Federalist John Jay: History & Facts

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  • 0:00 John Jay, a Founding Father
  • 0:40 Early Life & Career
  • 2:24 John Jay, The Federalist
  • 4:15 Later Years & Retirement
  • 4:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll learn about the first Chief Justice of the United States: John Jay. We'll take a look at his accomplishments in foreign affairs, explore his other contributions to the young American Republic, and discover why he's an important Founding Father.

John Jay, a Founding Father

John Jay was an important American statesman and a Founding Father of the United States. He served in a variety of capacities throughout his lifetime, but is most commonly known for being the first Chief Justice of the United States. He also served as President of the Continental Congress, ambassador to Spain, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and governor of New York. However, John Jay wasn't a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Jay was a Federalist, and supported a strong, centralized government. He also helped author the Federalist Papers.

Early Life & Career

John Jay was born to a prominent family in New York City in 1745. His father was a successful businessman who had descended from French Huguenots. Jay attended King's College (later Columbia University) in 1760 and graduated in 1764. After passing the bar, he went on to practice law. Jay married Sarah Van Brugh Livingston in 1774.

Over the course of the American Revolution, Jay's political views underwent significant changes. As a young man, Jay was a Loyalist, but as the Revolution progressed, he adopted increasingly radical views. In the early stages of the Revolution, Jay was a moderate who favored reconciliation with Great Britain rather than American independence.

However, as the Revolutionary War became increasingly deadly, Jay realized reconciliation was unlikely, and became an ardent patriot. He didn't vote on or sign the Declaration of Independence, probably because at this stage of his life he was not convinced independence was the best course of action. Jay was delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress, and served as President of the Continental Congress from 1778 to 1779.

In 1779, Jay was appointed a diplomat to Spain, but his efforts there were generally unproductive. Along with Benjamin Franklin and others, Jay helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris, and he signed it in 1783, bringing an end to the Revolutionary War. Between 1784 and 1789, he served as Secretary of Foreign Affairs. In this position, he sought to foster national stability and was constantly involved in sorting out disagreements between the U.S. and numerous European powers.

John Jay, the Federalist

Jay was a Federalist. He recognized the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation, and pushed for a stronger, more centralized government. He was also wary of radicalized mob rule. Although he did not attend the Constitutional Convention, he played an important role in arguing for a new government under the U.S. Constitution. In his home state of New York, Jay was instrumental in making sure the U.S. Constitution passed ratification. Jay was also an avid writer, and he collaborated with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to write the Federalist Papers.

In 1789, President George Washington offered Jay the position of Secretary of State. When Jay declined, Washington offered him the position of Chief Justice of the United States, which Jay accepted. Jay served in this position from 1789 to 1795. As the first Chief Justice of the United States, Jay was the head of the federal court system and the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court heard only four cases during Jay's term: West v. Barnes (1791), Hayburn's Case (1792), Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), and Georgia v. Brailsford (1794).

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