Birthplace: New York City
Location of death: Bedford, NY
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, John Jay Cemetery, Rye, NY
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Judge, Diplomat
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: First Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
American statesman, the descendant of a Huguenot family, and son of Peter Jay, a successful New York merchant, born in New York City on the 12th of December 1745. On graduating at King's College (now Columbia University) in 1764, Jay entered the office of Benjamin Kissam, an eminent New York lawyer. In 1768 he was admitted to the bar, and rapidly acquired a lucrative practice. In 1774 he married Sarah, youngest daughter of William Livingston, and was thus brought into close relations with one of the most influential families in New York. Like many other able young lawyers, Jay took an active part in the proceedings that resulted in the independence of the United States, identifying himself with the conservative element in the Whig or patriot party. He was sent as a delegate from New York City to the Continental Congress at Philadelphia in September 1774, and though almost the youngest member, was entrusted with drawing up the address to the people of Great Britain. Of the second congress, also, which met at Philadelphia on the 10th of May 1775, Jay was a member; and on its behalf he prepared an address to the people of Canada and an address to the people of Jamaica and Ireland. In April 1776, while still retaining his seat in the Continental Congress, Jay was chosen as a member of the third provincial congress of New York; and his consequent absence from Philadelphia deprived him of the honor of affixing his signature to the Declaration of Independence. As a member of the fourth provincial congress he drafted a resolution by which the delegates of New York in the Continental Congress were authorized to sign the Declaration of Independence. In 1777 he was chairman of the committee of the convention which drafted the first New York state constitution. After acting for some time as one of the council of safety (which administered the state government until the new constitution came into effect), he was made chief justice of New York state, in September 1777. A clause in the state constitution prohibited any justice of the Supteme Court from holding any other post save that of delegate to Congress on a "special occasion", but in November 1778 the legislature pronounced the secession of what is now the state of Vermont from the jurisdiction of New Hampshire and New York to be such an occasion, and sent Jay to Congress charged with the duty of securing a settlement of the territorial claims of his state. He took his seat in congress on the 7th of December, and on the 10th was chosen president in succession to Henry Laurens.
On the 27th of September 1779 Jay was appointed minister plenipotentiary to negotiate a treaty between Spain and the United States. He was instructed to endeavor to bring Spain into the treaty already existing between France and the United States by a guarantee that Spain should have the Floridas in case of a successful issue of the war against Great Britain, reserving, however, to the United States the free navigation of the Mississippi. He was also to solicit a subsidy in consideration of the guarantee, and a loan of five million dollars. His task was one of extreme difficulty. Although Spain had joined France in the war against Great Britain, she feared to imperil her own colonial interests by directly encouraging and aiding the former British colonies in their revolt against their mother country, and she had refused to recognize the United States as an independent power. Jay landed at Cadiz on the 22nd of January 1780, but was told that he could not be received in a formally diplomatic character. In May the king's minister, Count de Florida Blanca, intimated to him that the one obstacle to a treaty was the question of the free navigation of the Mississippi, and for months following this interview the policy of the court was clearly one of delay. In February 1781 Congress instructed Jay that he might make concessions regarding the navigation of the Mississippi, if necessary; but further delays were interposed, the news of the surrender of Yorktown arrived, and Jay decided that any sacrifice to obtain a treaty was no longer advisable. His efforts to procure a loan were not much more successful, and he was seriously embarrassed by the action of Congress in drawing bills upon him for large sums. Although by importuning the Spanish minister, and by pledging his personal responsibility, Jay was able to meet some of the bills, he was at last forced to protest others; and the credit of the United States was saved only by a timely subsidy from France.
In 1781 Jay was commissioned to act with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Henry Laurens in negotiating a peace with Great Britain. He arrived in Paris on the 23rd of June 1782, and jointly with Franklin had proceeded far with the negotiations when Adams arrived late in October. The instructions of the American negotiators were as follows:
"You are to make the most candid and confidential communications upon all subjects to the ministers of our generous ally, the king of France; to undertake nothing in the negotiations for peace or truce without their knowledge and concurrence; and ultimately to govern yourselves by their advice and opinion, endeavoring in your whole conduct to make them sensible how much we rely on his majesty's influence for effectual support in every thing that may be necessary to the present security, or future prosperity, of the United States of America."
Jay, however, in a letter written to the president of Congress from Spain, had expressed in strong terms his disapproval of such dependence upon France, and, on arriving in Paris, he demanded that Great Britain should treat with his country on an equal footing by first recognizing its independence, although the French minister, Count de Vergennes, contended that an acknowledgment of independence as an effect of the treaty was as much as could reasonably be expected. Finally, owing largely to Jay, who suspected the good faith of France, the American negotiators decided to treat independently with Great Britain. The provisional articles, which were so favorable to the United States as to be a great surprise to the courts of France and Spain, were signed on the 30th of November 1782, and were adopted with no important change as the final treaty on the 3rd of September 1783.
On the 24th of July 1784 Jay landed in New York, where he was presented with the freedom of the city and elected a delegate to Congress. On the 7th of May Congress had already chosen him to be secretary for foreign affairs, and in December Jay resigned his seat in Congress and accepted the secretaryship. He continued to act in this capacity until 1790, when Jefferson became secretary of state under the new constitution. In the question of this constitution Jay had taken a keen interest, and as an advocate of its ratification he wrote over the name "Publius", five (Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5 and 64) of the famous series of papers known collectively as the Federalist. He published anonymously (though without succeeding in concealing the authorship) An Address to the People of New York, in vindication of the constitution; and in the state convention at Poughkeepsie he ably seconded Alexander Hamilton in securing its ratification by New York. In making his first appointments to federal offices President George Washington asked Jay to take his choice; Jay chose that of chief justice of the Supreme Court, and held this position from September 1789 to June 1795. The most famous case that came before him was that of Chisolm v. Georgia, in which the question was whether a state could be sued by a citizen of another state. Georgia argued that it could not be so sued, on the ground that it was a sovereign state, but Jay decided against Georgia, on the ground that sovereignty in America resided with the people. This decision led to the adoption of the eleventh amendment to the federal constitution, which provides that no suit may be brought in the federal courts against any state by a citizen of another state or by a citizen or subject of any foreign state. In 1792 Jay consented to stand for the governorship of New York State, but a partisan returning-board found the returns of three counties technically defective, and though Jay had received an actual majority of votes, his opponent, George Clinton, was declared elected.
Ever since the War of Independence there had been friction between Great Britain and the United States. To the grievances of the United States, consisting principally of Great Britain's refusal to withdraw its troops from the forts on the north-western frontier, as was required by the peace treaty of 1783, her refusal to make compensation for negroes carried away by the British army at the close of the War of Independence, her restrictions on American commerce, and her refusal to enter into any commercial treaty with the United States, were added, after war broke out between France and Great Britain in 1793, the anti-neutral naval policy according to which British naval vessels were authorized to search American merchantmen and impress American seamen, provisions were treated as contraband of war, and American vessels were seized for no other reason than that they had on board goods which were the property of the enemy or were bound for a port which though not actually blockaded was declared to be blockaded. The anti-British feeling in the House of Representatives became so strong that on the 7th of April 1794 a resolution was introduced to prohibit commercial intercourse between the United States and Great Britain until the north-western posts should be evacuated and Great Britain's anti-neutral naval policy should be abandoned. Thereupon Washington, fearing that war might result, appointed Jay minister extraordinary to Great Britain to negotiate a new treaty, and the Senate confirmed the appointment by a vote of 18 to 8, although the non-intercourse resolution which came from the house a few days later was defeated in the senate only by the casting vote of Vice-President John Adams. Jay landed at Falmouth in June 1794, signed a treaty with Lord Grenville on the 19th of November, and disembarked again at New York on the 28th of May 1795. The treaty, known in history as Jay's Treaty, provided that the north-western posts should be evacuated by the 1st of June 1796, that commissioners should be appointed to settle the north-east and the north-west boundaries, and that the British claims for British debts as well as the American claims for compensation for illegal seizures should be referred to commissioners. More than one-half of the clauses in the treaty related to commerce, and although they contained rather small concessions to the United States, they were about as much as could reasonably have been expected in the circumstances. One clause, the operation of which was limited to two years from the close of the existing war, provided that American vessels not exceeding 70 tons burden might trade with the West Indies, but should carry only American products there and take away to American ports only West Indian products; moreover, the United States was to export in American vessels no molasses, sugar, coffee, cocoa or cotton to any part of the world. Jay consented to this prohibition under the impression that the articles named were peculiarly the products of the West Indies, not being aware that cotton was rapidly becoming an important export from the southern states. The operation of the other commercial clauses was limited to twelve years. By them the United States was granted limited privileges of trade with the British East Indies; some provisions were made for reciprocal freedom of trade between the United States and the British dominions in Europe; some articles were specified under the head of "contraband of war"; it was agreed that whenever provisions were seized as contraband they should be paid for, and that in cases of the capture of a vessel carrying contraband goods such goods only and not the whole cargo should be seized; it was also agreed that no vessel should be seized merely because it was bound for a blockaded port, unless it attempted to enter the port after receiving notice of the blockade. The treaty was laid before the Senate on the 8th of June 1795, and, with the exception of the clause relating to trade with the West Indies, was ratified on the 24th by a vote of 20 to 10. As yet the public was ignorant of its contents, and although the Senate had enjoined secrecy on its members even after the treaty had been ratified, Senator George Mason of Virginia gave out a copy for publication only a few days later. The Republican party, strongly sympathizing with France and strongly disliking Great Britain, had been opposed to Jay's mission, and had denounced Jay as a traitor and guillotined him in effigy when they heard that he was actually negotiating. The publication of the treaty only added to their fury. They filled newspapers with articles denouncing it, wrote virulent pamphlets against it, and burned Jay in effigy. The British flag was insulted. Hamilton was stoned at a public meeting in New York while speaking in defense of the treaty, and Washington was grossly abused for signing it. In the House of Representatives the Republicans endeavored to prevent the execution of the treaty by refusing the necessary appropriations, and a vote (29th of April, 1795) on a resolution that it ought to be carried into effect stood 49 to 49; but on the next day the opposition was defeated by a vote of 51 to 48. Once in operation, the treaty grew in favor. Two days before landing on his return from the English mission, Jay had been elected governor of New York state; notwithstanding his temporary unpopularity, he was re-elected in April 1798. With the close of this second term of office in 1801, he ended his public career. Although not yet fifty-seven years old, he refused all offers of office and retiring to his estate near Bedford in Westchester county, New York, spent the rest of his life in rarely interrupted seclusion. In politics he was throughout inclined toward Conservatism, and after the rise of parties under the federal government he stood with Alexander Hamilton and John Adams as one of the foremost leaders of the Federalist party, as opposed to the Republicans or Democratic-Republicans. From 1821 until 1828 he was president of the American Bible Society. He died on the 17th of May 1829. The purity and integrity of his life are commemorated in a sentence by Daniel Webster: "When the spotless ermine of the judicial robe fell on John Jay, it touched nothing less spotless than itself."
Father: Peter Jay (merchant)
Mother: Mary Van Cortlandt
Wife: Sarah Van Brugh Livingston (b. 2-Aug-1756, m. 28-Apr-1774, d. 28-May-1802)
Son: Peter Augustus Jay (b. 1776)
Son: William Jay (b. 1779)
Daughter: Susan Jay (b. 1780, d. 1780)
Daughter: Maria Jay (b. 1782)
Daughter: Anna Jay (b. 1783)
Son: William Jay (b. 1789)
Daughter: Sarah Louisa Jay (b. 1792)
University: BA, Columbia University (1764, then known as Kings College)
University: MA, Columbia University (1767, then known as Kings College)
Governor of New York (1797-1801)
US Supreme Court Justice First Chief Justice (1789-94)
US Ambassador to Spain (1779)
Delegate to the Continental Congress President (1-Dec-1778 to 28-Sep-1779)
Delegate to the Continental Congress (1774-76)
US Secretary of State as "Secretary of Foreign Affairs" (Mar-1790)
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