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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking- John Jay: America’s 1st All-Around Citizen

By Tom Morrow

John Jay was from a wealthy family of merchants, who became an attorney, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, a signatory on the Treaty of Paris, which England recognized American independence. He also was a governor, a slaveholder, as well as the nation’s first Chief Justice of the United States.

The name “John Jay” was an important one in the forming of the nation, but to the casual reader of history, one might mistakenly assess Jay was somewhat boring. He was too busy during his lifetime to ever have been boring.

Jay was born Dec. 12, 1745, into a wealthy family of merchants and government officials in New York City. He became a lawyer and joined the New York Committee of Correspondence and organized opposition to British rule. He joined 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 (1778-79), an honorary position with little power. During and after the American Revolution, Jay was Ambassador to Spain, a negotiator of the Treaty of Paris by which Great Britain recognized American independence, and served Secretary of Foreign Affairs, helping to fashion U.S. foreign policy.

Jay, a proponent of strong, centralized government, worked to ratify the U.S. Constitution in New York in 1788, by writing five of “The Federalist Papers” but, not using his name. Jay assisted the Papers’ main authors, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.

As a leader of the new Federalist Party, Jay was the Governor of the State of New York (1795–1801), where he became the state’s leading opponent of slavery, even though he was a slaveholder himself. His first two attempts to end slavery in New York in 1777 and 1785 failed, but a third in 1799 succeeded. The 1799 Act, a gradual emancipation Jay signed into law, eventually granted all slaves in New York their freedom before his death in 1829.

After the establishment of the U.S. government, Jay became the first Chief Justice of the United States, serving from 1789 to 1795. Washington officially nominated him on Sept. 24, 1789, the same day the President signed the Judiciary Act of 1789 (which created the position of Chief Justice) into law. Jay was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on Sept. 26, 1789, and Washington signed and sealed Jay’s commission the same day.

Jay swore his oath of office on Oct. 19, 1789. Washington created the first court by nominating John Rutledge, William Cushing, Robert Harrison, James Wilson, and John Blair as Associate Judges. Harrison declined the appointment, however, and Washington appointed James Iredell to fill the final seat on the Court. Jay would later serve with Thomas Johnson, who took Rutledge’s seat, and William Paterson, who took Johnson’s seat. The Court’s business through its first three years primarily involved the establishment of rules and procedure; reading of commissions and admission of attorneys to the bar; and the Justices’ duties in “riding circuit,” or presiding over cases in the circuit courts of the various federal judicial districts.

Chief Justice Jay established an early precedent for the Court’s independence in 1790, when Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton wrote, requesting the Court’s endorsement of legislation that would have the Federal government assuming the debts of all the states. Jay replied that the Court’s business was restricted to ruling on the constitutionality of cases being tried before it and refused to allow it to take a position either for or against the legislation.

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, N.Y., 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 wife Sarah Livingston and those of his colonial 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 Estate. 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.


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