John Jay

Dimitris Stamatios | November 8, 2022


John Jay (New York, December 12, 1745 – Bedford, May 17, 1829) was an American politician, diplomat and revolutionary. He was one of the founding fathers of the United States, president of the Continental Congress in 1778-1779 and, from 1789 to 1795, president of the U.S. Supreme Court. During and after the American War of Independence he was ambassador to Spain and France, laying the groundwork for a U.S. foreign policy and obtaining favorable terms for peace with the British Empire (Jay”s Treaty) and France. He wrote in collaboration with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison The Federalist (The Federalist Papers).

As leader of the new Federalist Party, Jay was elected governor of New York from 1795 to 1801 and became the leading political opponent of slavery in the state. His first two attempts to pass an emancipation law, in 1777 and 1785 respectively, failed, but his third was successful in 1799. The new law allowed the emancipation of all slaves in New York before his death.


John Jay was born on December 12, 1745, and was the sixth son of a wealthy New York merchant family. Jay”s family was of French descent, of Huguenot denomination, and for the most part resided in New York City. In 1685 the Edict of Nantes was revoked, abolishing the rights of Protestants and thus allowing the confiscation of their property. The measure prompted John Jay”s paternal grandfather, August Jay, to move with his family to New York. August”s son Peter married Mary Van Cortlandt and had ten children with her, but only seven of them survived. After John Jay”s birth, the family moved to the town of Rye, Westchester County, in search of a healthier environment; two of his brothers were rendered blind by the smallpox epidemic of 1739 and suffered from mental disabilities.


Jay spent his childhood in Rye, and took the same political positions as his father, who was a staunch Whig. John Jay was educated by private teachers until the age of eight, when he was sent to study under Anglican pastor Pierre Stoupe. In 1756, three years later, he returned to home schooling under the tutelage of George Murray. In 1760 Jay continued his studies at King”s College, founded sixteen years earlier and the forerunner of Columbia University. and began practicing in the law office of Benjamin Kissam.

Advocacy and entry into politics

In 1768, after being admitted to the New York Bar, he began practicing law with Robert R. Livingston until he established his own law office in 1771. In 1774 he was a member of the New York Committee of Correspondence.

His first public role was as secretary of the Committee of Correspondence in New York, where he represented the conservative wing, which aimed to protect property rights and preserve the rule of law while opposing British violations of Americans” rights. He also feared the prospect of a demagogic regime. Jay believed taxes imposed by the British empire were wrong and argued that it was morally and legally justified to oppose them, but as a delegate for the First Continental Congress in 1774 he sided with those seeking conciliation with parliament.

Events such as the burning of Norfolk by the British Army in January 1776 prompted Jay to side with the Independents. With the outbreak of war he worked tirelessly for the revolutionary cause and the repression of the loyalists. Thus Jay, once he understood the futility of the Thirteen Colonies” attempts to reconcile with the British Empire and that efforts for independence would inevitably result in the American War of Independence, became first a moderate and then an ardent patriot.

During the War of Independence

With a reputation as a “reasonable moderate” in New York, Jay was sent as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, in which they debated whether or not the colonies should declare their independence. He sought conciliation with the British Empire until the Declaration of Independence. John Jay”s ideas became more radical as events unfolded; he became a staunch patriot and tried to push the Province of New York toward independence.

In 1774, at the close of the First Continental Congress, Jay returned to New York. He joined the Congress of Sixty and attempted to enforce a non-importation agreement approved by the First Continental Congress. Jay was elected to the Third New York Provincial Congress, where he drafted the New York Constitution of 1777; his position as a congressman prevented him from voting on and signing the Declaration of Independence. Jay helped the committee find and neutralize conspiracies and monitored British actions. The provincial congress elected Jay as president of the New York Supreme Court on May 8, 1777, a position he held for two years.

Jay was president of the Continental Congress from December 10, 1778 to September 28, 1779. The Continental Congress turned to John Jay, an opponent of former president Henry Laurens, only three days after his appointment as delegate and elected him as president; eight states voted for Jay and four for Laurens.

As a diplomat

On September 27, 1779, having resigned as president of Congress, he was appointed ambassador to Spain, where he was sent for the purpose of obtaining financial aid, trade contracts and recognition of American independence. The royal court of Spain did not officially receive him as ambassador and did not recognize American independence until 1783, fearing that such a move might spark revolution in their colonies. Jay, however, managed to obtain a loan of $170,000 from Spain. He departed Spain on May 20, 1782.

On June 23 of that year Jay reached Paris, where negotiations to end the War of Independence were held. Benjamin Franklin was the most experienced diplomat in the group, and Jay wished to be near him to learn from him. The United States agreed to negotiate with the British Empire separately, and then with France. In June 1782 the Earl of Shelburne offered independence to the Americans, but Jay refused because independence had not been recognized during negotiations; Jay”s dissent stalled negotiations until the fall. The final treaty stipulated that the U.S. had fishing rights in Newfoundland (thus extending the western border), while the British Empire would recognize the U.S. as independent and withdraw its troops in exchange for the release of Loyalists” property and payment of private debts The treaty granted independence to the U.S., but left many border regions in dispute, and many of its conditions were not enforced.

Secretary of foreign affairs

Jay was appointed secretary of foreign affairs, a post he held from 1784 to 1789, when in September Congress passed a law giving additional national responsibilities to the new department and changed its name to the Department of State. Jay held the position of U.S. secretary of state until March 22, 1790. Jay sought to build a stable and lasting foreign policy: gain recognition of the new nation”s independence from important and established European foreign powers; establish a stable currency and credit system, relying at first on loans from European banks; repay creditors and the large debt incurred by the nation for the costs of the war; secure the most advantageous territorial boundaries possible for the new nation and protect it from incursions by Native Americans, Spaniards, French and British; settle disputes among the colonies themselves; secure the right to fish in Newfoundland; establish a strong maritime trade in American products with new markets; protect American trading ships from piracy; preserve the reputation of the United States; and unite the nation politically under the newly created Articles of Confederation.

Jay was convinced that his responsibility was not accompanied by an adequate level of authority, so he joined Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in calling for a stronger government than that provided by the Articles of Confederation. He argued in his Address to the People of the State of New-York, on the Subject of the Federal Constitution that the Articles of Confederation were too weak and ineffective to form a government:

Jay did not attend the Philadelphia Convention but joined Hamilton and Madison in vehemently calling for a new, more powerful, centralized, and balanced system of government. Writing under the shared pseudonym of “Publius,” they clarified this vision in eighty-five articles to persuade the New York State convention to ratify the proposed U.S. Constitution. Jay wrote the second, third, fourth, fiftieth, and sixty-fourth articles. Except for the last one, all the other articles dealt with the danger from foreign powers and influences.

In 1789 George Washington offered the post of secretary of state to John Jay, who declined, so Washington appointed him president of the U.S. Supreme Court, the first in history; Washington appointed John Blair, William Cushing, James Wilson, James Iredell and John Rutledge as associate justices. Jay later appointed Justice Thomas Johnson and later William Paterson to replace Johnson himself. The Court was called upon a few times in the first three years.

In Chisholm v. Georgia, the Jay Court gave an answer to the question, “Is the state of Georgia subject to the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and the federal government?” By a 4-1 majority (the only dissenting party was Iredell), the court ruled in favor of two South Carolina loyalists whose lands had been annexed by Georgia. After this decision a debate opened up, as did the implication that old debts should be paid to the loyalists. The decision was reversed when the Senate ratified the 11th Amendment, which says that the judiciary cannot rule on a case in which a state is sued by a citizen of another state or a foreign nation. The case was then brought back before the Supreme Court (Georgia v. Brailsford), and the Court overturned the earlier decision. In each case, the Court”s first decision in John Jay established that states were subject to review by the courts.

In the Hayburn case, the Court ruled that the courts could not comply with a federal law requiring the court itself to rule on individual petitions from Revolutionary War veterans regarding their qualification for retirement, because determining whether or not petitioners qualified was a “measure, and since the statute allowed the legislature and the executive branch to review court decisions, the statute violated the separation of powers as mandated by the U.S. Constitution.

In 1774 John Jay told a civil jury during a tour of the judicial circuit that “you have a right to take it upon yourselves to judge the law as well as the fact under discussion.” Jay then pointed out to the jury the “good old rule, that on discussions of fact the jurisdiction is of the jury, on discussions of law it is the jurisdiction of the court to decide, but this amounts to nothing more than a presumption that the judge is correct about law. Ultimately, both issues are legally within your decision-making power.”

1792: candidate for governor of New York

In 1792 Jay was the Federalist candidate for governor of New York, but was defeated by Democrat George Clinton. Jay actually received more votes than Clinton, but due to some procedural flaws in the voting operations of in Otsego, Tioga and Clinton counties were excluded and their votes not counted, thus giving Clinton a slight majority. The constitution says that the votes cast must be delivered to the secretary of state “by the sheriff or his deputy,” but, for example, the term of the Otsego County sheriff expired, so when the election took place the sheriff”s office was still vacant, and no one was authorized to deliver votes to the secretary of state. Clinton supporters in the legislature, state courts and federal offices were adamant that they would not accept any objection regarding the legitimacy of the vote, and that what happened amounted to taking away the constitutional right to vote from voters in those counties.

Jay”s Treaty

Relations with the British Empire bordered on war in 1794. British exports dominated the U.S. market, while U.S. exports were blocked by British restrictions and tariffs. The British Empire continued to occupy forts in the north that it had promised to abandon under the Treaty of Paris. Forced conscription of American sailors by the British and seizure of naval and military supplies en route to enemy ports on neutral ships was another source of tension.

Madison proposed a trade war, “a direct system of commercial hostility with Great Britain,” assuming that the British were rather weakened by the war with France and favorable therefore to accept American terms and not declare war. Washington rejected this proposal and sent Jay to Britain to negotiate a new treaty; Jay retained the position of Chief Justice. Washington ordered Alexander Hamilton to write the instructions that were to guide Jay in the negotiations. In March 1795 the treaty, known as Jay”s Treaty, was brought to Philadelphia. When Hamilton, in an effort to maintain good relations, informed the British that the United States did not want to join the Danish and Swedish governments in defending its neutrality, Jay lost much of his influence. The treaty nonetheless removed control from the Northwest frontier posts from the British Empire and granted the United States “most favored nation” status, while the U.S. agreed to limit its trading activities in the British West Indies.

The treaty was not enough to quell all American grievances over the right of neutral navigation and forced conscription, and Democratic-Republicans attacked it, but Jay, as Chief Justice, decided not to take part in the debate. The failure to make reparations for slaves stolen by the British during the Revolution “was the most important of the reasons for the South”s resentful opposition.” Jefferson and Madison feared that an alliance with British aristocratic forces could weaken republicanism, thus benefiting the opposition. However, Jay, supported by Hamilton”s newly formed Federalist Party and Washington, won the battle with public opinion.

Washington put its prestige on the line in defense of the treaty, and Hamilton and the Federalist Party mobilized public opinion. The Senate ratified the treaty by a majority of 20 votes to 10, just enough to reach a two-thirds quorum. After the treaty was approved, graffiti was written near Jay”s house, one of which read, “Damn John Jay. Curse all those who do not want to curse John Jay. Damn all those who don”t want to put lights in the windows and stay up all night cursing John Jay.”

In 1812 relations between the United States and the British Empire again entered a crisis. The desires of a group of members of the House of Representatives, known as the War Hawks, to acquire land from Canada and to stop British seizures of American ships led, in part, to the War of 1812.

Governor of New York

While in Britain Jay was elected governor of New York State as a member of the Federalist Party. He resigned from the Supreme Court and held the office of governor until 1801. As governor he received a proposal from Hamilton to manipulate the New York electoral college for that year”s presidential election; Jay catalogued the letter as “Proposes a measure favorable to a single party which will not be adopted by me” and filed it without response. President John Adams then reappointed him to the Supreme Court; the Senate quickly confirmed him, but Jay declined the offer citing his ill health and the Court”s “lack of the energy, importance and dignity that are essential to its support of the national government.”

Retreat and death

Jay declined the Federalist Party”s proposed candidacy for governor in 1801 and returned to life as a farmer in Westchester County. Soon after his retirement, his wife died. Jay remained in good health, and continued farming while staying away from politics.

On the night of May 14, 1829, Jay was stricken with paresis, probably due to a stroke. He lived for three more days, and died on May 17. He chose to be buried in a private family plot on his property in Rye, where he had grown up. That property, facing Long Island Sound, remained in the Jay family until 1904. A portion was included (and its buildings restored for educational use) by the Jay Heritage Center.

As an abolitionist

Jay was a leader in the fight against slavery after 1777, when he tried unsuccessfully to pass an emancipation law, an attempt he repeated in 1785. In 1795 Jay was president and founder of the New York Manumission Society, which organized boycotts against slaveholding newspapers and merchants and gave legal opinions to free blacks claimed as slaves. The society helped enact the gradual emancipation of slaves in New York State in 1799, formalized by legislation passed by Jay as governor.

Jay was breaking down an open door; every parliamentarian but one had already voted for a form of emancipation in 1785, but then they could not agree on what rights to give freed blacks after the bill. Aaron Burr supported this bill and proposed an amendment for immediate abolition. The Act of 1799, An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, decreed that, as of July 4 of that year, all children born to enslaved parents were free (subject only to apprenticeship) and the export of slaves was prohibited. However, those same children were required to serve their mother”s owner until the age of twenty-eight for boys and twenty-five for girls. Thus the law on the one hand established a type of contract as domestic servants that crushed any freedom for them. Almost thirty years later, on July 4, 1827, all slaves were then emancipated; the process was perhaps the most extensive emancipation in North America before 1861, except for the British Army”s recruitment of runaway slaves during the War of Independence.

Shortly before the 1792 election, Jay”s antislavery actions undermined his chances of being elected in the northern New York area, inhabited mostly by Dutchmen, where slavery was practiced. In 1794 Jay angered slave owners in the South in Jay”s treaty negotiation with the British Empire when he dropped demands for compensation for Patriot-owned slaves stolen during the Revolutionary War. Jay bought slaves several times and then freed them once they were adults when “their labor had repaid their purchase”; in 1798, the year before the Emancipation Act was passed, he owned eight.


Jay was an Anglican, a denomination that changed its name to the Protestant Episcopal Church after the American Revolution. Since 1785 Jay had been an administrator of Trinity Church in New York. As secretary for foreign affairs in Congress he supported the proposal after the Revolution that the Archbishop of Canterbury approve the ordination of bishops for the Episcopal Church. He argued unsuccessfully in the provincial congress for a ban on Catholic public officials.

In a letter addressed to John Murray, a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, dated October 12, 1816, Jay wrote: “Providence has given our people the choice for their legislators, and this is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to choose and prefer Christians as legislators.”

Many geographical locations have adopted the name John Jay, such as 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 officially changed its name to John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

There are also high schools that have similarly changed their names, such as in Cross River and Hopewell Junction in New York, and in San Antonio, Texas. The Best Western Hotel chain changed the name of many of its colonial-style hotels to John Jay Inn.

Columbia University”s most outstanding undergraduate students are awarded John Jay Scholars, and one of the university”s dormitories is named John Jay Hall. The John Jay Center on the campus of Robert Mottis University and the John Jay Institute for Faith, Society & Law are so named in his honor. Jay”s home near Katonah is protected as a National Historic Landmark, as is the John Jay Homestead State Historic Site.

Main sources


  1. John Jay
  2. John Jay
  3. ^ Old Style: December 12
  4. ^ (EN) Timeline of the Justices, su John Jay 1789-1795,, URL consultato il 7 marzo 2009 (archiviato dall”url originale il 7 luglio 2008).
  5. ^ a b Pellew, George: “American Statesman John Jay”, page 1. Houghton Mifflin, 1890
  6. a b Deze functie laat zich vertalen als minister van Buitenlandse Zaken (Engels: Secretary of Foreign Affairs), maar verschilt in die zin met de functie Secretary of State, dat George Washington, de eerste president van de Verenigde Staten, in 1790, een nieuwe naam gaf aan de functie. Thomas Jefferson, die Jay in 1790 opvolgde, wordt daarom meestal aangeduid als de eerste Secretary of State, dat zich in het Nederlands ook laat vertalen als minister van Buitenlandse Zaken. Hier kan in het Nederlands dus enige verwarring over ontstaan.
  7. Soevereine immuniteit is een type van immuniteit dat valt binnen het gewoonterecht, en vindt zijn oorsprong van Engelse wet. In het algemeen is het de doctrine dat een soevereine staat wettelijk gezien geen fouten kan maken en daardoor immuniteit geniet ten opzichte van aanklachten van burgers, en van strafvervolging.
  8. Tim J. Watts: Jay, John. In Spencer C. Tucker (Hrsg.): The Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Early American Republic, 1783–1812: A Political, Social, and Military History. Volume 1: A–K. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara 2014, ISBN 978-1-59884-157-2, S. 336f.
  9. Tim J. Watts: Jay, John. In Spencer C. Tucker (Hrsg.): The Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Early American Republic, 1783–1812: A Political, Social, and Military History. Volume 1: A–K. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara 2014, ISBN 978-1-59884-157-2, S. 337.
  10. Member History: John Jay. American Philosophical Society, abgerufen am 13. Oktober 2018.
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