John Jay’s family came to America as persecuted Protestants from France. Liberty of conscience came with them, and that belief was transferred to him.
Jay was deeply involved in the constitutional debate over Great Britain’s policies leading to the American Revolution. While he was very concerned over the British government’s claims, he nevertheless was a moderate in his approach, seeking a way to heal the breach. When that was no longer possible, he gave himself fully to the war for independence.
Throughout the war, he served diligently—first Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court; president of the Continental Congress; minister to Spain. He was in France as one of the negotiators to reach terms for ending the war. When he returned to America, he became Secretary of Foreign Affairs in the Confederation government.
When New York was debating the ratification of the proposed Constitution, Jay employed his pen as one of the authors of the famous Federalist Papers. His contributions were not as numerous as Madison’s and Hamilton’s, but his activity at that time was curtailed by illness.
George Washington nominated Jay, and the Senate confirmed him, as the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Washington’s concern over relations with Britain led him to ask Jay to go to that country to negotiate a new treaty of commerce. At the time, he was still the sitting Chief Justice, an arrangement that never would happen now, but Washington chose to do this simply because Jay was his most experienced diplomat, and the one he trusted most to deal with Britain.
In the 1790s, the Supreme Court wasn’t as powerful as it has become over time, so Jay voluntarily stepped down from his position as Chief Justice to become Governor of New York. During his tenure, the legislature passed a law leading to the eventual elimination of slavery in that state—a goal Jay had labored for over many years.
After his governorship, Jay retired from active political life, but he didn’t retire from life itself. A sincere Christian, he later served as President of the American Bible Society. In a letter to a friend late in life, Jay commented:
Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.
Try saying something like that today and see what happens.
John Jay—another one of our largely forgotten founders, but one who deserves greater attention.