John Jay

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John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United StatesOil painting by Gilbert Stuart, 1794
John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States
Oil painting by Gilbert Stuart, 1794

John Jay (December 12, 1745May 17, 1829) was an American politician, statesman, revolutionary, diplomat and jurist. He is noted for serving with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in France and writing part of the Federalist Papers with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. He also is remembered for serving on the U.S. Supreme Court as the first, as well as the youngest, Chief Justice of the United States from 1789 to 1794.


Early life

John Jay, one of the nation's founding fathers, was born on December 12, 1745 to a prominent and wealthy family in New York City in the Province of New York. He attended King's College, later renamed Columbia University, and then practiced law with Robert Livingston.

Roles in the American Revolution

Having established a reputation in New York, Jay was elected to serve as delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses which debated whether the colonies should declare independence from Britain. He was sufficiently respected to be chosen the fifth President of the Continental Congress from December 10, 1778 to September 27, 1779. Jay then became one of the most important diplomats of the Revolutionary crisis as minister plenipotentiary to Spain, and as peace commissioner (in which he negotiated treaties with Spain and France).

Secretary of Foreign Affairs

In 1784, Jay was named Secretary of Foreign Affairs, an office which would later become known as the Secretary of State.

As the national government under the Articles of Confederation proved to be unworkable, Jay joined Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in attacking the Articles. Jay argued in his Address to the People of the State of New-York, on the Subject of the Federal Constitution that the Articles of Confederation were too weak and ineffective a form of government. He contended that:

[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 inforce them at home or abroad…—In short, they may consult, and deliberate, and recommend, and make requisitions, and they who please may regard them.

Jay did not attend the Constitutional Convention, but he joined Hamilton and Madison in aggressively arguing in favor of the creation of a new and more powerful, centralized, but nonetheless 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. Jay wrote five of these articles:

Chief Justice

In 1789, George Washington nominated Jay as the first Chief Justice of the United States. Jay's most notable case was Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), in which Jay and the court affirmed the subordination of the states to the federal government. Unfavorable reaction to the decision led to adoption of the Eleventh Amendment which denied federal courts authority in suits by citizens against a state.

In 1794, Washington sent Jay as a special envoy to Great Britain to negotiate a new treaty and thereby avert war. The treaty he returned with was known as the Jay Treaty. Jay thought, and Washington agreed, that it was the best treaty he could negotiate, and it was signed by Washington and ratified by the Senate (albeit with reservations and amendments). Nonetheless, unfavorable reaction to the treaty made Jay so unpopular that he once commented that he could travel from Boston to Philadelphia solely by the light of his burning effigies. It certainly ruined Jay's chances for the presidency.

Governor of New York

While in Britain, he was elected governor of New York State. He resigned from the Court, and served as governor of New York until 1800. President John Adams then renominated him to the court; the Senate quickly confirmed him, but he declined, citing his own poor health and the court's lack of "the energy, weight, and dignity which are essential to its affording due support to the national government."

Despite winning a second term in 1802, Jay declined and retired to the life of a gentleman farmer in Westchester County, New York. His home and part of his farm is operated as a museum by the New York State Parks, and is located on NY state route 22 near Bedford.

John Jay died at home on May 15, 1829. He was buried in a family plot on his son Peter's farm in Rye, New York. This home today is a part of the Jay Heritage Center, located at 210 Boston Post Road in Rye. It is also open as a museum.

The Town of Jay, New York and Jay County, Indiana are named after him. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York is also named after him.


  • "The people who own the country ought to govern it." (reportedly "one of his favorite maxims")[1]
  • "No power on earth has a right to take our property from us without our consent."
  • "Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers."
  • "Only one adequate plan has ever appeared in the world, and that is the Christian dispensation"

External link

  • Parts of this article were incorporated from the public domain source Today in History: December 12 on the Library of Congress's American Memory website.

Preceded by:
Henry Laurens
President of the Second Continental Congress
December 10, 1778September 27, 1779
Succeeded by:
Samuel Huntington
Preceded by:
Robert Livingston
United States Secretary for Foreign Affairs
May 7, 1784March 3, 1789
Succeeded by:
Thomas Jefferson
(as United States Secretary of State)
Preceded by:
Chief Justice of the United States
October 19, 1789June 29, 1795
Succeeded by:
John Rutledge
Preceded by:
George Clinton
Governor of New York
Succeeded by:
George Clinton
Chief Justices of the United States of America
John Jay | John Rutledge | Oliver Ellsworth | John Marshall | Roger B. Taney | Salmon P. Chase | Morrison Waite | Melville Fuller | Edward Douglass White | William Howard Taft | Charles Evans Hughes | Harlan Fiske Stone | Fred Vinson | Earl Warren | Warren Burger | William Rehnquist | John Roberts
The Jay Court Seal of the U.S. Supreme Court
17891792: J. Wilson | Wm. Cushing | J. Blair | J. Rutledge | J. Iredell
17921793: J. Wilson | Wm. Cushing | J. Blair | J. Iredell | Th. Johnson
17931795: J. Wilson | Wm. Cushing | J. Blair | J. Iredell | Wm. Paterson
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