John Jay, First Supreme Court Justice

John Jay
John Jay by Gilbert Stuart. National Gallery of Art - Public Domain

John Jay (December 12, 1745 - May 17, 1829) was a Founding Father of the United States. He was one of the signers of the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution, an author of the Federalist Papers, and President George Washington's appointee as the first United States Supreme Court Chief Justice.

Early Years

John Jay was born on December 12, 1745 to French Protestant refugees, Mary Van Cortlandt and Peter Jay, in New York City.

Born into a wealthy family, Jay enrolled at King’s College (which would later become Columbia University) and after graduation in 1764 he took a position as a law clerk. 

While working as a law clerk, Jay began what was known as reading law which was a process of studying the law under the tutelage of a lawyer for some period of time. Law schools were not yet in existence and this method was how one became a lawyer in that era. Jay was admitted to the New York bar in 1768.

Early Activities Against British Rule

Jay was an early member of the New York Committee of Correspondence – each of the colonies had such a committee so that they could be organized in their efforts against British rule.  Jay was very conservative in nature and he attempted to use the rule of law to combat British violations against not only the colonists’ property rights, but also against human rights as well.

In 1774, Jay was elected as a New York representative to the First Continental Congress and showed his conservative disposition in his published article titled “Address to the People of Great Britain” which called for resolving the American issues with Britain in a peaceful manner.

In 1775, Jay was reelected to the Second Continental Congress; however in 1776 he tendered his resignation instead because he refused to be a signer of the Declaration of Independence due to his belief that the Colonists issues with Britain could be settled without military conflict, as well as his personal desire to maintain relations with them.

President of the Continental Congress and Minister to Spain

Jay then assisted in drafting New York’s state constitution, after which he became the New York’s first chief justice in 1777. In 1778, Jay was given the title of president of the Continental Congress – a position which he held until 1779 when he was appointed as the America’s minister to Spain. As minister to Spain, Jay was unsuccessful in obtaining their full military assistance to the American colonies during the Revolutionary War due to Spain’s fear that the British would prevail. In 1783, Jay joined Benjamin Franklin in Paris, France where they negotiated the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War and brought the birth of the United States.

Co-Author of the Federalist Papers

It was soon realized that the new country formed under Articles of Confederation was too weak for long term effectiveness. Representatives from each state met in the Constitutional Convention to create the new US Constitution. However, many states right advocates were against the new Constitution. Along with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, Jay helped to author The Federalist Papers due to his advocacy for a strong and centralized U.S. government.

The point of these papers was to persuade New York voters to ratify the new Constitution.

First Supreme Court Justice

Jay was first offered the Secretary of State position by George Washington. However, he declined this. Instead, he accepted the role as the first U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice. He held this post from 1789 until he stepped down in 1795, taking some time off to negotiate the Treaty of London of 1794 which also is known as the “Jay Treaty.” This treaty was made in an attempt to rectify some serious trade issues that were rapidly deteriorating. The Jay Treaty merely delayed the inevitable military conflict which ended up being the War of 1812.

Second Governor of New York

Jay resigned from the U.S. Supreme Court after being elected as the Governor of New York, an office which he held from 1795 until 1801.

A lifelong staunch opponent of slavery, Jay was able to move the “1799 Act” through the state legislature. This act gradually emancipated all slave in the State of New York.

Retirement and Death

In 1800, President John Adam attempted to reappoint Jay to the Supreme Court, but Jay declined to accept due to health issues and a desire to retire from public life.  In 1801, Jay permanently left the public spotlight and retired to his farm in Bedford, New York.  Jay died at the age of 83 in May 1829 at his farm. 

Legacy

John Jay is remembered as one of the founding fathers who fought for independence. Once independence was won, Jay worked to ensure that the US Constitution was ratified and spent time as a key jurist and diplomat for the newly formed United States.