American statesman and jurist: b. New York, 12 Dec 1745; d. Bedford, Westchester County, N. Y., 17 May 1829.
His father was a wealthy merchant of Huguenot stock; and his mother a daughter of Jacobus Van Cortlandt. His father, — early discovering, to use his own words, that Jay was of “a very grave disposition, and took to learning exceedingly well” — sent him to a school in New Rochelle similar to Dotheboys Hall in ‘Nicholas Nickleby.’ Three years at school were followed by study under a tutor until he entered King's College at 14. He was graduated in 1764, the subject of his oration being the blessings of peace, of which he was to have still keener appreciation.
Two weeks later, on payment of £200, he entered the office of Benjamin Kissam, a prominent lawyer of New York, as an apprentice bound to serve five years, the last two years to be devoted to the study of the law. Admitted to the bar in 1768, he soon attained prominence in the profession, forming a partnership with Robert R. Livingston, afterward chancellor of the state, and secretary of foreign affairs. In 1773 he began his public career, as secretary to the Royal Commission to determine the boundary between New York and Canada; and for the following 28 years his public services were constant, varied and of supreme importance to the country so fortunate in being his birthplace.
Bound by no ancestral ties to England, and having married in 1774 a daughter of the famous Whig and Revolutionary governor of New Jersey, William Livingston, many would suppose that in the conflict impending between the colonies and mother country, Jay's voice, like those of James Otis and Samuel Adams, would have been from the first “still for war.” But he was constitutionally so calm and conservative that he was unwilling to be too precipitate in determining upon a change in the mode of government. When, however, the colonists decided that their only safety lay in separation, Jay was found to be as staunch and aggressive a patriot as any, and represented the citizens of New York on the committee to settle the question arising out of the Boston Port Bill.
Jay drafted the suggestion of that committee that “a Congress of Deputies from the Colonies in general” be convoked — in fact, the convocation of the Continental Congress. He was a member of that Congress, and met with it in Philadelphia on 5 Sept. 1774. Congress at once appointed a committee to “state the rights of the colonies in general,” of which Jay was made a member. This committee designated him to draft an address to the people of Great Britain, which was so satisfactory that it was at once reported to Congress, and adopted by it. Jefferson, without knowing who was the author, pronounced it “a production certainly of the finest pen in America.”Jay was also sent to the 2d Continental Congress, but in the interim devoted himself to shaping the public mind in the direction of obedience to Congress and in hostility to enforcement of Parliamentary taxation. When the 2d Congress convened, the signal shot — “heard round the world” — had been fired at Lexington, and Congress, realizing that a condition of war existed, deputed Jay to draft an address to the people of Canada, which was prepared and adopted, and circulated in that country. He also wrote an address to the people of Jamaica and Ireland by request of Congress, but the second petition to the king that he prevailed upon Congress to make was written by Dickinson.
Other important and effective work by him in that general direction might be cited, but I shall be content with the assertion I deem supported by the facts, that as a creator and molder of public opinion at that particular juncture Jay stands unrivaled; and all this was in the main accomplished through the wise use of his pen, the efficacy of which was strongly presented by John Adams when he wrote regarding it to Jefferson, “I never bestowed much attention to any of those addresses, which were all but repetitions of the same things; the same facts and arguments; dress and ornaments rather than body, soul or substance. I was in great error, no doubt, and am ashamed to confess it, for these things were necessary to give popularity to the cause, both at home and abroad.”
Jay's contribution to the debates in Congress, like all his public work, showed that he followed in all things and upon all questions the path illuminated by the light of his well-balanced judgment, and his conscience, thinking not of personal popularity, but simply of the right. He served actively upon the committee that carried on negotiations with foreign powers friendly to America and inimical to England. Indeed, during the year 1775 he was a member of so many committees, each having different and important objects, that it is difficult to understand how he was able to accomplish so much important and laborious work.If it be asked why so good a patriot as Jay was not a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the answer is, that in 1776, while a member of the Continental Congress, Jay was also elected to the New York Provincial Congress, and the Continental Congress having directed the colonies to each adopt a government, Jay, on the call of his colony, proceeded to New York to take part in the formation of the local government, where he was forced to remain while the Declaration of Independence was being signed.
During 1777, and while the war was going on in the vicinity of New York, the Provincial Congress, then styled the Convention of the Representatives of the State of New York, was laboring with exceeding difficulty, the members, as is recorded, performing “all the various and arduous duties of legislators, soldiers, negotiators, committees of safety and ways and means, judges, juries, fathers and guardians of their own families, flying before the enemy, and then protectors of a beloved commonwealth.” Yet amid all this turmoil and unrest a constitution was drafted by Jay which was, in the main, adopted as drafted, and was published upon 22 April 1777, by being read in front of the courthouse in Kingston. A committee was at once appointed, Jay being a member, to organize a new government; and a council of safety was created to act until the legislature should meet. Robert R. Livingston was appointed chancellor and Jay chief justice, and the judicial department of government was temporarily organized.Jay was urged to be a candidate for governor at the first election under the constitution, but declined. General Clinton was elected over his opponent, General Schuyler, and took the oath of office, it is said, while “clothed in the uniform of the service, standing on the top of a barrel in front of the Court-House in Kingston.” On 9 September following, Chief Justice Jay delivered an address to the grand jury at Kingston, which is to be found in the first volume of his correspondence and public papers. The address is a much prized document of Revolutionary times, and was, undoubtedly, intended to reach and affect a much larger constituency than the grand jury to whom it was delivered.
Of course, in those unsettled days, with the struggle between the old and the new countries raging, but little litigation of importance came before the Supreme Court, so that during Jay's chief justiceship the work of the court was mainly confined to criminal trials, and the court never sat in banc. During 1778 he was active in the Council of Revision, of which he was a member ex-officio. The legislature in 1779 appointed Jay to Congress without requiring him to vacate the office of chief justice, it being resolved that owing to serious questions between certain States “a special case” obtained under the constitution. Shortly afterward Congress elected him its president. Later in the year, however, he resigned the office of chief justice, designing, he said, to recoup his failing fortunes. But his desires in that direction were not to be gratified. More than 20 years elapsed before the public he had served so well would submit to be deprived of his services.In October, 1779, Jay resigned the presidency of Congress to accept the office of Minister to Spain. His instructions in part were to secure if possible a commercial treaty with Spain similar to that existing with France, to acquire a port in Spanish dominion on the Mississippi, and to negotiate a loan of $5,000,000. That his mission was not entirely successful, and was personally disagreeable, was due to the fact that Spain disliked the new nation because it occupied lands formerly held by Spain, and it was apprehended that with increasing strength it might reach out and take more — fears that we know now were not groundless. While Minister to Spain, Jay was appointed, with Franklin, Jefferson, Adams and Laurens, commissioner for a general peace.
Their instructions rested on the mistaken theory that France would aid in procuring for us the best possible terms. In June 1782, Jay joined Franklin, then Minister to France, in Paris, and promptly but cautiously entered upon an investigation which disclosed that France had other interests to serve than those of the United States. Possessed of the situation, he boldly entered upon negotiations with England's representative without even consulting his only colleague in Paris, whom he regarded as necessarily embarrassed by his position as Minister to France, and his instructions.
With firmness, and yet with great tact, he conducted the negotiations alone until joined by Adams, who enthusiastically approved of his action, and so advised Mr. Franklin, who, after consultation, agreed that the negotiations should be concluded without consulting the French court The result of these most interesting negotiations with England was a treaty by which the United States gained more than Congress had ever ventured to propose. And Jay's part in this great triumph of diplomacy is well summed up in a letter written by his fellow commissioner John Adams to Jonathan Jackson, “a man and his office were never better united than Mr. Jay and the commission for peace. Had he been detained at Madrid, as I was in Holland, and all left to Franklin, as was wished, all would have been lost.” He was appointed by Congress Secretary of Foreign Affairs.
This office he filled with his usual ability, settling international questions, and advocating the building of a navy, and the organization of a Federal government under a constitution. His papers in the Federalist evidence both his activity and forcefulness in this direction; and his influence contributed in no small degree in bringing New York to the support of the Federal Constitution.It is said that after the first election of Washington to the presidency he offered Jay the choice of any office tn the government, and that he chose that of chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, which he justly regarded as the most exalted position next to the presidency; but be that as it may, Washington appointed him to that position, and in his letter to Jay, advising him of the nomination, said, “I not only acted in conformity with my best judgment, but I trust I did a grateful thing to the good citizens of these United States.” His term of office was effective in shaping the foreign policy of the United States as well as in establishing the dignity and independence of the Federal judiciary. He resigned in 1795; but in the meantime and in 1792 the Federalists supported him unsuccessfully against Governor Clinton for the governorship of New York.
In 1794 President Washington urged him to go to Great Britain as special envoy to settle differences growing out of the failure of that country to keep the obligations of the Treaty of 1784, — differences which had aroused a strong war spirit all over the land. It was easy for Jay to foresee that the outcome of the situation would in all probability be unpopular with the people, but he did not hesitate to meet the responsibility that Washington believed he could meet better than any other man, partly because of the reputation he had established in England while negotiating the Treaty of Peace of 1784. A treaty resulted, known on this side of the ocean as “Jay's Treaty,” which settled the eastern boundary of Maine; recovered for illegal captures by British cruisers $10,000,000; secured the surrender of the Western forts still garrisoned by the British, and came to a point of agreement about the West India trade.
With the exception of the latter article the treaty was approved by the President and ratified by the Senate. But many were not satisfied, and they denounced him with tongue and pen, and even burned him in effigy in Boston, Philadelphia and at his own home, New York.He found on his return that he had been elected governor of New York — before the public had knowledge of the terms of the treaty, of course. Before the close of that term, and in April 1799 he was re-elected by a majority so large as to constitute a personal triumph. During this term the statute was passed providing for the gradual emancipation of slaves within the State, then numbering about 22,000. The six years of his incumbency of the office of governor were crowded with interesting legislative and executive events in which he performed his part with that staunch devotion to the public interests which ever characterized his efforts throughout his career as a servant of the public, as is well illustrated by his refusal to be a party to the scheme of certain leaders of the Federalists to secure the electoral vote of New York for the ensuing election.
The unexpected result of the spring elections of 1800 assured the Republicans of a substantial working majority on joint ballot, and hence of the Presidential electors under the law as it then stood. It was generally conceded that New York would determine the choice of the next President. Although the Federalists had, in March prior to the elections, defeated the attempt of the Republicans to redistrict the State, and had insisted that it was necessary that the State should act as a unit in the choice of Presidential electors, the leaders changed their position after the election had gone against them and insisted that the electors should be chosen by districts.
Alexander Hamilton wrote Governor Jay on 7 May advising that he call an extra session of the legislature to enact such a statute before July first, the end of the legislative year. Philip Schuyler also wrote a letter strongly urging that such a course furnished the only means of saving the “nation from more disasters.” But Jay, although a staunch Federalist, who had received the votes of New Jersey and Delaware, five votes from Connecticut and one from Rhode Island for the Presidency in the preceding electoral college, refused to take such action, and endorsed on Hamilton's letter these words: “Proposing a measure for party purposes which I think it would not become me to adopt.”
He refused a renomination for the office of governor on the ground that he now intended to retire from public life, and his purpose was unshaken by President Adams announcing to him his nomination and confirmation a second time as chief justice of the United States. This office he held until 1801 when he retired from public life.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920