KATONAH, N.Y. – The inner circle of founders has been set for as long as anyone can remember – Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton and Madison.
Almost never mentioned is John Jay.
“Most people know something about him. ... But very few know the full breadth of his accomplishments. Most are very surprised by what they learn,” says Heather Iannucci, director of the John Jay Homestead in this Hudson River town, where the July Fourth celebration will include a reading of the Declaration of Independence, music and tours of the stately, shingled house where the country’s first chief justice lived his final years.
As more of his papers have become available in the past decade, Jay’s admirers, ranging from specialists to such popular historians as Joseph Ellis and Walter Isaacson, have been arguing that a founder they believe underrated deserves a closer look – for achievements that extend to virtually every branch of government, on the state, federal and international level.
Jay was one of three contributors to the Federalist Papers, which helped define American government. He was president of the wartime Continental Congress, then served as secretary of foreign affairs, precursor to secretary of state, after the Revolutionary War ended. He was an essential diplomat whose peace negotiations with England, leading to the Treaty of Paris, vastly expanded U.S. territory.
For his accomplishments heading a network of informants during the revolution, actions that helped inspire James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Spy, the CIA’s website calls Jay “the first national-level American counterintelligence chief.” He also helped write the New York Constitution, was a founder of the New York Manumission Society and as governor signed legislation that phased out slavery in the state. (Jay himself owned slaves.)
The founders bickered among themselves, but they agreed on the virtues of Jay. Noting his centrality in the talks with England, John Adams praised him as “of more importance than any of the rest of us.” Alexander Hamilton turned to Jay first when conceiving the Federalist Papers, and George Washington thought so much of him that when he was forming his original Cabinet, he offered the first position – any position – to Jay, who chose the Supreme Court.
“He’s been hiding in plain sight for all this time,” says Ellis, the historian who features Jay in his best-seller, The Quartet. “We can argue about who can be on top of the list of most important founders until the cows come home, but it’s clear he should be part of the list.”
Jay was a leading nationalist, eager to unify the former colonies, but he has become a regional hero. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice is based in Manhattan. Some students at his alma mater, Columbia University (then King’s College), live in John Jay Hall, and various prizes are handed out by Columbia at the annual John Jay Awards dinner. Some visitors to the homestead arrive from the nearby John Jay High School.
But recognition doesn’t approach that of Washington and other peers. Few Jay biographies have been published, and none close to the prominence of Ron Chernow’s Hamilton and Washington books or David McCullough’s John Adams. The Library of America has issued editions of the writings of several founders but has no plans for a dedicated book on Jay. In 2005, Walter Stahr’s John Jay: Founding Father received praise from Chernow and Isaacson among others, but he struggled to find a publisher and ended up with the London-based Hambledon Continuum.
Ellis acknowledged his own slighting of Jay. In his Founding Brothers, a million-seller published in 2000, Ellis does not include Jay among the eight “most prominent political leaders in the early republic.” Jay supporters believe his relative anonymity is mostly a story of paperwork and personality.
Jay lived quietly and died quietly, not on a battlefield or in a duel with Aaron Burr, but in his library, at age 83. He was not a humorist like Franklin, or intemperate like Hamilton, but dependable and unusually honorable.
Historian Gordon Wood pointed out that when Jay was New York’s governor, he refused to endorse Hamilton’s scheme in 1800 to manipulate the state’s electoral laws during a close presidential campaign and deny the White House to Jefferson, their political rival. That was Jay’s “finest moment,” Wood told The Associated Press in an email.
A merchant’s son, John Jay was born in New York in 1745 and grew up comfortably on an estate in Rye, about 25 miles north of the city. He had planned a career in law and, like Franklin, was a moderate in the early years of the revolution, believing that differences with the British could be negotiated. The British use of military power to enforce order changed his mind.