Authors: John Jay

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American jurist, statesman, and essayist

Author Works


The Definitive Treaty of Peace Between Great Britain and the United States of America, 1783

The Federalist, 1787-1788 (serial), 1788 (book, 2 volumes; with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison; also known as The Federalist Papers)

An Address to the People of the State of New-York on the Subject of the Constitution Agreed upon at Philadelphia, 1788

Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America, 1795

The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, 1763-1826, 1971 (Henry P. Johnston, editor)

John Jay, the Making of a Revolutionary: Unpublished Papers, 1745-1780, 1975 (Richard B. Morris, editor)


John Jay was the son of Mary Van Cortlandt and Peter Jay, a rich merchant of French Huguenot descent. Jay graduated from King’s College (now Columbia University) in 1764 and was admitted to the bar in 1768. In 1774 he married Sarah Livingston, the daughter of William Livingston, the governor of New Jersey, and a cousin of Jay’s law partner, Robert R. Livingston.{$I[AN]9810000527}{$I[A]Jay, John}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Jay, John}{$I[tim]1745;Jay, John}

In 1773 Jay was a member of the mixed commission to establish the boundary between New York and New Jersey. Between 1775 and 1777, he was successively on New York’s Committee of Correspondence, in the first two Continental Congresses, and in the New York legislature. After helping to frame New York’s constitution, Jay was chief justice of the state supreme court from 1777 to 1779. He resigned to return to Congress, of which he was president, 1778 to 1779. Sent as special envoy to Spain, he secured $170,000 in secret aid but no recognition of independence.

As joint Treaty Commissioner with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in Paris, 1782 to 1783, he participated in the negotiation of the peace preliminaries between the United States and Great Britain. His insistence that Britain expressly recognize the commissioners as agents of the Republic of the United Stated delayed negotiation and may have barred cession of Canada to the new republic. Charges of being anti-Catholic were leveled against Jay in this matter, which he fought all his life. He joined Adams in urging Franklin to ignore the French in concluding these preliminaries, although this flouted their congressional instructions. After the general peace of 1783 Jay declined offers to become minister to Great Britain or France, but under the Articles of Confederation he was drafted by Congress as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, 1784 to 1790. His otherwise capable administration was perplexed by difficulties with Spain, and Congress overrode his proposal to waive Mississippi navigation to get Spanish trading rights.

Ever an advocate of strong government, Jay joined with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in writing five of the essays in The Federalist, all on constitutional or foreign affairs. His An Address to the People of the State of New-York on the Subject of the Constitution Agreed upon at Philadelphia is believed by many to have been more influential in securing ratification than The Federalist, if only because it was briefer and earlier on the scene. After the ratification of the United States Constitution he was appointed the first chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, 1790 to 1795. Jay handed down the famous Chisholm v. Georgia decision in a manner so vigorously nationalistic that Georgia and her sister states secured adoption of the eleventh amendment to protect themselves.

Jay was defeated for the governorship of New York in 1792 on the Federalist ticket. In 1794 George Washington sent him to negotiate a settlement with Great Britain that sought British evacuation of frontier areas and trade and maritime concessions. Hamiltonian finance required that there be no interruption of trade, inasmuch as nine-tenths of America’s revenue depended on tariffs. Jay was, therefore, not really in a position to bargain, and the treaty that bears his name is described as the price paid for peace and stability when the federal union was being established. The treaty provided for settlement by mixed commissions of spoliation claims, debts, and boundaries, but it did not specify any enlargement of neutral rights or trading concessions with the British Isles or the West Indies in return for a guarantee for twenty-five years of freedom from tariff discrimination. Britain did promise to evacuate the frontier areas that had been illegally retained since 1783.

Upon Jay’s return from England, he was elected governor of New York and served two terms from 1795 to 1801. His administration was upright and conservative. Declining further renomination as governor or chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, he retired to Bedford in Westchester County, New York, where he died on his 800-acre farm on May 17, 1829, survived by two sons and five daughters.

A measure of Jay’s moral rectitude, which sets him apart from Hamilton as a truly great Federalist at all times, occurred in the election of 1800. Hamilton had urged a special session of the outgoing Federalist legislature to select presidential electors untainted by Republicanism, but Jay conceived that to do so would serve “party purposes which I think would not become me to adopt.”

BibliographyAdair, Douglass. Fame and the Founding Fathers: Essays. Edited by Trevor Colbourn. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1998. An important series of essays, worthy of a thorough reading.Blackmun, Harry A. “John Jay and The Federalist Papers.” Pace Law Review (Spring, 1988): 237-248. Blackmun presented this speech at the Peter Jay family home on the occasion of the bicentennial of The Federalist. He discussed John Jay’s contributions to The Federalist and the flaws in the 1787 Constitution’s treatment of African Americans, American Indians, and women.Carey, George W. “The Federalist”: Design for a Constitutional Republic. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. An examination of The Federalist.Casto, William R. The Supreme Court in the Early Republic: The Chief Justiceships of John Jay and Oliver Ellsworth. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. Looks at the years Jay was on the Supreme Court and compares his time with that of his successor.Epstein, David F. The Political Theory of The Federalist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Epstein holds that the authors of The Federalist envisioned a new government that could accommodate both its most and its least pretentious citizens as well as make use of factions. Epstein devotes a chapter to essay 10, in which James Madison treated factions and also shows how the partisanship of the people, spirited election contests, and the exclusion of citizens in the aggregate help create a workable framework for republican government.Furtwangler, Albert. The Authority of Publius: A Reading of “The Federalist Papers.” Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984. Furtwangler’s work provides a more critical and less reverential approach to the analysis of The Federalist. The author sees The Federalist as a piece of high-quality journalism that should be studied not with uncritical reverence but with an examination of the contradictions between different essays.Johnson, Herbert Alan. Essays on New York Colonial Legal History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981. Includes an extensive discussion of John Jay’s role in New York’s legal history.Johnston, Henry P., ed. The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay. 4 vols. New York: B. Franklin, 1970. The standard edition of John Jay’s professional life.Millican, Edward. One United People: The Federalist Papers and the National Idea. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. Millican’s text stresses nationalism as the key factor motivating the authors of The Federalist. He connects Alexander Hamilton’s support of a strong, centralized government with the views of Franklin D. Roosevelt and New Deal liberals. Millican contends that both the political left and the political right fell short of Publius’s sound brand of nationalism in the 1980’s.Monaghan, Frank. John Jay: Defender of Liberty Against Kings and Peoples, Author of the Constitution and Governor of New York, President of the Continental Congress, Co-author of the Federalist, Negotiator of the Peace of 1783 and the Jay Treaty of 1794, First Chief Justice of the United States. 1786. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1972. An old but good biography that has gone through many printings through the years.Morris, Richard B. Witnesses at the Creation: Hamilton, Madison, Jay and the Constitution. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985. An insightful look at Jay’s contributions toward the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, by an acknowledged authority on the first chief justice.Pellew, George. John Jay. 1898. Reprint. Broomall, Pa.: Chelsea House, 1997. A still useful biography. This edition includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and a solid index. With an introduction by Richard B. Morris.Wills, Garry. Explaining America: “The Federalist.” Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981. Wills, a convert from National Review conservatism to moderate liberalism, offers a unique perspective on the ideology of The Federalist. He illustrates Scottish philosopher David Hume’s influence on Hamilton and Madison as authors of The Federalist.
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