Chief Justice John Jay: Family Background and Major Facts

U.S. Chief Justice John Jay

John Jay

In addition to being a prominent Founding Father and a statesman, John Jay was the first Chief Justice of the United States of America. Here is a quick look at John Jay’s family background and major facts that you probably did not know.

  • John Jay hailed from a very wealthy family of merchants based in New York City. Many of his family members rose to prominence after they fled France and the Netherlands due to religious persecution.
  • He grew up in Rye, New York; and for the most part of his childhood, he was home schooled. However, he did have a brief spell at an Anglican school in New Rochelle.
  • Auguste Jay – his paternal grandfather – settled in Charleston, South Carolina and then later moved to New York. The family then went into traded furs, timber and several other goods.
  • His maternal grandfather – Jacobus Van Cortlandt – served in the New York Assembly. Jacobus was also a two-time mayor of New York City.
  • Two of his siblings – Peter and Anna – were blighted by smallpox and both later went blind. His other brothers Augustus and Frederick suffered from mental illness and financial problems respectively. Then there was his brother James who was on the other side of the political aisle; he was a Loyalist [to the British monarchy].
  • At the age of 28, John Jay got married to Sarah Van Brugh Livingston on April 28, 1774. Sarah, who was 17 by then, was the oldest daughter of William Livingston, then-New Jersey Governor. Sarah and Jay had six children – Peter Augustus, Maria, Susan, Ann, Sarah Louisa, and William. The family remained together even when Jay was in Europe on official duties.
  • He and fellow Founding Father Robert Livingston were friends since childhood. Livingston’s parents were also from well-to-do families.
  • John Jay’s homes in Westchester County are today part of the National Historic Landmarks.

    Chief Justice John Jay

    John Jay quotes, The Federalist Papers

Other interesting facts about John Jay

  • His name popped up in some of the first few general elections; however he never really pursued it. He was much content with working in the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • The reason why Southerners opposed John Jay’s negotiated treaty (the Jay Treaty in 1795) was because they did not get compensated for the freed slaves during the Revolutionary War. As for the likes of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, they opposed it because they felt that Britain would have undue influence on American and perhaps affects its republican values.
  • Like many of his fellow founding fathers, Jay is believed to have owned slaves. Although, he was in favor of gradual emancipation, he did engage in the buying of slaves, which he would later manumit.
  • In his ‘Address to the People of Great Britain’, Jay compared the extent of Britain’s oppression to that of slavery in America. Other Patriots such as James Otis also made similar comparisons.
  • Owing to his Protestant roots, John Jay at one point in time argued strongly for Catholics to be prevented from holding public offices. A deeply religious man, he was the president of the American Bible Society from 1821 to 1827. He believed that real Christianity could save the nation from all the conflicts and bloodshed.

No human society has ever been able to maintain both order and freedom, both cohesiveness and liberty apart from the moral precepts of the Christian Religion. Should our Republic ever forget this fundamental precept of governance, we will then, be surely doomed.

  • At the initial stages of the Revolution, Jay was involved in fishing out for Loyalists and British sympathizers in New York.
  • He was not part of those delegates that signed the Declaration of Independence because his position as a Congressman did not allow for that.
  • From 1777 to 1779, John Jay served as the Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature. He was elected to that position on May 8, 1777.
  • From December 10, 1778 to September 28, 1779, he served as the 6th President of the Continental Congress. He succeeded Henry Laurens, who had a bit of a fall out with some delegates. Jay won eight states versus four states won by Laurens.
  • In the 1792 New York governor race, he lost to George Clinton of the Democratic-Republican Party.
  • In May 1795, he was elected 2nd Governor of New York, succeeding George Clinton. Upon his election, he resigned from his seat on the Supreme Court. Jay stayed as governor of New York for six years (1795-1801).

    John Jay

    The Jay Treaty (1795)

Retirement and death

  • In 1801, he retired from active politics and returned to his home in Westchester County, New York. For health reasons, he declined the nomination from President John Adams to take a seat on the Supreme Court. Adams went on to nominate John Marshall to the position of Chief Justice.
  • John Jay strongly opposed Missouri’s admission as a slave state; he was disgusted at the idea of having slavery extend to new states.
  • On May 17, 1829, John Jay died at his New York home. The 83-year-old acclaimed statesman and lawyer succumbed to complications from a stroke that he had three days prior. John Jay was buried at Rye, New York.

Notable accomplishments

  • First Chief Justice of the United States (October 19, 1789 – June 29, 1795) – nominated by George Washington.
  • Negotiated the Treaty of Paris of 1783 and the Jay Treaty (1795)
  • As a member of the New York Provincial Congress, he was involved in drafting the Constitution of New York in 1777.
  • Jay was credited with writing the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixty-fourth articles in The Federalist Papers. The first few papers highlight the “Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence”.

Read More: John Jay’s Greatest Accomplishments

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