The inner circle of founders has been set for as long as anyone can remember — Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton and Madison.
Almost never mentioned is John Jay.
“Most people know something about him. … But very few know the full breadth of his accomplishments. Most are very surprised by what they learn,” explains Heather Iannucci, director of the John Jay Homestead in this Hudson River town where the country’s first chief justice and a governor of New York lived his final years.
As more of his papers have become available in the past decade, Jay’s admirers, ranging from specialists to such popular historians as Joseph Ellis and Walter Isaacson, have been arguing that a founder they believe underrated deserves a closer look — for achievements that extend to virtually every branch of government, on the state, federal and international level.
Jay was one of three contributors to the Federalist Papers, which helped define American government. He was president of the wartime Continental Congress, then served as secretary of foreign affairs, precursor to secretary of state, after the Revolutionary War ended. He was an essential diplomat whose peace negotiations with England, leading to the Treaty of Paris, vastly expanded U.S. territory.
For his accomplishments heading a network of informants during the revolution, the CIA calls Jay “the first national-level American counterintelligence chief.” He also helped write the New York Constitution and as governor signed legislation that phased out slavery in the state.
The founders bickered colorfully among themselves, but they agreed on the virtues of Jay. Noting his centrality in the talks with England, John Adams praised him as “of more importance than any of the rest of us.” Alexander Hamilton turned to Jay first when conceiving the Federalist Papers, and George Washington thought so much of him that when he was forming his original Cabinet, he offered the first position — any position — to Jay, who chose the Supreme Court.
“He’s been hiding in plain sight for all this time,” says Ellis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who features Jay in his current best-seller, in which he places Jay among four founders who made the U.S. Constitution possible. “We can argue about who can be on top of the list of most important founders until the cows come home, but it’s clear he should be part of the list.”
Ellis acknowledged his own slighting of Jay. In his Pulitzer-winning “Founding Brothers,” Ellis does not include Jay among the eight “most prominent political leaders in the early republic,” an omission Stahr points out in his biography. “If I knew what I know now when I wrote ‘Founding Brothers,’ Jay would have been one of the players,” Ellis now says.
Jay supporters believe his relative anonymity is mostly a story of paperwork and personality.
The balding, gray-eyed Jay lived quietly and died quietly, not on a battlefield or in a duel, but in his library, at age 83. He was not a humorist like Franklin, or intemperate like Hamilton, but dependable and unusually honorable.
A merchant’s son, Jay was born in New York in 1745 and grew up comfortably on an estate in Rye, about 25 miles north of the city. He had planned a career in law and, like Franklin, was a moderate in the early years of the revolution, believing that differences with the British could be negotiated. The British use of military power to enforce order changed his mind.
Luck, timing and politics may have harmed his legacy. He was in New York at the time the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, and Stahr said it was unclear whether he would have endorsed it.
His greatest controversy involves a document that bears his name. In 1794, more than a decade after the Treaty of Paris, then-Chief Justice Jay was asked by Washington to return to London and prevent what the president and others feared was imminent war. The final agreement, the Jay Treaty, maintained peace but was criticized for being too favorable to the British. Jay, already suspected as pro-British by the rival Republican Party, was burned in effigy in several cities. Scholars still debate whether Jay got the best terms possible.
From the mid-1770s to the early 1800s, he was rarely out of public life and could have stayed longer. Late in John Adams’ administration, which ended in 1801, he wanted Jay to return as U.S. chief justice. Jay, who had left that position in 1795 to become New York’s governor, declined, and the job went to the man who shaped the modern court, John Marshall.
Like a proper gentleman of his time, Jay settled peacefully in the country, having long dreamed of retirement. But his wife Sarah fell ill and died in 1802, within months of their move. Devastated at first but sustained by his religion, Jay looked after his farm, advocated for education for blacks and became president of the American Bible Society. As his health faded, he asked that instead of a high-priced funeral his family find “one poor widow or orphan” and donate $200. Jay died on May 16, 1829.
“Unlike John Adams, who spent a lot of time defending his place in history, Jay does not spend a lot of time on that,” Stahr says. “He answers letters as they arrive, but doesn’t seek out writing engagements. The War of 1812 is very worrisome because he devoted a lot of his time to avoiding that. And he worried about the emerging tensions between North and South.
“In the end, he’s more worried about America than he is about John Jay.”