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John Jay - One of America's Founding Fathers

Posted on Wednesday, March 4, 2020

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Birth: December 23, 1745
Death: May 17, 1829 (age 83)
Colony: New York
Occupation: Merchant, Lawyer, Judge, Politician
Significance: President of Continental Congress (1779-1779); United States Minister to Spain (1779-1782); United States Minister to Spain (1799-1782); United States Secretary of Foreign Affairs (1784-1789); First Supreme Court Chief Justice (1789-1795); and Governor of New York (1795-1801)

John Jay Portrait located in the Second Bank of the United States Portrait Gallery

John Jay was a Founding Father of the United States. Jay was born to a wealthy mercantile family in New York City. Jay received excellent instruction from private tutors and then at the age of 14, Jay went to King’s College (now Columbia University) and graduated four years later in 1764. Following his graduation, Jay read law and was admitted to the Bar in 1768.

The American Revolution

As a lawyer, Jay became a champion of property rights and the rule of law and thus clashed strongly against the attempts by the British Parliament to unjustly tax American property. His outspoken nature led to Jay becoming a delegate to the First Continental Congress. While disturbed by the actions of British Parliament, Jay would nonetheless argue that pushing for reconciliation was prudent and the best strategy for the First Continental Congress. During the First Continental Congress, Jay also authored The Address to the People of Great Britain, a document which attempted to explain the predicament of the American Colonies and garner public support for their cause among the British public.

The following year, Jay also served in the Second Continental Congress. In the Second Continental Congress, Jay continued to push for a peaceful resolution and helped to write the Olive Branch Petition. But as time went on, Jay came to believe that Independence was the only way forward. As the Second Continental Congress moved toward Independence, Jay became increasingly frustrated with New York’s state government which seemed unlikely to ever approve Independence. Sensing this challenge, Jay traveled back to New York where he worked to convince the leaders of New York to support Independence. While Jay never signed The Declaration of Independence, his work made it possible for other New York delegates to eventually vote in his place. 

After helping to set up New York’s state government following The Declaration of Independence, Jay traveled back to Philadelphia when he was once again elected to serve in the Continental Congress. While a member of the Continental Congress, Jay would be elected President of the Continental Congress and serve in the position for roughly a year. Jay held the position until 1779 when he was sent to Europe to serve as America’s Minister to Spain.

Jay’s time in Spain was frustrating since he negotiated for years to secure loans for the Continental Army, but found little success. Finally after nearly three years of work, Jay secured aid from Spain and then traveled straight to Paris where he became a key figure in the negotiations to end the American Revolutionary War. After a long period of negotiations that included numerous halts to progress, the Treaty of Paris was finally signed on September 3, 1783 with Jay as one of the signatories.

After the American Revolution

Upon Jay’s return to the United States in 1784, he was named the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, which is the equivalent to today’s Secretary of State. Jay would hold the position until the Confederation Government was disbanded, and the new United States Government under the Constitution of the United States came into power.

Jay actually played a significant role in the Constitution of the United States becoming the framework for the Government of the United States. Although he was not a member of the Constitutional Convention and did not have a role in the drafting or signing the United States Constitution, Jay played a major role in the aftermath of its creation. Initially divisive and largely unpopular, getting the United States Constitution ratified required incredible efforts. Jay would join Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in the authorship of a series of Essays which were anonymously published at the time and known as the Federalist Papers. Jay advocated for a stronger centralized government in a series of very persuasive arguments that pointed to the ineffective nature of the Articles of Confederation that Jay hoped to replace with the Constitution of the United States.

Jay on the Supreme Court

After the United States Constitution went into effect, Jay secured a major place within the new government since he was nominated by George Washington to be the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Jay served for roughly six years, but ended up hearing only four cases during his tenure since the Supreme Court was not yet a common recourse in the country. Among the cases though was a very important one in Chisholm v. Georgia. This landmark case helped to establish that state governments were subject to judicial review. It also directly led to the 11th Amendment which restricts the abilities of individuals to bring lawsuits against states in Federal Court.

Old City Hall, Where Jay served as the First Supreme Court Chief Justice

In 1795, while still presiding as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Jay traveled to Great Britain to negotiate a new treaty with the British. The British were ignoring the terms of the Treaty of Paris and were harassing the United States in many ways, including by forcefully conscripting American sailors into the United States Navy. The new treaty became known as Jay’s Treaty and was very controversial since many felt Jay conceded too much. Without Jay's Treaty however, it may not have been possible to avoid another military engagement with the British, in a time when Americans could scarcely afford to fight another war.

Later years

In 1795, Jay resigned from the U.S. Supreme Court after he was elected Governor of New York. Jay held that position until 1801. Following his retirement as Governor of New York, Jay was once again nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States, but Jay declined, citing his poor health. Despite his failing health, Jay would go on to live a remarkably long life, living to the age of 83 before he passed away in 1829.

John Jay in Philadelphia

Jay arrived in Philadelphia as a Delegate to the First Continental Congress which met at Carpenters' Hall in September 1774. Jay returned the following year in 1775 as a Delegate to the Second Continental Congress. While serving as a member of the Second Continental Congress, Jay worked at Independence Hall, though he departed Congress before signing the Declaration of Independence. John Jay also served as America's first Supreme Court Chief Justice while the capital was in Philadelphia and worked in Old City Hall.

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