Jay, John

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Jay, John

John Jay was a politician, statesman, and the first chief justice of the Supreme Court. He was one of the authors of The Federalist, a collection of influential papers written with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton prior to the ratification of the Constitution.

Jay was born in New York City on December 12, 1745. Unlike most of the colonists in the New World, who were English, Jay traced his ancestry to the French Huguenots, His grandfather, August Jay, immigrated to New York in the late seventeenth century to escape the persecution of non-Catholics under Louis XIV. Jay graduated from King's College, now known as Columbia University, in 1764. He was admitted to the bar in New York City in 1768.

One of Jay's earliest achievements was his participation in the settlement of the boundary line between New York and New Jersey in 1773. During the time preceding the Revolutionary War, Jay actively protested against British treatment of the colonies but did not fully advocate independence until 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was created. Jay then supported independence wholeheartedly. He was a member of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1779, acting as its president from 1778 to 1779.

In 1776, Jay was a member of the Provincial Congress of New York and was instrumental in the formation of the constitution of that state. From 1776 to 1778, he performed the duties of New York chief justice.

"A distinctive character of the National Government, the mark of its legitimacy, is that it owes its existence to the act of the whole people who created it."
—John Jay

Jay next embarked on a foreign service career. His first appointment was to the post of minister plenipotentiary to Spain in 1779, where he succeeded in gaining financial assistance for the colonies.

In 1782, Jay joined Benjamin Franklin in Paris for a series of peace negotiations with Great Britain. In 1784, Jay became secretary of foreign affairs and performed these duties until 1789. During his term, Jay participated in the Arbitration of various international disputes.

Jay recognized the limitations of his powers in foreign service under the existing government of the Articles of Confederation, and this made him a strong supporter of the Constitution. He publicly displayed his views in the five papers he composed for The Federalist in 1787 and 1788. Jay argued for ratification of the Constitution and the creation of a strong federal government.

In 1789, Jay earned the distinction of becoming the first chief justice of the United States. During his term, which lasted until 1795, Jay rendered a decision in Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419, 1 L.Ed. 440 (1793), which subsequently led to the enactment of the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution. This 1793 case involved the ability of inhabitants of one state to sue another state. The Supreme Court recognized this right but, in response, Congress passed the Eleventh Amendment denying the right of a state to be prosecuted or sued by a resident of another state in federal court.

During Jay's tenure on the Supreme Court, he was again called upon to act in foreign service. In 1794 he negotiated a treaty with Great Britain known as Jay's Treaty. This agreement regulated commerce and navigation and settled many outstanding disputes between the United States and Great Britain. The treaty, under which disputes were resolved before an international commission, was the origin of modern international arbitration.

In 1795 Jay was elected governor of New York. He served two terms, until 1801, at which time he retired.

He died May 17, 1829.

Further readings

Bernstein, R.B. 1996. "Documentary Editing and the Jay Court: Opening New Lines of Inquiry." Journal of Supreme Court History (annual): 17–22.

——. 1996. "John Jay, Judicial Independence, and Advising Coordinate Branches." Journal of Supreme Court History (annual): 23–9.

Jay, William. 1833. The Life of John Jay. New York: Harper.

Monaghan, Frank. 1935. John Jay: Defender of Liberty. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

Morris, Richard B., ed. 1985. Witnesses at the Creation: Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and the Constitution. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

——. 1975. John Jay: The Making of a Revolutionary. New York: Harper & Row.

Pellew, George. 1997. John Jay. Broomall, Pa.: Chelsea House.

Rossiter, Clinton Lawrence. 1964. Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.


Constitution of the United States; Federalist Papers; New York Constitution of 1777.

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