A Vision of Liberty
18th c. statesman, Jay's vision of liberty was advanced by diplomacy and reason.
An 18th-century lawyer, statesman, diplomat, American Founder, and the first Chief Justice of the United States, John Jay is remembered as a voice of moderation and temperance during the Founding period. In Jay’s view, American colonists had the privilege and responsibility to govern based on individual God-given human dignity and inherited English rights. Ideally, these liberties would be maintained and protected through public virtue, reason and peaceful deliberation. Yet vice could corrupt even the best of political constitutions, leading to tyranny and oppression. In such circumstances, reason and moral suasion were the first recourse of action. But when these sensible tactics were met with continued oppression, Jay urged Americans to make the sacrifices required to liberate themselves from British tyranny as well as to establish a new constitutional order of liberty and justice.
In this unfinished painting, Benjamin West depicts the American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Negotiations with Great Britain, who settled terms of the Treaty of Paris, formally ending the American War for Independence in 1783. Pictured from left to right are John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin. The British representative and his secretary are missing, having refused to sit for the artist.
Benjamin West, photograph Herb Crossan, American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Negotiations with Great Britain, 1783, Winterthur Museum, Gift of Henry Francis du Pont. Retrieved from https://metmuseum.org/
John Jay was born in New York on December 12, 1745, into a family heritage of French Protestants known as Huguenots. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 abolishing all rights of Protestants drove Jay’s family from France, leading his ancestors to settle with thousands of others in Britain. Jay never forgot the welcome and kindness England showed his refugee family, and his receptiveness to both French and British perspectives would help him in his later service as a diplomat.
Having lost their religious and political rights, French Huguenots fled to England for sanctuary where many prospered. Some families, including Jay’s grandfather, eventually settled with freedom in Britain’s American colonies. The illustration above depicts Huguenot refugees arriving on the English coast at Dover in Kent, 1685.
French Protestant Huguenot refugees arriving on the English coast at Dover in Kent, 1685. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Emigration of the Huguenots by Jan Antoon Neuhuys, 1566.
Jan Antoon Neuhuys, Emigration of the Huguenots, 1566, Private Collection. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/
It was Jay’s grandfather who brought the family to America. He settled in New York and adopted its Anglo-Dutch culture joining the Church of England and becoming a prominent merchant in the city. Jay’s parents eventually left the city to settle on a comfortable estate 25 miles north in Rye, New York. Raised in a devout Anglican family, at a very early age Jay demonstrated strong moral character and academic prowess. He entered King's College (now Columbia University) in New York City at the age of 14, where he studied under the tutelages of its founding president, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Johnson, and his successor the Rev. Dr. Myles Cooper.
In 1764, Jay graduated from King’s with highest honors and began to pursue a career in law. On the occasion of his graduation at the age 18, he delivered a speech at St. George’s Chapel to the College’s students, faculty, president and governors, as well as to various city dignitaries, clergymen, and the British commander, General Thomas Gage. With the French and Indian War recently concluded, Jay spoke on the merits and advantages of peace based on his studies of Hugo Grotius’s tome, The Rights of War and Peace.
The campus of King’s College (c. 1760s) in the City of New York. Founded by Anglican missionary, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Johnson, the college received a royal charter from King George II in 1754. Johnson had previously consulted with Benjamin Franklin about a “new-model” plan for an American college. The College’s early graduates included American Founders John Jay, Robert Livingston, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouvernor Morris.
King’s College, drawing by E.P. Chrystie. University Archives, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York
Frontispiece of Hugo Grotius's The Rights of War and Peace. Grotius was a 16th-century Dutch jurist who is considered the father of international law. He was a serious student of the Bible, Christian theology, and Jewish thought. Jay studied Grotius views about war and peace while at King’s College.
Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, including the Law of Nature and of Nations, translated from the Original Latin of Grotius, with Notes and Illustrations from Political and Legal Writers, by A.C. Campbell, A.M. with an Introduction by David J. Hill (New York: M. Walter Dunne, 1901). Retrieved from http://oll.libertyfund.org/
By the time Jay began practicing law, mounting tensions between the colonies and the British Government had begun to erupt into violent conflicts. A moderate in the early years of the revolution, Jay believed that these conflicts could be carefully negotiated and peacefully resolved. As Britain’s oppressive measures against the colonies escalated, however, Jay acknowledged the need for immediate reaction. In an urgent meeting of the New York Committee of Correspondence, Jay and his fellow committee members called on the colonies to come together and discuss methods for defending their inherited rights. Jay, along with other elected delegates, gathered in Philadelphia to form the First Continental Congress and debate the colonies’ next actions.
The Boston Port Bill was a coercive legislative measure of British Parliament in 1774 that closed the Port of Boston to punish Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party. Boston patriot Josiah Quincy published “Observations on the Boston Port Bill” to urge united counter-action on the part of the colonists. In reaction to the Boston Port Bill, the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in September, 1774 where delegates of the colonies debated and resolved appropriate unified actions in response to the Boston Port Bill.
"Observations on the Boston Port Bill," by Josiah Quincy, 1774.
Josiah Quincy, "Observations on the act of Parliament commonly called the Boston port-bill with thoughts on civil society and standing armies," Published 1774. Retrieved from https://openlibrary.org
"The able doctor, or, America swallowing the bitter draught" cartoon satirically depicts “British leaders” and supporters of the Boston Port Bill forcing tea (the Intolerable Acts) down the throat of a Native American female who is “America” while the other female figure, Britannia, turns away and covers her face with her left hand.
The able doctor, or, America swallowing the bitter draught, May 1, 1774, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/
Significantly influenced by temperate advice of 28 year-old Jay, the Continental Congress agreed to appeal to Great Britain before considering further the possibility of revolt. “The Address to the People of Great Britain,” drawn up by Jay to communicate America’s rights, grievances, and to propose a means of redress, was later declared by Thomas Jefferson as "a production certainly of the finest pen in America.”
When a Nation, led to greatness by the hand of Liberty, and possessed of all the Glory that heroism, munificence, and humanity can bestow, descends to the ungrateful task of forging chains for her friends and children, and instead of giving support to Freedom, turns advocate for Slavery and Oppression, there is reason to suspect she has either ceased to be virtuous, or been extremely negligent in the appointment of her Rulers.
This stained-glass panel depicts the first prayer in Congress, delivered by the Rev. Jacob Duché, rector of Christ’s Church (Anglican) in Philadelphia’s Carpenters’ Hall on September 7, 1774. Jay is pictured as kneeling in the lower right corner.
The Prayer in the First Congress, A.D. 1774. The Liberty Window, Christ Church, Philadelphia, after a painting by Harrison Tompkins Matteson, c. 1848. Courtesy of the Rector, Church Wardens and Vestrymen of Christ Church, Philadelphia. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov
This mural by Allyn Cox is housed in the U.S. Capitol and depicts an oration by Patrick Henry during the meeting of the First Continental Congress in 1774. Henry argued that all colonial governments in America were dissolved, that the colonies were in a state of nature to re-form a new government, presumably independent from Britain. Jay rose to the floor to disagree with Henry championing moderation. Led by Jay and others, cooler heads prevailed in the First Continental Congress seeking peaceful redress with the British Government.
Architect of the Capitol, Photography of the Allyn Cox Mural of The First Continental Congress, October 10, 2011. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org
By the time the Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775, the Battles of Lexington and Concord had signaled the start of a civil war. Plans to discuss further diplomacy with the British government instead became a conversation about how to take charge of the war effort. Jay still held out hope for a peaceful resolution, and persuaded the Congress to make one final attempt at reconciliation. The Olive Branch Petition, whose drafting committee included Jay and Delegates John Dickinson and Benjamin Franklin, was delivered to the British Crown with various conciliatory proposals for reconciliation and peace.
King George III’s rejection of the petition or any talks of compromise marked a change in Jay’s attitude. With all avenues of peaceful rapprochement exhausted, he understood that revolution was inevitable to protecting and securing the liberties now threatened by British policies. "Before this time," he later wrote, "I never did hear any American of any class, or of any description, express a wish for the independence of the colonies." The peace-loving, diplomatic and conciliatory Jay had become a reluctant revolutionary and instrumental leader in the cause of the American independence.
The first page of the Olive Branch Petition, 1775. Jay served on the drafting committee of the Olive Branch Petition, a last ditch effort by the Continental Congress for reconciliation with Britain.
John Dickinson, The "Olive Branch" Petition. Autograph manuscript, signed by the members of the Second Continental Congress on July 8, 1775. The New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division. Retrieved from http://exhibitions.nypl.org/
A Revolutionary War broadside, c. 1775 for recruiting volunteers for service in the Continental Army.
Reproduction of engraving by B. Jones, Broadside soliciting recruits for Continental Army, 1775, Connecticut Historical Society. Retrieved from http://collections.ctdigitalarchive.org/
The path to independence proved to be longer and more violent than many had hoped. By December of 1776, the morale of the Continental Army was at a low point. Faced with the bleak realities of the war, several devastating defeats, the encroaching enemy, and the punishing conditions of a brutal winter, continental forces appeared to be on the losing side of the fight for independence. It was during this time that one of Jay’s most important writings of the revolution was published. Written in a sermonic style that reflected his biblical knowledge, “the Address of the Convention of the Representatives of the State of New York to Their Constituents” called on citizens to rally against political enslavement and tyranny, and to acknowledge their God-given responsibility to defend their liberties.
If then, God hath given us freedom, are we responsible to him for that, as well as other talents? If it be our birthright, let us not sell it for a mess of pottage, nor suffer it to be torn from us by the hand of violence! … Consider that, from the earliest ages of the world, Religion, Liberty and Empire, have been bounding their course toward the setting sun. The Holy Gospels are yet to be preached to those western regions, and we have the highest reason to believe that the Almighty will not suffer Slavery and the Gospel to go hand in hand!
After independence was declared, several acts of vandalism against symbols of royal authority were perpetrated by patriots as depicted in this pulling down the statue of George III by the "Sons of Freedom," at the Bowling Green, City of New York, July 1776.
Pulling down the statue of George III by the "Sons of Freedom," at the Bowling Green, City of New York, July 1776
Niday Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo
In May 1782, Jay joined Benjamin Franklin in Paris to enter joint negotiations for peace with Great Britain. Through these talks, Jay and Franklin managed to secure surprisingly liberal terms with British leaders. Among the agreement’s most notable achievements was Britain’s recognition of American independence, for which Jay strongly advocated. The final Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, and ratified by the Continental Congress early in 1784, thus concluding the Revolutionary War and, with it, achieving Jay’s vision of a nation free from imperial tyranny.
We most sincerely and cordially congratulate Congress and our country in general on this happy event; and we hope the same kind Providence which has led us through a vigorous war to an honorable peace will enable us to make a wise and moderate use of that inestimable blessing.
The first page of the Treaty of Paris, the legal instrument ending the American War for Independence in 1783. Jay was a principal negotiator of the terms of peace.
Treaty of Paris, 1783; International Treaties and Related Records, 1778-1974; General Records of the United States Government, Record Group 11; National Archives. Retrieved from https://www.ourdocuments.gov
Shortly after the war ended Jay directed his efforts more fully to domestic matters of liberty—in particular, recommitting himself fully to the elimination of slavery in New York, a cause he had publicly championed as early as 1777. Jay believed the principles of liberty that led the nation to fight for its independence were incompatible with the institution of slavery, and he frequently spoke against its practice in public and private. Writing to a friend and political colleague while serving abroad, Jay suggested that, “an excellent law might be made out of the Pennsylvania one for the gradual abolition of slavery.” Jay, then sermonized, “Till America comes into this measure, her prayers to Heaven for liberty will be impious.” Despite this urging, slavery persisted in his home state. Jay decided to take the matter into his own hands.
The cause of liberty, like most other good causes, will have its difficulties, and sometimes its persecutions, to struggle with. ...That men should pray and fight for their own freedom, and yet keep others in slavery, is certainly acting a very inconsistent as well as unjust and, perhaps, impious part. ...All that the best men can do is, to persevere in doing their duty to their country, and leave the consequences to Him who made it their duty; being neither elated by success, however great, nor discouraged by disappointments however frequent and mortifying.
In 1785 Jay, along with a group of mutually concerned leaders including Alexander Hamilton, founded the New York State Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves. The organization began its work by protesting the practice of kidnapping and transporting blacks for sale in other states. The society also provided assistance to slaves and former slaves in need of legal representation.
Additionally, Jay believed in private and public support of education for African Americans. Two years after the founding of the manumission society, he helped to found the New York African Free School. The board members for the school raised funds for building infrastructure, teachers' salaries, and school supplies. Jay and his board also regularly visited and reported on the state of the school and its pupils, which totaled more than 1,000 students by the time it was handed over to the state for management.
Under Jay’s leadership, the New York legislature adopted a measure for gradual abolition in 1799. The law freed slave children born after July 4, 1799, after they had served apprenticeships aimed at compensating owners for their financial losses. The measure also prohibited all export of slaves for sale across state lines. Jay’s example served to inspire his children and grandchildren, who continued his abolitionist causes into the 19th century.
A manumission certificate from the state of New York, 1813.
Manumission certificate of John Moore, 1813, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. Retrieved from https://blacknewyorkers-nypl.org
An engraving of the New York African Free-School, c. 1830.
Charles C. Andrews, The History of the New-York African Free-Schools, 1830, Mahlon Day. Retrieved from https://books.google.com
I wish to see all unjust and all unnecessary discriminations everywhere abolished, and that the time may soon come when all our inhabitants of every color and denomination shall be free and equal partakers of our political liberty.
In 1794, while serving as the country’s first Chief Justice of the United States, Jay was again tasked with defending America’s liberties. A decade after the Treaty of Paris, tensions began to escalate over British trade restrictions, impressment of American citizens, and the continuing presence of British military fortifications on American soil. President George Washington, fearing another war was imminent, sent Jay as a special envoy to Great Britain.
Jay headed to London and negotiated what would later become known as the Jay Treaty. This agreement averted war by resolving many of the outstanding issues between the two nations. Despite a poor reception from many Americans who denounced it as appeasing Britain, President Washington endorsed the treaty. He saw that Jay’s efforts would aid commercial interests and ensure a much needed time of peace as the new country was established.
A depiction of a British pressgang, who forced American citizens into serving in the British navy. Pressgangs were among the grievances Jay was to address in his diplomatic mission to Britain in 1794.
Edgar Stanton Maclay, A youthful man-o'-warsman, from the diary of an English lad, reproduction of George Morland's A Pressgang at Work, 1910, Internet Archive. Retrieved from https://archive.org
Civil Liberty consists, not in a right of every man to do just what he pleases, but it consists in an equal right to all citizens to have, enjoy and do, in peace, security and without molestation, whatever equal constitutional laws of the country admit to be consistent with the public good.
Jay retired from public office in 1801. He spent his later years looking after his farm and assisting in charitable causes, including serving as president of American Bible Society. As an openly devout man, Jay frequently quoted biblical passages in his personal and professional writing, and served actively in both his local parish and the national Protestant Episcopal Church. Jay’s unwavering vision of American liberty—one of peaceful order characterized by civic virtues, where all citizens enjoyed the basic rights and freedoms of human dignity bequeathed by God—helped shape the early foundations of America and move the country toward the eventual abolition of slavery.