John Jay Biography

Biography

Article abstract: As president of the Second Continental Congress, ambassador to Spain, foreign secretary under the Articles of Confederation, first chief justice of the United States, and governor of New York, Jay contributed greatly to the political and judicial development of his state and his country.

Early Life

John Jay was born in New York City on December 12, 1745, the sixth son in a family of eight children. His father, Peter Jay, was from one of the most influential families in the colony and had amassed a fortune as a merchant. His mother, née Mary Van Cortlandt, came from one of the oldest European families in the Hudson River Valley. Young Jay grew up as a member of the privileged class in New York, benefiting from private tutors and the most comfortable of surroundings. His father took a special interest in his education and decided that John should read the best of the classics, literature, and history. The youth attended King’s College (modern Columbia University), from which he was graduated in 1764. He decided upon the practice of law as his vocation and apprenticed himself to one of the most respected lawyers of the city, Benjamin Kissam.

Jay gained admission to the bar in 1768 and embarked upon a lucrative private practice. His family and social connections enabled him to associate with the elite of the colony. A tall, slender, and dark-complected young man of sensitive features, he soon captured the attentions of young ladies active in New York’s social whirl. Although by nature a quiet, studious, and serious person, Jay had a quick wit and lively spirit which made him a person of popularity and an attractive bachelor. Sarah Van Brugh Livingston, daughter of William Livingston, the first governor of New Jersey, captured the young man’s heart. She and Jay were married on April 28, 1774. They would eventually have two sons and five daughters.

By the time of his marriage, Jay had already become active in public affairs. His inherited wealth freed him from financial dependence on his law practice, and Jay was therefore able to devote himself to public service, a calling which would occupy most of his adult life. In 1773, he received appointment as member of a commission created to survey the boundary between New York and New Jersey. He served with distinction on this committee, which settled a long-standing border dispute between the two colonies. Jay impressed everyone with his diplomatic skills and negotiating abilities, talents upon which he would draw as a political leader. During the revolutionary crisis of the mid-1770’s, Jay became an active member of the New York Committee of Correspondence. This resulted in his being elected as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses.

Life’s Work

Jay’s service in the First Continental Congress in 1774 marked the start of his major contributions to the creation of the United States of America as a free and independent nation. Initially, he represented the conservative commercial interests of his colony in the Continental Congress, and after the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Jay became one of the most vocal proponents of the new nation. In that year, he returned to New York, where he helped to draft the constitution of that state and served as chief justice of New York until he was reelected to Congress in 1778. His fellow delegates chose him as the president of the Continental Congress, a position which he held from December, 1778, until September, 1779. During that time, he acted as the highest-ranking civil officer in the young government and, in concert with George Washington, directed the course of the revolutionary war.

By 1779, the support of European nations, especially France and Spain, had become crucial to the success of the American cause. France had already entered the war as an American ally against Great Britain. Spain, however, vacillated and had only recently entered the conflict, refusing to ally itself formally with the United States. Jay was appointed ambassador to Spain in the fall of 1779 and was given the difficult task of winning Spanish support for the United States. As the largest colonial power in the Western Hemisphere, Spain was not anxious to side openly with the American rebels. Jay therefore went to Spain prepared for difficult negotiations with the Spanish court. As ambassador, he spent two years in Spain, where he conducted talks with the Count Floridablanca, the Spanish foreign minister who did not want to assist the Americans. Nevertheless, Jay was able to convince Spain to make sizable “loans” to the United States and to continue sending large amounts of military supplies for General Washington’s army. Although Jay’s work in Spain never resulted in a formal treaty, he gained valuable diplomatic experience and secured significant assistance for the United States.

This work resulted in Jay’s being selected as a member of the United States delegation sent to Paris for the purpose of negotiating the peace treaty in 1782. Jay played an active role in these deliberations, along with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Jay was instrumental in convincing his fellow delegation members to conclude a separate treaty with Great Britain and not to include France in joint negotiations. This resulted in the United States signing a preliminary bilateral peace treaty with the British on January 20, 1783. (The revolutionary war formally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783.) With the conclusion of this treaty, Jay rejected a congressional...

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