American Revolution Patriots > John Jay
JAY, John (1745-1829). An eminent American statesman and jurist. He was born in New York City, December 12, 1745, of French Huguenot descent, and was the son of Peter Jay, a wealthy merchant. He passed his childhood at Rye, N. Y., was educated in New Rochelle, N. Y., and at King's (now Columbia) College, where he graduated in 1764; studied law in the office of Benjamin Kissam in New York City; was admitted to the bar in 1768, and soon attained eminence in his profession. In 1770 he was one of the group of lawyers, several of whom later became famous, who formed the professional club known as ‘The Moot.’ He was made secretary of the commission appointed to determine the disputed boundary between New York and Connecticut in February, 1773, and in April of the following year married, at Elizabeth, N. J., Sarah Livingston, the daughter of William Livingston (q.v.), thus allying himself with one of the most influential Whig families in the Middle Colonies.
In the pre-Revolutionary disturbances, though insistent for what he considered to be the rights of the Colonists, he allied himself with the conservative element in New York, and deprecated the radicalism of such men as Isaac Sears and John Lamb, the leaders of the ‘Sons of Liberty.’ In May, 1774, he was made a member of the important Committee of Fifty-One in New York, appointed “to correspond with our sister Colonies on all matters of moment,” which was controlled by the conservative element and opposed all acts of violence. The answer sent by it to the communication of May 13th from Boston urging New York to concur in a policy of non-importation and of a discontinuance of trade with the West Indian Islands is attributed to Jay. Jay was a delegate to the first Continental Congress in 1774, was a member of the committee appointed “to state the rights of the Colonies in general,” supported Galloway's celebrated plan for an accommodation with the mother country (see Galloway, Joseph), and drafted the address to the people of Great Britain.
After his return to New York he was an influential member of the dominating Committee of Inspection and of the Committee of Observation, which succeeded it; was a member of the committee for the relief of Boston, and was also a member of the so-called Provincial Convention, an electoral body, by which he was chosen one of the delegates of New York to the second Continental Congress. He became a colonel of New York City militia, and in 1776 was chosen a member of the Provincial Congress of New York, by which body he was called away in May from the Continental Congress at Philadelphia, thus failing to become a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Of the Provincial Congress, later called the ‘Convention of the Representatives of the State of New York,’ which assembled in July, 1776, he was also a member. He drafted the resolution which was passed authorizing the New York delegates in the Continental Congress to sign the Declaration; was chairman of a secret military committee vested with extraordinary powers, which was appointed at the time of Lord Howe's expected passage up the Hudson River; was a member of other important committees; and in December, 1776, was the author of an address issued by the Convention to the people of the Colony.
Early in the following year he had an important share in the drafting of the Constitution and Bill of Rights for the State of New York. Upon the adoption of that instrument, he was made a member of a Council of Safety and was appointed chief justice pro tempore, being regularly confirmed early in September. Late in 1778 he again became a member of Congress, without vacating his seat on the bench, and on December 10th he was elected president of that body to succeed Henry Laurens, in which position he remained until September 28, 1779, when he was succeeded by Samuel Huntington, having previously, on August 10th, resigned the chief justiceship. In September, 1779, he was appointed United States Minister to Spain, and on October 20th started on his mission. He was never officially received by the Spanish Government, which, though allied with France and at war with Great Britain, steadily refused to recognize the independence of the United States. Aside from securing a few small loans, he was able to accomplish nothing, and after an unsatisfactory, and, in many respects, a humiliating sojourn of two years, he proceeded to Paris in the early summer of 1782 to join Franklin in negotiating the treaty of peace with Great Britain. The two were later joined by John Adams.
In this capacity Jay, along with his fellow-commissioners, rendered an invaluable service to his country, and he himself is considered to have had perhaps a predominant share, on the American side, in the delicate negotiations which resulted in the signing of the treaty of 1783. Jay returned to New York in 1784, refusing appointments both to the English and the French courts, and from that time to 1789 was Secretary for Foreign Affairs under the Confederation. He strongly approved of the Federal Constitution drawn up by the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, and coöperated with Alexander Hamilton to secure its ratification by New York, writing some of the papers known collectively as the Federalist (q.v.), and taking an active part in the debates in the State Convention at Poughkeepsie.
Upon the organization of the Federal Government Jay was allowed by Washington his choice of all the public offices to be filled by the President's appointment, and chose that of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which position he filled with marked dignity and ability until 1795. In 1794 he was sent to England to negotiate with regard to various matters then in dispute between the two countries, and concluded with Lord Grenville what is known in American history as the Jay Treaty (q.v.). From 1795 to 1801, for two terms, he was Governor of the State of New York, and thereafter, refusing an appointment to his old position as Chief Justice, he lived in retirement on his estates at Bedford in Westchester County, N. Y., until his death, on May 17, 1829.
Politically, Jay was ranked with Hamilton as one of the ablest and most influential leaders of the Federalist Party.
The New International Encyclopædia (1905)
Consult: H. P. Johnston (ed.), Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay (4 vols., New York, 1890-93); William Jay, Life of John Jay, with Selections from His Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers (2 vols., New York, 1833); Pellew, John Jay (Boston, 1890), in the “American Statesmen Series;” and Whitelocke, Life and Times of John Jay (New York, 1887).