John Jay (1745–1829), of Huguenot descent, was born in New York City, attended King's (later Columbia) College, went on to study law, and was admitted to the New York Bar in 1766 at the age of 21, soon establishing his own private practice.
During the tumultuous period leading up to the American Revolution, Jay was a moderate, speaking out against British policies, but certainly without subscribing to the radical democratic-republican views of the Liberty Boys, most of whom he regarded as "lower class," as they were. By birth, training, experience, and personal choice, Jay was always a patrician, sharing Hamilton's views that a propertied elite should hold power.
As a member of the New York delegation to the historic First Continental Congress in 1774, Jay drafted an "Address to the People of Great Britain," which Jefferson, without knowing its authorship, declared to be a "production certainly of the finest pen in America."
Though a reconciliationist, hoping to the last to patch up the differences between the rebellious American colonies and the mother country, Jay served in the Second Continental Congress and in the historic session of 1776 that adopted the Declaration of Independence, which he signed.
Jay drafted the new state constitution for New York, and was later named as minister to Spain. While in Madrid, he was sent to France as one of the three American commissioners who in 1783 negotiated the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War and formally recognized American independence. Returning home, Jay was chosen by the Continental Congress to be in charge of foreign affairs, and was in serious difficulties almost immediately.
In 1785, Spain sent Don Diego de Gardoqui to this country as its ambassador extraordinary. Count Gardoqui arrived bringing some tempting offers that might, hopefully, open the way for a mutually profitable trade treaty.
Americans in the South and West, particularly in the states of Virginia and North Carolina which held territories extending westward from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River (territories later to become the states of Kentucky and Tennessee), were vitally concerned about navigation rights on the Mississippi. In the Treaty of Paris of 1763, France had ceded to Spain all of her claims west of the Mississippi, all of the vast and ill-defined expanse known as Louisiana. For most of its length, the river was the boundary between the American and Spanish territories, except that Spain held both banks of the river for several hundred miles above its mouth on the Gulf of Mexico. From New Orleans, a busy and thriving river and ocean port, the Spanish controlled all shipping coming into and passing out of the river. As usual in such cases, Spain made the most of her opportunities, favoring Spanish commerce by imposing restrictions, levies, and tolls on foreign shipping.
This pained many Americans, especially those in the West and South, who wished free and unrestrained shipping down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico. If this right were not obtained, it would impede development of western lands. It would be much cheaper and easier to float heavy agricultural and forest products down the river and out into the Gulf than to cart them laboriously eastward over the mountains.
Madrid had ordered Gardoqui not to yield an inch on Spain's rights along the lower Mississippi. In authorizing Jay to negotiate with Gardoqui, the Continental Congress had strictly instructed him that he was "particularly to stipulate the right of the United States to free navigation of the Mississippi." It is not surprising, therefore, that after more than a year of secret negotiations, no agreement was reached.
Then came a turn that caused widespread alarm and threatened to tear the Union apart. To break the deadlock in negotiations, Secretary Jay recommended to the Continental Congress that his instructions be changed. In a secret session, by a close vote after a bitter debate, the Congress decided that Jay must stop pressing the Mississippi issue, and in return ask for certain trade concessions from Spain.
The motion to change Jay's instructions had the support of seven states, all of the North and East: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, all of them interested in promoting Atlantic seaboard trade, and having little or no concern about navigation rights on the Mississippi, which, to them, seemed far away and inconsequential. Jay was to agree to a treaty which would close the Mississippi River to navigation for 30 years, in exchange for commercial concessions in the Spanish Caribbean.
Negotiations with Gardoqui were resumed, again in secret, but proved fruitless. The closing of the Mississippi was obviously impossible, since it was apparent that such a treaty would not be ratified by the requisite nine states. The states of the West and South would naturally oppose it. In the summer of 1786, when serving his last term as governor of Virginia, Patrick Henry received a very long letter from his young friend James Monroe, who would succeed Madison as fifth president of the United States. Sitting with the Continental Congress then meeting in New York, detailing the "intrigue" by which Jay had got his instructions changed, Monroe exploded:
This is one of the most extraordinary transactions I have ever known, a minister negotiating expressly for defeating the object of his instructions, and by a long train of intrigue and management seducing the representatives of the states to concur in it.
In his letter to Patrick Henry, Monroe added even more alarming information. Some influential people of the Northeast were openly talking about the "subject of a dismemberment of the states east of the Hudson from the Union, and the erection of them into a separate government, . . . that the measure is talked about in Massachusetts familiarly, and is supposed to have been originated there. . . ."
Moves to dismember the Union should be blocked, Monroe added, yet I do consider it as necessary on our part to contemplate it as an event that may happen. . . . It should be so managed (if it takes place) either that it should be formed into three divisions or, if into two, that Pennsylvania, if not Jersey, should be included in ours."
With Patrick Henry taking the lead, the Virginia legislature passed a number of very strong resolutions opposing any attempt "to barter or surrender the rights of the United States to the free and common use of the river Mississippi," that any such attempt would provoke the just resentment "of our western brethren whose essential rights and interests would be thereby sacrificed and sold," that the sacrifice of the rights of certain parts of the Union (the South and West) to the "supposed or real interests" of another part (the North and East) would be "a flagrant violation of justice, a direct contravention of the end for which the federal government was instituted." The fruitless Jay-Gardoqui negotiations were very important to the constitutional convention when the southern states insisted upon a two-thirds majority vote for ratification of treaties. The severely criticized negotiations also became heavily involved in the debate over the role of the senate under the proposed constitution, particularly as it concerned the senate approval of treaties.
In spite of his part in the Gardoqui fiasco, Jay remained in charge of the nation's foreign relations until 1789 when President-elect Washington, recognizing his zealous and influential activities in the Federalist cause, asked Jay which post he wished to occupy in the new administration. Chief justice of the United States, Jay replied, and he was thereupon appointed by and with the consent and advice of the Senate.
In 1792, he resigned to run unsuccessfully for the governorship of New York. Two years later, in 1794, Jay was given another diplomatic assignment, being named by President Washington as special envoy to Great Britain, with whom relations were very strained. In the treaty that resulted, the British complained that they had been "perfectly duped" by Jay. On this side of the Atlantic, Americans, particularly Jeffersonians, sneered at what they called "Jay's treaty" and denounced it as a "give-away." Whatever its defects, which were many, the treaty postponed war with Britain for almost two decades.
Running again for the governorship of New York, this time successfully, Jay served two terms. In 1801, when offered reappointment as chief justice of the United States, he declined and retired to the mansion he had built on his large country estate at Bedford, in Westchester County, New York, dying there in 1829 at the age of 84.