John Jay was a central figure in the early history of the American Republic. A New York lawyer, born in 1745, Jay served his country with the greatest distinction, and was one of the most influential of its Founding Fathers. In this first full-length biography of John Jay in almost 70 years, Walter Stahr brings Jay vividly to life, setting his astonishing career against the background of the American Revolution.
Drawing on substantial new material, Walter Stahr has written a full and highly readable portrait of both the public and private man. It is the story not only of John Jay himself, the most prominent native-born New Yorker of the eighteenth century, but also of his engaging and intelligent wife, Sarah, who accompanied her husband on his wartime diplomatic missions. This lively and compelling biography presents Jay in the light he deserves.
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NEW YORK CITY, at the time that John Jay was born there in 1745, was a tiny town at the edge of an empire. Its population was only about eleven thousand, its area only a few acres on the southern tip of Manhattan. The colony of New York, of which the city was the capital, was a vast area on the map, but very lightly settled, with a white population of only about fifty thousand. (There was also a black population of about ten thousand slaves and an Indian population of unknown size.) Most white residents of the colony were small-scale farmers, growing mainly for themselves and their families. The trade of the colony, carried on by merchants such as Jay's father and grandfather, was largely the export of timber, wheat, corn and meat to the West Indies, and the import of finished goods from Britain. New York was one of about twenty British colonies in North America, ranging from Nova Scotia in the north to the sugar islands in the south. The colonies had no formal legal relations with one another; they were each separate, looking mainly not to one another but back across the ocean to Great Britain.
In 1745, the British empire was once again at war with the French empire, as it would be off and on for the next seventy years. New York City, because it was so easily accessible by water, was very much at risk. Only a month before Jay's birth, the French and Indians raided Saratoga, about two hundred miles up the Hudson River. The residents of New York City had therefore erected, on the northern edge of town, a new fourteen-foot wooden palisade. The southern tip of the island was defended by the massive if somewhat ancient Fort George. The harbor was filled with privateers, ships owned and outfitted by private merchants, but officially authorized to capture French merchant or warships. Although the Jays were not military men, war was a constant element of their lives.
Indeed, it had been a war, a religious civil war, which drove the Jay family out of France. Jay's great-grandfather Pierre was one of the thousands of French Protestants, known as Huguenots, who fled to and settled in Britain in the late seventeenth century. Jay did not have any British ancestors, but he never forgot that it was Britain that "afforded my ancestors an asylum from persecution." Jay's grandfather Auguste was one of the far smaller group of Huguenots that fled to America instead of Britain or Holland. Auguste stopped first in South Carolina, where he found the climate "intolerable," then in Philadelphia, which he found "in an infant state," and finally settled in New York, with which he was "much pleased."
Augustus Jay, as he soon called himself, worked first as a supercargo, or shipboard junior merchant, for Frederick Philipse, the richest man in New York at this time. Philipse had started life as a carpenter, then began trading on his own account and purchasing land, so that by 1693 he owned over two hundred square miles in what is today Westchester County, New York. Philipse was, at the time that Augustus Jay worked for him, making immense sums trading with pirates in Madagascar, sending them supplies such as rum, wine, beer, tobacco and clothing, and bringing back furniture, spices and slaves. It is almost certain that Augustus Jay was, to some extent, involved in the slave trade which his descendant came to deplore and decry.
In 1697, Augustus Jay married Anna Maria Bayard at the Dutch Church in New York City. Anna was the "exceedingly lovely" daughter of Balthazar Bayard, a merchant and a brewer. She was related to many of the most prominent Dutch families in the colonies: the Stuyvesants, the Van Cortlandts, and others. "By his marriage," John Jay later wrote, "Augustus became encircled with friends who from their situations were able, and from the attachment to consanguinity ... were disposed, to promote his interest as a merchant, and his social happiness as a man." Although they married in the Dutch Church, it appears that Augustus and his wife Anna worshipped in several churches. Two of their children were baptized in the French Church, three in the Dutch Church. Augustus himself served as a member of the vestry of the Anglican church, Trinity Church, from 1727 through 1746. In this respect, Augustus followed the pattern of many Huguenots, who drifted away from the French language and the French church.
John Jay's maternal grandfather, Jacobus Van Cortlandt, was born in New Amsterdam, as it then was, in 1658. He married Eva Philipse, the adopted daughter of Frederick Philipse, and like his father and father-in-law, worked as a merchant and a political leader. Van Cortlandt served in the New York Assembly off and on from 1691 through 1715; he served twice as Mayor of New York City; and he held various judicial and military positions. It would appear that he did not speak English very well, for at one point the English Governor complained that Van Cortlandt and two other candidates for office "scarce speak English." But of course the Dutch accounted, at this time, for more than half the population of New York City, so perhaps it would have been more appropriate for them to complain that the English could not speak Dutch. Jacobus and his wife Eva had five children, two of whom, their son Frederick and their daughter Mary, married children of Augustus and Anna Jay. Jacobus and Eva lived in a substantial town house on Broadway just north of Trinity Church. Jacobus died in 1739, so his grandson John never knew him, but his wife Eva lived on until the boy was in his early teens.
Jay's father Peter was born in New York City in 1704. He learned the trade of a merchant at his father's side and on an extended overseas voyage, during which he spent several months with his cousins David and John Peloquin in Bristol, England, and also visited cousins in Paris and La Rochelle, France. In later life, Peter Jay was a severe man, but his letters from this period show a lighter side, such as when his cousin David asked him to report on how he was "greeted by those charming and beautiful American girls of whom you told me so often." Peter was soon a prosperous New York merchant in his own right, trading in cloth and clothing from England and Holland, flax seed from Ireland, and timber, furs and wheat from the colonies. Peter married Mary Van Cortlandt in 1728, in the Dutch Church, but they baptized their children at Trinity Church and, starting in 1732, Peter served on the vestry there, like his father.
Peter and Mary Jay raised a large family; by the time of John's birth in December 1745, there were six other children, ranging in age from Eve at seventeen to Anna at eight. Four of these children were in some way troubled. Eve was prone to fits of hysterics, and Augustus was slow or lazy or both. Peter sent Augustus away to study with the Reverend Samuel Johnson in Connecticut, but Johnson found it hard to work with Augustus and his "bird-witted humor," and after two years Augustus returned home. Two other children, Peter and Anna, were blinded by smallpox in 1739. Reverend Johnson wrote to their father to comfort and congratulate him "upon that truly Christian temper with which" he faced "this heavy visitation."
Mary Jay is an elusive figure. Several hundred letters to or from her husband Peter survive, but there is not one surviving letter from Mary, and indeed perhaps she could not write. According to her grandson William, she "had a cultivated mind and fine imagination; mild and affectionate in her temper and manners, she took delight in the duties was well as the pleasures of domestic life; while a cheerful resignation to the will of Providence, during many years of sickness and suffering, bore witness to the strength of her religious faith." Peter's letters certainly confirm that his wife was often ill; in one he wrote that her "rheumatic disorder continues as usual, but I thank God she seems now relieved of the hectic fever she was taken with last fall."
In November 1745, Peter reported to his Peloquin cousins that, because of the dangers of the war, and the "helpless condition of part of my family," he had suspended trade and moved to the country, "where I've a delightful place twenty odd miles out of town, which affords a pretty good living." Jay's "place" was a farm near the Long Island Sound in Rye, Westchester County. Mary Jay must have returned from there into the city to give birth to her baby John, perhaps to have access to a better doctor or favorite midwife. John was probably born at 66 Pearl Street, in the substantial Dutch house in which his family had been living for several years. He was baptized at Trinity Church a few days after his birth.
The village of Rye, New York, was at this time like many other American villages: a small central core, with an inn and pair of churches, surrounded by scattered farms and farm houses. Peter Jay owned a farm of about four hundred acres, with a large white farm house, about two miles from the center of town. On one side of the house, the Boston post road was close enough that the family could "call out" to friends they saw on the road. On the other side of house, the Jay land stretched down to the water more than half a mile away, and the view extended across the sound to Long Island. According to a descendant, it "was a lovely place for the boy John to grow up in. The house was surrounded by woods full of birds, and the seashore beckoned just below."
Although Peter Jay owned a farm, he does not seem to have been much of a farmer. His letters almost never mention the weather or his crops. In one letter, however, he complained that "the sickness among my negroes during these three last months, and which still continues, having from three to five always down at a time, gives me more trouble and fatigue than I can well undergo." Peter named a few slaves, described their medical problems, then noted that because of "this distressed condition of my family, I cannot be spared from home to visit my friends in town." Peter's attitude towards his slaves is revealing: they were both part of his family and troublesome.
At about the same time that he moved his family to Rye, Peter Jay ceased to trade actively. He was still busy, however, seeking payment for earlier trades. Because he usually did not purchase British goods, but rather acted as agent for British merchants, the debts were owed not to Jay himself but to the various British merchants. Peter Jay used all the means at his disposal, including lawsuits and debtors' prison, to enforce these debts. He reported to his cousins in Bristol that he had obtained a judgment against one debtor and hoped "a close confinement would have the desired effect." He informed another correspondent that he was willing to arrest a well-known Jewish merchant, but not in Rhode Island, where "actions for debt are endless." The sums involved were substantial. In 1746, Peter Jay was chasing over £4,000 owed to British merchants; two years later he had worked the amount down to about £500. John Jay, later in life, would make himself unpopular by insisting that Americans had to pay their debts to British creditors, and surely some of his views on these issues were formed by watching his father at work.
In the spring of 1749, John's older brother James left home to study medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland. Peter wrote often to his distant son, and these letters show how he parented all his children, including John. Peter wanted James to be diligent and economical. "I know that [the] usual fees at the college must be paid, but then you must be very sparing in your other expenses, which cannot amount to too much, if you apply close to your studies." James should not compare his allowance with that of richer students. "Others whose affluence affords them a greater expense are no examples for us." But Peter wanted James to room with a respectable family, even if this cost somewhat more than a boarding house, and not to study so hard as to risk his health.
Illness and death were frequent themes in Peter's letters. In one, Peter wrote that his father Augustus had died after a long illness, and instructed James to wear "suitable mourning" for his grandfather. In his next letter, Peter reported that his daughter Eve had "just recovered from a severe case of pleurisy, and is still unwell after an attack of hysterics." A few months later, Peter wrote that "it pleased God to take to himself your little sister Mary after six days of illness of a sore throat." Religion was another frequent theme. The Jays were now Anglicans, but Anglicans with Calvinist severity. Peter urged James to attend church regularly and to pray daily. Mary Jay's mother Anna Van Cortlandt was so pious that, according to family tradition, "she died on her knees while in prayer." From both sides of the family, therefore, John Jay inherited strong, simple religious faith.
Although Rye was isolated, Peter Jay followed the news of the wider world, and especially the almost constant wars between Britain and France. In 1746, Peter reported to his English cousins that forces were being gathered in New York to join "an expedition against Canada, which I hope will be attended with good success." In 1748, he noted that the peace treaty, because it returned Cape Breton to the French, was not popular in America. In 1754, he related how "Major Washington with between three and four hundred Virginian troops under his command" was attacked "within English limits by a body of about eight hundred French and Indians." In 1756, he hoped that Britain would attack and capture Quebec, since after that "the remainder of the country [French Canada] would soon fall of course into our hands." In 1760, he opined that the Indian war in South Carolina was "a bad affair," and expressed the hope that General Amherst would soon "chastise and bring to reason the savages there." In 1761, he wrote that a fleet of a hundred ships and seven thousand men had left New York harbor, bound for Martinique, where the fighting might cost "many lives" if the island was well defended. In 1762, Peter exulted in the British capture of Havana, which would humble "the haughty Spaniard" and also weaken France. Peter Jay was a strong, even passionate, supporter of Britain in her wars against France and Spain, an attitude his son almost certainly shared.
Like most children at this time, John began his studies at home, with his parents. When he was only six, his father wrote that he was "of a very grave disposition and takes to learning exceeding well. He has lately gone through the five [Latin] declensions etc. with much ease and is now in the verbs." A year later, his father reported to his cousins that "my Johnny also gives me a very pleasing prospect. He seems to be endowed with a very good capacity, is very reserved and quite of his brother James's disposition for books. He has made a beginning at the Latin and gives reason to expect that he will succeed very well."
When John was not quite eight years old, Peter sent him away to school in New Rochelle, about eight miles south and west of Rye, also on the edge of the Long Island Sound. Most residents of New Rochelle were descendants of the French Huguenot refugees who had settled there in the 1680s and 1690s. By the 1750s, English was the main language of the town and the Anglican church was its main church, but there was still a French tone to the town and to its religion. This tone was reinforced, for young John, by his schoolmaster Pierre or Peter Stoupe. Stoupe was born in 1690 in Geneva, and he had served in his youth as pastor of the Huguenot church in Charleston, South Carolina, before he converted to Anglicanism and moved to New Rochelle.
William Jay, in his biography of his father, gave a rather unkind account of Stoupe and his school:
Ignorant of the world, regardless of money, and remarkable for absence of mind, [Stoupe] devoted every moment of his leisure to his studies, and particularly to the mathematics; and he left the undisputed government of himself and his household to his wife, who was as penurious as he was careless. The parsonage and everything about it was suffered to decay, and the boys were treated with little food and much scolding. Little as he was, John contrived to prevent the snow from drifting upon his bed, by closing the broken panes of glass with pieces of wood.
Like most boys, however, John found small pleasures even in adverse circumstances. "His health was robust; and in after-life he used to mention the pleasure he at this time enjoyed in roaming through the woods and gathering nuts, which he carried home in his stockings, which he stripped off for this purpose."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "John Jay: Founding Father"
Copyright © 2012 Walter Stahr.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 New York
2 The Law
3 Resistance Leader
4 Revolutionary Leader
5 President of the Continental Congress
6 Minister to Spain
7 Peace Commissioner
8 American in Paris
9 Secretary for Foreign Affairs
10 Home and Society
12 First Chief Justice
13 Envoy to England
14 Governor of New York