Imagine one man with impressive credentials that included serving America as a patriot, statesman, signer of the Treaty of Paris, and as the first Chief Justice of the United States. The remarkable man who earned the respect and gratitude of an entire nation and who helped achieve freedom for generations was John Jay.
Born on December 12, 1745, John Jay was a native of New York City but spent his youth on the family estate in Rye, about 25 miles north of Manhattan. His father’s family had been French Huguenots who had come to America seeking religious freedom. His mother’s family included the Van Cortlandts – early Dutch settlers in “New Amsterdam” who, since arriving in America in 1658, had played an active role in both business and politics. Coming from a successful and well-to-do family of merchants, Jay was encouraged to study for a law degree at Kings College, later known as Columbia University.
As tensions between American colonialists and the British crown increased in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, the naturally cautious and moderate Jay was not in step with the more outspoken patriots in Boston. In fact, at that time, there were more Loyalists in New York than there were Americans calling for separation from Britain. Jay, hoped that there could be a way to peacefully settle the escalations and tensions between the American colonies and England. However, after the burning of Norfolk, Virginia by British troops in 1776, Jay determined that reconciliation was an impossibility and fully supported the fight for independence as a devoted patriot.
From 1778 to 1779, John Jay held the title of President of the Continental Congress. Following the victory by the Continental Army over the British, Jay was named Ambassador to Spain and helped to not only secure financial help from Spain but also was called on to negotiate the Treaty of Paris and gain the recognition of complete independence of America from British rule.
As Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Jay worked on negotiating trade terms with our young nation’s former adversaries in Britain in what became known as the Jay Treaty of 1794. In 1788, Jay’s influence and wisdom were put to good use to help ratify the Constitution. Jay also authored five of the Federalist Papers in conjunction with other Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.
President George Washington believed that Jay was the logical choice to become the first Chief Justice of the United States in 1789. As the first Chief Justice, Jay was at the head of a long list of 96 Freemasons who have served on the Supreme Court.
While Jay served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for six years, it was not the end of his public service.
Like some of the Founding Fathers and many in the pre-Revolutionary era in most of the Colonies, Jay had at one time been a slaveholder. However, Jay actively worked to abolish slavery and, under his leadership, the hearts and minds of those who had fought for freedom, soon realized that enslaving any person was an evil practice which needed to be abolished.
In 1795, after stepping down from the office of Chief Justice, Jay was elected as the Governor of New York. As Governor, Jay worked diligently to abolish slavery and after two failed attempts to end slavery in his home state, he made history once again when in 1799 with the emancipation of slaves throughout New York.
John Jay retired from public life in 1801 to live the life of a gentleman farmer in the Hudson River Valley. Unlike many of his more colorful Founding Fathers, Jay did not seek to lionize his own legacy. He avoided much of the back-stabbing and political intrigue that plagued the careers of his contemporaries including Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson.
John Jay was, without a doubt, a man for his time and who foresaw America as becoming a nation where freedom would ring for all men and women. He provided leadership and wise counsel during a time of uncertainty and upheaval and set in motion laws that would lift up the enslaved and make our nation stronger and more just.
As John Jay wisely wrote:
“It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honor of the States, as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.”