Jay, John (1745–1829)

AuthorRichard E. Ellis

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John Jay was a major figure during the Revolutionary era. Born into one of colonial New York's leading families, he was aristocratic in appearance, well educated, and a hard worker with a precise and orderly mind. He graduated from King's College in 1764, was admitted to the bar four years later, and soon had a prosperous practice. He early took an interest in the constitutional debate between England and the American colonies; although uneasy about the radical implication of some of the resistance to imperial policies in the 1770s, he nevertheless was a firm patriot. He served as a member of the New York Committee of Correspondence and in the Provincial Congress,

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as well as in the first and second Continental Congresses in Philadelphia. In 1776 he returned to New York to help draft a state constitution (1777) and to become New York's first chief justice. His major interests, however, lay in the field of diplomacy: he became the United States Minister to Spain in 1779 and later joined BENJAMIN FRANKLIN and JOHN ADAMS in Paris to negotiate the treaty of 1783 that recognized American independence and formally ended the fighting with Great Britain.

Returning to the United States in 1784 Jay assumed the position of secretary of foreign affairs under the ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION. Unhappy over the weakness of the central government during the 1780s, he sympathized with the movement to create a new constitution that would strengthen the power of the federal government over the states. Jay was not a member of the CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION OF 1787, but he strongly advocated adoption of the Constitution in the closely contested ratification struggle in New York the following year. Joining forces with ALEXANDER HAMILTON and JAMES MADISON, Jay contributed several pieces (#2-#5 and, after a bout with illness, #64) to THE FEDERALIST. In these essays Jay warned that failure to adopt the new government would probably lead to the dissolution of the Union and the creation of separate confederacies. He also stressed that only through the creation of a strong and energetic central government could the discord and jealousies of the various states be brought under control and the territorial integrity of the United States be protected from foreign encroachment.

Shortly after becoming President, GEORGE WASHINGTON appointed Jay the first Chief Justice of the United States, a position he held from 1789 to 1795. Two main...

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