Biography of John Jay

John Jay was born into an old New York family on December 12th, 1745, and educated at King's College (which later became Columbia University), where he graduated in 1764. In 1768, he was admitted to the bar. Representing the point of view of the American merchants in protesting British restrictions on the commercial activities of the colonies, he was elected to the Continental Congress in 1774 and again in 1775. Jay did not favor independence from Britain. Thomas Jefferson noted his absence from the signing of the Declaration of Independence. However, once the revolution was undertaken Jay was an ardent supporter of the new nation. He drafted the first constitution of New York State and was appointed chief justice of the state in 1777. In the following year he was again elected to the Continental Congress and was chosen as its president.

The Congress sent Jay to Spain in 1779 to obtain its endorsement of the independence of the colonies and a loan in support of the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, Spain would provide neither. In Paris in 1782, he was one of the commissioners (with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams) who negotiated the Treaty of Paris with Great Britain, ending the American Revolution. While the party was instructed to insist only on independence of the colonies and defer to France on all other matters, France was occupied with fighting Spain in Gibraltar, which showed no signs of ending. Privately, Jay, Franklin, and Adams negotiated a treaty far better than the U.S. Congress could ever have hoped for. Britain guaranteed the independence of the Untied States, ceded the entire territory east of the Mississippi River, and gave the Americans valuable fishing rights in the North Atlantic.

From 1784 to 1789, Jay was secretary for foreign affairs. The ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation led him to become a proponent of a strong national government. After the Constitution was ratified, George Washington nominated John Jay as the chief justice, and he was confirmed two days later. George Washington had chosen wisely in selecting the first chief justice. Jay had always been widely respected as a just and reasonable man. His stewardship of the court only improved his standing and, not incidentally, did much to establish the Supreme Court as a reasoned and honorable institution. In 1794, however, when war with Britain threatened due to controversies over the Treaty of Paris, Jay was appointed by Washington to negotiate a settlement, even while serving as Supreme Court Justice.

On his return, Jay found that he had been elected as governor of New York in 1795, a surprise to him as he was not even asked if he would serve. Jay was forced to retire from the Supreme Court, though he would not have chosen to do so, because his friends in New York had called him to service. Though the fury of public reaction to Jay's treaty marred his first term, he was reelected and proved to be a most popular and productive governor.

John Jay survived his wife and several of his children. The last years of his life were not comfortable. Though he was wealthy and had the support of his children, his health was poor. He died on May 17th, 1829, in the comfort of his home.

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