Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging: John Jay

History goes through fashions and fads like anything else. Today people cannot get enough books on the American Revolution and early republic. It hasn’t always been like that. I had one professor in my master’s program who was trained as a Jeffersonian scholar at the University of Virginia in the 1960s. Doing so was so unfashionable that he had to sell himself as a historian of the 20th century American South in order to get a job. At the time, it was hot to be a historian of the Jacksonian period. Today, those periods are reversed. There are tons of jobs (relatively anyhow, it’s not like there’s tons of jobs for any academic field) in the Revolutionary period. A person specifically wanting to work and teach in the Jacksonian period would be committing career suicide.

Even within this outpouring of both scholarly and popular histories on the early Republic, there are forgotten and underplayed people. One of the most important of these is John Jay. Jay’s name gets thrown around every now and then—the third man on the Federalist papers, the Jay Treaty, the Supreme Court. But he always plays a secondary role to other people in his endeavors. The Federalist Papers are rightly associated with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Jay was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court but naturally John Marshall’s accomplishments were far greater. The Jay Treaty was excoriated at the time and is often seen as a failure of George Washington’s foreign policy. However, John Jay played a central role in the formation of the nation and deserves much more attention than he’s getting. If we are going to continue having so much attention paid on the late 18th century, Jay deserves a greater share.

John Jay was born in 1745 in New York. Like most of the leading revolutionary figures, he had significant advantages of birth. Wealthy merchants made up his family and he attended King’s College (today Columbia) and began practicing law in 1768 with another future underappreciated revolutionary, Robert Livingston. Jay became involved early with anti-British sentiment, though in a conservative way. He was secretary to New York’s committee of correspondence in the early 1770s and defended property rights and the rule of law against both the British and more hot-headed revolutionaries. He won a seat to the First Continental Congress in 1774 and the Second Continental Congress in 1775, but remained committed to reconciliation with Britain. Like many reformists in the colonies, the British response to the American insurrection pushed him toward independence, though he avoided the Continental Congress in the time leading to the Declaration of Independence, something long noted in years after by Thomas Jefferson.

Although hardly the most fanatical advocate for independence, Jay’s legal skills and European connections served the new nation well. He served as President of the Continental Congress in 1778 and 1779 and then went overseas, helping to negotiate invaluable Spanish and French support for the United States. During the late period under the Articles of Confederation, Jay served as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, working for very basic goals such as the recognition of the United States by European nations and establishing a stable currency and credit with foreign investors. He also worked toward that hearty perennial of early American foreign relations--fishing rights in Newfoundland.

Jay, who eventually became a Federalist, believed that the new nation needed a stronger central government and thus became a key backer of the Constitutional Convention and new Constitution created in 1787. Along with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers, those key documents arguing that the states should ratify this new Constitution. Rightfully, Hamilton and Madison deserve most of the credit here. Not only did they articulate the new document well but they wrote most of the important papers. Jay only wrote 5 of the 85--Federalist # 2-5 and Federalist #64.

Once the Constitution was ratified, George Washington, the first president, looked to set up his government. He passed over Jay for Secretary of State, instead offering him the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a body, like the other two branches of government, with rather hazy duties, responsibilities, and powers in these early years. Among early justices, John Marshall gets the most credit. Like with the Federalist Papers, others did more than Jay. But Jay did set up the internal procedures of the Court and started setting legal precedents. His most important case was Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), where the Jay Court ruled that state sovereignty was subordinate to the U.S. Constitution. This infuriated early Americans who felt more strongly about their states than they did about their nation and led to the 11th Amendment, which denied federal courts authority in suits by citizens against a state.

Jay is probably most known today for the 1794 Jay Treaty. I cannot express enough how weak and vulnerable the United States was in its early decades. Most of you reading this probably already know this but Americans at large seem to believe that the U.S. was always a strong and powerful country that intimidated European nations. Um, no. The U.S. was an international joke until at least 1815. The British had little interest in trading with their ex-colonies. But the American economy survived on European trade. Losing the preferred status within the empire put the nascent American economy in desperate straits. All of this got caught up in the politics of the French Revolution. By 1794, the battle between Federalists and Republicans in the United States grew increasingly shrill. The Republicans wanted to go to war with Britain and the Federalists wanted nothing to do with the French. George Washington rejected Madison's call for a trade war against the British and sent Jay in 1794 to negotiate a new treaty with the British to ease tension between the two nations. Jay had to negotiate from a position of weakness. Jay managed to settle some financial and boundary issues with the British and expand trade opportunities for the Americans in the British Caribbean. The British were happy enough to give these pittances in return for keeping the U.S. out of the European war.

Americans were furious. The treaty did not at all deal with issues of great importance to the nation, including the impressment of sailors and neutral shipping rights. Graffiti appearing near Jay's after the treaty said, "Damn John Jay. Damn everyone that won't damn John Jay. Damn everyone that won't put up the lights in the windows and sit up all nights damning John Jay." Republicans, led by Jefferson and Madison tried to fight the treaty's passage in the Senate, but it passed by a 20-10 vote and was signed by Washington. The Jay Treaty kept the US out of war with the British for almost 20 more years, giving the weak U.S. time to grow. Even in the War of 1812, the British should have crushed the U.S.--in 1794, the only thing that would have stopped them was their more important military campaigns on the continent.

The opposition to the treaty, while legitimate in some respects, particularly the impressment issue, shows the arrogance of Americans even in these early days. The U.S. was one of the weakest nations in the world in 1794. No European power took them remotely seriously. Yet, half the nation wanted to go to war with the leading naval power of the time. Doing so might easily have allowed the British to retake their lost colonies. But blinded by a fairly absurd nationalism and the belief that the French would step in if necessary, even admirable men such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison put the nation at risk. Sometimes a nation has to take the best deal it can get. The Jay Treaty was that deal. It was right for the United States at the time and Jay was unfairly excoriated for it.

While he was negotiating the treaty, he was elected governor of New York as a Federalist (without his knowledge). Showing the relative prestige of the states versus the federal government in the 1790s, he resigned his Supreme Court position for the governorship and was replaced by John Rutledge. His tenure was fairly unremarkable, though to his credit he ignored a proposal by Alexander Hamilton to gerrymander the state for the 1796 election to ensure a Federalist victory. He was renominated to the Court by John Adams, but he declined and retired from public life in 1802, dying in 1829.

We should also note Jay’s position on slavery. He long opposed the practice and fought it strongly. He founded the New York Manumission society and, in 1777, he drafted a state law for New York to abolish slavery. It failed, as did a 1785 bill. New York at this time had a flourishing slave market and unlike much of the North, slavery was growing stronger as an institution in the city. But in 1799, with Jay as governor, a bill for gradual emancipation of slaves finally passed. Immediate emancipation was not politically possible in New York and in fact, Africans were still enslaved in New York until the 1830s. Jay's personal record on slavery is a bit more questionable. He bought young slaves, used their labor until they reached adulthood, and then freed them. As late as 1798, he owned eight human beings. Jay epitomized the complex relationship even anti-slavery whites had toward the peculiar institution in the early republic. Even those who thought the institution barbaric still owned other human beings. But this shouldn't overwhelm the legislative accomplishments of Jay in fighting slavery.

John Jay has not benefited so much from the recent outpouring of biographies on the Founding Fathers. He is the subject of one recent work, Walter Stahr's John Jay, which I have not yet read. Other books concerning Jay are Richard B. Morris, Witnesses at the Creation: Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and the Constitution, and Morris', John Jay, the Nation, and the Court. Jay of course comes up in overviews of the Federalist Era. A classic here is John C. Miller's, The Federalist Era. A more recent overview is Reginald Horsman's The New Republic: The United States of America, 1789-1815, which I have also not had time to read.