Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Jay, John

JAY, John (1745-1829), American statesman, was the descendant of a refugee Huguenot family, and was born at New York, December 12, 1745. After three years spent in the house of the pastor of the French church at New Rochelle, followed by four under a private tutor at home, he entered King's (now Columbia) College in 1760. On graduating there, May 15, 1764, he entered the office of Mr Kissam, an eminent New York lawyer; and in 1768 he was called to the bar. He rapidly rose into a lucrative practice, and in 1774 was married to Sarah, youngest daughter of William Livingston, afterwards governor of New Jersey. The great crisis in the fate of the American colonies was fast approaching; and, like many other clever young lawyers, Jay took an eager, active part in the proceedings that resulted in the independence of the United States. He was one of the committee of fifty selected by the citizens of New York in 1774 to correspond with other colonial committees on the subject of the Boston Port Bill. He was returned as a delegate from New York city to the continental Congress held at Philadelphia in September 1774, and, though almost the youngest member, was entrusted with drawing up the Address to the People of Great Britain. The numerous committees and associations which were from time to time appointed to meet the exigencies of that troubled period almost always included Jay's name. Of the second Congress also, which met at Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, Jay was a member; and his able and eloquent pen was again useful in writing addresses to the peoples of Canada and Ireland. He was a member of the secret committee of Congress for corresponding with the friends of America in Europe. In April 1776, while still retaining his seat in Congress, Jay was returned to the provincial convention of New York by New York city and county; and his consequent absence from Philadelphia deprived him of the honour of affixing his signature to the declaration of independence issued on July 4, 1776. It was Jay who drafted the constitution that was finally adopted by the New York convention; and that statesman, after acting as one of the council of safety for some time, accepted a provisional appointment as chief justice of New York State, which was afterwards confirmed under the organized constitution, with the proviso that he could hold with his judicial post no other save that of delegate to Congress “on special occasion.” Such occasion was found in the secession of what is now the State of Vermont from the jurisdiction of New Hampshire and New York. Jay was sent to Congress (December 7, 1778), of which he was immediately elected president. The following September his letter, written in the name of Congress, was addressed to the people of the States on the subject of currency and finance; and before the end of the year, having previously resigned his chief-justiceship and his presidency, he was despatched as plenipotentiary to Spain, where he landed January 22, 1780. The results of the mission were unsatisfactory. In addition to the fact that he was not received by the Spanish court in a formally diplomatic character, he was seriously embarrassed by the action of Congress in drawing bills upon him for more than half a million dollars, in the hope apparently that he would have received a subsidy from Spain before the bills fell due. Although by stooping to the humiliation of importuning the Spanish minister, and by accepting a number on his own personal responsibility, Jay was able to meet some of the bills, he was at length forced to protest others; and the credit of the new country was only saved by a timely subsidy from France, out of which Franklin was enabled to remit from Paris the sum required to meet the bills then due. In 1781 Jay was commissioned to act with Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and Laurens in negotiating a peace with Great Britain. He arrived in Paris from Spain, June 23, 1782; and after a variety of negotiations, in the course of which Jay evinced a jealous suspicion of the disinterestedness of France and a punctilious attention to the dignity of his country, the provisional articles were signed on November 30, 1782, and the formal treaty on September 3, 1783. Jay resigned his commissions, and on July 24, 1784, landed as a private citizen in New York, where he was presented with the freedom of the city, and elected a delegate to Congress. On May 7th the last-named body had already chosen him to be foreign secretary; and in that post he remained till the beginning of the Federal Government in 1789. In the question of the institution of such a government he had taken a keen interest: he joined Hamilton and Madison in issuing the Federalist; he published anonymously (though without succeeding in concealing the authorship) An Address to the People of New York, in vindication of the constitution; and he ably seconded Hamilton in inducing his native State to adopt it. On September 26, 1789, he became the first chief-justice of the supreme court of the United States. During one of his circuits Harvard University conferred on him the degree of LL.D. In 1792 he consented to stand for the governorship of New York State; but the “canvassers” who scrutinized the votes disqualified the returns of three counties; and, though Jay had received an actual majority of votes, his opponent General Clinton was declared elected.

During the war between Great Britain and France, the relations between the former and the American States became critical; a definite commercial treaty seemed the only means of averting war. Chief-Justice Jay was chosen envoy to England, though not without strong opposition. He landed at Falmouth in June 1794, signed a treaty with Lord Grenville on November 19, and disembarked again at New York, May 28, 1795. Several of the articles of “Jay's Treaty,” especially that which declared that a free ship did not make free cargo, were hailed at home with furious denunciation. Jay was accused of having betrayed his country; his effigy was burnt along with copies of the treaty, and even after Washington signed the ratification in August, the States were in a ferment that prevented for a time the really beneficial action of the treaty. Two days before he landed, and before the particulars of the treaty had been published, Jay had been triumphantly returned as governor of his native State, and, notwithstanding his temporary unpopularity, he was re-elected in April 1798. With the close of this second term of office in 1801, he closed his public career. Although not yet fifty-six years old, he refused all offers of office, and, retiring to his estate near Bedford in Westchester county, New York, spent the rest of his life in rarely interrupted seclusion. His public utterances from 1821 till 1828 were mostly as president of the American Bible Society. On May 17, 1829, John Jay, in his eighty-fourth year, ended a life whose purity and integrity are commemorated in a sentence by Daniel Webster: “When the spotless ermine of the judicial robe fell on John Jay, it touched nothing less spotless than itself.”

The Life of John Jay, with Selections from his Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers, was published in 2 vols. by his son William Jay in 1833.