John Jay, one of the nation’s founding fathers, was born on December 12, 1745, to a prominent and wealthy family in New York City. He attended King’s College, later renamed Columbia University, and then practiced law with Robert Livingston. Having established a reputation in New York, Jay was elected to serve as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, which debated whether the colonies should declare independence from Great Britain.
Jay held numerous posts of public importance throughout the American Revolution, including president of the Continental Congress and minister plenipotentiary to Spain. Along with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, Jay also helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War and recognized American independence. In 1784, Jay was named secretary of foreign affairs, the nation’s highest ranking diplomatic post at the time.
In the postwar era, Jay joined Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in attacking the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States that was adopted on November 15, 1777 and ratified on March 1, 1781. Jay argued in his Address to the People of the State of New-York, on the Subject of the Federal Constitution that the Articles of Confederation were too weak and ineffective a form of government. He contended that:
[The Congress under the Articles of Confederation] may make war, but are not empowered to raise men or money to carry it on—they may make peace, but without power to see the terms of it observed—they may form alliances, but without ability to comply with the stipulations on their part—they may enter into treaties of commerce, but without power to inforce them at home or abroad…—In short, they may consult, and deliberate, and recommend, and make requisitions, and they who please may regard them.
John Jay. Extract from an Address to the People of the State of New-York, on the Subject of the Federal Constitution. [New York: s.n. 1788]. Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
Jay, Hamilton, and Madison aggressively argued in favor of the creation of a new and more powerful, centralized, but nonetheless balanced system of government. They articulated this vision in the Federalist Papers, a series of eighty-five articles, five authored by Jay, written to persuade the citizens of New York to ratify the proposed Constitution of the United States.
In 1789, after the present-day Constitution went into effect, George Washington nominated Jay as the first chief justice of the Supreme Court. Jay’s most notable case was Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), in which Jay and the court affirmed the subordination of the states to the federal government. Unfavorable reaction to the decision led to adoption of the Eleventh Amendment, which denied federal courts authority in suits by citizens against a state.
In 1794, Jay served as a special envoy and helped avert war by negotiating a treaty with Great Britain, which became known as Jay’s Treaty. Tensions between the two countries had increased since the end of the Revolutionary War over British military posts still located in America’s northwestern territory and British interference with American trade and shipping. Jay was only partially successful in getting Britain to meet America’s demands and opposition to the treaty in the United States was intense. Jay’s Treaty passed the Senate in 1795 by a vote of twenty to ten, exactly the two-thirds required for approval.
In 1795, Jay resigned as chief justice and was elected governor of New York. He declined to run again in 1801, retiring from public life to his farm in Westchester County, New York. Jay died on May 17, 1829.
- See Today in History features on the Federalist Papers and on Alexander Hamilton.
- Learn more about the early republic and the role of John Jay by browsing or searching the collections A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates,1774-1875 and Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789.
- Search the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton on John Jay to read correspondence between these founding fathers.
- Access the Web guides in Primary Documents in American History for additional digital and print resources about the Treaty of Paris, the Federalist Papers, and Jay’s Treaty.