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  American HistoryUnited States: General History and DescriptionRevolution to the Civil War, 1775/1783-1861Biography, A-Z

John Jay, by Gilbert StuartJohn Jay

first Chief Justice of the United States

John Jay was born in New York City, on December 12, 1745. He attended an exclusive boarding school in New Rochelle at age eight, and graduated from King's College (now Columbia University) at the age of 19. Admitted to the bar of New York in 1768, he practiced there until 1776.

Although active early in the patriot cause, Jay did not initially favor separation from Great Britain. In September 1774 he became the second youngest member of the Continental Congress, where he wrote the "Address to the People of Great Britain," an attempt to turn the sentiments of British citizens towards the side of the Americans. He served as president of the Second Continental Congress, but refused to sign the Declaration of Independence because he still believed that reconciliation was possible.

After leaving the Continental Congress, Jay became actively involved in the development of a new state government for New York. In 1777 he attended the New York Constitutional Convention, and was selected to draft that Constitution. He then served as the first Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court.

In 1779, Jay was sent to Spain to request aid for the Revolution, but he was unsuccessful in obtaining assistance. In 1782 Jay, along with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, negotiated the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the Revolutionary War. Upon his return to the United States, in 1784, Jay found that he had been appointed Secretary of Foreign Affairs by the Congress of the Confederation.

A proponent of a stronger central government, Jay joined James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in writing The Federalist Papers, which urged the adoption of the Constitution (1787-1788).

President George Washington first wanted Jay to be his Secretary of State, but Jay declined the offer. In 1789, Washington named Jay as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In 1794 he was sent to England to negotiate Anglo-American disputes. The resulting agreement, known as Jay's Treaty, aroused a storm of protest from rival Democratic-Republicans and the French, both of whom claimed that Jay had conceded too much to England.

Upon Jay's return to the United States, in 1797, he found that he had been elected Governor of New York and resigned his position on the Supreme Court. During his four years in office (1797-1801), Jay fought for judicial reform, penal reform, and the abolition of slavery, and he undertook extensive road and canal projects to improve the economy of his state.

Jay retired from the governorship in 1801 and returned to his farm in Winchester County. President John Adams appointed him to the Supreme Court that same year, but Jay declined the nomination due to poor health. He died on May 17, 1829.


Columbia University
John Adams
Benjamin Franklin
James Madison
Alexander Hamilton
The Federalist Papers
President George Washington
Secretary of State
Supreme Court
Jay's Treaty

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This page was last updated on March 14, 2016.

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