John Jay was born on December 12, 1745, to a wealthy family of merchants and government officials in New York City. His father, Peter Jay, was born in New York City in 1704, and became a wealthy trader of furs, wheat, timber, and other commodities. On the paternal side, the Jays were a prominent merchant family in New York City, descended from French Huguenots who had come to New York to escape religious persecution in France. In 1685 the Edict of Nantes had been revoked, thereby abolishing the rights of Protestants and confiscating their property. Among those affected was Jay’s paternal grandfather, Augustus Jay. He moved from France to New York, where he built up a successful merchant empire.
John’s mother was Mary Van Cortlandt, who wed Peter Jay in 1728, in the Dutch Church. They had ten children together, seven of whom survived to adulthood. Her father, Jacobus Van Cortlandt, was born in New Amsterdam in 1658. Van Cortlandt served on the New York Assembly, and twice as mayor of New York City. He also held a variety of judicial and military titles. Two of his children: Mary and his son Frederick, married into the Jay family.
Jay spent his childhood in Rye, New York, and took the same political stand as his father, who was a staunch Whig. He was educated there by private tutors until he was eight years old, when he was sent to New Rochelle to study under Anglican pastor Pierre Stoupe. In 1756, after three years, he would return to homeschooling under the tutelage of George Murray. Jay attended King’s College (which was later renamed Columbia University) in 1760. During this time, Jay made many influential friends, including his closest friend, Robert J. Livingston, Jr.—the son of a prominent New York aristocrat. In 1764 he graduated and became a law clerk for Benjamin Kissam.
John Jay’s long and eventful life encompassed the movement for American independence and the creation of a new nation — both processes in which he played a full part. His achievements were many, varied and of key importance in the birth and early years of the fledgling nation. Although he did not initially favor separation from Britain, he was nonetheless among the American commissioners who negotiated the peace with Great Britain that secured independence for the former colonies.
Jay represented the conservative faction that was interested in protecting property rights and in preserving the rule of law, while resisting what it regarded as British violations of American rights. This faction feared the prospect of “mob rule”. He believed the British tax measures were wrong and thought Americans were morally and legally justified in resisting them, but as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774, Jay sided with those who wanted conciliation with Parliament. Events such as the burning of Norfolk, Virginia, by British troops in January 1776 pushed Jay to support independence. With the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, he worked tirelessly for the revolutionary cause and acted to suppress the Loyalists. Jay evolved into first a moderate, and then an ardent Patriot, because he had decided that all the colonies’ efforts at reconciliation with Britain were fruitless and that the struggle for independence, which became the American Revolution, was inevitable.
Jay served as a delegate to both the First and Second Continental Congresses, and was elected President of the Continental Congress in 1778. He also served in the New York State militia. In 1779, Jay was sent on a diplomatic mission to Spain in an effort to gain recognition and economic assistance for the United States. In 1783, he helped to negotiate the Treaty of Paris, which marked the end of the Revolutionary War.
In 1787 and 1788 Jay collaborated with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison on the Federalist, authoring essays numbers two, three, four, five and, following an illness, sixty-four, thus contributing to the political arguments and intellectual discourse that led to Constitution’s ratification. Jay also played a key role in shepherding the Constitution through the New York State Ratification Convention in the face of vigorous opposition. In this battle Jay relied not only on skillful political maneuvering, he also produced a pamphlet, “An Address to the People of New York,” that powerfully restated the Federalist case for the new Constitution. Jay served as the President of the Continental Congress (1778–79).
During and after the American Revolution, Jay was a Minister (Ambassador) to Spain and France, helping to fashion United States foreign policy. In 1789, Washington appointed John Jay Chief Justice of the new Supreme Court. His major diplomatic achievement was to negotiate favorable trade terms with Great Britain in the Treaty of London of 1794.
Jay resigned from the Supreme Court on June 29, 1795. As a leader of the new Federalist Party, Jay was the Governor of New York State (1795–1801) and he became the state’s leading opponent of slavery. His first two attempts to end slavery failed in 1777 and in 1785, but his third attempt succeeded in 1799. The 1799 Act, a gradual emancipation act, that he signed into law eventually brought about the emancipation of all slaves in New York before his death. Jay died on May 17, 1829, at the age of 83. His longevity enabled biographers and early historians of the founding era to draw directly upon his personal recollections of the people and events of the early years of the nation. In his later years, Jay’s own correspondence with various members of the founding generation revealed a keen interest in ensuring an accurate appraisal of his own role in the momentous events of that time.
Information was taken from the following references: