John Jay Additional Biography

Biography

John Jay was the son of Mary Van Cortlandt and Peter Jay, a rich merchant of French Huguenot descent. Jay graduated from King’s College (now Columbia University) in 1764 and was admitted to the bar in 1768. In 1774 he married Sarah Livingston, the daughter of William Livingston, the governor of New Jersey, and a cousin of Jay’s law partner, Robert R. Livingston.

In 1773 Jay was a member of the mixed commission to establish the boundary between New York and New Jersey. Between 1775 and 1777, he was successively on New York’s Committee of Correspondence, in the first two Continental Congresses, and in the New York legislature. After helping to frame New York’s constitution, Jay was chief justice of the state supreme court from 1777 to 1779. He resigned to return to Congress, of which he was president, 1778 to 1779. Sent as special envoy to Spain, he secured $170,000 in secret aid but no recognition of independence.

As joint Treaty Commissioner with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in Paris, 1782 to 1783, he participated in the negotiation of the peace preliminaries between the United States and Great Britain. His insistence that Britain expressly recognize the commissioners as agents of the Republic of the United Stated delayed negotiation and may have barred cession of Canada to the new republic. Charges of being anti-Catholic were leveled against Jay in this matter, which he fought all his life. He joined Adams in urging Franklin to ignore the French in concluding these preliminaries, although this flouted their congressional instructions. After the general peace of 1783 Jay declined offers to become minister to Great Britain or France, but under the Articles of Confederation he was drafted by Congress as Secretary of...

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Early Life

James Madison and John Jay were born into established positions in the American colonial aristocracy, Madison in Virginia and Jay in New York. In contrast, Alexander Hamilton was born an illegitimate child on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies and migrated to the American colonies in 1772. He worked hard to attain the social status Jay and Madison enjoyed from birth. Perhaps because of his background, Hamilton was a risk taker throughout his life. Although he died a member of the Episcopal Church, he had periods of religious skepticism unknown to Jay and Madison. Although Jay and Madison were loyal, devoted husbands, Hamilton’s insecurity led him into sex scandals.

Both Hamilton and Jay were lawyers who graduated from King’s College in New York City, which later became Columbia University. Madison, a graduate of Princeton University, did not pursue specialized professional training because his chronic ill health led him to expect an early death. However, Madison was exceptionally learned in history, religion, and political theory by the time he left Princeton.

Life’s Work: Jay

Less well known than either Hamilton or Madison, Jay contributed only five essays to The Federalist because of ill health. Despite his prestige as a former president of the Continental Congress, New York chief justice, and secretary of state under the Articles of Confederation, Jay was unable to get elected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention because of the strong anti-Federalist views of New York governor George Clinton, who even begrudged Hamilton a convention role and did not want the national government strengthened. However, Jay was a delegate to the New York ratifying convention at Poughkeepsie, and he played a key role in getting the convention to ratify the Constitution by a close vote after forty grueling days. President John Adams regarded Jay as the critical factor in obtaining New York’s somewhat grudging ratification.

Despite the limited number of essays Jay wrote, his contribution to The Federalist was valuable. Jay was the only author of The Federalist to have traveled abroad. Jay’s foreign policy expertise allowed him to explain why the passage of the Constitution was needed for the United States to gain respect overseas. In addition, he made a convincing case that if they were not united effectively, the states would war among themselves.

After the ratification of the Constitution, Jay served as the first chief justice of the United States under appointment by President Washington from 1789 to 1795. Jay’s Supreme Court service included circuit court riding in New York and New England. In 1794, Jay left the bench to travel to London and to negotiate Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain. In 1795, Jay resigned from the Supreme Court and paved the way for John Marshall’s Supreme Court career when he refused to accept reappointment to the court by President Adams in 1800. Between 1795 and 1801, Jay served as governor of New York.

Jay’s remaining years were spent in retirement at his Bedford, New York, estate. These years were saddened by the death of his wife, Sally Livingston Jay, in 1802. He actively opposed the War of 1812 despite recognizing its constitutional legitimacy, and he became increasingly convinced that slavery was a serious threat to the survival of the Union.