The Department of Foreign Affairs, the first U.S. federal government agency, was established today in 1789 with John Jay as the first acting Secretary of State. Now WE know em

John Jay as he appears at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

John Jay as he appears at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

John Jay was born December 12, 1745 into a wealthy family of merchants and government officials in New York City. He became a lawyer and joined the New York Committee of Correspondence and organized opposition to British rule. He joined a conservative political faction that, fearing mob rule, sought to protect property rights and maintain the rule of law while resisting British violations of human rights.

As a Patriot, statesman and diplomat John Jay became a Founding Father of the United States of America.

John Jay served as the President of the Continental Congress from 1778 – 1779, an honorific position with little power.

Then on September 27, 1779, John Jay was appointed Minister to Spain. His mission was to get financial aid, commercial treaties and recognition of American independence. The royal court of Spain refused to officially receive Jay as the Minister of the United States, as it refused to recognize American Independence until 1783, fearing that such recognition could spark revolution in their own colonies. Jay, however, convinced Spain to loan $170,000 to the US government.

He departed Spain on May 20, 1782.

On June 23, 1782, John Jay reached Paris, where negotiations to end the American Revolutionary War would take place. Benjamin Franklin was the most experienced diplomat of the group, and thus Jay wished to lodge near him, in order to learn from him.

The United States agreed to negotiate with Britain separately, then with France.

In July 1782, the Earl of Shelburne offered the Americans independence, but Jay rejected the offer on the grounds that it did not recognize American independence during the negotiations; Jay’s dissent halted negotiations until the fall. The final treaty dictated that the United States would have Newfoundland fishing rights, Britain would acknowledge the United States as independent and would withdraw its troops in exchange for the United States ending the seizure of Loyalist property and honoring private debts. The treaty granted the United States independence, but left many border regions in dispute, and many of its provisions were not enforced.

Secretary of Foreign Affairs

John Jay then served as the second Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 1784–1789, helping to fashion United States foreign policy.

The U.S. Constitution, drafted in Philadelphia in 1787 and ratified by the states the following year, gave President Washington the responsibility for the conduct of the nation’s foreign relations. It soon became clear, however, that an executive department was necessary to support the President in the conduct of the affairs of the new federal government.

The House of Representatives and Senate approved legislation to establish a Department of Foreign Affairs on July 21, 1789, and President Washington signed it into law July 27, 1789 making the Department of Foreign Affairs the first Federal agency to be created under the new Constitution.

Today, this legislation remains the basic law of our Department of State.

In September 1789, additional legislation changed the name of the agency to the Department of State and assigned to it a variety of domestic duties.

John Jay had been serving as Secretary of Foreign Affairs as a holdover from the Confederation since before Washington had taken office and continued to serve as acting Secretary of State.

John Jay sought to establish a strong and durable American foreign policy: to seek the recognition of the young independent nation by powerful and established foreign European powers; to establish a stable American currency and credit supported at first by financial loans from European banks; to pay back America’s creditors and to quickly pay off the country’s heavy War-debt; to secure the infant nation’s territorial boundaries under the most-advantageous terms possible and against possible incursions by the Indians, Spanish, the French and the English; to solve regional difficulties among the colonies themselves; to secure Newfoundland fishing rights; to establish a robust maritime trade for American goods with new economic trading partners; to protect American trading vessels against piracy; to preserve America’s reputation at home and abroad; and to hold the country together politically under the fledgling Articles of Confederation.

In September 1789, George Washington offered John Jay the position of Secretary of State (which, though technically a new position, would have continued Jay’s service as Secretary of Foreign Affairs); he however declined.

Washington responded by offering John Jay the new title—which Washington stated “must be regarded as the keystone of our political fabric”—as Chief Justice of the United States, which Jay accepted. Washington officially nominated John Jay on September 24, 1789, the same day he signed the Judiciary Act of 1789 (which created the position of Chief Justice) into law.

John Jay was unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate on September 26, 1789, and received his commission the same day.

His term began with his taking the oath of office on October 19, 1789.

On September 29, 1789, President Washington appointed Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, then Minister to France, to be the first United States Secretary of State.


John Jay remained as Chief Justice until June 29, 1795 when he resigned from his Supreme Court service to become the second Governor of New York serving from July 1, 1795 until June 30, 1801.

Then on the night of May 14, 1829, John Jay was stricken with palsy, probably caused by a stroke.

He lived for only three more days, dying in Bedford, New York, on May 17, 1829.

John Jay’s home is a New York State Historic Site and National Historic Landmark.

John Jay’s home is a New York State Historic Site and National Historic Landmark.

John Jay had chosen to be buried in Rye, where he lived as a boy. In 1807, he had transferred the remains of his ancestors from the family vault in the Bowery in Manhattan to Rye, establishing a private cemetery. Today, the Jay Cemetery is an integral part of the Boston Post Road Historic District, adjacent to the historic Jay Property. The Cemetery is maintained by the Jay descendants and closed to the public. It is the oldest active cemetery associated with a figure from the American Revolution.

Now WE know em





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