Tuesday, December 12, 2006

John Jay

Possibly the one participant in the American Revolution who deserves more credit in schoolhouses than he currently gets for shaping the American nation, John Jay was viewed by contemporaries as the nation's greatest diplomat and one of its greatest legal minds.

Born on this day in 1745 in New York City, a graduate of Columbia (King's College), Jay successfully practiced law in New York City from 1768, and was initially opposed to colonial agitation and estrangement from England, fearing that American independence would result in mob rule. While he served in the First Continental Congress, he helped to formulate the "Olive Branch Petition" (an attempt at reconciliation with the King, which George III refused to read) and considered leaving North America altogether.

With the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, however, he cast his lot with the revolutionaries and became a fervent supporter of American independence. In 1777, he drafted New York's first constitution and served as the state's first chief justice. The following year, New York sent Jay to the Second Continental Congress, where he was elected president, and in 1779 he was sent to Spain on a diplomatic mission. An exceptionally perceptive negotiator, he was summoned to Paris by Benjamin Franklin to assist in reaching a peace accord with England. Despite being told not to act without the knowledge and concurrence of the French, Jay surreptitiously opened direct talks with the British and on his own won exceedingly liberal terms resulting in the Treaty of Paris (1783), which formally ended the Revolutionary War.

Upon his return he was named secretary of foreign affairs to the Continental Congress, a post which he served in for 5 years. His frustration with the weakness of Congress led him to argue for a stronger central government, and along with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Jay authored essays for The Federalist in favor of a new Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation.

In 1789, George Washington appointed Jay as the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. As chief justice, Jay was disappointed over the high Court's lack of apparent legitimacy. Nevertheless, he handed down some decisions which were important in shaping the role of the Court, defending the separation of powers among the branches of government in Hayburn's Case (1792) and affirming the subordination of the states to the federal government in Chisholm v. Georgia (1793). When the latter decision was met with defiance and the introduction of the 11th Amendment in Congress, Jay took his leave from the Court, and Washington sent him to England again to negotiate another treaty over certain disagreements which had accumulated since 1783.

The Jay Treaty (1794) settled conflicts over unpaid debts, sequestration of Loyalist estates and New World trading rights, establishing bilateral commissions for the resolution of future disputes. While in England, Jay was elected governor of New York, and upon his return he officially resigned from the Court to serve in the New York statehouse. At the end of Jay's term in 1800, John Adams asked him to return to the Supreme Court, but Jay refused, declaring that the Court lacked "energy, weight and dignity." Alienated by the anti-federalist policies of Thomas Jefferson, Jay retired to his farm in Westchester County, New York for the last 27 years of his life, emerging occasionally to support the anti-slavery cause.

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