Jay, John (1745–1829)

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JAY, JOHN (1745–1829)

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, 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 themes ran through Jay's decisions. The first stressed the supremacy of the newly created national government. chisholm v. georgia (1793) involved the constitutional question of whether a state could be sued in a federal court by a citizen of a different state without its permission, thus limiting its sovereignty. The question had been raised during the debate over ratification, and the supporters of the Constitution had given assurances that such suits would not be allowed. Nevertheless, under Jay's leadership the Court handed down an affirmative decision, couched in extremely nationalistic terms. Jay stressed the role of the people of the United States in the creation of the Union, and deemphasized the powers and sovereignty of the states. A very controversial decision, Chisholm was vitiated when reaction to it culminated in the adoption of the eleventh amendment.

While riding circuit in 1793 Jay delivered a dissenting opinion in ware v. hylton arguing that a Virginia statute sequestering prerevolutionary debts of British creditors was invalid because it had been nullified by the Treaty of Paris (1783) which specifically indicated that such debts would be honored. The case was appealed in 1796, and the Supreme Court, from which Jay had already resigned, adopted the former Chief Justice's reasoning and reversed the lower court's decision. In another important case, Glass v. The Sloop Betsy (1794), the Supreme Court overturned a Maryland District Court ruling that allowed French consuls in America to function as prize courts and dispose of prizes captured by French privateers. Writing for the Court, Jay concluded that United States sovereignty required that these cases be handled by American courts.

Jay's other major concern as Chief Justice was to protect the independence of the Supreme Court by insisting on a strict separation of powers. He rejected various attempts to incorporate the Court into the activities of the legislative and executive branches. For example, when Congress passed an act that required the circuit courts to review the applications of military invalids for pensions, Jay, while riding circuit in New York, declared that "neither the Legislative nor Executive branch can constitutionally assign to the Judicial any duties but such as are properly judicial and to be performed in a judicial manner." This position was upheld a short time later by the United States Circuit Court of Pennsylvania, in what has become known as hayburn ' scase (1792), when the constitutionality of the law was actually challenged. Jay also rejected occasional requests from the President and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton for advisory opinions on controversial matters, arguing that the Supreme Court should render opinions only in actual lawsuits brought by contending parties.

Jay was never happy serving on the Court. He thought the circuit riding duties too arduous. He also believed the Court lacked "the energy, weight and dignity which are essential to its affording due support to the national government." Hoping to return to a more active political life, he was defeated in a bid to become governor of New York in 1792. In 1794, while still holding the position of Chief Justice, he went on a special diplomatic mission to try to resolve existing controversies with Great Britain. The result was the controversial but successful jay ' streaty. Resigning his post on the Court, Jay became governor of New York in 1795 for two terms. Following the Jeffersonian successes in 1800 he declined reappointment as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court and retired from public life.

Richard E. Ellis


Monaghan, Frank 1935 John Jay. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Morris, Richard B. 1967 John Jay, the Nation and the Court. Boston: Boston University Press.