Five Forgotten Founding Fathers: John Jay


John Jay was not among the 56 delegates to sign the Declaration of Independence. At that point in time his duties as a New York Congressman prevented him from voting on, or signing the Declaration.  Despite not being at Independence Hall on August 2nd, 1776 to sign the document, few men had as great an impact on American History as John Jay.

Unlike Samuel Adams and John Hancock, whose legacies have been honored by beer and financial services companies, the name “John Jay” was most recently in the news earlier this week after a fight broke out at his namesake high school, resulting in 2 people being stabbed, and one being bitten in the chest. The first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court deserves better.

Early Life

Born to a prominent, wealthy family in New York, John Jay was rather unique among the Founding Fathers in the sense that he had no British ancestry. His father’s family descended from France, while his mother’s family was Dutch.

In 1685 John’s grandfather, Augustus Jay, moved to New York from France to escape religious persecution.  Once in New York, Augustus became a successful merchant, passing his business on to his son, Peter.  The success of the Jay family allowed Peter the opportunity to marry Mary Van Cortland, whose father Jacobus twice served as mayor of New York City.  

John’s childhood was rather bland. Spending most of his time studying, Jay would go on to receive his law degree from what is now Columbia University.

Politics and Revolution

As a successful young lawyer, Jay fought for property rights, and preserving the rule of law. His beliefs got him selected as a delegate to the First, and Second Continental Congresses where he was a member of the conservative faction that tirelessly resisted infringement by the British on American rights.

Although Jay initially sough reconciliation, John Jay had no ties to Britain, he had no qualms in speaking out against the crown, he saw himself as an American, not as a British subject.  

Although his duties to the state of New York prevented him from voting on the Declaration of Independence, Jay did his part, serving on the congressional committee that would monitor British actions within the state.

In 1777, as the American Revolution was going on around him, Jay drafted the New York State Constitution, which more effectively limited government than charters in other states.  Also in 1777, Jay was selected to serve as the Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court, experience which would help prepare him to become our nations first Chief Justice.

John Jay: Diplomat

In the fall of 1779 John Jay was named the American minister to Spain with the goal of convincing the Spaniards to give us a loan. The Spanish were not overly receptive of Jay, refusing to recognize American independence for fear that recognition would spark revolution in their own colonies. Jay did, however, convince the Spanish to loan us $170,000.

In 1782 John Jay met up with Ben Franklin and John Adams to help negotiate the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the American Revolution securing American independence. Jay negotiated one hell of a deal, from Britannica:

By the terms of the U.S.-Britain treaty, Britain recognized the independence of the United States with generous boundaries to the Mississippi River but retained Canada. Access to the Newfoundland fisheries was guaranteed to Americans, and navigation of the Mississippi was to be open to both Great Britain and the United States. Creditors of neither country were to be impeded in the collection of their debts, and Congress was to recommend to the states that American loyalists be treated fairly and their confiscated property restored. (Some of these provisions were to cause later difficulties and disputes.)

Federalist Papers

Jay joined Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in writing 85 essays under the pseudonym  “Publius” in support of ratifying the Constitution.  John Jay’s support of the Constitution was based on the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, pointing out to the people of New York:

The Congress under the Articles of Confederation may make war, but are not empowered to raise men or money to carry it on—they may make peace, but without power to see the terms of it observed—they may form alliances, but without ability to comply with the stipulations on their part—they may enter into treaties of commerce, but without power to [e]nforce them at home or abroad…—In short, they may consult, and deliberate, and recommend, and make requisitions, and they who please may regard them.

Although the Federalist Papers consist of 85 essays, Jay only wrote 5 of them (2-5, and 64). In these papers, Jay lays out his reasoning for supporting a unified government.

The Jay Court

The Supreme Court is laid out in Article III of the Constitution, although the Federal Court System wasn’t laid out until the Judiciary Act of 1789. Under this act, 13 district courts, 3 circuit courts, and the Supreme Court were all officially created.  From 1789 till 1795 John Jay served as the first Chief Justice of that court, during that 6 year period, the court only heard four cases.

The 1793 case Chisholm v. Georgia was the first major Supreme Court case. During the war, Georgia had seized land from those loyal to the crown. After the war, they had refused to return the land.  The Jay Court ruled that states could be sued in federal court.

During his time as Chief Justice, John Jay traveled to Britain to negotiate what has become known as the “Jay Treaty.” The treaty helped prevent a second war between America and Britain, and resolved 3 key issues:

Tensions between the United States and Britain remained high after the Revolutionary War as a result of three key issues. British exports flooded U.S. markets, while American exports were blocked by British trade restrictions and tariffs. The British occupation of northern forts that the British Government had agreed to vacate in the Treaty of Paris (1783) as well as recurrent Native American attacks in these areas also frustrated Americans. Finally, Britain’s impressments of American sailors and seizure of naval and military supplies bound to enemy ports on neutral ships brought the two nations to the brink of war in the late 1700s.

While he may not be the most well known founding father, the role he played in the birth of America is undeniable. This Tuesday, make a toast to John Jay: America’s utility knife.