The descendant of French Protestant refugees who came to New York in the late seventeenth century, Jay began a distinguished career in national politics with his election to the First Continental Congress in 1774. A lawyer by training and a cautious politician by temperament, Jay was one of a group of moderate delegates who resisted independence until all hopes for reconciliation with Britain were gone. In the New York provincial convention in 1777, Jay was the principal author of a state constitution that limited legislative domination of government far more effectively than the charters that had just been written in other states.
In 1778 Jay was elected president of Congress. In this capacity he became deeply involved in a bitter dispute about foreign policy that disrupted Congress through much of 1779. In the autumn of that year, he accepted appointment as the American minister to Spain, which had entered the war against Britain as an ally of France but not the United States. Jay’s more notable accomplishment came when he joined the American peace commission. In the crucial negotiations of 1782, he and John Adams prevailed on Benjamin Franklin to ignore their formal instructions from Congress and to seek the best terms they could obtain from Britain without relying on guidance from France.
Jay returned to America in 1784 to learn that Congress had elected him for the position of secretary of foreign affairs. His most important actions again involved relations with Spain. In 1786 Jay asked Congress to allow him to surrender American claims to the free navigation of the Mississippi–which Spain controlled from New Orleans–in exchange for a satisfactory commercial treaty. This request met intense opposition from the southern states and precipitated a dispute within Congress that led many national leaders to wonder about the durability of the American union.
Although not a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Jay strongly supported ratification of the Constitution and would have contributed far more than the five essays he wrote for The Federalist had ill health not sapped his strength.
President George Washington nominated Jay to be the first chief justice of the Supreme Court. Although the Court reached several notable decisions under his leadership, it was again as a diplomat that he exerted his greatest influence. In 1795 he was sent as special envoy to Great Britain to resolve the crisis that had erupted in 1794 when the Royal Navy seized hundreds of American merchantmen carrying contraband from the French West Indies. The treaty Jay negotiated resolved many of the outstanding issues of Anglo-American relations, but by the standards of those who opposed the administration’s foreign policy, it failed to secure adequate British recognition of American neutral rights. The public controversy over Jay’s Treaty was the single most important factor leading to full-scale political competition between the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties.
Jay resigned from the Supreme Court after his return to America. After serving two terms as governor of New York, he retired from politics and sought a deeper consolation in religion. He died in 1829, one of the last of the revolutionary patriarchs.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.