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John Jay (1745 - 1829)

Jay, John

John Jay was in New York City on December 12th, 1745 to a prominent family. Shortly after John's birth, his family moved from Manhattan to Rye. Educated in his early years by private tutors, Jay later went to King's College (today Columbia University) in late 1760 and graduated in 1764 at the age of nineteen. He became a law clerk in the office of Benjamin Kissam until 1768, when he was admitted to the bar. Jay then established a legal practice with Robert R. Livingston, Jr., before starting his own law office in 1771.

In early 1774 he was one of the most prominent members of the New York Committee of Correspondence and attended the First Continental Congress at the age of twenty eight. He wrote The Address to the People of Great Britain, published by the First Continental Congress. He retired from the Congress in 1776 rather than sign the Declaration of Independence (his absence was noted by Thomas Jefferson), as Jay's opinion on independence from Britain was not positive until after the revolution, which saw Jay become an passionate supporter of the new nation.

"Let it be remembered that civil liberty consists, not in a right to every man to do just what he pleases, but it consists in an equal right to all citizens to have, enjoy, and do, in peace, security and without molestation, whatever the equal and constitutional laws of the country admit to be consistent with the public good." (John Jay)

Jay drafted the first constitution of New York State and was appointed Chief Justice of the state in 1777. In the following year he was elected to the Continental Congress and was chosen to become its fifth president. In 1779, the Congress sent him to Spain in order to secure Spain's endorsement of the independence of the colonies, financial aid, and commercial treaties. In 1782 Jay, along with Adams, Franklin, and John Laurens signed a treaty of peace with Great Britain, which ended the American War for Independence, though it took many years for Britain to fully relinquish its hold on America.

When Jay returned to Congress, he had already been appointed Secretary of Foreign Affairs. He helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783, ending the war with Great Britain. Jay represented New York at the First and Second Continental Congress and was again elected president of that body in 1788. Though he did not attend the Constitutional Convention, he did contribute five essays to a series of newspaper articles (later called The Federalist Papers (1787)). Written by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, The Federalist was a collection of essays by that interpreted the Constitution of the United States and argued effectively in support of its ratification.

Jay became the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, serving from 1789 to 1794. During his term, he sat on such noted cases as Chisholm v. Georgia (which involved the right of a private citizen in one state to sue another state), Georgia vs. Brailsford (a reversal of the first case), and Glass vs. Sloop Betsy. Jay helped establish the Supreme Court as a reasoned & honorable institution.

In 1794 he negotiated the Jay Treaty, which eliminated British control of western posts within two years, established America's claim for damages from British ship seizures, and provided America a limited right to trade in the West Indies, in effect settling major grievances with Great Britain and promoting the commercial prosperity of America. It was extremely unpopular with the public (an effigy of Jay was burned by mobs of outraged Americans), but was approved of by the Washington administration in 1795.

Jay was then sent on a diplomatic mission to France. While in France, he was elected Governor of New York State by a popular majority and was forced to retire from the Supreme Court. He resigned from the Court, and served as governor of New York until 1800. During his stint as Governor, Jay improved the treatment of by limiting the death penalty, abolishing flogging, building new sanitary prisons. He supported a bill that would abolish imprisonment for debt. He also advanced a bill that would gradually abolish slavery. Though President John Adams asked Jay to return as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Jay declined, claiming ill health and exhaustion, due to the illness of his second wife, Jane Amanda Durfee (Jay's first wife, Catherine Johns, died in 1846 at the age of twenty-three). Jay retired from public life in 1801 and died at home with his children on May 17th, 1829.

Suggested sites for John Jay:

Encyclopedia article about John Jay
Texts by Jay
Federalist Papers Authored by John Jay
A series of articles written to gain support for the Constitution. Contributed to by Hamilton, Jay, and Madison.

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