Born on December 12, 1745 in New York City, Jay entered the world the sixth child of eight children. Jay's grandfather, a Huguenot, had fled France when Protestant rights were rescinded by the Edict of Nantes and had settled in New York. Jay's father became a wealthy merchant, and Jay's mother came from a prominent and influential family. Jay himself studied with private tutors and later graduated from King's College, now Columbia University, before becoming a respected lawyer.
Jay's first plunge into public life came when he took the position of secretary to the New York committee of correspondence. At first he worked to protect American property rights and resist British taxation. But, while serving as a delegate to the First Continental Congress, Jay agreed with those who supported a reconciliation with Britain. His views began changing, though, with acts such as British troops setting Norfolk, Virginia, on fire in 1776. Looking for a compromise with Britain even up until the Declaration of Independence was signed, Jay came to realize that the British would concede nothing to the Americans. From then on, he fervently and relentlessly supported the Patriots and the American Revolution in order to gain American independence.
By spring of 1776, New York needed Jay. He left the Continental Congress during the debates regarding American independence and traveled home to serve in the New York Provincial Congress. There Jay pushed ratification of the Declaration of Independence. Instrumental in establishing independence for the state of New York, Jay also helped draft the first state constitution. He later served as the first chief justice of the New York Supreme Court from 1777 to December 1778, interpreting the constitution he'd penned.
While in New York, Jay designed a state law abolishing slavery, which failed twice. Even though Jay himself owned slaves, he bought them and freed them after they'd worked to repay him their purchase price. Later in 1799, Jay, as governor, signed an emancipation law into effect that began a long process by which the final slave was freed in 1827.
Jay returned to the Continental Congress in late 1778, but only served as its president for less than year before he was chosen to be a diplomat to Spain. The United States wanted Spain to recognize their independence from Britain and take a world stand of support for the U.S. But this wasn't to be. Jay had also been sent to secure more funds. Spain had covertly been sending arms and money to help the colonists, and the Spanish agreed to continue.
Jay's path as a diplomat moved forward when Benjamin Franklin asked him to go to Paris, hoping to secure peace with Great Britain. But it was a complicated affair with separate issues, such as the possession of Gibraltar, also being decided. Jay and John Adams helped negotiate terms and resolve the conflicts between Spain and Great Britain and between France and Great Britain. The culmination of these talks ended in the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, effectively ending the Revolutionary War and ceasing various hostilities among the countries.
After much traveling abroad and fulfilling his duties as a diplomat, Jay turned down opportunities for the postings of minister to both Great Britain and to France. Jay wanted to return home and bolster his law practice, to which he hadn't given any attention because of his roles as a public servant. Alas, Congress had other ideas. Jay's new position was one of minister of foreign affairs of the United States, afterward to be called the State Department when Thomas Jefferson took over the office.
During his time in this position, Jay's responsibilities were numerous. Again Jay had dealings with the British and the Spanish. He lobbied with them to secure the new nation's territorial boundaries. Jay traveled further abroad to gain American recognition among foreign governments and promote stable American currency. He worked to pay back the war debt, helped protect shipping vessels from pirates, and defended Newfoundland fishing rights. Yet, through it all, Jay experienced frustration. At home, Jay tried to keep the new nation together under the Articles, but he lacked the power and authority to see his jobs done. The weak Congress under the Articles of Confederation couldn't enforce any policies.
These Articles, adopted by the Second Continental Congress in 1777, served as the first document governing the United States. However, they had many pitfalls, as Jay came to understand. The Articles lacked authority, thus Congress was all but impotent. Congress could make war but not raise a military or fund one. It could make peace but not enforce it. The Articles caused friction between the large and small states as well since Congress got its money from the states, and the large states were expected to give more yet still have only one vote. Jay's frustration led to his belief that America needed a centralized yet balanced system of government, and he joined forces with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to support the Constitution.
In late 1787, the states received the proposed Constitution and were asked to ratify it. However, some leaders in New York penned articles criticizing it. In response and under the shared pseudonym of "Publius", Hamilton, Madison, and Jay wrote a series of 85 essays in favor of ratifying the U.S. Constitution. These articles known as the Federalist Papers continue to be used as a way to interpret the Constitution because they explain the principles of why people should accept the proposed form of government. Due to his poor health, Jay only contributed five essays: Federalist #2-5 entitled "Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence" and Federalist #64 entitled "The Powers of the Senate."
Regaining his health, Jay accepted the position that he is perhaps most famous for in history—the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. President George Washington nominated Jay who then served from 1789-1795. The work was demanding as Jay and the other two justices had to "ride the circuit," traveling throughout various regions to hold court. Jay helped determine how best the court should be run. For example, he wouldn't advise the president or treasury secretary regarding public policy, thereby preserving the separation of powers. He helped set legal precedents, and in the most important case to reach his court, Jay determined that an individual could sue a state. This provoked the states and caused Congress to adopt the Eleventh Amendment, limiting a citizen's right to sue another state.
By 1794 Jay traveled again to England to settle matters still unresolved since the Treaty of Paris. The British continued causing issues by not fulfilling their obligations. Alexander Hamilton proposed an agenda for Jay, and Jay achieved the goals to avert another war, open trade in the Caribbean, settle some wartime financial issues, and grant Americans control over land in the Northwest. Meanwhile, the British succeeded in keeping the U. S. neutral in the ongoing conflict between Britain and France. The compromise reached, called the Jay Treaty, still benefitted Britain, and many Americans voiced anger at Jay's defense of it. They thought he didn't push hard enough on issues of slave compensation and shipping rights. Many historians agree, though, that it was the best the Americans could achieve at that time. It also brought a decade of peace with Britain.
With the help of the Federalist Party, Jay won the election for governor of New York. He was still in England when this happened. Jay returned, resigned from the Supreme Court, and took the governor position for two terms. As governor, Jay improved business, worked for the betterment of the canal system, reformed the prison system, tried to eliminate political corruption, and wanted a better life for his state constituents. Even though the Federalists had put him in, Jay stood by his honor and made constant, consistent choices based on his principles. Even at the suggestion by Alexander Hamilton to rig New York's election process for the presidency in favor of the Federalists, Jay refused. The Party had little to no control over him and could only step back, admiring his honesty.
Even though renominated to the U. S. Supreme Court and offered a chance to return as New York's governor, Jay chose to retire to his home and farm. His wife shortly afterward passed away which grieved Jay. In order to fill some of the void in his life, Jay, already part of the Trinity Church in New York since 1785, turned to religion. Though he refused to join other Christians outside his Episcopalian faith, Jay's firm religious convictions had supported and influenced his actions during his life. In 1818 Jay achieved the presidency of the Westchester Bible Society and then of the American Bible Society. Jay died on May 15, 1829. His home is open as a museum and is part of the John Jay Heritage Center.
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