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The World Of John Jay

July 2024
2min read

Of that extraordinary group of strong personalities who have left their imprint on American history and on the American character, John Jay stands primus interpares . Save for the Presidency, he held most of the high offices of state, negotiated the two significant, if controversial, treaties of his day—the Treaty of Paris, ending the American Revolution, and the treaty bearing his name, settling certain outstanding postwar issues with Great Britain—and began the shaping of the Constitution as an instrument of national power.

Jay was an eyewitness of and a participant in the extraordinary changes that transfigured the American scene during his lifetime. He was born in 1745, in the reign of George II, and lived a full life of eighty-four years. By the time he died, in 1829, in the first year of the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, he had seen thirteen English colonies transformed into a free nation that had expanded enormously.

Jay was one of a small number of founding fathers who were not of English descent. His paternal grandfather was a Huguenot refugee from French religious persecution. His mother was of Dutch ancestry, a member of the land-rich Van Cortlandt family. Active in the practice of the law in New York City since shortly after his graduation from King’s College (now Columbia University) in 1764, Jay withdrew from his profession on the eve of the Revolution and, despite some considerable doubts, threw himself into the patriot struggle for independence. He was the principal author of the New York constitution of 1777 and doubled as chief justice of his native state and one of its delegates to both Continental Congresses. In 1778 Congress elected Jay its president, a post which in form, if not substance, was the highest in the power of the Revolutionary government to confer. But these were only the beginnings of John Jay’s service to his country. Ahead were a crucial wartime diplomatic mission to Spain, a key role in the writing of the Treaty of Paris and the Federalist papers, service as Secretary for Foreign Affairs under the Confederation, and six useful years as the first Chief Justice of the United States.

Like other leading statesmen of his day, Jay carried on an extensive correspondence. He and his associates were amazingly articulate and refreshingly opinionated. He piled up and preserved a mountain of papers, which have never been published in extenso; the available editions of them cover only a fragment of the total and omit much of significance. This regrettable gap in the historical record is now being repaired. A few years ago Columbia University acquired many Jay documents from his descendants, and over the past half-dozen years it has been securing photocopies of all letters to or from Jay not in its collection. Archives on two continents have been ransacked in search of other relevant material. Columbia’s Jay Collection now totals some twenty thousand items. Plans are well advanced to publish Jay’s unpublished papers and a calendar of the entire collection.

From these papers three articles have been especially prepared and annotated for AMERICAN H ERITAGE by their editor, the distinguished historian Richard B. Morris, Gouverneur Morris Professor of History at Columbia and author of many outstanding books, the most recent being The Peacemakers , an account of the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris. The articles cover three distinct periods of Jay’s life. The first, which begins on the following page, documents his adventures on his voyage to Spain in 1779 and the difficulties he faced in his diplomatic mission there. The second, which will appear in a forthcoming issue, illuminates Jay’s observations and those of his correspondents on the course of the Confederation government during his years—1784 to 1789—as its Secretary for Foreign Affairs. The last article will highlight his views as a high Federalist politician, views formulated for the most part after he had left the Supreme Court bench, during his two terms as governor of New York and afterward during his long years of retirement at his country seat at Bedford, New York. Most of the letters, diary entries, and reports have never before been published.

The Editors

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