John Jay

John Jay Headshot

“… although he was a man of profound sagacity & pure integrity, yet he was of a suspicious temper.” (1783, Alexander Hamilton)

“He is plain as a Quaker, and as mild as New Milk, … an abundance of Rogury in his Eye’s. … he possesses an excellent Heart.” (1789, Abigail Adams)

Biographical Information

Born New York City. Graduated King’s College (Columbia), 1764. Studied law with Benjamin Kissam in New York City; admitted to bar, 1768. Secretary of royal commission to fix boundary between N.Y. and N.J., 1773. Married Sarah Livingston, daughter of William Livingston, 1774. Member, N.Y. committee of correspondence, 1774. Delegate to Continental and Confederation congresses, 1774-76 (but absent and did not sign Declaration of Independence), 1778-79 (president), 1784. Member, Provincial Convention, 1775; Third and Fourth Provincial congresses, 1776-77, where he favored agreeing to Declaration of Independence and played major role in drafting and adoption of state constitution of 1777. Member, First Council of Safety, 1777. First chief justice, N.Y. Supreme Court, 1777-79. Appointed minister plenipotentiary to Spain, 1779. Joint commissioner for negotiating peace with Great Britain, 1782-83. Returned to U.S., July 1784. Confederation Secretary for Foreign Affairs, 1784-90. President, N.Y. Society for the Manumission of Slaves, 1785-90. Co-author, “Publius”: The Federalist, 1787-88; author, An Address to the People of the State of New-York, under signature of “A Citizen of New-York,” 1788. Injured in “Doctor’s Riot” in New York City, April 1788. Member, New York Convention, 1788; voted to ratify Constitution. Chief Justice, U.S., 1789-95. Unsuccessful Federalist candidate for governor, 1792. As special envoy to Great Britain, negotiated Jay Treaty, 1794. Returned to U.S., 1795. Governor, 1795-1801. Declined appointment as Chief Justice of U.S., Dec. 1800. Retired from public life to estate in Bedford, Westchester County, 1801.

Descriptions of John Jay:

John Vardill to William Eden, 11 April 1778

Jay . . . is possessed of a strong Understanding though much perverted by the Study of the Law joined to a Temper naturally controversial. You can sooner gain him to your opinion by submitting to be confuted by him, than by a direct attempt to convince him. . . . He is obstinate, indefatigable, & dogmatical, but by his Courage, Zeal & abilities as a Writer & Speaker has much Popularity.

John Jay to George Clinton, 27 August 1779

Popularity is not, among the number of my objects. A seat in Congress I do not desire, and as ambition has in no instance drawn me into public life, I am sure it will never influence me to continue in it.

John Jay to Silas Deane, 1 November 1780

I believe that a wise and good Being governs this World, that he has ordered us to travel through it to a better, and that We have nothing but our Duty to do on the Journey which will not be a long one. Let us therefore travel on with Spirits and Chearfulness without grumbling much at the Bad Roads, bad Inns or bad Company we may be obliged to put up with on the Way. Let us enjoy Prosperity when We have it, and in adversity endeavour to be patient and resigned without being lazy or insensible.

Alexander Hamilton, Speech in Congress, 19 March1783

[In speaking of the peace commissioners’ failure to fully consult France as instructed by Congress.] He observed particularly with respect to Mr. Jay that although he was a man of profound sagacity & pure integrity, yet he was of a suspicious temper, & that this trait might explain the extraordinary jealousies which he professed [of the French].

Comte de Vergennes to the Chevalier de la Luzurne, 21 July 1783

I understand that Mr. Franklin has asked for his recall, but that Congress has not yet acted on his request. I desire that it reject it, at least for the present, because it will be impossible to give Mr. Franklin a Successor as wise and also conciliating as he; moreover, I fear that we will be left with Mr. Jay, and he is the man with whom I would least like to treat of affairs: he is egotistical, and too accessible to prejudices and ill-humor.

John Adams to Abigail Adams, 4 September 1783

Mr. Jay has been my Comforter. We have compared Notes, and they agree. I love him so well that I know not what I should do in Europe without him. Yet how many times have I disputed Sharply with him in Congress! I always thought him however an honest Man. He is a virtuous and religious Man. He has a Conscience, and has been persecuted, accordingly, as all conscientious Men are. Don’t suspect me of Cant. I am not addicted to it. He and I have Tales to tell, dismal Tales: But it will be most for his Happiness and mine to forget them. So let them be forgotten. If the publick Good should not absolutely require them to be told.

Peter Van Schaack to Henry Van Schaack, 29 June 1788

I am told Mr. Jay’s Arguments like the Rock of Ajax knocked down all opposition, and like the Pillar of Fire which conducted the Israelites through the Wilderness, showed Us the Way out of our many Embarrassments.

Abigail Adams to John Adams, 12 January 1789

Mr. and Mrs. Jay desire their affectionate Regards to you. He is as plain as a Quaker, and as mild as New Milk. Out under all this, an abundance of Rogury in his Eye’s. I need to say to you who so well know him, that he possesses an excellent Heart.

Comte de Moustier to the Comte de Montmorin, 3 October 1789

Mr. Jay whose spite is more active and whose conduct is more cautious, would have been more dangerous if he had held on to the department of Foreign Affairs. Fortunately, he was just replaced by the man whom we could most hope to see at the head of this department. Mr. Jefferson whose return we expect at any moment is named Secretary of State and it is presumed that he will accept this post to which Interior Affairs other than Finance and War are attached as well as foreign affairs. Mr. Jay is named Chief Justice, a permanent position and third in dignity. He is well known for his Jurisprudence and well suited to the important position he is going to fill. His personal qualities, the dryness of his manner, his irascible character and his tendency to put himself first render him inappropriate for the position that he formerly occupied, rather than filled well. He has shown me greater regard recently than he was accustomed to, and I think Gen. Washington must have insinuated to him not to give the King’s Minister reason to believe that Mr. Jay harbored prejudices against France, because my personal conduct toward him, which never varied, could not induce him to treat me either better or worse. It will always be of interest to maintain a good outward relationship with Mr. Jay, while waiting for an inner change, because of the great influence his position gives him on the decision of many questions that must be decided by the federal courts of which he is the first Judge and where he will try to raise himself up as an Oracle.

George Washington to John Jay, 5 October 1789

It is with singular pleasure that I address you as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, for which office your commission is enclosed.

In nominating you for the important Station, which you now fill, I not only acted in conformity to my best judgment, but I trust I did a grateful thing to the good citizens of these United States; and I have a full Confidence that the love which you bear to our country, and a desire to promote the general happiness, will not suffer you to hesitate a moment to bring into action the talents, knowledge, and integrity which are so necessary to be exercised at the head of that department which must be considered as the keystone of our political fabric.

James Madison, Conversation with Jared Sparks, April 1830

In speaking of Mr. Jay’s suspicions respecting the policy of the French Court at the time of making peace, Mr. Madison observed, that “he had two strong traits of character, suspicion and religious bigotry