John Jay (December 12, 1745 – May 17, 1829) was an American politician, statesman, revolutionary, diplomat, a Founding Father of the United States, and the first Chief Justice of the United States (1789–95).
Jay was born into a wealthy family of merchants and government officials in New York City. Throughout his childhood, he received a private education, and he then studied law at King's College. After passing the New York bar exam, he established his own legal practice. He soon became a member of the New York Committee of Correspondence, where he became involved with a conservative political faction that, fearing "mob rule", sought to protect property rights and maintain the "rule of law" while resisting British violations of human rights.
Jay served as the President of the Continental Congress from 1778 to 1779. During and after the American Revolution, Jay was a minister (ambassador) to Spain and France, helping to fashion United States foreign policy, and to secure favorable peace terms from Great Britain (with Jay's Treaty of 1794) and the First French Republic.
Jay, a proponent of strong, centralized government, also co-wrote the Federalist Papers, along with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.
As a leader of the new Federalist Party, Jay was the Governor of New York State from 1795 to 1801, and he became the state's leading opponent of slavery. His first two attempts to emancipate the slaves in New York failed in 1777 and in 1785, but his third attempt succeeded in 1799. The 1799 act, a gradual emancipation act, that he signed into law eventually brought about the emancipation of all slaves there before his death in 1829.
During the American Revolutionary War
Having established a reputation as a reasonable moderate 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. He attempted to reconcile the colonies with Britain, up until the Declaration of Independence. Jay's views became more radical as events unfolded; he became an ardent separatist and attempted to move New York towards that cause.
In 1774, at the close of the Continental Congress, Jay returned to New York. There he served on New York City's Committee of Sixty, where he attempted to enforce a non-importation agreement passed by the First Continental Congress. Jay was elected to the third New York Provincial Congress, where he drafted the Constitution of New York, 1777; his duties as a New York Congressman prevented him from voting on or signing the Declaration of Independence. Jay served on the committee to detect and defeat conspiracies, which monitored British Actions. New York's Provincial Congress elected Jay the Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court on May 8, 1777, which he served on for two years.
The Continental Congress turned to Jay, an adversary of the previous president Henry Laurens, only three days after Jay became a delegate and elected him President of the Continental Congress. Eight states voted for Jay and four for Laurens. Jay served as President of the Continental Congress from December 10, 1778, to September 28, 1779; he chaired the meetings but had little power.
Jay believed his responsibility was not matched by a commensurate level of authority, so he joined Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in advocating for a stronger government than the one dictated by the Articles of Confederation. He 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 an ineffective 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 [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.
Jay did not attend the Constitutional Convention but joined Hamilton and Madison in aggressively arguing in favor of the creation of a new and more powerful, centralized but 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 the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixty-fourth articles. All except the sixty-fourth concerned the "[d]angers from [f]oreign [f]orce and [i]nfluence"; the sixty-fourth touches upon this matter insofar as it treats the role of the Senate in making foreign treaties.
On the night of May 14, 1829, Jay was stricken with palsy, probably caused by a stroke. He lived for three days, dying in Bedford, New York, on May 17. Jay had chosen to be buried in Rye, where he lived as a boy. In 1807, he had transferred the remains of his ancestors from the family vault in the Bowery in Manhattan to Rye, establishing a private cemetery. Today, the Jay Cemetery is an integral part of the Boston Post Road Historic District, adjacent to the historic Jay Property. The Cemetery is maintained by the Jay descendants and closed to the public. It is the oldest active cemetery associated with a figure from the American Revolution.