“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.” J. Jay
John Jay was born in New York City on December 12, 1745. His paternal family members were of French Huguenot stock, were wealthy and had become successful merchants. His maternal family was of solid Dutch American background, and also had become, not only prominent, but also quite wealthy. They were the Van Cortlandts. Jay’s grand father was Jacobus Van Cortlandt, who served New York City twice as its mayor. Jay attended King’s College, which after independence became Columbia College, and eventually Columbia University. Following college graduation, he clerked as a law clerk, passed the New York Bar exam, and began practicing law in 1768.
Jay the Young Lawyer
AS a young lawyer in New York in 1768, JOHN JAY was very much in demand to serve his country. Jay was born in New York City on December 12th, 1745. He graduated from King’s College (now Columbia University) in 1764. Early in the American Revolution, Jay was appointed to the New York Committee of Correspondence, the Continental Congress, & the New York Provincial Congress. He helped draft a constitution for New York & served as the state’s chief justice until 1779. He was President of the Continental Congress in 1778-79.
Stance on Independence
Jay did not favor independence from Britain. His absence from the signing of the Declaration of Independence was noted by Thomas Jefferson. However, once the revolution was undertaken Jay was an ardent supporter of the new nation. The Congress sent him to Spain in 1779 to get its endorsement of the independence of the colonies. He was also instructed to get a loan for the support of the Revolutionary War. Spain would not provide endorsement or support.
Treaty of Paris
In 1782 a party consisting of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, & John Jay, met British commissioner Richard Oswald in Paris, France for the formal negotiation of a peace treaty between Britain & the United States. The delegates were sent with specific instructions: to insist only on the Independence of the United States, deferring in all other matters to the French. The French, however, where entangled in another matter with Spain against the British. They refused to consider the matter until Spain had won Gibraltar, a conflict that showed no sign of resolution. So the delegates engaged Oswald in private, being careful to pay their public respects to French officials. The treaty that resulted was a better settlement than the U.S. Congress could ever have hoped for. Britain guaranteed the independence of the United States, ceded all of the territory east of the Mississippi River (except for Florida, which belonged to Spain), & gave the Americans valuable fishing rights in the North Atlantic.
Secretary of State
Jay returned from his European adventure to find that he had been appointed Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs by his colleagues in the Congress. It was during this period that he contributed to the effort for the New Constitution as the author of several essays that are part of the Federalist Papers. James Madison later told Jefferson that he had been invited by Hamilton & Jay to participate in this work & that Jay had been able to contribute only a few articles because of illness.
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
The Judiciary Act that established a federal court system was signed into law by George Washington on September 24th, 1789. He forwarded to the Senate a list of appointments including that of John Jay as the first chief justice of the Supreme court. The appointments were confirmed two days later. The first two & a half years of the court were largely occupied with establishing rules, procedures, & protocol. The court read commissions & admitted lawyers to practice. Early in the second term, Jay had occasion to demonstrate the concept of impartiality of the court. Hamilton sent an urgent request that the Court join the other federal departments in denouncing opposition to a bill that would assume state debts. Jay carefully replied that it was the sole business of the court to rule on the constitutionality of cases being tried before it. He declined to make any comment on the issue the bill.
It did not take long for the daunting task of establishing the federal courts & their jurisdiction to seek out the Supreme court. Three cases appeared during the justiceships of John Jay. The first: Chisholm v. Georgia, involved the right of a private citizen in one state to sue another state. Two men from South Carolina sought to recover property that had been impounded by the state of Georgia after the Revolutionary war. The eventual finding of the court inflamed the worst anti-federalist sentiments. It appeared that a citizen anywhere in the union (& perhaps outside the union as well) could hold over the “rights” of a s tate in the federal court. Jay’s argument was a very eloquent & sound declaration of the principles of the new republic. He pointed out that a citizen would be allowed to sue a corporation (a group of persons) of any size & that since each state, deriving its powers from the collective consent of its citizens, was in effect just such an instrument, an individual would be allowed to sue. Jay argued that a “sovereign right,” the sort that applied to a prince over his subjects, did not apply in the United States. This precedent was later overruled by the eleventh amendment to the Constitution.
The second case, Georgia vs. Brailsford, was an interesting reversal of the first case, where the state of Georgia wished to impose itself on a suit brought in circuit court by a British creditor against a citizen of Georgia. In ongoing conflict with Britain to recover reparations from the war, the state had sequestered a debt held by a citizen. The state wanted to use the case to establish its title to the property (money to be impounded because of infidelity to the revolutionary cause). The court reached a compromise rather than rule against Georgia again in such a short time. The effect was to establish that the outcome of this conflict was dependent on the enforcement of treaties between the federal government & Britain. In this matter, the state had no jurisdiction.
The last case over which Jay presided involved the jurisdiction of foreign powers on U.S. soil. Glass vs. Sloop Betsy concerned the interests of American & Swedish owners of a ship, Betsy, against the government of France. French privateers had impounded the ship & presented it to the French council in Baltimore as a prize for the French government. The owners sought the protection of the federal court. This was a very tricky case involving international politics & the doctrine of neutrality on the high seas. It would have been reasonable for the court to refuse the case, but the justices, & especially Jay, felt that it would be a bad case from which to back down. The court hit upon an innovation that would have important consequences for the standing of the United States in the world. The Justices ruled that a council representing a foreign government had no jurisdiction in the United States “without positive stipulation of a treaty. . . .”.
George Washington had chosen very wisely in selecting the first chief justice. Jay had always been widely respected as a just & reasonable man. His stewardship of the court only improved his standing &, not incidentally, did much to establish the Supreme court as a reasoned & honorable institution. His duties were hard, traveling to hear cases throughout the first circuit. But his proclamations (charges to the various grand juries) were sound, inspiring, & were stated in language that the people in the various jurisdictions greeted with enthusiasm. Jay was soon called to serve his nation in another capacity (see Jay’s treaty), & then called in short order to serve his state of New York as Governor. He retired from the Supreme court in 1795.
Jay’s Treaty was a controversial political episode in 1795. Despite the Treaty of Paris, signed with Britain in September of 1783, the British were causing problems in & around the territory of the United States. Britain had not attended to all of the war reparations (such as compensation for large-scale theft of slaves) agreed to in the treaty. They continued to occupy western military posts & to pursue fur trading in the Great Lakes region as if it were their own. Further, they interfered with shipping traffic in the Caribbean, searching American ships for contraband & impressing American seamen into service to the crown. Washington sent Jay to London in 1794 to try to negotiate a solution to these problems. The agreement that Jay returned with did not satisfy anyone. This was no surprise to Hamilton, who had secretly informed the British before hand that the Americans would be willing to compromise on most issues. The British had only agreed to two items: a removal from the western posts (& even then at their own very conditional convenience), & to allow small American ships to trade in the West Indies. The Royal Navy would continue to decide American sovereignty with regard to shipping on a case-by-case basis. Criticism of the Federalist administration was already raging & most people saw this treaty as a terrible compromise to American interests. Jay was burned in effigy in numerous rural areas. Hamilton was stoned in New York City when he defended the treaty at a mass meeting. Though the treaty was ratified by a narrow margin in the Senate, the House later tried to block it by refusing to fund it. Washington, through careful political maneuvering, managed to quell the motion & give the treaty the force of law.
Governor of New York
Jay was elected as governor of New York in 1795 by a popular majority. This was quite a surprise to him, as he had not even been asked if he would serve. In fact, he was not even in the country when the polling began. Alexander Hamilton was in charge of Federalist party politics in New York & he was determined that Jay should be elected Governor on the Federalist ticket. Jay was in London at the time negotiating with the British. When he returned on May 28th, 1795, the polling process was well under way. On June fifth the official result was that he had been elected by a majority of 1,589 votes. Jay was forced to retire from the Supreme court, though he would not have chosen to do so, because his friends in New York had called him to service. Though the fury of public reaction to Jay’s treaty marred his first term, he was reelected & proved to be a most popular & productive governor.
The political climate in New York in that day was marred by severe partisanship & corruption in appointments, elections, & policies. Jay, much to the chagrin of the Federalist party that saw to his election, eliminated these practices wherever he could. He insisted that the only criterion for office was a man’s ability to do the job. He overruled party bosses regularly & retained appointees from the preceding administration where it was reasonable to do so. Jay presided over many measures to improve the business & the quality of life in the state. He undertook a project to improve the navigation of canals in New York. He petitioned the Legislature to increase judicial salaries (unsuccessfully) &, finding the states attorney-general to be severely over worked, recommended that the state be divided into eight regions & that seven assistants be appointed. He reformed the prison system: limited the death penalty, abolished flogging, built new sanitary prisons & generally improved the treatment of prisoners. He supported a bill that would abolish imprisonment for debt. He also advanced a bill that would gradually abolish slavery. This did pass into law during his second term. Jay was a fanatically popular governor, despite the treaty with Britain & in spite of the Federalist Party’s political maneuvers that he alternately thwarted & neglected. The people who got him elected could never account for his behavior except that they understood the honor & principle that guided his every decision.
Return to the Court
As Jay prepared to retire from public life, one last call was laid before him. President John Adams asked him to return as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to fill a vacancy left by retiring Chief Justice Ellsworth. Jay’s reply to the president indicated that he was too tired & in too poor health to attend the duties of the office. While in the office he had frequently complained about the rigors of attending the circuit court. Within six weeks of his note to the President, the Congress passed a measure that relieved the Supreme court of all circuit court duties. Jay retired just the same.
Retirement and Death
John Jay survived his wife & several of his children. The last years of his life were not comfortable. Though he had a splendid home & the support of his children, his health was poor. Nevertheless he entertained friends & guests. His children were a great source of pleasure to him. During the last two years of his life he was unable to walk without assistance, yet his mind was clear. He died on May 17th, 1829 at noon, in the comfort of his home.
Several geographical locations have adopted John Jay’s name, including: Jay, Maine; Jay, New York; Jay, Vermont; Jay County, Indiana and Jay Street in Brooklyn. In 1964, the City University of New York’s College of Police Science was officially renamed the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The colonial Fort Jay on Governors Island is also named for him. Mount John Jay, also known as Boundary Peak 18, a summit on the border between Alaska and British Columbia, Canada, is also named for him.
There are also high schools named after Jay located in Cross River, New York; Hopewell Junction, New York and San Antonio, Texas. The Best Western Hotel chain named several of their colonial motif hotels the John Jay Inn.
Exceptional undergraduates at Columbia University are designated John Jay Scholars, and one of that university’s undergraduate dormitories is known as John Jay Hall. The John Jay Center on the campus of Robert Morris University and the John Jay Institute for Faith, Society & Law are also named for him. Jay’s house, located near Katonah, New York, is preserved as a National Historic Landmark and as the John Jay Homestead State Historic Site.