How John Jay, the first Chief Justice and contributor to the Federalist Papers, helped lay the foundations of American democracy
In 1782 John Jay traveled to Paris with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to discuss peace terms with the British. He notably fought for British recognition of the United States and for all the land east of the Mississippi, doubling the size of the nation. But doubling the nation was only a fraction of his contributions to establishing, solidifying and securing the newborn country.
During his stay in Paris, and with the help of his wife, he became friends with the Marquis de Lafayette, Angelica Schuyler and other important personalities living in France. These ties are vital in relations between the United States and France, the only ally of the young country during the Revolution. Jay prevented France and Britain from having their own secret negotiations which would have disadvantaged the fledgling America. After the negotiations in Paris, Jay and his family returned to New York, where he helped build the government of the United States.
Jay’s Legacy for America
Three generations of the Jay family have embodied the quintessence of American ideals, no more so than John. John Jay was born in New York in 1745. His grandfather had come to America to free himself from religious persecution in France, and he built a life as a merchant. Jay’s father continued in business, building his wealth and supporting his family, achieving the American Dream. John Jay would continue this legacy for many years of service to the fledgling United States of America.
Jay grew up in New York and attended King’s College, now Columbia University. He got a law degree, but he didn’t practice law very long. In 1774 Jay was elected to represent New York in the First Continental Congress, the same year he married Sarah Livingston. Much like Benjamin Franklin, Jay first fought for peace and negotiation with Britain. However, as war became inevitable, Jay chose loyalty to the interests of the United States and dedicated himself to his freedom. At the start of the Revolution, he was president of the Second Continental Congress, the provisional government of the 13 colonies.
As a diplomat
In 1779, Jay undertook a perilous journey to Spain with his wife. Horrible storms forced their ship to stop in the Caribbean for repairs; then, a British ship pursued them, attempting to kidnap Jay as they approached the Spanish coast. He had been chosen as a diplomat in Spain, seeking financial aid for the Revolutionary War. However, he was hardly able to win the support of the Spanish government, a monarchy that did not want to support the revolution, which could ultimately turn against it. The situation in America was so dire that Jay’s failure to win Spain’s support meant his salary could not be paid. Yet he did not complain and remained dedicated to his work, asking just enough for him and his wife to live in their modest Madrid apartment.
In 1794, Jay was sent back across the Atlantic to negotiate again with the British. They were not respecting the agreements reached at the end of the Revolution, such as evacuating North American bases in the United States and to stop blocking American exports. The British Royal Navy had also captured and forced many American merchants into service at sea. People on both sides of the Atlantic were ready to go back to war to settle these disputes. Jay’s Treatise, as it is colloquially known, addressed only a few of these issues. He made no headway on the British impression of American sailors and even granted the British the ability to remove French goods from American ships without payment. The treaty was therefore widely unpopular with the public, who believed that Jay had been too lenient with Britain.
Thereafter, Jay’s popularity plummeted. However, Jay’s negotiations, supported by George Washington, provided temporary appeasement with the British and gave the United States time to recover from the Revolutionary War and establish itself in the world. This precious time allowed the nation to prepare for what would become the War of 1812, when unresolved disagreements with Britain would once again be settled by violence.
Lay the foundations of the Constitution and the judiciary
Between overseas missions, in 1787 Jay wrote five of the Federalist Papers supporting ratification of the Constitution. The first four articles he contributed to all dealt with the same subject: the dangers of foreign force and influence. In these articles, Jay opposed Americans who saw the ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation and wanted to dissolve the United States into individual nations. He thought doing so was a waste of the lives lost fighting for freedom during the Revolution. Using his background as a diplomat, Jay has written about the vulnerability of individual states to attack and foreign relations. In his mind, a united country was the only way to ensure sufficient power to resist the entrenched European monarchies.
Jay went on to serve his country as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Appointed in 1789 by George Washington, Jay heard only four cases, but he set many precedents for the Supreme Court. For example, it allowed circuit court clerks to write writs of error in addition to Supreme Court clerks. He refused to provide formal advice to members of the executive or legislative branch, reinforcing the separation of powers in government. In addition, he promoted judicial review, which is the court’s ability to judge whether a government policy or action is constitutional. Any action declared unconstitutional can then be annulled and corrected. The same case in which Jay established judicial review, Chisolm v. Georgia, also established that cases against individual states by citizens are subject to federal jurisdiction.
A precedent not set by Jay was the notion that Supreme Court justices serve for life. Although this statement is found in the Constitution, Jay resigned his office in 1795, after only six years on the bench, in order to become governor of New York. He was elected governor while abroad, trading in London. When John Adams was elected president, he again offered Jay the position of chief justice, but Jay turned him down. Like George Washington, Jay did not desire or attempt to retain power. While in office in New York, Jay abolished slavery in the state. Later in life he would oppose slavery in the new state of Missouri or any other territory applying for statehood.
In 1801, John Jay finally retired and settled on a farm with his family. His wife died the following year and Jay spent the rest of his days enjoying country life with his many children and grandchildren until his death in 1829. He wanted nothing too elaborate for his funeral. Instead, Jay wanted his children to donate $200 (about $5,000 today) to a deserving widow or orphan. While not the most well-known founding father, Jay’s varied and patriotic life is remembered by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, John Jay High School, and a Columbia dorm named after him.
This article originally appeared in American Essence magazine.