December 12, 1745: Birth of John Jay

It would be a stretch to describe John Jay as a radical, unless one considers a keen intellect, an unwavering commitment to the rule of law, a tireless faith in the efficacy of diplomacy, a belief in the dignity of all people regardless of the color of their skin, and a life-long faith in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, to be the traits of the sort of “radical” who would play an crucial role restructuring our society at the time of our Revolution.

John JayJohn Jay showed great promise at a very young age. He was born in New York City to a family of wealthy French Huguenots which soon moved to Rye, New York and established a 400 acre farm which Jay eventually inherited.

He entered King’s College (now Columbia University) at the age of fourteen and graduated with highest honors in 1764. He was admitted to the New York bar at the age of 23. As tensions with the British increased Jay joined the New York Committee of Correspondence and was selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774.

Jay’s temperament was more moderate than some of the other Founders  As a delegate to the First Continental Congress Jay worked towards reconciliation with Great Britain and declined to sign the Declaration of Independence. He disdained mob violence, but found that the British tax acts violated the rights of the colonists.Returning to New York he helped draft the state’s constitution, and was elected New York’s first Chief Justice.

After the Declaration was signed he became an ardent supporter of independence, and in 1778 was elected president of the Second Continental Congress. Jay was soon sent as Minister to Spain seeking diplomatic recognition and financial support for the new United States. He then moved on to Paris, where he negotiated the Treaty of Paris in 1783 which concluded America’s War of Independence with Britain.

Returning to America in 1784, he discovered he had been appointed Secretary of Foreign Affairs. He spent five frustrating years as Secretary. Convinced that the U.S. needed a much stronger central government than that laid out by the Articles of Confederation, he wrote five of the first Federalist Papers and argued forcibly for ratification of the new U.S. Constitution.

Shortly after the establishment of the new U.S. government, George Washington appointed John Jay the first Chief Justice of the new Supreme Court. Based on his experience at the Treaty of Paris, Washington then called on Jay to negotiate again with Great Britain to resolve several outstanding issues. The resulting “Jay Treaty” proved extremely controversial and the Congressional fight over its passage led to the creation of national parties, and moved Jay to resign from the Court.

Jay decided to run for governor of New York. He won the office in 1795, serving as the second governor of the state. In 1785, Jay had organized the New York Manumission Society. The group boycotted newspapers which advertised slave sales and merchants who engaged in the trade, and assisted free blacks who were accused of being runaway slaves. Governor Jay signed a law passed in 1799 which lead to the gradual freeing of slaves, with total abolition of slavery in the state occurring on July 4, 1827. This was the largest emancipation of slaves prior to the Civil War.

After serving as governor for six years, Jay retired from public life. He declined another appointment to the Supreme Court and took up the life of a country farmer in Westchester County. Sadly, soon after their move to Westchester, his wife Sarah died. Jay lived as a widower for another 28 years.

 “As to the position that ‘the people always mean well,’ that they always mean to say and do what they believe to be right and just – it may be popular, but it can not be true. The word people applies to all the individual inhabitants of a country. . . . That portion of them who individually mean well never was, nor until the millennium will be, considerable. Pure democracy, like pure rum, easily produces intoxication and with it a thousand pranks and fooleries. I do not expect mankind will, before the millennium, be what they ought to be and therefore, in my opinion, every political theory which does not regard them as being what they are, will prove abortive. Yet I wish to see all unjust and unnecessary discriminations everywhere abolished, and that the time may come when all our inhabitants of every color and discrimination shall be free and equal partakers of our political liberties.”
                                 ~ Letter to Judge Peters (March 14, 1815)

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