(1745-1829) an American statesman, Patriot, diplomat, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, negotiator and signatory of the Treaty of Paris of 1783, second Governor of New York, president of the American Bible Society, and the first Chief Justice of the United States (1789–1795). He directed U.S. foreign policy for much of the 1780s and was an important leader of the Federalist Party after the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1788. He was a co-author of “The Federalist Papers” along with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, and wrote five of the 85 essays.
The descendant of French Protestant refugees who came to New York in the late seventeenth century, Jay began a distinguished career in national politics with his election to the First Continental Congress in 1774. A lawyer by training and a cautious politician by temperament, Jay was one of a group of moderate delegates who resisted independence until all hopes for reconciliation with Britain were gone. In the New York provincial convention in 1777, Jay was the principal author of a state constitution that limited legislative domination of government far more effectively than the charters that had just been written in other states.
John Jay told the New York Convention, Dec. 23, 1776: “Let a general reformation of manners take place … united in preparing for a vigorous defense of your country. … When you have done all things, then rely upon the good Providence of Almighty God for success, in full confidence that without his blessings, all our efforts will inevitably fail. … The Holy Gospels are yet to be preached to these western regions, and we have the highest reason to believe that the Almighty will not suffer slavery and the gospel to go hand in hand. It cannot, it will not be.”
John Jay stated in 1777: “The constitution, however, has wisely declared, that the ‘liberty of conscience thereby granted shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness.’ … The convention by whom that constitution was formed were of opinion that the gospel of Christ, like the ark of God, would not fall, though unsupported by the arm of flesh. … But let it be remembered that whatever marks of wisdom … may be in your constitution, yet like the … forms of our first parents before their Maker breathed into them the breath of life, it is yet to be animated. … From the people it must receive its spirit. … Vice, ignorance, and want of vigilance will be the only enemies able to destroy it. … Every member of the State ought diligently to read and to study the constitution. … By knowing their rights, they will sooner perceive when they are violated, and be the better prepared to defend. … Hence it becomes the common duty … to unite in repressing the licentious … and thereby diffusing the blessings of peace.”
As chief justice of the State of New York, John Jay charged the grand jury of Ulster County, Sept. 8, 1777: “The infatuated sovereign of Britain, forgetful that kings were the servants, not the proprietors, and ought to be the fathers, not the incendiaries of their people. … What … can appear more unworthy of credit than … a prince should arise who, by the influence of corruption alone … to reduce three million of his most loyal and affectionate subjects to absolute slavery … binding them in all cases whatever, not even excepting cases of conscience and religion? … Will it not appear extraordinary that thirteen colonies … without funds … without disciplined troops, in the face of their enemies, unanimously determine to be free, and, undaunted by the power of Britain, refer their cause to the justice of the Almighty. …”
John Jay noted in 1777: “This glorious revolution … is distinguished by so many marks of the Divine favor and interposition … and I may say miraculous, that when future ages shall read its history they will be tempted to consider a great part of it as fabulous. … The many remarkable … events by which our wants have been supplied and our enemies repelled … are such strong and striking proofs of the interposition of Heaven, that our having been hitherto delivered from the threatened bondage of Britain ought, like the emancipation of the Jews from Egyptian servitude, to be forever ascribed to its true cause … and kindle in them a flame of gratitude and piety which may consume all remains of vice and irreligion. Blessed be God! The time will now never arrive when the prince of a country in another quarter of the globe will command your obedience, and hold you in vassalage. … Nor will you in future be subject to the imperious sway of rulers instructed to sacrifice your happiness whenever it might be inconsistent with the ambitious views of their royal master.”
Jay, together with Madison and Hamilton, helped ratify the Constitution by writing the Federalist Papers. John Jay wrote in 1777: “The Americans are the first people whom Heaven has favored with an opportunity of … choosing the forms of government under which they should live. All other constitutions have derived their existence from violence or accidental circumstances. … Your lives, your liberties, your property, will be at the disposal only of your Creator and yourselves. You will know no power but such as you will create; no authority unless derived from your grant; no laws but such as acquire all their obligation from your consent. … Security is also given to the rights of conscience and private judgment. They are by nature subject to no control but that of the Deity … Every man is permitted to consider, to adore, and to worship his Creator in the manner most agreeable to his conscience. …”
In 1778 Jay was elected president of Congress. In this capacity he became deeply involved in a bitter dispute about foreign policy that disrupted Congress through much of 1779. In the autumn of that year, he accepted appointment as the American minister to Spain, which had entered the war against Britain as an ally of France but not the United States. Jay’s more notable accomplishment came when he joined the American peace commission. In the crucial negotiations of 1782, he and John Adams prevailed on Benjamin Franklin to ignore their formal instructions from Congress and to seek the best terms they could obtain from Britain without relying on guidance from France.
John Jay signed the Treaty of Paris with Franklin and Adams which ended the Revolutionary War. The treaty began: “In the name of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity.”
As president of the Continental Congress, John Jay approved the “Circular Letter from the Congress of the United States of America to their Constituents,” Sept. 13, 1779: “Friends and Fellow Citizens … In governments raised on the generous principles of equal liberty … the rulers of the state are the servants of the people, and not the masters of those from whom they derive authority. … The ungrateful despotism and inordinate lust of domination, which marked the unnatural designs of the British king and his venal parliament, to enslave the people of America, reduced you to the necessity of either asserting your rights by arms, or ingloriously passing under the yoke. … Remember we are contending against a kingdom crumbling into pieces; a nation without public virtue … betrayed by their own representatives; against a Prince governed by his passions; … against a government by the most impious violations of the rights of religion, justice, humanity and mankind, courting the vengeance of Heaven and revolting from the protection of Providence. … And can there be any reason to apprehend that the Divine Disposer of human events, after having separated us from the house of bondage, and led us safe through a sea of blood, towards the land of liberty and promise will leave the work of our political redemption unfinished. … or suffer us to be carried back in chains to that country of oppression from whose tyranny He hath mercifully delivered us with a outstretched arm?”
When America’s currency was losing value, giving rise to the idiom “not worth a Continental,” John Jay, as president of the Continental Congress, wrote Sept. 13, 1779: “Depreciation of the currency has … swelled the prices of every necessary article. … Depreciation is to be removed only by lessening the quantity of money in circulation. … A distrust … by the mass of the people … in the ability … of the United States to redeem their bills, is the cause of it. … A bankrupt faithless republic would … appear among reputable nations like a common prostitute among chaste and respectable matrons. … It has been already observed, that in order to prevent the further natural depreciation of our bills, we have resolved to stop the press.”
Jay returned to America in 1784 to learn that Congress had elected him for the position of secretary of foreign affairs. His most important actions again involved relations with Spain. In 1786 Jay asked Congress to allow him to surrender American claims to the free navigation of the Mississippi–which Spain controlled from New Orleans–in exchange for a satisfactory commercial treaty. This request met intense opposition from the southern states and precipitated a dispute within Congress that led many national leaders to wonder about the durability of the American union.
Although not a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Jay strongly supported ratification of the Constitution and would have contributed far more than the five essays he wrote for The Federalist had ill health not sapped his strength.
President George Washington nominated Jay to be the first chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1789. Although the Court reached several notable decisions under his leadership, it was again as a diplomat that he exerted his greatest influence. With the support of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, he negotiated the Jay Treaty which resulted in ten years of peaceful trade with Britain while France was going through a bloody Revolution.
John Jay wrote in Chisholm v. Georgia, 1793: “The people are the sovereign of this country.”
On April 15, 1794, John Jay wrote to his wife, Sally, from England: “If it should please God to make me an instrument to the continuation of peace, and in preventing the effusion of blood and other evils and miseries incident to war, we shall both have reason to rejoice. … Let us repose unlimited trust in our Maker; it is our business to adore and to obey.”
Jay resigned from the Supreme Court after his return to America in 1795. After serving two terms as governor of New York, he retired from politics and sought a deeper consolation in religion.
On May 28, 1802, John Jay wrote to his children after his wife’s death: “Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? … Behold I show you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. … Death is swallowed up in victory. (I Corinthians 15)”
Writing to John Bristed, April 23, 1811, John Jay recounted: “I was at a large party, of which … several … spoke freely and contemptuously of religion. … An atheist very abruptly remarked that there was no God, and he hoped the time would come when there would be no religion in the world. I very concisely remarked that if there was no God there could be no moral obligations, and I did not see how society could subsist without them.”
On April 15, 1818, John Jay wrote to his Quaker friend, John Murray: “Natural Laws and Morality are given by the Sovereign of the Universe to all mankind. … It is true that the law was given to Moses, not however in his individual or private capacity, but as the agent or instrument, and by the authority of the Almighty. The law demanded exact obedience, and proclaimed: ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.’ The law … by requiring perfect obedience, under a penalty so inevitable and dreadful, operated as a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ for mercy. Legal punishments are adjusted and inflicted by the law and magistrate, and not by unauthorized individuals. These and all other positive laws or ordinances established by Divine direction, must of necessity be consistent with the moral law. It certainly was not the design of the law … to encourage a spirit of personal or private revenge. On the contrary, there are express injunctions in the law of Moses which inculcate a very different spirit.”
He died in 1829, one of the last of the revolutionary patriarchs.
- In this episode of the Ben Franklin’s World podcast, John Jay and his contributions to the founding of the United States is explored with Robb Haberman, associate editor of The Selected Papers of John Jay documentary editing project. You can listen to the podcast here: www.benfranklinsworld.com/055
- VIDEO: John Jay, Reluctant Revolutionary; Part II (Family, Faith, and the Federalist Papers)
Chronological History of Events Involving John Jay
The Fourth and Final United American Republic is Founded: The United States of America: We the People