Again we return to the Federalist Papers, that source of so many of the philosophical underpinnings of American politics; this time for an examination of another early example of nationalist thinking. I do this partially because I believe Federalist No. 2 contains numerous examples of the kind of political and philosophical thought that was common to the members of the founding generation. But I’d also like to lend it the spotlight because of who wrote it. In many ways something of a forgotten founding father, John Jay’s fame has never equalled those of his contemporaries like Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton or Washington. Jay was a New Yorker, a lawyer by trade, and served in a variety of posts in the early administration of the United States of America, including congressional delegate, state legislator, judge, diplomat, and public official. In spite of his relatively low historical profile, he was present at many crucial events in the nation’s early history (such as the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 which brought the Revolutionary War to a close), served as the First Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the Second Governor of New York, and was an early advocate for the abolition of slavery. These posts will, I hope, help to shed some light on the man’s accomplishments and his political personality. The best place to start, I suppose, would be with a brief biography.
Born in the Province of New York in 1745, Jay was descended from French Huguenots (Calvinist Protestants) on his father’s side and Dutch merchants on his mother’s, making him one of the very few Founding Fathers who was not of wholly British descent. Like many of his contemporaries he was home-schooled in his early years, and like fellow Federalist Alexander Hamilton he attended Kings College (now Columbia University). Upon graduating in 1764 he read the law as a clerk for prominent New York lawyer Benjamin Kissam, and was admitted to the colonial bar in 1768. At the dawning of the Revolution in 1774, Jay (now a practising lawyer) was called to serve as one of New York’s delegates to the First Continental Congress and established himself as among that body’s more moderate members. Although he fully acknowledged that the colonies had been the victim of unjust trade and tax policies, Jay was initially inclined to support reconciliation with Parliament and only later came to support independence after the British proved that they willing to settle the American question by force of arms.
At the conclusion of his term in the First Continental Congress Jay returned to New York and became a member of the Provincial Assembly. In 1777, during his tenure as a state legislator, he helped draft his state’s first constitution, and in that same year was also elected to serve as Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court. Following a two year term leading the court, he returned to Congress and was elected to replace South Carolina’s Henry Laurens as President of that body, serving until September, 1779. Shortly thereafter Jay was sent by the Congress to serve as Minister to Spain, considered a key diplomatic position for a nation hoping to secure European recognition and, all going to plan, financial assistance. As with his colleague in France, John Adams, Jay met with a chilly reception and was unable to secure the formal acknowledgement by the Spanish court of America’s independence. Nevertheless, having received a guarantee of a $170,000 loan, he departed for France so that he might lend his efforts to the ongoing peace negotiations that were taking place there over the course of 1782.
Success in Paris turned into success at home when Jay was appointed to the post of Secretary of Foreign Affairs in 1784 upon his return to the United States. Despite his formal title he also oversaw a number of domestic policy initiatives, and a result gained first-hand experience with a great number of the issues plaguing the United States under the Articles of Confederation. These included, among others, securing diplomatic recognition and financial assistance from foreign powers, establishing a stable national currency, paying off the national debt, settling boundary disputes with European empires and Native Americans alike and mediating disputes between the various states. The weight of these responsibilities, and the inability of the federal government under the Articles to meet them, caused Jay and many of his contemporaries to begin arguing in favour of reform. As defined by the Articles, Jay argued in a pamphlet published in New York in 1788, Congress,
“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.”
Men like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were of a similar mind in the late 1780s, and though Jay did not attend the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 as they had he was very much in favour of the proposed constitution. For this reason he was asked by Hamilton to lend his pen to the promotional effort that became the Federalist Papers. No. 2 (published October 31, 1787) was the first of his contributions, which went on to include No. 3, 4, 5, and 64. Illness prevented him from adding further entries, and Madison adopted the role of Hamilton’s chief collaborator.
I feel the need to add, as a means of further shedding light on the man’s character, that Jay was also an early and vocal opponent of the institution of slavery. As early as 1777, though a slave-owner himself, he drafted a bill that would have abolished the practice entirely had it passed. After a second failed effort in 1785 Jay went on to found and lead the New York Manumission Society, an organization that promoted private emancipation by slave-holders, organized boycotts against merchants involved in the slave trade, and provided legal counsel for free Blacks that had been kidnapped or misidentified as escapees. The Society later helped draft the gradual emancipation bill that Jay signed into law during his tenure as Governor, and which resulted in the final and total abolition of slavery in New York by July 4, 1827. Jay’s efforts did not go unnoticed, and sometime earned him the antipathy of those who supported the “peculiar institution.” After narrowly losing the election for Governor of New York in 1792 it was speculated that his anti-slavery activities may have hurt his chances in certain up-state counties that were dominated by Dutch, pro-slavery landowners. Similarly Jay’s willingness during the negotiation of a treaty with Britain in 1794 to abandon an American demand for financial compensation for slaves freed during the Revolutionary War was much resented by southerners, whose economic fortunes had suffered greatly by the loss of labour. Regardless, Jay remained committed throughout his adult life to ending what he felt was a practice unbecoming of a nation founded on the principles of liberty and justice, and which he found personally offensive to his religious and moral sensibilities.
So in all, though he seemed to keep a rather low profile, there would appear to be certain conclusions to draw about Jay’s character, if nothing else than by comparison with his fellows in the founding cohort. First among them would be his position as a moderate. Neither the vociferous, prodding John Adams, nor the reticent, pacific John Dickinson, John Jay was someone for who negotiation and diplomacy were always the preferred method of settling disputes. He was cautious, measured, but far from immovable, and when his passions were kindled he was capable of devoting all of his energies to seeing a thing done. He was also, if his writing is any indication, a student of the Enlightenment. But where Jefferson was always too much of a radical to adhere very closely to any one school of thought, and where Hamilton was far too pragmatic, Jay seemed to have fully imbibed the principles of the Enlightenment and put them to use regularly in his arguments. He believed, for instance, in the social contract, the notion of utopian universalism, that all men were fundamentally equal in their moral and spiritual quality, and in the work of Providence (a favoured philosophical euphemism for God) in shaping events and guiding men towards their destinies. In this he was perhaps more representative of his socio-economic class than Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton or Madison; a scholar and statesman whose genius lay not in innovation, but in the strength of his convictions. Jay was also, it must be said, a nationalist. He might not have been willing to go quite as far as Jefferson or Hamilton in preserving and promoting a singular vision of American republicanism, but he was certainly convinced that America and its people were uniquely suited to one another, and that their shared destiny was to be unlike any the world had ever seen. All that stood in their way, he argued, was their ability to see beyond their petty differences, appeal to the better angels of their nature, and grasp the opportunity that fate had placed before them.