Although John Jay’s father, Peter Jay, was one of the largest slave owners in New York, the son became a leading advocate of manumission. Immediately after Independence in 1777, while helping to draft New York State’s first constitution, Jay sought to abolish slavery but was overruled (see John Jay to Robert R. Livingston, Gouverneur Morris, 4/29/1777, Jay ID #2819). He continued his call for emancipation in private correspondence. “I should also have been for a clause against the continuation of domestic slavery,” wrote Jay to political colleagues while reviewing drafts of the constitution.
In 1785 Jay and a few close friends, mostly slave owners, founded the New York State Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves (see Minutes of the Manumission Society of New York, v.1, 1785). The Society entered lawsuits on behalf of slaves and organized boycotts. Jay also advocated subsidizing black education. “I consider education to be the soul of the republic,” he wrote to Benjamin Rush in 1785. “I wish to see all unjust and all unnecessary discriminations everywhere abolished, and that the time may soon come when all our inhabitants of every colour and denomination shall be free and equal partakers of our political liberty” (see John Jay to Dr. Benjamin Rush, 3/24/1785, Jay ID #9450). In 1787, he helped found New York’s African Free School, which by December 1788 had fifty-six students and which he continued to support financially (see John Jay to John Murray, Jr., 10/18/1805, Jay ID #9603). By the time the Manumission Society surrendered management to New York City in 1834, the school had educated well over 1,000 students.
Although he owned slaves himself, Jay had an explanation for this seemingly contradictory practice: “I purchase slaves and manumit them at proper ages and when their faithful services shall have afforded a reasonable retribution.” His attitude toward slavery in New York followed the same gradualist line (see John Jay to Egbert Benson, 9/18/1780, Jay ID #1713). In 1799 as governor of the state, Jay signed into law An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. The measure provided that, from July 4th of that year, all children born to slave parents would be free (subject only to apprenticeship) and that slave exports would be prohibited. These same children would be required to serve the mother’s owner until age twenty-eight for males and age twenty-five for females. The law thus defined the children of slaves as a type of indentured servant while slating them for eventual freedom.
Some idea of the father’s values can be learned from the record of his sons. Jay’s son William (1789-1858) was one of the most significant American abolitionists of the nineteenth century. William Jay actively participated in peace, temperance and anti-slavery movements while serving as judge of the county court of Westchester County, New York, for most of the period between 1818 and 1843. His son, John Jay II (1817-1894) also actively participated in the anti-slavery movement. He was a prominent member of the Free Soil Party, and was one of the organizers of the Republican Party in New York.
When honoring William Jay for his anti-slavery labors in 1854, Horace Greeley harked back to the work of John Jay: “To Chief Justice Jay may be attributed, more than to any other man, the abolition of Negro bondage in this [New York] state.”