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Jay, John (1745–1829), revolutionary and politician in the United States of America, was born on 12 December 1745 in New York city, the sixth son of Peter Jay, merchant and gentleman, and Mary van Cortlandt. He was of French Huguenot descent through his father and Dutch through his mother. He was a lifelong Anglican/Episcopalian. After private tutoring John Jay earned a BA at King's College in 1764 and went on to study law in the office of Benjamin Kissam. He began legal practice in 1768. Never a man for popular politics or street radicalism, he took very little part in the gathering revolutionary movement in his native city. Through his mother he was linked to one of New York's great landlord families. His marriage, on 28 April 1774, to Sarah van Brugh Livingston (d. 1801) connected him to another. It also connected him to the American movement, in which the Livingstons were more involved than any other great New York family. Jay began to take a role that was strong in the political sense of opposing British policies but conservative in the sense of minimizing social change. He was joined in this project by a remarkable group of young fellow New Yorkers, most of them King's College graduates and lawyers, including Robert R. Livingston II, Gouverneur Morris, and Egbert Benson, and by the Albany landlord Philip Schuyler.

Jay emerged into public life in 1774, as Americans from New Hampshire to Georgia responded to the strong punishment visited by Britain upon Boston and Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party (December 1773). He served on New York city's committee of correspondence, the first continental congress, which worked out a coherent American policy of resistance, and in its successor second continental congress, which took on the attributes of government after the American War of Independence broke out on 19 April 1775. Jay was no firebrand, agreeing with most New York leaders that independence needed to be put off as long as possible. But he never considered loyalism. At independence he returned to New York, joining its revolutionary convention, organizing a political police force, and writing the major part of the constitution that the state adopted in April 1777. The document expressed the views of his sort of men perfectly, providing for an upper legislative house intended to protect property interests and a strong governorship and court system. Jay himself became chief justice of the state, holding the office until 1779. However, his return to congress in December 1778 marked a shift of his interests to the national stage.

Almost immediately upon returning to congress Jay was chosen as its president (10 December 1778), which made him nominally the American head of state. He continued in that post until 27 September 1779, when congress elected him American minister to Madrid. He arrived in Spain on 22 January 1780 and found that his task was exceedingly difficult. Unlike their French cousins, the Spanish Bourbons would not recognize American independence (though they entered the war as French allies). He found his presence barely tolerated by foreign minister Count Floridablanca. Jay did secure a Spanish government loan that allowed him to pay off American debts that had been contracted in expectation of his success at doing so. He also learned the complexities of the diplomatic web in which the Americans were enmeshed, thanks to Spain's treaty claims upon France.

After the American victory at Yorktown, Virginia, reduced Britain's capacity to fight, Benjamin Franklin, the American minister in Paris, called for Jay's help in negotiating the peace treaty. Jay arrived in the French capital on 23 June 1782, joining Franklin and John Adams on the American team. He may have had a hand there in undermining plans by Franklin to acquire Canada as part of the settlement; he certainly was in contact during the negotiations with Lord Shelburne, the British prime minister. But Jay and Adams together persuaded Franklin not to subordinate the American negotiators to the French foreign minister Vergennes, despite instructions from congress and Vergennes's own expectations. The resulting treaty was very favourable to the Americans, giving them title to the whole territory south of the Great Lakes, the upper St Lawrence, and Quebec, east of the Mississippi, and north of Florida.

Jay returned to New York on 24 July 1784, where he found himself elected by congress as secretary for foreign affairs. He held that post until Thomas Jefferson became secretary of state under President Washington on 22 March 1790. His task was very difficult. The United States owed money to the Dutch and the French and to Europeans who had served in its army. It wanted recognition from the European powers and access to its former markets in the British West Indies. No longer British, its ships had no protection from north African navies. Britain would not withdraw from the posts it held along the Canadian line, though these were on American soil. Spain controlled Florida, whose northern boundary was ill defined, and the mouth of the Mississippi, which meant that it controlled the commerce of the trans-Appalachian American interior.

Jay's achievement in office was primarily that he did not let a bad situation become worse. His extended negotiations with Spanish minister Gardoqui on the Mississippi and southern boundary problems ultimately came to little. Although Jay bore the full responsibilities assigned to a European foreign minister, he had to carry out his duties without a strong government to back him. Even enforcing the terms of the peace treaty with Britain proved difficult, particularly its requirement that the states end their persecution of former loyalists.

Not surprisingly Jay supported the growing movement that sought to weaken the power of the separate states. He was not a member of the federal convention that wrote the United States constitution in 1787 but he joined convention delegates Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in writing The Federalist, the series of eighty-five essays signed Publius and addressed to ‘the considerate citizens of the State of New York’, on the theoretical strengths and the practical advantages of the new constitution. He was the junior member of the team, penning the five essays which dealt with foreign affairs. He also took a strong role in New York state's ratifying convention which met at Poughkeepsie in July 1788. Despite The Federalist, the convention had a strong majority against the constitution. Its supporters' task was eased by ratification in New Hampshire and Virginia while the convention was debating, which changed the question from whether the constitution would take effect to whether New York would take part. Jay gets credit for persuading ‘soft’ anti-federalists to vote for ratification ‘in full confidence’ of subsequent amendments rather than conditional upon such amendments.

President Washington named Jay as the first chief justice of the United States supreme court, over which he presided from 1789 until 1794. His major contribution to American constitutional law came in Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), which upheld the principle that a citizen of one state could sue the government of another state. His ruling was later overturned by the eleventh amendment to the constitution. While chief justice he frequently advised Washington, especially on foreign affairs, and he drafted Washington's proclamation of American neutrality between warring Britain and France in 1793.

The following year Washington sent Jay to London to negotiate a treaty that would remove British troops from forts on American soil along the Canadian boundary, end Royal Navy impressment from American ships, and settle commercial and debt difficulties. Jay's hand was weakened by British knowledge of the minimal American position, and the treaty's main achievement was removal of the troops while violating American obligations under international law to France and offending American supporters of the French Revolution. When its terms became known it proved highly unpopular, but it none the less was ratified and put into effect.

While Jay was in England he won New York's gubernatorial election of 1795. Most historians agree that he actually had won a majority of votes for governor in the previous election three years earlier but that electoral fraud had kept him out of office then. Now, in an ironic reversal of the strong nationalism he had displayed in congress, in foreign service, and on the supreme court, he resigned the chief justiceship to take control of his state. His two terms as governor were uneventful, except at the very end in 1800, when he scornfully dismissed a suggestion by Alexander Hamilton that he make use of legal technicalities in order to keep New York's electoral college votes from going to Thomas Jefferson and thus keep Jefferson out of the presidency. He always was a strong opponent of slavery. He freed the slaves who came to him by inheritance and marriage, and when he was drafting New York's constitution of 1777 he sought unsuccessfully to include a clause providing for gradual emancipation. He was a founding member of the New York Manumission Society in 1784 and as governor he signed into law the bill for gradual emancipation that the state legislature adopted in 1795. After 1800 Jay left public life and lived quietly as a widower at Bedford, Westchester county until his death there of ‘palsy’ on 17 May 1829.

Edward Countryman


F. Monaghan, John Jay (1935) · R. B. Morris, ed., John Jay, 2 vols. (1975) · R. B. Morris, The peacemakers: the great powers and American independence (1965) · R. B. Morris, John Jay, the nation, and the court (1967) · R. B. Morris, Witnesses at the creation (1985) · W. Jay, The life of John Jay (1833) · S. F. Bemis, Jay's treaty, rev. edn (1962) · J. A. Combs, ‘Jay, John’, ANB


Col. U. |  BL, corresp. with Lord Grenville, Add. MS 59049


G. Stuart, oils, 1783, Frick Art Reference Library, New York