Few could fathom why 55-year-old John Jay turned down President Adams’s nomination to rejoin the Supreme Court when his two terms as New York’s governor ended. What would lead him, in the hale prime of life, to retire instead to the plain yellow house he’d just built on a hilltop at the remote northern edge of Westchester County, two days’ ride from Manhattan, where visitors were few and the mail and newspapers came but once a week? After 27 years at the forge of the new nation’s founding, why would so lavishly talented a man give up his vital role on the world stage for the quiet life of a gentleman farmer?
But just that option—the chance for every man to sit quietly under his vine and his fig tree, with none to make him afraid—is what he had labored more than a quarter-century to bring about, and he felt he had achieved it. As the first chief justice both of New York and of the United States, as president of Congress and governor of his state, as secretary for foreign affairs and, most important, as the diplomat who stamped his vision on America’s foreign policy for generations to come, he had tried to ensure for his countrymen the peace, order, and stability that had seemed to him fragile and elusive from the moment he was born.
A sense of life’s fragility hung over Jay’s childhood; already at six and seven, his father described him as “very grave” and “very reserved,” though “indowed with a very good capacity.” He grew up with a keen sense that his Huguenot ancestors—refugees, like the Plymouth Pilgrims, from religious tyranny—had fled to the New World in the nick of time after France began persecuting Protestants in 1685. Before he was born, smallpox had blinded an elder brother and sister, for whom, he later wrote, “this world has not been a Paradize”; of his four other siblings, one was retarded and another emotionally disturbed. Shortly after John’s birth on Manhattan’s Pearl Street in 1745, his father moved his brood to a farm bordering Long Island Sound in Rye, an easier setting for his two blind children. Though Jay’s father had grown rich as a merchant, married a Van Cortlandt heiress, and counted most of the colony’s Dutch and Huguenot establishment as his relatives, and though he and his wife were loving parents, Jay’s childhood after he went to boarding school at age eight in the French-speaking Huguenot town of Nouvelle Rochelle had its share of privations. His eccentric schoolmaster treated his pupils “with little food and much scolding,” Jay’s son and biographer William reports. The boy struggled to keep the snow off his bed by blocking up his broken window with scraps of wood.
After entering six-year-old King’s College (later Columbia) at 14 (the normal age) and spending four happy years among his 20-odd fellow collegians, Jay—six feet tall, stick-thin, round-shouldered, fine-boned, with a sensitive mouth and thoughtful, melancholy eyes—began his law studies as a clerk for kindly Benjamin Kissam, who perceived at once the young man’s talent. Your “Whirl of Imagination,” he wrote his clerk, “bespeaks the Grandeur . . . of the Intellectual Source from whence the Current flows.” Fellow clerk Lindley Murray, whose school grammars and readers later sold in the millions, remembered Jay as “remarkable for strong reasoning powers, comprehensive views, indefatigable application, and uncommon firmness of mind.”
But Jay’s placid interval was short-lived. In the first year of his four-year apprenticeship, Parliament passed the Stamp Act. Six months later, the American Revolution had its prologue a few blocks from Kissam’s John Street office at New York’s old City Hall on Wall Street, where Federal Hall now stands. There the Stamp Act Congress convened in October 1765, only the second time that representatives of the American colonies had ever met together and the first time that they themselves, rather than royal authorities, had convened such a conclave—“a Measure which we Conceive of dangerous Tendency in itself,” the shocked Lords of Trade spluttered in London. More important, it was the first time that the colonies unitedly drafted a Declaration of Rights, in which they claimed “the Freedom of a People, and the Undoubted Right of Englishmen, that no Taxes be imposed on them, but with their own Consent.” Such big doings down the street—especially since one of New York’s five delegates to the Congress was a cousin of Jay’s and another was Judge Robert R. Livingston, father of Jay’s best friend—made so strong an impression on the 19-year-old that 11 years later, at the First Continental Congress, he effortlessly recalled in debate the rules that the Stamp Act Congress had followed.
Historians speak of the 1765 Congress, with its fulsome pledges of loyalty to the king, as conservative. It was a funny kind of conservatism, though; for when Judge Livingston, probable author of the group’s “Address to the King,” wrote New York’s London agent that no one should view the meeting as factious, since it aimed to divert Parliament from a course that sooner or later “will naturally render the colonies independent,” he was veiling a threat under an assurance. The New-York Gazette had already made that threat explicit four months earlier, writing that with Britain and her colonies at such cross-purposes, “the Connection between them ought to cease—and sooner or later it must inevitably cease.”
Unambiguously unconservative was the response of a New York mob a week after the Congress broke up. At dusk on November 1, 1765, the day the Stamp Act was to take effect, “A Wonderfull Large Mob” of sailors, youths, farmers, and blacks, along with “many people of substance,” began to form, armed with clubs and torches, and threatening to “bury” Royal Artillery Major Thomas James, who supposedly “had threatened to cram the stamps down their throats with the point of my sword.” Outside Fort George, where the first shipment of stamps lay under Lieutenant Governor Colden’s protection, the crowd hanged effigies of Colden and ex–prime minister Bute, before burning them in a bonfire, along with the outraged Colden’s cherished carriage of state. Then the rioters surged to Major James’s newly furnished house and despoiled it, frenziedly smashing fine furniture, mirrors, and paintings, slitting and shredding the mattresses and silk curtains, stealing the silver, trampling the garden, guzzling the wine, and smearing butter over what remained. At four in the morning, they straggled off. Jay’s father witnessed this “most surprising ferment on account of the stamp papers, and as violent attempts were intended to get them out of the Fort, I thought it most prudent for us to withdraw immediately to our more peaceable habitation in the country.” Rumors of mobs coming to “plunder the Town” swirled for the next week, and British commander in chief Thomas Gage warned Colden that if such a mob materialized and his men opened fire on it, “the consequence would . . . be an Insurrection” and “the Commencement of a Civil War.”
In this turbulent atmosphere—and rioting went on sporadically in the city of 18,000 for the next decade—John Jay came of age and worked out his view of the world and of himself. A week after the Stamp Act passed (but before the news reached America), he was still an adolescent, writing one of his few letters of this period, a passionate, unguarded avowal of friendship to Judge Livingston’s son, with an eager pleasure in young Robert’s having “opened wide those Doors of Friendship, into which I had long desired to enter” and looking forward to “our voyage to Eternity.” But after New York’s November riots, the city’s 30 or so lawyers suspended business because they refused to use the hated stamps required for legal documents (with unerring stupidity young George III and his apparatchik ministers had passed a radicalizing measure that fell hardest on America’s opinion-forming lawyers and journalists). Hence Jay had ample time to meditate upon the ferment seething around him. By the last year of his legal apprenticeship, 1768, everyone at the lawyer-dominated Debating Society Jay belonged to knew what one of the debaters meant (in a match Jay’s side won) when he spoke feelingly of “the Blessings of order and Tranquility and of the pernicious Consequences of Faction and Riot.”
Looking back on this period a decade later in a letter to Livingston—who had been his law partner from 1768 to 1770 and would go on to become chancellor of New York, secretary for foreign affairs, Jay’s unsuccessful opponent in the gubernatorial election of 1798, negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase, and the backer of Robert Fulton’s steamboat enterprise—Jay mused on the vast changes he saw in himself. Back in ’65, he wrote, he was “ambitious,” “pertinacious,” filled with “Bashfulness and Pride,” as “sensible of Indignities” as Livingston but more “prone to sudden Resentment.” How right he was about the stiff-necked pride, a mixture of stubborn principle and hair-trigger defensiveness against an ever-present sense of threat. A few weeks before his college graduation, he got briefly suspended for ostentatiously refusing to snitch on a classmate and brandishing the college bylaws to show that no rule required him to do so. As a novice lawyer, he had all but challenged the colonial attorney general to a duel for conduct that “represents me in an insignificant Point of View,” and he even expressed willingness to duel with an aggrieved young man he’d turned down for membership in the fashionable dancing assembly he cochaired. But though in those days, he might have been formed more “for a college or a Village” than for “a citizen of the World,” he told Livingston, he had since developed the requisite worldly flexibility, vivacity, and control over his pride, his facial expression, and his passions.
Though he didn’t mention it, he’d gained one other quality he’d confessed to having lacked in 1765—an understanding of women. For in 1774, he married as splendid a wife as could be found: Robert’s second cousin, Sarah Van Brugh Livingston, who shines out from her vivid letters like all of Jane Austen’s winsome heroines rolled into one, with sense and sensibility to spare. Then 17 while her husband was 28, Sally was one of the so-called three graces, the witty, spunky, and beautiful daughters of lawyer William Livingston, long one of New York City’s foremost politicians and then governor of New Jersey. While representing his family’s princely Livingston Manor in the New York Legislature, he had founded the influential (and wonderfully named) Independent Reflector, in which he had argued as early as 1752 that governments rest on the “free consent of Mankind” and that “those who have cloathed [a king] with Authority have a Right to strip him of it, whenever he abuses it.” Of Sally, the urbane Gouverneur Morris bantered the year before her marriage, “Never was a Little Creature so admired (I speak seriously). . . . As to her Heart when in the Midst of her Admirers it singeth with Joy. . . . The rosy Fingers of Pleasure paint her Cheeks with double Crimson. . . . And so it will continue if the Whim does not take her to get in Love.” But the whim did take her, and as her sister Kitty wrote a few years later, “Mr. & Mrs. Jay can be unhappy no where. They love each other too well.”
When the couple returned from their wedding trip in late May, though, Jay found the world turned upside down. While he was gone, news had reached New York of the first of Parliament’s Intolerable Acts, closing Boston’s port in retaliation for December’s Boston Tea Party—of which New Yorkers had held their own version the week before the Jays’ wedding, dumping overboard the first cargo of East India tea to reach town. Jay, by now a leading lawyer earning £1,000 a year, found himself already named to a committee to correspond with the other colonies and decide what to do, a committee whose numbers, form, and name shifted over the next two years but that ended up running both the city and the entire province. The committee joined the call for a continental congress, to which Jay won election in July 1774.
Jay’s townsmen pegged this youngest of all the congressional delegates as a conservative; and certainly, when an overwrought Patrick Henry exclaimed at the Congress’s start that “Government is at an End. All distinctions are thrown out. . . . We are in a State of Nature,” Jay mildly retorted, “I cant yet think all Government is at an End. The Measure of Arbitrary power is not full, and I think it must run over, before We undertake to frame a new Constitution.” Let’s not get carried away and think “We came to frame an American constitution, instead of indeavouring to correct the faults in an old one.” A reasonable remonstrance to Britain, Jay hoped, coupled with a determined trade boycott, ought to bring the ministry to its senses. Jay’s conservatism consisted only in this: that he would omit no effort—consistent with the rights of man and of Englishmen—to avoid an irreparable breach.
Assigned to write Congress’s “Address to the People of Great Britain,” Jay explained what those rights were. There’s no reason “why English subjects, who live three thousand miles from the royal palace, should enjoy less liberty than those who are three hundred miles distant from it,” he declared. “No power on earth has a right to take our property from us without our consent” or our “inestimable right of trial by jury,” as Britain has done in setting up admiralty courts, in which “a single man, a creature of the crown,” sits in judgment in tax-evasion cases on defendants presumed guilty until they prove their innocence. If Britons allow such injustices to befall their American cousins, they should keep two things in mind, Jay cautioned. First, “we will never submit to be hewers of wood or drawers of water for any ministry or nation in the world.” Second, “take care that you do not fall into the pit that is preparing for us.” Still, even after the king ignored Congress’s first petition, even after Concord and Lexington, Jay pressed for one last-ditch try in the Second Continental Congress, John Dickinson’s fruitless July 1775 “Olive Branch Petition,” some of whose language Jay supplied. But he remained realistic: in expressing his hope for an enduring American union with Great Britain, he conceded, “God knows how the Contest will end.”
More realistically still, while Congress was extending its olive branch with one hand, it was gathering up arrows with the other. In May 1775, in response to rumors that Britain was readying troops to enforce its will and might land them in New York, Congress advised New Yorkers “to persevere the more vigorously in preparing for their defence, as it is very uncertain whether the . . . conciliatory Measures will be successful.” In June, Congress began to raise an army and named George Washington its chief, two days before the Battle of Bunker Hill showed the British that they faced an unexpectedly hard war. Passing through New York when news of the fierce fighting arrived, the new commander, realizing that the politically divided colony’s royal governor, William Tryon, would probably start arming the loyalists, issued his first official order—to arrest Tryon if he did.
Both the rumors of invasion and Washington’s instincts about the loyalists proved correct, and John Jay rushed to counter each threat. To prepare for the invasion, he had to deal with an unintended consequence of the trade boycott he had championed and helped enforce. Not only did the ban fail to stem England’s harshness, as planned, but it also kept the colonies from stockpiling war supplies they turned out to need desperately. By the time even reluctant rebels like Jay understood that “the Sword must decide the Controversy,” New Yorkers were reduced to stripping the lead out from between their windowpanes to cast into bullets, and melting down their brass door knockers and bronze church bells for cannon. Pathetically, until better weapons turned up, Jay sent from Philadelphia a well-designed spear for New York craftsmen to copy.
After the new British commander in chief, Sir William Howe, moved the strategic center of the war to New York, aiming to use its great harbor as the hub of naval operations and to take control of the Hudson River, cutting New England off from the rest of America and then conquering the colonies one by one, Jay went on a wild ride through Connecticut, rounding up cannon from the Salisbury foundry to defend the river and heavy chain to block the Royal Navy from sailing up it. But supplies—everything from bullets to blankets to boots—remained scarce for the entire war. “There have been instances, and I speak from the most undoubted authority,” wrote Jay in 1780, “of considerable detachments marching barefooted over rugged tracts of ice and snow, and marking the route they took by the blood that issued from their feet.”
As for the loyalists, New York was unique among the colonies in the strength of its residents’ attachment to the mother country; at least a third wholeheartedly supported the king and another third trimmed from side to side.
After the brothers Howe, general and admiral, sailed into New York Harbor on June 29, 1776, turning it into “a wood of pine trees” from the Lower Bay to the Tappan Zee with the masts of 82 warships—once the British occupied the city in September and kept it as a stronghold for the next seven years—the whole colony became a dragon-ridden theater of threat, fear, and violence. If John Jay had seen one kind of ferocious anarchy in the urban riots of 1765, when he watched men in a frenzy of murderous destructiveness, he lived through a different kind of anarchy, no less fearsome and instructive about human nature and its brutish capacity for evil, from 1776 to ’78.
Sitting on the cool veranda of his Westchester farmhouse before moving into his richly carpeted dining room, with its “JJ”-monogrammed Chinese-export dishes bought for his wedding, its table and 24 chairs of the finest and heaviest mahogany skillfully carved in the simplest, least pretentious late-eighteenth-century style, an elderly John Jay talked of these times one memorable evening to his son William’s boyhood schoolmate, James Fenimore Cooper, who became the new country’s first novelist. Two weeks before the British entered New York Harbor, New York’s Provincial Congress, of which Jay was a member while also a Continental Congressman, had assigned him to chair a committee to deal with fifth-columnists, and he evoked for his young friend Cooper the shadowy world of “plots, conspiracies, and chimeras dire” he would occupy for some time to come.
He found that Governor Tryon had indeed “been very mischievous,” raising a corps of New York’s British sympathizers to support the invading army when it arrived and funneling money to them through the city’s mayor. More alarmingly, he found that the plotters included a soldier of George Washington’s bodyguard, who, according to later rumor (never proved), plotted to kill the general. The mayor went to jail, the guardsman to the gallows.
What Cooper remembered from that long evening’s talk was Jay’s description of how, as head of the Committee for Detecting Conspiracies, he had run a spy ring in Westchester and the Hudson Valley once the British had occupied Manhattan, Staten Island, and all of Long Island, a tale Cooper elaborated in 1821 into the very first best-selling American novel, The Spy. With the Royal Navy commanding Long Island Sound and part of the Hudson, and the British army driving Washington’s small, ill-equipped force across New Jersey, politically divided Westchester, Cooper recounts, “had many of the features of a civil war,” with the British invaders “profiting by these internal dissentions” by arming troops of loyalist auxiliaries “to reduce the young republic to subjection.” The Americans formed their own troops of irregulars in response, for “annoying the enemy,” who had regular, as well as ragtag, troops in the county. Both guerrilla groups, the patriot “Skinners” and the loyalist “Cow-Boys,” tended to degenerate into savage and pitiless marauders—roving “banditti of ruffians” (as Tom Paine described the State of Nature’s primal hordes)—“whose sole occupation appears to have been that of relieving their fellow-citizens from any little excess of temporal prosperity they might be thought to enjoy,” as happened to John Jay’s father and siblings, leaving them only their clothes and their lives. They were lucky, though, as this gang of Cow-Boys murdered some of their other victims.
“Oppression and injustice” reigned, says Cooper. “The law was momentarily extinct in that particular district, and justice was administered subject to the bias of personal interests and the passions of the strongest.” The locals lived in doubt and fear of predators, often too demoralized to plant crops, distrustful of their neighbors, and hiding their real sympathies—if they had them. Patrick Henry was wrong in saying that America had returned to the State of Nature in 1774, but in Westchester in the late 1770s, it was Thomas Hobbes’s war of all against all—a laboratory demonstration for political philosophers and a graduate education for John Jay.
Though Jay never named him, he told Cooper the story of one of his spies, Enoch Crosby, whose 1832 deposition requesting a federal pension recounts adventures much like those of Cooper’s hero, Harvey Birch. A virtuoso of deception and double-dealing, brave, cool, resourceful, and patriotic, Crosby, surviving hair-raisingly narrow escapes, helped American troops capture some 100 recruits to the British forces, some loyalist by conviction, some opportunistic freebooters.
Once elected chief justice of New York in May 1777, Jay remained knee-deep in such banditti. “I am now engaged in the most disagreeable part of my duty—trying criminals,” he wrote Gouverneur Morris in the spring of 1778. “The Woods afford them Shelter and the Tories Food. Punishments must of course become certain, and Mercy dormant, a harsh System repugnant to my Feelings, but nevertheless necessary.” He had before his court in Albany a gang of Cow-Boys who’d looted two Columbia County farms, killing the son of one farmer, a Continental soldier home on leave. They were “tory criminals,” according to the New-York Journal, bandits and traitors rolled into one. “Their thefts and robberies they justified, under the pretense of the goods being lawful prizes, forfeited to the King.” Jay sentenced ten of them to hang.
Anyone who wants to keep his hands clean and his conscience pure had better not choose politics as a vocation, Max Weber famously wrote, because politics operates through “power backed up by violence,” and its guiding principle—the very opposite of the Christian command to “Resist not him that is evil with force”—is “ ‘Thou shalt resist evil by force,’ or else you are responsible for the evil’s winning out.” But here one enters a moral morass, for “he who lets himself in for politics, that is, for power and force as means, contracts with diabolical powers, and for his action it is not true that good can follow only from good and evil only from evil, but that often the opposite is true.” John Jay came to understand this ethical dilemma with all his being once he began detecting conspiracies. For if it’s disagreeable enough to hang men for their heinous actions, what about jailing or banishing people from their homes on suspicion—on information from spies about their political beliefs, or on their refusal to take loyalty oaths? Should people be punished not just for their action but also for their inaction? For their beliefs?
As early as November 1775, Jay answered by proposing harsh measures when Congress asked him how to handle disaffection in Queens County on Long Island, which declared itself neutral in the looming conflict and voted not to send delegates to Philadelphia. It’s not acceptable to be “inactive spectators,” Jay declared, hoping, if the British win, “to purchase their favour and mercy at an easy rate,” while, if America wins, “they may enjoy, without expense of blood or treasure, all the blessings resulting from that liberty which they, in the day of trial, had abandoned.” Accordingly, he recommended that the declared neutrals “be put out of the protection of the United Colonies,” confined to their county, excluded from the law courts, and disarmed by New Jersey and Connecticut troops.
Some who claimed neutrality, Jay suspected, were actively supporting the enemy by “collecting and transmitting intelligence, raising false reports, and spreading calumnies of public men and measures.” Or worse, as he found when Beverley Robinson, a prosperous merchant related to his mother, came before his committee in February 1777. “Sir we have passed the Rubicon and it is now necessary every man Take his part,” Jay told Robinson. “Cast off all alliegiance to the King of Great Britain and take an oath of Alliegiance to the states of America or Go over to the enemy for we have Declared our Selves Independent.” This was an age, remember, when giving your word or swearing in God’s name put your honor or your soul at stake. Replied Robinson, “Sir I cannot Take the Oath but should be exceeding Glad to Stay in the Country.” Think it over, Jay advised. Jay wrote Robinson’s wife, urging her to persuade him to take the loyalty oath. But by then, Robinson had started to raise a loyalist regiment; and by March, Jay got news that he’d guided British regulars to attack American soldiers at Peekskill, wounding two.
But some of the neutrals were neither traitors, liars, nor trimmers, and Jay faced no harder case than that of his honorable King’s College friend Peter Van Schaack, who “condemned the conduct of the Home government” in London, Van Schaack’s son reported, but “was yet opposed to taking up arms in opposition to it” and felt conscience-bound not to take the loyalty oath against his king. Jay directed him to appear before the Albany authorities, whose proceedings led to his ultimate banishment to London, from which he wrote Jay in 1782, as the Revolution was drawing to a close, tentatively hoping to reopen communication. Jay replied at once: “I have adhered to certain fixed Principles, . . . without regarding the Consequences of such Conduct to my Friends, my Family, or myself; all of whom, however dreadful the Thought, I have ever been ready to sacrifice, if necessary, to the public Objects in Contest. Believe me, . . . I felt very sensibly for you and for others; but as Society can regard only the political Propriety of Men’s Conduct, and not the moral Propriety of their Motives to it, I could only lament your unavoidably becoming classed with many whose morality was convenience. . . . No one can serve two Masters: either Britain was right, and America wrong; or America was right, and Britain wrong. . . . Hence it became our Duty to take one Side or the other.” He closes by asking how his old friend and his children are doing. “While I have a Loaf, you and they may freely partake of it. Don’t let this Idea hurt you. If your Circumstances are easy, I rejoice; if not, let me take off their rougher Edges.”
Van Schaack wrote back with equal magnanimity: “Be assured, that were I arraigned at the bar, and you my judge, I should expect to stand or fall only by the merits of my cause.” He had reasons for his choice, he continued. “Even in a doubtful case, I would rather be the patient sufferer, than run the risk of being the active aggressor.” But now that the fighting is over, “if America is happier for the revolution, I declare solemnly that I shall rejoice that the side I was on was the unsuccessful one. . . . I have always considered you as one of the foremost enemies of this country, but since what has happened, has happened, there is no man to whom I more cordially wish the glory of the achievement.” As for his children, his son has been accepted at Yale. In time, Van Schaack returned to his New York law practice, and the friendship bloomed again.
Loyalty oaths, wartime un-American-activities committees: William Jay asserts that, while his father “was ever ready to adopt all proper measures for preventing the tories from injuring the American cause, he abhorred the idea of punishing them for their opinions.” Not so. He believed America was in a fight for its existence against enemies who, as he wrote to his fellow New Yorkers, “plunder your houses; ravish your wives and daughters; strip your infant children; expose whole families naked, miserable and forlorn, to want, to hunger, to inclement skies, and wretched deaths”; and who seek to impose a slavery such as “Egypt, Babylon, Syria, or Rome” imposed upon the Jews—or as Catholics, he might have said, imposed on Huguenots. The greatest sin and dishonor would be not to fight to win, whatever it took. A life-or-death struggle has no margin for error.
Along with these indelible lessons in anarchy, Jay learned five great lessons about anarchy’s antidote—government—in his education as a statesman during his presidency of the Continental Congress from December 1778 through September 1779. First, he grasped that American unity was permanent. Our enemies, he wrote in his “Circular Letter from Congress to their Constituents,” argue “that the confederation of the States remains to be perfected; that the union may be dissolved.” They are wrong. “These states are now as fully, legally, and absolutely confederated as it is possible for them to be.” The ongoing war is making the bond ever stronger. “A sense of common permanent interest, mutual affection (having been brethren in affliction), the ties of consanguinity daily extending, constant reciprocity of good offices, . . . all conspire in forming a strong chain of connexion, which must for ever bind us together.” Jay welcomed every sign of growing unity. He cheered the marriages of two fellow congressmen to ladies from states not their own: “I am pleased with these intermarriages,” he wrote John Adams. “They tend to assimilate the States and to promote one of the first wishes of my Heart viz. to see the People of America become one nation in every Respect.” And he objected to Massachusetts’s description of itself “as being in New England as well as in America. Perhaps it wd. be better if these Distinctions were permitted to die away.”
Second, a Federalist by instinct even before there was Federalism, he understood that union required a strong central government sovereign over the states. As early as October 1775, he wrote: “The Union depends much upon breaking down provincial Conventions.” Accordingly, during his presidency, Congress for the first time—and in his handwriting—declared its supremacy over the state governments, overturning a Pennsylvania statute (and a Pennsylvania jury decision) in the allocation of the sloop Active as a war prize. “Congress,” Jay pronounced in taking these actions, “is by these United States invested with the supreme sovereign power of war and peace.”
Third, assuming the presidency when the quarrel between two top American diplomats, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, had reached its apogee of bitterness, with murky charges of malfeasance and spying flung about in Congress, Jay learned a wariness toward his own colleagues. “There is as much intrigue in this State House as in the Vatican,” he commented, “but as little secrecy as in a boarding School.” His distrust only deepened when General Horatio Gates, part of a cabal of senior officers seeking to displace George Washington as commander in chief, sent him an insinuating letter critical of Washington’s military strategy. Rightly judging the letter mere Machiavellian self-serving on Gates’s part, like so much of the unprincipled self-interest he had seen in Congress, Jay sent Washington the relevant passage as a heads-up and received in response a letter of such nobility of character and comprehensive strategic and managerial brilliance as to teach him his fourth great lesson: that Washington was a world-historical leader. The two became friends and confidants; within weeks, Washington moved from signing himself “Yr. obliged & obed. Ser.”
to “Yr. most obed. & affect. Servt.,” though it took Jay six months to get up the nerve to tell the “master-builder” (as he termed the great man) that “with sincere affection & Esteem, I am your friend & servant.”
The fifth lesson proved the most useful of all to the man who set the future course of U.S. foreign policy: in the world of diplomacy, nothing is what it seems, so trust no one. He entered that murky world in November 1775, well before the colonies declared independence, when Congress sent him, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson to see a nameless Frenchman who’d requested a secret meeting in Philadelphia. As William Jay remembers his father often recounting, the elderly, lame man stated that the king of France, then officially at peace with George III, favored the colonists’ defense of their rights and wished to help with arms and money. When the trio repeatedly asked by what authority he spoke, the man merely drew his hand across his throat and replied, “Gentlemen, I shall take care of my head.” Shortly thereafter, Congress—impressed by this drama, Jay thought—appointed him to a secret committee to seek aid from abroad.
A year later, after further foreign encouragement, the committee sent Silas Deane to France, posing as a merchant, to obtain the promised arms and supplies, which France furnished through a front company to hide its role. One of Arthur Lee’s accusations in the Deane-Lee catfight raging in Congress when John Jay assumed its presidency was that Deane had charged Congress for matériel that France had given as a gift. When Tom Paine, secretary to Congress’s Committee for Foreign Affairs, leaked in the press the secret information that France had most certainly given such a free gift, French ambassador Conrad Gérard, to preserve the fiction that France had not aided America while still at peace with Britain, demanded that Congress refute what he claimed was a calumny against “the Dignity and the Reputation of the King my Master”—even though by then, France, convinced by the American victory at Saratoga in October 1777 that the rebels could win, had signed a formal alliance with the United States in February 1778. So John Jay, in one of his first acts as president, had to call Paine before the bar of Congress to discipline him for telling the truth. Sacrificial whistle-blower Paine resigned in outrage before Jay could fire him.
During Jay’s nine months as president, Ambassador Gérard “used frequently to spend an evening with me,” Jay wrote, “and sometimes sat up very late,” urging on Jay the wisdom of drawing Spain into the war as an ally, and outlining the inducements America might offer. Gérard made the same argument to Congress, which in late September 1779 named Jay minister plenipotentiary to Spain, with instructions to seek such an alliance.
So sudden was the appointment that Jay could say good-bye to his family only by letter—as could his wife, who, as sharp an observer of the era and as sparkling a writer as Abigail Adams, had with utter unconventionality decided to go with him. “Considering the mortality of man, and my time of life,” Sally’s loving father wrote her, “it is probable I may never see you again. O may God Almighty keep you in his holy Protection, & if it should please him to take you out of this World, receive you into a better!”
That very nearly happened. Eighteen days out of Philadelphia, their 185-foot frigate sailed into a savage winter gale that tore away her masts and bowsprit and damaged her rudder. The falling spars had injured two sailors, Sally told her mother in a long and typically vivid letter; one, “poor fellow! surviv’d not many days the amputation of his arm.” By no possibility could the jury-rigged ship reach Europe, her officers concluded, though Gérard, who was on board, demanded that they continue eastward. Jay, in his first diplomatic negotiation, got the ambassador to agree to head south to Martinique with “the first fair wind that offered (which was not ’till near three weeks from the above mentioned aera),” Sally wrote. She marveled at her husband’s “firmness & serenity of mind.” “Your whole family love Mr. Jay, but you are not acquainted with half his worth,” she told her mother, “for his modesty is equal to his merit. It is the property of a Diamond (I’ve been told) to appear most brilliant in the dark; and surely a good man never shines to greater advantage than the gloomy hour of adversity.” Now, wrote Sally, as the frigate rolled and fellow passengers played checkers at her cramped table, she is dreaming of Martinique’s fruit. A few days later, she added, “A land bird! A land bird! Oh! the pleasure of being near land!”
Ashore, she set off to explore the exotic island, where it seemed “in a sportive humour [nature] had display’d a whimsical fancy” and which she described to Governor Livingston with characteristic verve and economy. She always noticed and praised landscapes cultivated and improved by labor. “It is really surprising to trace the effects of industry on the very summits of the hills which are covered with coffee, coconuts, and cane,” she remarked, and went on to describe, with her lifelong delight in how things work, the island town’s ingenious plumbing system. To her father-in-law, once the Jays had left Martinique and were “sweetly sailing before the wind” toward Europe, she wrote two observant paragraphs describing with crisp precision how a sugar mill turns cane into sugar and molasses.
Though Jay didn’t know it, his mission to Spain was doomed from the start. With a colonial empire in the New World, the Spanish king, who had his own imperial ambitions in North America that competed with American claims, shuddered at the idea of colonial rebellion and would never officially support one, even to harass Britain. Making matters worse, Spain and France were conspiring behind America’s back. While Congress dithered about whom to send abroad, the two Bourbon powers secretly revived their decades-old Family Compact in the Treaty of Aranjuez, which bound Spain to join the war against Britain in exchange for France’s pledge not to make peace until the Spanish got Gibraltar back—a deal that not only ignored America’s claims but also violated France’s treaty with America by its clandestine change in the peace requirements. Also unfriendly to America was France’s agreement to let Spain share the Grand Banks fishery, long an American fishing ground, if France could win it. And there was one more thing Jay didn’t know: though Spain had helped America with money and supplies early in the Revolution, now that she was herself at war, she had no money to spare, despite the legends about her wealth.
Jay might have figured out the economic truth beneath the facade early on. The first leg of his trip from Cádiz, where he landed in January 1780, to Madrid, was pure pomp, with 16 or 20 oarsmen rowing “a very handsome Barge . . . ornamented by a crimson damask canopy handsomly fringed,” Sally wrote in one of her letters, which provide the best account of the Jays’ day-to-day life in Europe. But soon the travelers transferred to something “they’ve the impudence to call . . . Coaches, it’s true they are made of wood and have four wheels, but there the resemblance ceases.” As for the inns, “the awkwardness and filth of every thing exceed description. . . . The very first evening we found that a broom was absolutely essential,” for sweeping out “several loads of dirt in which were contain’d not [less] than two or 3000 fleas, lice, buggs, &c. if we may form any Judgment by what still remained.” To add insult to injury, her husband wrote, the landlord charged their party of eight for the 14 beds in their rooms, observing “that we might have used them all if we pleased.” Hardly signs of a rich country.
For the two and a half years of “this honorable Exile,” as he called it, Jay fruitlessly trailed after the Spanish court as it accompanied the king from palace to palace. Given his paltry salary, Jay wrote, “To keep a House at each place is not within the Limits of my Finances.” Even hiring mules and a chaise to follow the court strained his budget. “So circumstanced I cannot employ Couriers to carry my Dispatches to the Sea Side or to France. My Letters by the Post are all opened”—and indeed the Spanish secretary of state once handed over a top-secret letter that Congress had sent Jay, without bothering to conceal that he’d intercepted and read it. Living in furnished single rooms with one servant, Jay had to leave Sally, his invaluable source of moral support, in Madrid, where, as the court had never recognized him as an ambassador, she knew almost no one. When a daughter was born in July 1780, Sally’s “whole heart overflowed with Joy & gratitude.” But the baby died three weeks later. “Excuse my tears,” Sally wrote—“you too mamma have wept on similar occasions, maternal tenderness causes them to flow & reason, tho’ it moderates distress, cannot intirely restrain our grief, nor do I think it should be wish’d.”
Jay’s financial problems weren’t just domestic. In its desperation for funds, Congress began spending the money it hoped he could raise from Spain, drawing bills of exchange on him for £200,000 (these typical financial instruments of the time order a second person—Jay—to pay a supplier or lender a specified amount by a given date). Though at first, Spain’s minister of state, the count of Floridablanca, came up with funds when pressing bills came due, and hinted further help, the flow trickled off, the count temporized, and Benjamin Franklin, America’s ambassador to France, had to raise money there to pay the bills as well as Jay’s salary.
After nearly two years in Spain, Jay diplomatically told Floridablanca to put up or shut up. Was an “intimate union” possible or not? The count told him to outline a treaty, and three days later, Jay came back with an offer to let Spain have the exclusive right to navigate the lower Mississippi River in exchange for an alliance, most-favored-nation commercial status, and financial aid—an offer, Jay shrewdly stipulated, that would expire if Spain didn’t sign the treaty before Britain made peace. As always, Spain shied away from accepting American independence. A disgusted Jay wrote to Gouverneur Morris in code: “This government has little money, less wisdom, no credit, nor any right to it.” Seven months later—and six months after Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown and the fighting ended—Franklin wrote Jay to come to Paris and help him negotiate the peace treaty with Britain. “Spain has taken four years to consider whether to treat with us or not,” Franklin wrote. “Give her forty, and let us in the mean time mind our own business.”
While from the moment of the Jays’ arrival in Spain, Sally wrote her usual dazzling descriptions, Jay himself, always prudent, waited until they were about to leave before he offered a portrait. No doubt, he wrote, Aranjuez “is a charming Place,” with the king’s parks, meadows, and woods. But “it is not America. A genius of a different Character . . . reigns over these. Soldiers with fixed bayonets present themselves at various Stations in these peaceful Retreats; and tho’ none but inoffensive Citizens are near, yet Horsmen with drawn swords guarding one or other of the royal family . . . , renew and impress Ideas of Subjection. Power unlimited and Distrust misplaced, thus exacting Homage & imposing awe, occasion uneasy Reflections. . . . Were I a Spaniard, these decorated Seats would appear to me like the temporary Enchantments of some despotic magician, who by re-extending his wand, could at pleasure command them to vanish, and be succeeded by Presidios, Galleys and Prisons.” All human relations in Spain catch a tinge of the same spirit. “This is a kind of Prudence which naturally grows out of a jealous and absolute Government, under which the People have, for many Generations been habituated to that kind of Dependence, which constrains every Class to watch and respect the opinions and Inclinations of their superiors in Power.” No European splendor can equal “the free air, the free conversation, the equal Liberty, . . . which God & Nature and Laws of our making, have given and secured to our happier Country.”
In May 1782, Jay, Sally, and their new baby, three-month-old Maria, left for Paris, with Sally brightening up as they traveled through what struck her as “one of the favorite spots of Nature,” which “the gaiety & industry of the inhabitants” had adorned everywhere with gardens and bowers in “very pretty taste.” Admired for her beauty and modishness—a Paris theater audience once mistook the dainty blonde for Marie Antoinette—and with friends like Franklin and the Marquise de Lafayette, Sally flourished. So did Jay, who met his toughest challenge and won his greatest triumph.
Right after he arrived on June 23, he emerged as the chief American peace negotiator, and the task first looked to him something like a game of pool, with four balls on the table—Britain, France, Spain, and the U.S. Congress—balls that moved of their own accord, however, and didn’t obey the laws of physics when hit. But within weeks, he grasped that he was playing a different game entirely, a game of poker for global stakes against the sharpest diplomatic card sharper of them all, French foreign minister Charles Gravier, count of Vergennes. At 63, the worldly aristocrat, with the star, sash, and haughty bearing of the ancien régime, could draw on over 40 years’ experience in foreign affairs, as ambassador to Trier, Sweden, and the Ottoman Empire, where he had himself painted lounging on silk cushions in a sultanic turban and fur-trimmed caftan. By the time of the Franco-American alliance, he had conceived a grand global strategy, whose finishing touches he planned to complete in the negotiations at Paris.
With the privilege of historical hindsight, let’s peek over the count’s shoulder and see what cards he was holding. He had predicted when the French and Indian War ended in 1763 with Britain having driven France out of North America that “England will ere long repent of having removed the only check that could keep her colonies in awe. They stand no longer in need of her protection,” he wrote, and they will respond “by striking off all dependence.” Smarting at France’s defeat, he saw that he could punish and permanently weaken France’s most formidable rival by patiently helping the colonists in their inevitable rebellion, amputating a rich and important limb of the British empire.
To produce a balance of power advantageous to France, though, he also had to control the shape that a newly independent America would take. She mustn’t be strong or rich enough to be a global power in her own right, and she certainly must not end up allied with Britain. A weak America, squabbling with and distracting England, hemmed in narrow geographical boundaries by foreign powers, and dependent on French protection would be the best of all possible worlds for Versailles, and it was his task as foreign minister to bring that world into being. Here Spain, his secret ally, could serve as a useful and willing tool, blocking American control of the Mississippi River, barring her westward expansion and hampering her economic growth by cutting off a key trade route.
Vergennes had begun laying the groundwork for this strategy in 1779, when he sent Ambassador Gérard for his late-night talks urging president of Congress Jay to entice Spain into the war by offering to give up American claims to navigate the Mississippi—a deal that Jay favored until Spain joined the war for goals separate from American independence. Without missing a beat, at the very moment that Jay landed in Spain, Gérard’s successor, Count Luzerne, pressured Congress to change his instructions and order him to give up America’s claim on the Mississippi, which Jay did, but with that escape clause he added on his own initiative. Finally, Vergennes dealt himself an ace in the hole when he persuaded Congress in 1781 to instruct its peace commissioner to hide nothing in his negotiations from “the ministers of our generous ally the King of France; to undertake nothing in the negotiations for peace or truce without their knowledge or concurrence; . . . and ultimately govern yourself by their advice and concurrence.”
Our way of thinking,” Vergennes wrote Luzerne as the peace negotiations began, “must be an impenetrable secret from the Americans.” Certainly, Jay’s co-commissioner Franklin, now 76 and a Parisian celebrity who had found the French nothing but generous allies, understandably credited their goodwill. But Jay smelled a rat. As Spain, which he despised, would be a party to the treaty, he called first on her ambassador to France, the immensely rich Count d’Aranda, who, like Jefferson, combed the vineyards to stock his cellars with treasures, who employed a full-time silversmith to shine his magnificent plate, and who became Jay’s friend. Okay, said the count, unrolling a map of North America, where do you think your western border is? The Mississippi, Jay replied; where do you think it is? Go ahead and draw it on the map. The count replied that there was no point quarreling about a few acres, and that he would send Jay the map with his proposed border in a day or two. When it arrived around August 6, 1782, Jay found that Aranda had lopped off all the land north of the Ohio, plus what became Alabama and Mississippi, along with part of the future Kentucky and Tennessee.
Flabbergasted, Jay and Franklin rushed to tell Vergennes of Aranda’s “utterly inadmissable” land grab, Jay recounts in his official report. Instead of sympathetic reassurance, they met with unexpected reserve, with Vergennes’ secretary, Joseph-Matthias Gérard de Rayneval, hinting that “we claimed more than we had a right to.” A few weeks later, Rayneval sent Jay a pettifogging memo, backing up the Spanish by saying that, as England never owned the territory just east of the Mississippi and south of the Ohio, America could have no claim to it, either—and with no territory adjoining much of the river, America also had no navigation rights to it. As for the territory north of the Ohio, America would have to sort out with Britain whether that should be part of Canada. When Jay protested that, when he had negotiated with Count Floridablanca in Madrid, the Spanish had accepted that America owned much of the east bank of the Mississippi, the secretary casually replied that Floridablanca hadn’t then understood the matter.
“Hence it became evident,” Jay concluded, “from whom [the Spanish] had borrowed their present ideas.” And it became evident to him as well that, when the final negotiations took place, France, for all its protestations of goodwill, “would oppose our extension to the Mississippi” and “our Claim to the free navigation of that River,” and also would back Spain’s right to divvy up the lands east of the Mississippi with Britain.
Jay found France similarly a hindrance in his negotiations with the British. When Lord Shelburne became prime minister in July 1782 and fired the pro-American foreign secretary Charles James Fox, he sent a gifted young friend, Benjamin Vaughan, as an unofficial envoy to assuage American anxiety. Vaughan showed Jay and Franklin a document stating that George III, “to give a striking proof of his royal magnanimity and disinterested wish for the restoration of peace,” had commanded the new foreign secretary to acknowledge America’s independence unconditionally, in advance of a general treaty. Perfect, said Jay; but when he exchanged credentials with the official British negotiator, Richard Oswald, a 77-year-old merchant who’d lived in America for six years, he found with disappointment and “disapprobation” that Oswald’s commission authorized him to treat with representatives of the American “colonies.” If the king really meant what Vaughan’s documents stated, why didn’t he commission Oswald to negotiate with the independent United States of America? Vergennes told Jay he was being silly, that he “was expecting the effect before the cause,” and Franklin agreed that Oswald’s commission “would do.”
From mid-August, while he was still trying to negotiate with Aranda, to mid-September, Jay patiently explained to Oswald what Vergennes was up to. The French, as Jay summed it up in his official report, “are interested in separating us from Great Britain” and planting “Seeds of Jealousy, Discontent, and Discord” that will prevent “Cordiality and mutual Confidence” between the two English-speaking nations. Vergennes wants a treaty that will “render Britain formidable in our Neighbourhood” and will “leave us as few resources of wealth and power as possible,” so that we must “perpetually keep our Eyes fixed on France for Security.” The longer the French keep the war going, the more opportunity they will have to accomplish their goals, while a forthright British acknowledgment of American independence will end the war promptly and stymie them. Vergennes reinforced Jay’s argument about French deviousness by having a top-secret document purloined from Oswald’s locked writing desk. Don’t worry, the now-experienced Jay told Oswald; it will be back in place when Vergennes has finished reading it—as it was.
Jay’s larger argument was that Britain would gain by treating America as magnanimously as George III had promised. Treaties are just words, he told Oswald, and he “would not give a farthing for any Parchment security whatever. They had never signified any thing since the World began, when any Prince or State of either Side, found it convenient to break through them.” What Jay proposed was “that the Peace should be lasting,” framed so that “it should not be the Interest of either party to break it.” At first, the worry-prone Oswald blanched at Jay’s expression, a “lasting peace.” Did it have some dark connotation? Did Jay have some deep-laid scheme to make the United States the arbiter of the European balance of power? Franklin set his mind at ease with an anecdote from Roman history: a peace whose terms and conditions are fair, he patiently explained, will be lasting. A relieved Oswald said that in that case, he thought he had the authority to recognize America’s independence and would just check with Lord Shelburne to make sure.
And now a race to London took place between envoys from Jay and Vergennes. On September 7, 1782, Vergennes dispatched Rayneval across the Channel, which Jay learned on the tenth—the same day he got an intercepted letter to Vergennes from France’s American envoy, boasting that Congress would leave “the King, Master of the Terms of the Treaty of Peace” and plotting to split the Newfoundland fishery between France and Britain. Rayneval’s mission, Jay guessed, must be to tell Shelburne that France endorsed neither America’s demand for quick recognition of independence nor its claim to navigate the Mississippi, and to see if England would divide the fishery with France and the land east of the Mississippi with Spain. Jay probably guessed right. When Shelburne told Rayneval that he’d decided to grant America immediate independence, the Frenchman’s whole tone changed: “the point of independence once settled,” the prime minister wrote George III, Rayneval “appears rather Jealous than partial to America upon other points, as well as that of the Fishery.”
To counter Vergennes’ move, Jay asked young Vaughan to rush to London that day and lay out a rosy vision for postwar Anglo-American relations. Since America had plainly won the war and “as every Idea of Conquest had become absurd, nothing remained for Britain to do, but to make friends of those whom they could not Subdue, . . . by leaving us nothing to complain of,” Jay asked Vaughan to tell Shelburne. After all, Britain had much more to gain by a treaty with America than “a mere suspension of hostilities.” It could gain “Cordiality, Confidence and Commerce”—indeed, “extensive and lucrative Commerce,” whose profits surely are “the true Objects of a commercial European Nation.” If America ends up with the lands east of the Mississippi and the navigation of the river, its population will explode westward, and the two English-speaking nations could share an inland waterway carrying “from the Gulph of St. Lawrence to that of Mexico . . . this immense and growing Trade” that on the European side “would be in a manner, monopolized by Great Britain.” If, by contrast, Britain excludes America from the Mississippi and the fishery, and seizes the land north of the Ohio, she’ll end up with “vast tracts of wilderness” that she won’t be able to settle or supply, and she will “sow the Seeds of future War in the very treaty of Peace.” With such advantages in prospect, the British would do well to win America’s confidence—and America holds the acknowledgment of her independence “as the touch stone of British Sincerity.” Without it, as Jay had told Vaughan a couple of weeks earlier, “he would rather the war should go on to his grandsons.”
Shelburne agreed, and on September 27 Oswald’s new commission arrived, authorizing him to treat with the United States of America. During the first week of October, Oswald and Jay hammered out a preliminary treaty, giving Jay most of what he wanted—a much bigger country than otherwise would have emerged, with everything it needed to become powerful, rich, and independent. When a scandalized Vergennes, whom Jay had kept out of the loop during these negotiations, saw the draft, he was shocked by the extent of territory America had won and by the defeat of his plans for a dependent client state in the New World. Aranda, tapping Jay on the shoulder, murmured, “Eh bien, mon ami, vous avez très bien fait”—well played, my friend.
Also scandalized was American secretary for foreign affairs Robert Livingston, Jay’s old law partner. Along with his many pro-French colleagues in Congress, he condemned Jay’s “separate and secret manner” toward Vergennes, which flagrantly disobeyed Congress’s instructions to consult and defer to the count. Jay stoutly countered his former friend’s “doubts respecting the propriety of our conduct.” As Vergennes opposed us on all our key points, Jay argued, he “ceased to be entitled to . . . confidence”; as he wanted a very different treaty from what “America would have preferred,” it would have been “imprudent” to let him shape it. You say we didn’t follow our instruction? “The object of that instruction was the supposed interest of America, and not of France.” They are not the same. “So far and in such matters as this Court may think it their Interest to support us, they certainly will, but no farther,” Jay wrote from Paris. Moreover, we had to seize the moment. Because Shelburne needed to make peace quickly, before a war-weary Britain pushed him out of office, he and Oswald “became less tenacious on certain points, than they would otherwise have been,” and we got a great treaty by acting fast and pressing hard—and not because Britain has “either Wisdom, Virtue or Magnanimity enough to adopt a perfect and liberal System of Conciliation. If they again thought they could conquer us they would again attempt it.”
Nevertheless, between the two great European powers, Jay had already made his choice and committed his country, though it was the opposite of Congress’s choice. America had fought a war with a French ally against a British enemy, but in the peace negotiations and for the rest of his public career, Jay, often on his own initiative and against much resistance from his colleagues and countrymen, led the way in building the foundation of future U.S. foreign policy, the special relationship between the two English-speaking peoples. And why? “Not being of British Descent,” Jay explained years later, “I cannot be influenced by . . . that Partiality . . . , which might otherwise be supposed not to be unnatural.” But in Europe, he came to loathe arbitrary governments, which “debase and corrupt their Subjects,” even subjects as talented and accomplished as the French (as his Huguenot ancestors had found, he well knew). Very different is Britain’s political culture and therefore its national character. “It certainly is chiefly owing to Institutions Laws and Principles of Policy & Government originally derived to us as British colonists, that with the favor of Heaven the People of this Country are what they are.” Hence his “sentiments of esteem” for the British nation.
On September 3, 1783, Jay and Franklin signed the final Treaty of Paris, along with their co-commissioner John Adams, who joined the tail end of the negotiations. Oswald’s successor, David Hartley, signed for Britain. “The peace, which exceeds in the goodness of its terms the expectations of the most sanguine, does the highest honour to those who made it,” Alexander Hamilton wrote Jay, who at this moment in American history had been the indispensable man. “The New-England people talk of making you an annual fish-offering, as an acknowledgment of your exertions for the participation of the fisheries.” Jefferson echoed the sentiment: “The terms obtained for us,” he wrote, “are indeed great.”
Later that month, the Mongolfier brothers made the first manned balloon flight over Paris, which Sally Jay watched from her terrace, and which fired the whole world’s imagination with ideas, Jay wrote, that “travellers may hereafter litterally pass from Country to Country on the wings of the wind.” “Don’t you begin to think of taking yr. passage next spring in a Ballon?” Sally asked him. But instead, they set out for New York on an ordinary sailing ship on June 1, 1784, and arrived home—without incident this time—on July 24.
It is one thing to sign a treaty but quite another to get it carried out, as Jay discovered on his return, when he learned he’d been named secretary for foreign affairs. He knew before he left for Europe that America needed a strong central government sovereign over the states; now, finding himself the key official of a government too weak to carry out promises he himself had made, he felt that need urgently. According to the treaty, America would void state laws that barred British creditors from dunning U.S. citizens for prewar debts, and British troops would leave U.S. territory. When America’s London envoy, John Adams, remonstrated with the British for keeping their frontier forts, they replied that they intended to honor the treaty—as soon as America kept its end of the deal. Secretary Jay, echoing his opinion in the 1775 sloop Active case, pronounced that the Articles of Confederation gave Congress alone the right to make a treaty, which “immediately becomes binding on the whole nation,” so Congress told the states to repeal the offending laws—but had no power to make them do so. And they temporized, protecting powerful citizens who owed big sums: and the British soldiers stayed put. “The federal government,” Jay fumed, “is rather paternal and persuasive than coercive and efficient.”
Less than a year into his job, Jay started pushing to make the United States “one Great Nation, . . . divided into different States merely for more convenient Government, . . . just as our several States are divided into Counties and Townships for the like purposes.” Moreover, since the faction-ridden Congress, which held both legislative and executive power, couldn’t make timely decisions, Jay also sought to “divide the Sovereignty into its proper Departments. Let Congress legislate—let others execute—let others judge”—for efficiency rather than for checks and balances. He was quick to support a convention to correct the “Errors in our national Government,” but when the Constitutional Convention met, his duties as secretary kept him from attending. Once the conclave produced its great document, though, he eagerly joined James Madison and Hamilton in writing The Federalist to defend it—until a rock thrown in yet another New York riot sidelined him for a long convalescence.
Of the five Federalist papers that he wrote, four are what you’d expect from a minister without the power to execute his decisions and a diplomat who’d learned from experience that “to be constantly prepared for War is the only Way to have Peace.” Federalist Numbers 2 through 5 argue that Americans, forged by the Revolution into a “band of bretheren,” need to form a single, powerful union that can make good on its treaties, ensure “security . . . against hostilities from abroad,” and avoid the constant skirmishing inevitable if the states, as some anti-Federalists suggested, broke into several separate confederations.
But his fifth Federalist paper, Number 64—which supports having the president elected not directly but by “select assemblies . . . of the most enlightened and respectable citizens” and the senators appointed by the state legislatures, to ensure leaders of “abilities and virtue”—raises a large issue that Jay’s letters and speeches fully developed and that remains as pertinent today as ever. If, as his whole experience had taught him, “the mass of men are neither wise nor good,” how can government by the people yield leaders of distinction?
“The Rulers in democratic Republics are generally men of more Talents than morals,” history shows; “there can be but little connection between Cunning and virtue, and therefore . . . our affairs will commonly be managed by political Intrigues,” and “a succession of Demagogues must be expected.” These “political Mountebankes” will be “less sollicitous about the Health of the credulous Crowd than abt. making the most of their nostrums and Prescriptions.” Since their fortunes depend on public opinion, they will mold and manipulate it. “The Knaves and Fools of this World are forever in Alliance,” Jay wrote Jefferson, and because of this “coalition between the men of too much art and the men of too little, so they who either officially or from Choice fabricate opinions for other Peoples use will always find many to receive and be influenced by them.” Worse, “actuated by Envy ambition or avarice,” these politicians and pundits “will always be hostile to merit, because merit will always stand in their way.”
Democracy is a magnificent idea: “Without a portion of it, there can be no free governmt.,” Jay was certain. But “pure Democracy, like pure Rum, easily produces Intoxication, and with it a thousand mad Pranks and Fooleries,” he thought. Hence he favored the existing property qualifications for electors and officials: “They who own the Country,” he thought, “are the most fit Persons to participate in the governmt. of it.” Such men, he expected, would share his horror of redistributive taxation, which his favorite author, Cicero, identified as the demagogue’s vote-getting “kind of liberality which involves robbing one man to give to another,” rather than taxing everyone proportionally to his wealth or income for such common purposes as defense. Propertied men, too, he thought, would include “the most enlightened and respectable citizens” he cited in Federalist 64—those best capable of choosing leaders with “abilities and virtue.”
Such leaders, despite all human nature’s failings, were there for the finding. Men like George Washington, “who ascended to the Temple of Honor through the Temple of Virtue,” had absorbed the “maxims and precepts of sound Policy, which enable Legislators and Rulers to manage and govern public affairs wisely and justly,” he noted. “Explained and inculcated by the ablest writers ancient and modern,” these precepts “relate to the nature and duties of man—to his propensities and passions—his virtues, and vices—his habits and prejudices—his real, and relative wants and enjoyments—his capacities for social and national happiness—and the means by which . . . it is . . . to be procured, preserved, and increased.”
From studying the accumulated thought and experience of the wisest of mankind about human nature and the social order, coupled with reflection on his own experience, a leader can learn wisdom; but to have virtue, Jay believed, he also needs religion. The most devout of the Founders, he once told an atheist “that if there was no God, there could be no moral obligations, and I did not see how Society could subsist without them.” When his acquaintance replied that “Society would find a Substitute for them in enlightened self Interest,” Jay impatiently changed the subject.
Jay’s own life movingly exemplified the connection between religion and spotless virtue. “I have done nothing but constantly serve my Country for these six Years past and that most faithfully,” he wrote in 1780. “But I confess that I did it . . . because I thought & think it my Duty, without doing which I know I cannot please my Maker & go to Heaven. Provided he is satisfied with my Conduct, the mistaken opinions of others cannot deprive me of Happiness.” In this spirit, he calmly met George Clinton’s thuggish theft of the 1792 gubernatorial election from him: “A few years more will put us all in the dust,” he wrote Sally; “and it will then be of more importance to me to have governed myself than to have governed the State.” And early in the war, when he wrote Sally from “a hot little Room” full of “Bugs & Fleas” in “Poghkeepsy,” where Congress had fled before the British onslaught, he told her that he kept up his spirits with the “Pre-Sentiment that we shall yet enjoy many good Days together.” But if this fantasy “be a Delusion” that will “like a Bubble vanish into Air, . . . a firm Persuasion of after Bliss give[s] me Consolation. Then my dear Wife shall we fear no Tyrants Power, neither shall we know Anxiety any more, and if, I cant fill up the blank, we shall again join Hands and Hearts & continue our virtuous Connection forever.”
America was a brand-new democracy, and, Jay knew, “It takes time to make Sovereigns of Subjects.” He believed that schools and churches could form a public-spirited civic culture alongside “the Spirit of Enterprize and adventure” that already prevailed. But these institutions could accomplish only so much, he stressed. Especially after two years in Enlightenment Paris, he had no patience with the philosophe notion of human perfectibility, an idea he jeered at more sarcastically the older he got. You just have to read the newspapers to know “the vanity of expecting that, from the Perfectibility of human nature and the Lights of Philosophy, the multitude will become virtuous & wise, or their Demagogues candid and honest.” Advances will be real but finite: “Human knowledge and experience will doubtless continue to do good, in proportion to their extent and influence,” he wrote; “but that they will ever be able to reduce the passions and prejudices of mankind to such a state of subordination to right reason as modern philosophers would persuade us, I do not believe one word of.” Furthermore, the human reality means that teachers, pastors, and leaders of abilities and virtue never make permanent gains: “political like other fields require constant attention—when neglected they soon become unproductive, and fresh Weeds Briars and Thorns will gradually spring up.” Even after all our labors, Jay concluded, “I do not expect that mankind will before the Millennium be what they ought to be.”
With the Constitution ratified—Jay helped persuade New York’s convention to sign on with a soothing “Address to the People of the State of New York” and a bare-knuckled threat that Federalist New York City would otherwise secede from the anti-Federalist state—George Washington took the oath as the nation’s first president on April 30, 1789, on the balcony of the New York City Hall, where the Stamp Act Congress had met almost a quarter-century earlier, and which, renamed Federal Hall, had housed the U.S. Congress since December 1784. Around the corner at 133 Broadway, in one of the capital city’s grandest houses, lived John Jay, now the father of four (with one more to come), rich (thanks to inheritance and his own New York real-estate investments), and, from September 26, 1789, the first chief justice of the United States.
It turned out to be a less glamorous job than he expected, however. With the Constitution brand-new, few issues required Supreme Court rulings: the Court’s first session, with only four of the six justices present and no cases, broke up after a week, in February 1790. And then the really unglamorous part of the job began, since the justices also presided over the federal circuit courts in the states. Twice a year, they “rode circuit,” so in 1791, after the nation’s capital moved to Philadelphia, Jay had to travel there for his Supreme Court sessions, then return to New York for the circuit court, and press on to courts in New Haven, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and finally Vermont. He rode on horseback, often on “Roads rendered bad by Snow and Ice,” he wrote Sally. “I have had so much to do with cold and wet, that I really do wish for a Respite.” Thinking it improper for a judge to accept the many invitations to stay with friends on his circuit, he slept at inns that ranged from “clean” and “obliging” to “bad.” He and Sally hated the separation: “Oh! my dr. Mr. Jay,” Sally wrote, when all the kids had fevers, “shd. you too be unwell & absent from me, & I deprived of the satisfaction & consolation of attending you how wretched I shd. be!”
Jay had told Washington that he wanted the job chiefly because he thought the Court could complete his great work, the Treaty of Paris, by solving the British debt problem, which was now not merely keeping the redcoats stubbornly in their American forts but also stoking up red-hot anger that Jay and Washington feared could ignite a new war. So piece by piece, he chipped away at the issue on his circuit-court rounds. In Connecticut in 1791, his court overturned—as a violation of the Treaty, which was now the law of the land—a state law preventing British subjects from collecting interest due on prewar debts from Connecticut citizens, probably the first time a federal court overruled a state law on constitutional grounds. In Rhode Island the next year, he threw out a state law granting three years’ delay to debtors whom a British merchant was suing, ruling that the law violated the Constitution’s contract clause. In 1793, he rode the circuit that included Virginia, a state that accounted for almost half the debts to British creditors, more than 100 of whom were suing Virginians. The defendants’ lawyers, Patrick Henry and John Marshall, put on “one of the most brilliant exhibitions ever witnessed at the Bar of Virginia,” one observer exclaimed. But they lost. The court ruled that the Declaration of Independence didn’t cancel debts to Britons and that a Virginia law shielding debtors was an unconstitutional violation of the Treaty of Paris.
But just when John Jay, Patrick Henry, and John Marshall were performing their drama in a Richmond courtroom, “the astonishing Tragedy which the French Revolution has introduced on the Theatre of the World,” as Jay termed it, had raised the curtain on its darkest act, with the beheading of Louis XVI in January 1793 and France’s declaration of war against England the next month. For all Jay’s efforts to resolve the debt issue, the Revolution stirred up the smoldering anger between Britain and America to explosive rage.
The British believed that America planned to join her old ally, France, in the war against them. And with good reason, for in April, Revolutionary France’s envoy, Edmond Genêt, arrived in America with instructions to make that alliance happen. Pro-French “Democratic Societies” immediately sprang up among Republicans (as the anti-Federalists now called themselves) in cities across America, proclaiming the French Revolution the latest advance in human freedom and feting “Citizen” Genêt with public dinners wherever he went. “He who is an enemy to the French revolution cannot be a firm republican,” the New York society declared, and should therefore be barred from public office. In Philadelphia, a pro-French crowd chanted hymns and swore loyalty at an “altar of Liberty.” Genêt began commissioning American privateers to prey upon British shipping from U.S. ports, a gross provocation of British retaliation against America and a blatant violation of the neutrality that America had just declared and that Genêt had publicly dismissed. In May, an outraged Jay told a grand jury that “the subjects of belligerent powers are bound while in this country to respect the neutrality of it, and are punishable . . . for violations of it.”
Duly provoked, Britain responded in June by declaring that it would seize the cargoes of all ships carrying grain or flour to French or French West Indian ports—a direct blow to American trade—and in November, it announced it would seize the ships as well. British naval captains began impressing American sailors into the Royal Navy, claiming that they were British nationals. Along the northern U.S. border, the eight forts the British still held turned from an irritation into a mortal threat. In February 1794, the governor of Canada made a speech denying American sovereignty over land Jay had won in the Treaty of Paris and telling the Indians along the border, who had been fighting the intermittent Northwest Indian War against the Americans for a decade, to prepare to join him in war against the United States. He ordered the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, the founder of Toronto, to arm British vessels on the Great Lakes to keep U.S. ships off them. In April, he sent Simcoe, who nursed dreams of reconquering America from the north, to build Fort Miamis at Maumee, Ohio, to supply the Indians.
That month, an alarmed and angry George Washington asked Jay to go to London on a last-ditch peace mission, to try to solve the fort and debt issues, to get compensation for seized U.S. ships and cargoes, and to reach an agreement allowing U.S. ships to trade in the Caribbean. “Nothing can be more distant from every wish on my own account,” Jay wrote Sally from Philadelphia about the president’s request. “I regard it as a measure not to be desired, but to be submitted to. . . . If it should please God to make me instrumental to the continuance of peace, and in preventing the effusion of blood, . . . we shall both have reason to rejoice.”
“How my dr. Mr. Jay is it possible!” Sally replied. “The Utmost exertion I can make is to be silent. Excuse me if I have not philosophy or patriotism to do more.” When the Senate confirmed his appointment as envoy extraordinary on April 19, Jay wrote her: “Your own Feelings will best suggest an Idea of mine. God’s will be done; to Him I resign; in him I confide. Do the like. Any other philosophy applicable to this occasion is delusive.”
On May 12, Jay left for London. “Farewell my best beloved!” Sally wrote in parting. “Your wife ’till Death & after that a ministring spirit.”
When Jay landed a month later, he found the situation dire. The British government, he wrote Washington, clearly had “looked upon a war with us as inevitable” because of “the indiscreet Reception” America had given Genêt and because the ministry assumed that American troops fighting the Northwest Indian War would storm the British forts. That’s why London had begun to seize U.S. ships and to stir up Simcoe in Canada. By August, when Jay felt he’d made enough headway to write that George III had remarked, “Well Sir: I imagine you begin to see that your mission will probably be successful,” things suddenly turned sharply worse. On August 20, when U.S. general “Mad Anthony” Wayne won the last battle of the Northwest Indian War under the walls of Fort Miamis, his soldiers discovered—and hanged—several Englishmen in war paint among the captives. A furious Washington wrote Jay on August 30 that not only was Simcoe supplying the Indians with arms and supplies to carry on “their hostilities;—the murders of helpless women & innocent children along our frontiers”; he was providing “men also, in disguise” (though the men turned out to be British traders whom the Indians had conscripted, not British soldiers). If the British want peace, they’d better surrender the forts, Washington thundered; if not, “war will be inevitable.”
That eventful August, Washington also declared martial law to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania—a revolt he was sure the Republican pro-French “self-created societies” had precipitated. Unfortunately, the British government shared his belief and feared the rebels would depose the president they trusted, take over the government, and send American troops to fight as allies of France—a belief only strengthened on August 15, when Republican James Monroe, neutral America’s new envoy to France, presented an address expressing fraternity and union to the French National Convention, to which the convention’s president replied with a kiss. When printed in London, where the French Reign of Terror had sparked a “dread of Jacobin Politics and Jacobin Scenes,” the speech, Jay wrote Washington, “made a strong and disagreable impression.”
With tempers so inflamed, Jay strove “to acquire the confidence and esteem of this government, not by improper compliances, but by that sincerity, candour, truth, and prudence which . . . will always prove to be more wise and effectual than finesse and chicane,” he wrote Secretary of State Edmund Randolph from London. Long experience had taught him diplomatic patience and tact: he liked to quote a Spanish proverb that says, “We cannot catch Flies with Vinegar.”
British pride, he knew, could never stand the humiliation of admitting that the capture of U.S. ships had broken international law, though he sought compensation for those seizures. So he proposed to veil the ugly truth with a polite disguise: a joint commission of Britons and Americans would award payment for vessels taken “under colour” of royal authority—a formulation that neither admitted nor denied the legality of that authority and that ultimately produced $10.3 million in compensation. He proposed a similar commission to compensate British creditors for their American debts. In return, the foreign secretary, Lord Grenville, agreed to get all redcoats off U.S. soil by June 1796. A fervent believer in free trade, Jay strove to get American ships admitted to both the British West and East Indies. He succeeded, within strict limits as to the size and destination of U.S. ships allowed in the British West Indies trade. He and Grenville sorted out the northern U.S. boundary, very favorably to America, but only partly solved the impressment-of-seamen issue, which ultimately ignited the War of 1812—which America, with its new navy and much stronger army than it had possessed in 1794, and with no British forts on its territory, was only then in a position to win.
Jay and Grenville signed what came to be called “Jay’s Treaty” on November 19, 1794. “I have no reason to believe, or conjecture, that one more favourable to us is attainable,” Jay wrote of the treaty, and “we have reason to be satisfied.” Outrage greeted it in America, however. Pro-French Republicans, still resentful not only of England but also of the Federalists’ constitution and Hamilton’s financial system, would naturally be opposed, an unsurprised Jay wrote, as would southern debtors, who hoped for a war that would finally cancel what they owed to British creditors. Moreover, he didn’t even try to get compensation for slaves the British had freed and carried off. When he arrived home in May 1795, Jay joked that he could travel across the country by the light of burning effigies of himself, and he met such newspaper squibs as:
May it please your highness, I John Jay
Have traveled all this mighty way
To inquire if you, good Lord will please
To suffer me while on my knees,
To show all others I surpass,
In love, by kissing of your ___.
Don’t worry about it, Washington wrote: “I have little doubt of a perfect amelioration of sentiment after the present fermentation . . . has evaporated a little more. The dregs however will always remain, and the slightest motion will stir them up.” By 1796, as peaceful trade began to feed a boom, Republican Benjamin Rush grumbled that the treaty, “once reprobated by nineteen twentieths of our citizens, is now approved of, or peaceably acquiesced in, by the same proportion of the people.”
Once again, Jay returned from abroad to find himself unexpectedly in a new job: without campaigning, he’d been elected governor of fast-growing New York. Jay’s two terms as governor of a state whose constitution he had written in 1777 left two great legacies. The first was penal reform. After hanging scores of miscreants beginning in his spymaster days, he had come to think that, while murderers deserved the death penalty, there must be a better way to punish 12 other classes of felons, who, until then, went to the gallows; and also a better way than whipping to punish lesser infractions. He proposed building “establishments for confining, employing and reforming criminals” by hard labor, and in November 1797, the state’s first prison opened in Greenwich Village.
Second, as far back as 1780, Jay had written from Spain that until America abolished slavery, “her Prayers to Heaven for Liberty will be impious,” and if he were a legislator, he’d introduce a bill to abolish it and “never cease moving it till it became a Law.” The president of the New York Manumission Society from its founding in 1785 until he became chief justice (even though he himself still owned slaves), he carried out that vow when he became governor. Four times, he had a bill introduced into the state legislature for gradual abolition, until it finally passed and he signed it into law in 1799.
When Jefferson won the 1800 presidential election, Hamilton urged Jay in a slightly hysterical letter to use political legerdemain (to put it nicely) to overturn New York’s vote for “an atheist in Religion and a Fanatic in politics” and bring about Adams’s reelection—a letter Jay filed with the notation: “Proposing a measure . . . it wd. not become me to adopt.” From the same anti-Jefferson motive, Adams renominated Jay as chief justice, writing him that “the firmest security we can have against the effects of visionary schemes or fluctuating theories, will be in a solid judiciary.” But Jay had made up his mind to retire—and certainly the attractions of getting back on his horse to ride circuit again couldn’t change it, so John Marshall became chief justice. When Jay’s second three-year term as governor ended in June 1801, he headed for Westchester.
There he owned nearly 600 acres in Bedford that his father and his aunt had willed him out of the 5,200 acres Grandfather Van Cortlandt had bought as an investment around 1700 from Chief Katonah. (The hamlet within Bedford where Jay’s farm stands now bears the chief’s name.) Between 1799 and 1801, Jay enlarged for himself the small house he’d built there for his farm manager in the late 1780s. He emphatically did not want “a seat,” his son William says; he wanted a plain, republican farmhouse, just like his neighbors’ and like hundreds of others built by carpenters rather than architects all over the northeast in the Federal period—two stories tall, five windows across, with a full-length front porch for looking down the hill at the rural view to the south. He now wanted no “useless display” like the grand house at 133 Broadway, “which serves only to please other people’s eyes, while it too often excites their envy.”
The only difference about his house was that it was bigger than most, with 12 spacious but cozy rooms (excluding hallways, cellar storerooms, and servants’ garrets); it had two little wings, for his study and a kitchen, with their own doors to the porch; and it was built like a battleship. Along with simplicity, Jay wanted quality and spared no expense for the best materials. A religious friend who visited while he was enlarging the house remarked that “all his conduct seemed to have reference to perpetuity in this world and eternity in the next,” William recalls. In this spirit, while riding circuit in 1792, he had sent his son Peter Augustus some mulberry seeds to plant. “My father planted many trees,” he wrote in the accompanying letter, “and I never walk in their shade without deriving additional pleasure from that circumstance; the time will come when you will probably experience similar emotions.”
All his furniture breathes the same republican gentleman’s solid simplicity: his unadorned, indestructible traveling barrister’s mahogany and glass-doored bookcases that unstack for easy transport; his mahogany Sheraton chest of drawers with its sober, subtle oval inlays; and especially those magnificent mahogany dining-room chairs that James Fenimore Cooper sat in, with their slender vertical-slat backs fanned out just enough to be elegantly, if severely, stylish, their edges carved with just enough plain molding to show that a cabinetmaker, not a carpenter, made them—and so skillfully that, even though Jay’s descendants used them well past the middle of the twentieth century, not a joint is loose.
Mementos of his career are everywhere. In the hall hang engravings that his former secretary John Trumbull gave him of two of his Revolutionary War paintings; in his study stand the desk he used as chief justice and three of the armchairs made for the original Senate Chamber of New York’s Federal Hall and given to Jay as a souvenir when he retired.
Not just a Founding Father but a family patriarch as well, he surrounded himself with portraits of his ancestors, his children, and his friends. The works and brass dial of his father’s grandfather clock, its case broken in a move, now tick in a replacement case Jay had made—plain and mahogany. He kept the certificate, signed in 1686 by James II’s colonial governor of New York, Lord Limerick, that allowed his immigrant grandfather to live and work there. The four generations of descendants who lived there after Jay were equally reverent, carefully preserving their eminent forebear’s relics and enlarging the house (with modern plumbing, too) toward the back without erasing the original structure.
Jay and his middle daughter, Ann, 17, moved into the house in the summer of 1801 to supervise the remodeling’s finishing touches. Sally, ailing after a slight stroke in December 1800, had been taking the waters in upstate New York and staying with relatives to avoid the construction noise and dust. “Oh my dear Mr. Jay! The distance that separates us is too, too great,” she wrote from her sister Kitty’s house up the Hudson—as she had so often written before. When she traveled south to Jay’s childhood house at Rye, where his brother Peter lived, she wrote, “I have been rendered very happy by the company of our dear children but could we have been All together it would have heightened the satisfaction.” By December 2, 1801, she was in the new house, writing her newly married daughter Maria that, with the unusually mild weather, “Ann is at this moment in the garden planting peach-stones.” In May 1802, she wrote assuring Maria “that my health & appetite increases daily & that I really & truly feel very well indeed.” That was the last letter Maria had from her mother: she died suddenly on May 28, aged 45, with her husband at her side. Jay led his children into the next room and read them from Corinthians: “Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
Jay wrote no letters for a long time. In January 1803, he wrote Rufus King, then U.S. envoy in London, of Sally’s “long and painful Illness, and (when she appeared to be fast recovering) her unexpected Death.” But he had a house and farm to finish and improve, and children to care for. “My Expectations from Retiremt. have not been disappointed, and had Mrs. Jay continued with me, I should deem this the most agreeable part of my life,” he told King. “Many Blessings yet remain and I enjoy them.”
He was up at dawn, in the saddle before breakfast on a horse whose grandmother his father had given him in 1765 and whose mother he then rode. Outdoors most of the day, he supervised improvements, crops, and cider-, grist-, and saw-mills. He presided over morning and evening worship with his family and servants, and carefully annotated his prayer book with the appropriate prayers for specific days. He expanded his landholdings to about 750 acres and corresponded with British agricultural innovators on advances in scientific farming. He rarely commented on politics or visited New York City, once letting eight years pass without a trip to town. “A stranger might have resided with him for months together, without discovering from his conversation that he had ever been employed in the service of his country,” writes William, who came to live with him in the house at Bedford in 1809, raised six children there, and helped his father turn the farm into a profitable dairy operation, while also founding the Bible Society and becoming a prominent abolitionist.
“The burden of time I have not experienced,” Jay wrote, adding that he enjoyed “frequent conversations with the ‘mighty dead,’ who, in a certain sense, live in their works.” Christian stoic that he was, he most often turned to the Bible and to Cicero, that beguiling conversationalist who loved virtue, revered private property, hated taxation and tyranny, and brought Greek stoic philosophy to Rome and to posterity. Like his fellow lawyer-statesman Jay, he understood that in a world of adversity, injustice, and suffering, where one must often “choose the least among evils,” one must live according to “the moral law which nature itself has ordained” and that philosophers have painstakingly elucidated, in order to better “the human community” and feel whole and decent in one’s “own soul, which is the most godlike thing that God has given to man.” Along with that bracing doctrine, Jay also had his belief in the afterlife. Two years after Sally’s death, that Christian stoicism illuminates his condolence letter on the death of his friend Alexander Hamilton to Hamilton’s father-in-law, Jay’s old and dear friend, Philip Schuyler: “The philosophic topics of consolation are familiar to you,” he wrote, “and we all know from experience how little relief is to be derived from them. May the Author and only Giver of consolation be and remain with you.”
As his 28 years of temperate and contented retirement reached their halfway mark, his worldview had grown, if anything, more wry. His health was better than a year ago, he wrote a friend, “so that at present, there is some Prospect of my living to see further Proofs of the Perfectibility of human nature by modern Philosophers, and of the increased Illumination of this age of Reason.” On May 17, 1829, at the age of 83, he died, as perfect in virtue as human imperfection allows.