7/19/1776, Jay ID #4027). He also played an active role in the state's campaign against Loyalists, sitting on the Committee for Detecting Conspiracies, where he oversaw the prosecution of a number of prominent opponents of the new nation, including Beverly Robinson and Cadwallader Colden, Jr., the son of the former lieutenant governor under the crown (see Cadwallader Colden Jr., to John Jay, 7/27/1777, Jay ID #13167). Elected to the Fourth New York Congress, Jay was placed on the committee responsible for framing the state's constitution. During the winter of 1776-77, Jay played a key role in formulating the committee's draft. Though he objected privately to various elements of the final version (see John Jay to Robert R. Livingston and Gouverneur Morris, 4/29/1777, Jay ID #2819), in public he was the new constitution's resolute defender. In the summer of 1777, the Provincial Convention elected Jay the first Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court. In this position, which he held for two years, he presided over cases, including many property crimes, stemming from the chaotic conditions that accompanied the military and civil conflict of the revolutionary years in New York (see John Jay et al. to Governor George Clinton, 5/20/1778, Jay ID #1054).

A long period of national and international service followed before Jay once more made his presence felt within the ambit of New York through his powerful contributions to the struggle to ratify the federal Constitution. Best known are his contributions as Publius to the Federalist. His first contributions, numbers 2 through 5 (see draft of Federalist #5, 10/31/1787, Jay ID #10401), appeared in the New York Independent Journal in October-November 1787. More influential still was his pamphlet, "An Address to the People of New York," written in the spring of 1788 (see George Washington to John Jay, 5/15/1788, Jay ID #7238). An authoritative restatement of arguments in favor of the federal Constitution, and a rebuttal of counterarguments, the "Address" played a role in securing ratification in New York despite the presence of a powerful Anti-Federalist opposition.

Upon returning from his mission in Europe in 1784, Jay had proceeded to build a family house in New York City (see John Jay to Philip Schuyler, 3/17/1785, Jay ID #9354), in which the Jays continued to live until he became Governor of New York. As Governor for two terms, from 1795 to 1801, Jay oversaw legislation that established a state penitentiary (see Matthew Clarkson to John Jay, 11/21/1797, Jay ID #3275), dealt with Indians over land claims (see John Jay to Timothy Pickering, 4/23/1798, Jay ID #3144), bestowed aid upon those fleeing from revolutionary Saint Domingue (see John Jay to the New York Legislature, 11/1/1796, Jay ID #3505), and confronted both a yellow fever outbreak (see Richard Varick to John Jay, 9/24/1798, Jay ID #9293) and the prospect of invasion by the French (see John Jay to James McHenry, 7/17/1797, Jay ID #3086).

After his second term, Jay retired from public life, establishing himself as a country farmer on his property at Bedford in Westchester County. There he lived out his days, though in close communication with his two sons who remained active within New York's public realm (see Peter Augustus Jay to John Jay, 10/10/1821, Jay ID #6251).

James Baird
Columbia University