John Jay was born on December 12, 1745, to a wealthy family of merchants and government officials in New York City.
His father, Peter Jay, was born in New York City in 1704 as a descendant of Huguenots who had come to New York to escape religious persecution in France, and went on to become a wealthy trader of furs, wheat, timber, and other commodities.
John’s mother was Mary Van Cortlandt, who wed Peter Jay in 1728, in the Dutch Church. Her father, Jacobus Van Cortlandt, was born in New Amsterdam in 1658. Van Cortlandt served on the New York Assembly, and twice as mayor of New York City. He also held a variety of judicial and military titles.
John Jay spent his childhood in Rye, New York, and took the same political stand as his father, who was a staunch Whig.
He was educated there by private tutors until he was eight years old, when he was sent to New Rochelle to study under Anglican priest Pierre Stoupe.
In 1756, after three years, John would return to homeschooling under the tutelage of George Murray.
John then attended King’s College (which was later renamed Columbia College as the undergraduate college of Columbia University) in 1760.
In 1764, John graduated and became a law clerk for Benjamin Kissam, a prominent lawyer and politician.
In 1768, after reading law and being admitted to the bar of New York, John Jay went to work for a legal practice and worked there until he created his own law office in 1771.
John became a member of the New York Committee of Correspondence in 1774 and became its secretary, which was his first public role in the lead up to the American Revolution.
On April 28, 1774, John Jay married Sarah Van Brugh Livingston, eldest daughter of the New Jersey Governor William Livingston and his wife.
At the time of the marriage, Sarah was seventeen years old and John was twenty-eight.
Then as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774, John Jay sided with those who wanted conciliation with Parliament.
At the close of the Continental Congress, John returned to New York City and served on the Committee of Sixty.
It wasn’t until events such as the burning of Norfolk, Virginia by British troops in January of 1776, that John Jay supported independence.
With the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, he worked tirelessly for the revolutionary cause and acted to suppress the Loyalists.
John was then elected to the third New York Provincial Congress, where he drafted the Constitution of New York in 1777.
However his duties as a New York Congressman prevented him from voting on or signing the Declaration of Independence.
Then New York’s Provincial Congress elected John Jay the Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court on May 8, 1777.
The Second Continental Congress turned to John Jay, an adversary of the previous president Henry Laurens, only three days after John became a delegate and elected him President of the Second Continental Congress.
Eight states voted for John Jay and four for Henry Laurens.
John Jay served as President of the Continental Congress from December 10, 1778, to September 28, 1779.
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 John 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.
John Jay, however, convinced Spain to loan $170,000 to the US government.
He departed Spain on May 20, 1782.
On June 23, 1782, John 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 John 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 John 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.
John Jay then served as the second Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 1784–1789, when in September, Congress passed a law giving certain additional domestic responsibilities to the new Department and changing its name to the Department of State.
John Jay served as acting Secretary of State until March 22, 1790.
He did not attend the Constitutional Convention but joined Hamilton and Madison in aggressively arguing in favor of the creation of a new and more powerful, centralized but balanced system of government.
Writing under the shared pseudonym of “Publius,” they articulated this vision in the Federalist Papers, a series of eighty-five articles written to persuade the citizenry to ratify the proposed Constitution of the United States.
John Jay wrote the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixty-fourth articles.
Then in September of 1789, President George Washington offered the position of Secretary of State (which, though technically a new position, would have continued John Jay’s service as Secretary of Foreign Affairs); he declined.
President Washington responded by offering John Jay the new title — which George Washington stated “must be regarded as the keystone of our political fabric” — as Chief Justice of the United States, which John Jay accepted immediately.
Supreme Court of the United States
The ratification of the United States Constitution established the Supreme Court in 1789.
Its powers are detailed in Article Three of the Constitution as the highest federal court.
The Supreme Court has ultimate (and largely discretionary) appellate jurisdiction over all federal courts and over state court cases involving issues of federal law, plus original jurisdiction over a small range of cases.
In our legal system, the Supreme Court is the final interpreter of federal constitutional law, although the court may only act within the context of a case in which it has jurisdiction.
The Supreme Court is the only court specifically established by the Constitution, as all the others were created by Congress.
Congress is also responsible for conferring the title “justice” upon the associate justices, who have been known to scold lawyers for using the term “judge” which was the term used by the Constitution.
President 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.
Washington also nominated John Blair, William Cushing, James Wilson, Robert Harrison, and John Rutledge as Associate Judges.
Harrison declined the appointment, however, and Washington appointed James Iredell to fill the final seat on the Court.
The Supreme Court first convened on February 2, 1790, by which time five of its six initial positions had been filled.
The sixth member (James Iredell) joined on May 12, 1790.
Because the full Court had only six members, every decision that it made by a majority was also made by two-thirds (voting four to two).
However, Congress has always allowed less than the Court’s full membership to make decisions, starting with a quorum of four judges in 1789.
The Court’s business through its first three years primarily involved the establishment of rules and procedure; reading of commissions and admission of attorneys to the bar; and the Justices’ duties in “riding circuit,” or presiding over cases in the circuit courts of the various federal judicial districts. No convention existed that precluded the involvement of Supreme Court Justices in political affairs, and John Jay used his light workload as a Justice to freely participate in the business of Washington’s administration.
He used his circuit riding to spread word throughout the states of Washington’s commitment to neutrality, then published reports of French minister Edmond-Charles Genet’s campaign to win American support for France.
However, John Jay also established an early precedent for the Court’s independence in 1790, when Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton wrote to Jay requesting the Court’s endorsement of legislation that would assume the debts of the states.
John Jay replied that the Court’s business was restricted to ruling on the constitutionality of cases being tried before it and refused to allow it to take a position either for or against the legislation.
In 1792, John Jay was the Federalist candidate for governor of New York, but he was defeated by Democratic-Republican George Clinton.
John received more votes than George Clinton; but, on technicalities, the votes of Otsego, Tioga and Clinton counties were disqualified and, therefore, not counted, giving George Clinton a slight plurality.
The State constitution said that the cast votes shall be delivered to the secretary of state “by the sheriff or his deputy”; but, for example, the Otsego County Sheriff’s term had expired, so that legally, at the time of the election, the office of Sheriff was vacant and the votes could not be brought to the State capital. Clinton partisans in the State legislature, the State courts, and Federal offices were determined not to accept any argument that this would, in practice, violate the constitutional right to vote of the voters in these counties. Consequently, these votes were disqualified.
Relations with Britain once again verged on war in 1794.
British exports dominated the U.S. market, while American exports were blocked by British trade restrictions and tariffs. Britain still occupied northern forts that it had agreed to surrender in the Treaty of Paris. Britain’s impressment of American sailors and seizure of naval and military supplies bound to enemy ports on neutral ships also created conflict.
Madison proposed a trade war, “A direct system of commercial hostility with Great Britain,” assuming that Britain was so weakened by its war with France that it would agree to American terms and not declare war.
Washington rejected that policy and sent John Jay as a special envoy to Great Britain to negotiate a new treaty; John remained Chief Justice.
Washington had Alexander Hamilton write instructions for Jay that were to guide him in the negotiations.
In March 1795, the resulting treaty, known as the Jay Treaty, was brought to Philadelphia.
The treaty eliminated Britain’s control of northwestern posts and granted the United States “most favored nation” status, and the U.S. agreed to restricted commercial access to the British West Indies.
In May of 1795, while still in Britain, John Jay was elected as the second governor of New York State (following George Clinton) as a Federalist.
He resigned from the Supreme Court service on June 29, 1795, and served six years as governor until 1801.
While governor, John Jay ran in the 1796 presidential election, winning five electoral votes, and in the 1800 election, winning one vote.
John then declined the Federalist renomination for governor in 1801 and retired to the life of a farmer in Westchester County, New York.
Soon after his retirement, his wife died.
John Jay remained in good health, continued to farm and stayed out of politics.
In 1812, relations between Britain and the U.S. faltered again. The desire of a group of members in the House of Representatives, known as the War Hawks, to acquire land from Canada and the British impressment of American ships led, in part, to the War of 1812.
Then on the night of May 14, 1829, John Jay was stricken with palsy, probably caused by a stroke.
He lived for three days, dying in Bedford, New York, on May 17, 1829.
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.
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