John Jay was the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, President of the Continental Congress, a principal negotiator of the Treaty of Paris (1783), author of several Federalist essays, and main negotiator of the Jay Treaty with Great Britain.
John Jay was born on December 12, 1745. He was the eighth child and sixth son of a family of wealthy New York City merchants. Jay spent his childhood in Rye, New York, near New York City. He received his early education from private tutors. Jay graduated from King’s College, now Columbia University, in 1864 and studied for the law profession. He was admitted to the New York bar in 1768 and opened his own practice in 1771.
Jay was a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774 where he worked for conciliatory solutions to differences between Great Britain and the American colonies. As events became more contentious, Jay’s positions began to shift more towards independence. Although he was at first a reluctant revolutionary, Jay became an ardent supporter of the American cause once the Revolution began. As a member of the Second Continental Congress, Jay served as president from 1778 to 1779.
Jay resigned his post as president of the Continental Congress in 1789 to begin a diplomatic career as Minister to Spain. His task for this assignment was to obtain financial aid from the Spanish government for the war effort. Although he never convinced the Spanish to official recognize the United States, he did persuade them to lend the U.S. $170,000.
As the Revolutionary War wound down, Congress selected Jay, along with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Henry Laurens, to negotiate peace with Great Britain. They successfully concluded the Treaty of Paris (1783), which established the independence of the American colonies from Great Britain.
Upon returning to the United States in 1784, Jay found that, in his absence, Congress had selected him to serve as Secretary for Foreign Affairs for the Confederation government. Jay found this a frustrating post due to the weak structure of the new government. Jay’s frustrations cemented his belief that the government established by the Articles of Confederation was too weak and need to be replaced. Although Jay did not participate directly in the Constitutional Convention, he collaborated with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to author the Federalist essays in an attempt to secure ratification of the new Constitution.
Following ratification, President Washington appointed Jay as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. During his time on the bench, the Jay court supported a strong federal government and established the position that states were subject to judicial review.
In 1794, President Washington sent Jay to London to negotiate a new treaty with Great Britain to address American grievances. Despite provisions of the Treaty of Paris, Britain continued to occupy outposts in the Northwest Territory, inflame American Indians on the frontier, impress American sailors, and illegally interfere with American shipping. Jay successfully concluded a treaty with the British addressing these and other issues, which the U.S. Senate barely ratified. Unfortunately, the treaty had minimal effect, as little changed on the high seas or on the frontier. The United States and Great Britain were not able to settle their differences surrounding these matters until the Treaty of Ghent concluded the War of 1812.
Upon returning from London in 1795, Jay learned that he had been elected as Governor of New York during his absence. During his two terms as governor, Jay lobbied for penal and judicial reform, the abolition of slavery, and for state-supported internal improvements. Jay retired from public service in 1801, but he remained active in the Federalist Party and he became an outspoken abolitionist.
John Jay died on May 17, 1829, at the age of 83. He was buried in the private cemetery on his family’s Rye, New York property where he spent his childhood.