Among the prominent figures of the American Founding, John Jay’s role cannot be understated. Jay’s experience was invaluable having served in a myriad of roles as a diplomat and jurist throughout the formative years of the American Republic. Although most often associated as one of the co-authors of the The Federalist, he served as a delegate to the Continental congresses (1774-76), as primary author of the New York state constitution of 1777, chief justice of the New-York Supreme Court (1777-79), minister plenipotentiary to Spain during the American Revolution (1779-82) and later Joint Commissioner in negotiations for peace with Great Britain (1782-83). He returned to the United States in 1784 to serve as the Secretary for Foreign Affairs. These diplomatic assignments would illustrate the importance of prestige as the young republic struggle for legitimacy among the community of nations.
Given his unique experiences throughout the Revolutionary War and the Confederation Period, Jay was well positioned to see the many challenges facing the new nation. In 1779 Congress requested that he write a circular letter to the states explaining the situation facing the American people. In this letter, Jay explained the problems of financing the war but also articulated a grand continental vision for America stating, “Extensive wildernesses, now scarcely known or explored, remain yet to be cultivated, and vast lakes and rivers, whose waters have for ages rolled in silence and obscurity to the ocean, are yet to hear the din of industry, become subservient to commerce, and boast delightful villas, gilded spires, and spacious cities rising on their banks.” This vision would appear in his writings and correspondence throughout his life.
Jay’s concerns for national prestige were laced throughout his five contributions to The Federalist. Fearing the consequences of disunity, Jay concluded in Federalist IV that if European powers found “us destitute of an effectual Government . . . what a poor pitiful figure will America make in their eyes! How liable would she become to their contempt, but also their outrage.” Among the most eloquent expressions of a nationalist vision was Jay’s 1790 charge to the grand jury. While serving as Chief Justice and presiding over the circuit courts of New York and New England, Jay’s challenged the grand juries with his sweeping nationalist vision. He noted that “Providence has been pleased to bless the people of this country” and as they as jurors commenced rendering decisions under the new Constitution they “shall be responsible to that Providence, as well as to mankind in general, and to our posterity in particular.” Jay concluded proposing, “It cannot be too strongly impressed on the minds of us all how greatly our individual prosperity depends on our national prosperity, and how our national prosperity depends on a well-organized, vigorous government, ruling by wise and equal laws, faithfully executed. . . .”