On this day in 1778, John Jay, the former chief justice of the New York Supreme Court, is elected president of the Continental Congress. Jay, who graduated from King’s College (now Columbia University) at the age of 19, was a prominent figure in New York state politics from an early age. While Jay opposed British interference in the colonies, he was against complete independence from Great Britain.
Jay was elected to the First Continental Congress in 1774 as a representative from New York, where he published a paper entitled Address to the People of Great Britain, in which he promoted a peaceful resolution with Great Britain instead of independence. Jay was reelected to the Second Continental Congress in 1775 but, upholding his opposition to complete independence from Great Britain, he resigned in 1776 rather than sign the Declaration of Independence.
Upon his return to New York, Jay helped draft the state’s constitution before his election as the state’s first chief justice in 1777. Despite his early misgivings about independence, Jay served as president of the Continental Congress from 1778 to 1779 and in 1782 signed the Treaty of Paris with Great Britain. He contributed to the The Federalist Papers, part of the successful campaign waged by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to win ratification for the Constitution in 1788 and 1789. Soon after, President George Washington appointed Jay as the first chief justice of the United States. In 1794, Jay negotiated his eponymous treaty with Britain to settle ongoing military and commercial disputes between the two nations. Although extremely unpopular with Jefferson’s Republicans, the Jay Treaty was ratified: Jay, however, resigned from the Supreme Court during the uproar over its passing. Still drawn to public service, Jay served as governor of New York from 1797 to 1801, when he retired from public life.