An important Federalist figure during the early days of the American republic, John Jay was also a close political ally of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Jay's career in public service was varied, including involvement in the campaign for the Constitution, serving as the nation's first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and as Governor of New York.
In addition, Jay negotiated a treaty with Great Britain in 1794 that while settling some outstanding issues left from the Revolution, also mobilized opposition to Washington's administration and strengthened support for the Democratic-Republican political movement led by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.
Born in 1745, Jay attended King's College in New York before entering the legal profession. During the tumultuous events of the American Revolution, Jay generally followed a moderate course. Along with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, he negotiated the Treaty of Paris in 1783 which ended the conflict between Great Britain and the new United States of America. Under the Articles of Confederation, Jay served as the Secretary for Foreign Affairs between 1784 and 1789, and then became the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a position he held until 1795. He favored a stronger federal government and wrote some of the Federalist Papers alongside Hamilton and Madison in support of the new Constitution.
In 1786, when the United States possessed a weak government functioning under the Articles of Confederation, Jay warned Washington that the population "will be led, by the insecurity of property, the losing of confidence in their rulers, and the want of public faith and rectitude, to consider the charms of liberty imaginary and delusive" and would embrace "almost any change that may promise them quiet and security."1 Washington responded in agreement, writing Jay, "Your sentiments, that our affairs are drawing rapidly to a crisis, accord with my own."2
Issues left over from the end of the American Revolution, including the continuing presence of British troops in the Old Northwest, the lack of American payments to British creditors for debts incurred during the Revolution, and British seizures of American vessels trading as neutrals with revolutionary France caused significant strife between England and the United States in the later years of Washington's presidency. To settle matters, Washington sent Jay to London in May of 1794 to work out a solution that would avoid armed conflict between the two nations. The resulting agreement, popularly known as Jay's Treaty, secured the exit of British troops from the Old Northwest and granted Britain most-favored-nation status ensuring that the best trade deal any other nation received from the United States would also be applied to British goods.
The treaty said nothing, however, about issues such as the impressment of American sailors, British targeting of neutral American shipping, and the compensation of slaveholders for the slaves the British took when they left in 1783. Many Americans saw the treaty as pro-British and while various efforts to block the adoption of the treaty failed, it became an issue around which the opponents of the Federalists mobilized their support to win majorities in Congress and the presidency in 1800.
Jay remained above the fray resulting from his treaty. He became Governor of New York in 1795, organized the New York Manumission Society, and helped pass a gradual emancipation law in 1799 that led to the eventual end of slavery in New York in 1827. Jay left the governorship of New York in 1801 to go into retirement, and passed away in 1829.
Kevin Grimm, Ph.D
Visiting Assistant Professor
1. John Jay to George Washington, 27 June 1786. Correspondence of the American Revolution: Being Letters of Eminent Men to George Washington, From the Time of His Taking Command of the Army to the End of His Presidency, Volume IV, ed. Jared Sparks (Boston: Little, Brown, 1853), 136.
Federalists Reconsidered, eds. Doron Ben-Atar and Barbara B. Oberg. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998.
Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty!: An American History, Second Seagull Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008.
The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, and the New Republic, eds. Horn, James, Jan Ellen Lewis, and Peter S. Onuf. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.
Weisberger, Bernard A. America Afire: Jefferson, Adams, and the Revolutionary Election of 1800. New York: William Morrow, 2000.
Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy: From Jefferson to Lincoln. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.