In the years immediately following the founding of the United States, the country lacked a vigorous central government needed to truly unify the thirteen independent states. The Articles of Confederation, America’s first constitution, were relatively weak, exemplified by Congress’ inability to levy taxes, for they essentially allowed each state to operate semi-autonomously with little regard for the rest of the country. Recognizing the shortcomings and wishing to establish a stronger national body, delegates from across the country met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to draft a new and stronger constitution. Following the end of the convention, however, critics of the proposed government launched attacks designed to prevent ratification of the document. They argued that a strong central administration would overshadow the states and undermine the republican principles Americans held dear. Influential leaders subsequently authored articles defending the need for such a government. One was a New Yorker who had played a critical role in founding the United States. His experiences convinced him the nation required the central administration provided by this new constitution if it was to survive and be taken seriously by world powers. His name was John Jay. This is the story of his fight to secure adoption of the most important document in American life — the Constitution of the United States of America.
John Jay’s support for the creation of a strong national government dated back to his early dealings in intercolonial affairs. Born in New York City in December 1745, he attended and graduated from King’s College, now Columbia University. In 1768 he was admitted to the bar and opened his own law practice, often handling cases involving colonial relations. In one case, he represented a client who was trying to utilize New York courts to collect on a Massachusetts judgment. He knew New York’s Supreme Court would likely follow the precedent set down by English courts, which refused to accept decisions handed down by Irish courts. As he predicted, the court ruled against him, and in the aftermath, he first advocated the need for laws governing the universal acceptance of judicial decisions, a concept now embodied in the “full faith and credit clause” of the Constitution. He also perceived the necessity of federal government oversight after witnessing the inability of individual colonies to settle disputes. In the late 1760s John served as clerk to a commission tasked with establishing the border between New York and New Jersey. He watched as lawyers for both colonies presented witnesses who testified their colony lawfully controlled the disputed territory. Each side refused to back down, even threatening to appeal to London for a final decision. The commission ultimately proposed, and both colonies accepted, a satisfactory border. No sooner had this dispute ended, however, than Jay was drawn into another clash between New York and New England. These experiences remained with Jay throughout his life, and they were likely the impetus for his support of a unified colonial coalition.
Jay’s dream of American unity was realized as Britain cracked down on the colonies, but he also saw that unity threatened by state and sectional interests. Just as he favored the Stamp Act Congress acting to force Parliament to repeal the 1765 Stamp Act, he vocally supported the First Continental Congress in late 1774 in protesting further acts of British oppression. Meeting in Philadelphia, he and his fellow delegates joined together to denounce the despised Intolerable Acts, passed in response to the December 1773 Boston Tea Party. In May 1775 Jay took his seat in the Second Continental Congress, and three years later, he was elected president of that body. At that time, however, Congress had little real authority. It controlled military matters and foreign affairs, but it could not dictate national policy; rather, it could propose legislation but left implementation up to the states. John witnessed this ineffectiveness firsthand when South Carolina rejected offering slaves their freedom in exchange for military service. He was even more disheartened, however, at Congress’ breakdown over New England’s insistence on being granted the right to fish off the Newfoundland coast as a precursor to any peace treaty with Britain. To avoid an internal splintering of interests, Jay brokered a compromise whereby Northern states gave up fishing rights as a precondition for peace and Southern states promised to join them in military action if Britain denied America this privilege. He understood such internal division and decentralized authority weakened the nation, and he sought to prevent that from happening by giving the national government the ability to mediate conflicts. This was most evident during his final months in office when he encouraged the Continental Congress to adopt resolutions calling on New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts to give Congress authority to set new boundaries between the states and to negate the controversy arising over the creation of Vermont. Both New Hampshire and Massachusetts refused to relinquish such control, however. As John prepared to leave Congress, therefore, he realized a robust national government was necessary to bind the states together, but he soon expanded that line of thinking to include dealings with foreign nations.
Diplomatic service throughout the 1780s further convinced Jay America required a more recognized leadership body if it was to secure a place in world affairs. He formed his opinion almost immediately upon arriving in Madrid as U.S. minister to Spain when he found he was to be denied recognition as the ambassador of a sovereign country. Spanish officials evidenced this lack of respect as they withheld funds needed to secure America’s credit standing and placed preconditions on the U.S. — principally, acquiescing control of the Mississippi River — prior to a formal alliance. In 1782 Jay travelled to Paris where he joined John Adams and Benjamin Franklin in negotiating a final peace treaty with Britain. As the negotiations proceeded, he developed distrust for many European nations, including America’s ally, France. These nations saw America as a threat, and Jay feared they would exploit the U.S.’s internal divisions to prevent the country from becoming a dominant force. His concerns heightened following his appointment as Secretary for Foreign Affairs. For three years, 1784-87, Jay watched European nations seek to undermine American sovereignty, such as when Britain refused to abandon its garrisons along the U.S.’s northern border or when French consular officials petitioned for immunity from U.S. laws. He also grasped how a weakly unified nation was unable to stand up for its rights, as shown in the confrontation with Spain over access to the Mississippi River. Dealing with foreign nations convinced Jay America must show strength, and that was only possible through a stronger national system. Along with his fellow nationalists, therefore, he devoted himself to securing passage of such a government. Nothing less than the survival of the new nation was at stake.
In the fall of 1787 John Jay, who was still serving as Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and his fellow citizens read accounts of the new Constitution in the country’s newspapers. One of the document’s most important clauses was the one stating the Constitution and all national legislation would be “the supreme law of the land.” Jay must have felt a burst of pride on reading that passage — he had personally proposed the resolution to colleagues at the Constitutional Convention. He quickly realized, however, that certain other Americans, no less ardent than he, did not share his support for the document. Known as Antifederalists, they perceived a too powerful national government as a direct threat to individual liberty. Determined to overcome these objections, Jay joined Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to write the Federalist essays, a series of articles designed to encourage the Constitution’s ratification. He reminded Americans they were united by a common ancestry and by shared experiences during the Revolution, and therefore, the citizenry should employ maximum effort to prevent division of the country into separate confederations. He went on to illustrate how the disputes with France and Spain evidenced the need for a singular voice to confront external threats and to ensure the unified states remained free of foreign influences. John wrote a total of five essays as well as an Address to the People of the State of New York, in which he described how this new Constitution was the country’s best hope. He was not content to simply wage the fight in print, however; he prepared to follow his words up with action.
In February 1788 New York’s legislature finally called for a state convention to debate ratification. As soon as the delegation was seated, Jay realized he had a difficult task ahead of him — Federalists were outnumbered two-to-one. He grasped that the best chance for success lay with encouraging less-committed Antifederalists to abandon their more-committed leaders. He began by singling out and conversing with those men who were true friends of the union and who wished to see the nation preserved. He further sought to persuade Antifederalist delegates by employing a conciliatory tone when he addressed the convention as a whole. He reported to his friend George Washington these tactics appeared to bear fruit as he perceived a growing desire among some delegates to avoid rejection of the proposed new form of government. Division within the Antifederalist ranks increased after hearing that New Hampshire and Virginia had ratified the Constitution, bringing the number of states to ten and ensuring the document’s implementation. Despite this obvious victory, many Antifederalists continued to hold out, recognizing New York’s crucial position as one of the more powerful states. Hoping to pry more delegates loose, John suggested New York City might split off if New York as a whole rebuffed the new system. He also proposed an adjournment in hopes the Antifederalists would be pressured to favor ratification to appease their constituents. Still, Antifederalists held tight to their convictions, as evidenced by their desire to see immediate adoption of amendments.
As the debate over the Constitution neared a climax, Jay sought to mediate between New Yorkers who insisted on simultaneous adoption of amendments and those who favored immediate ratification. He was incensed by Antifederalist insistence that support of the Constitution would be conditioned upon on acceptance of various amendments. Instead, John proposed New York ratify the Constitution “as is” and then call for those amendments deemed necessary to preserve individual liberty. He voiced support for amendments as long as they did not create unworkable problems for the new administration. Just as it appeared a compromise was reached, however, Antifederalists threatened to derail ratification yet again by insisting on New York’s right to secede if a national convention to consider amendments was not called in an acceptable period of time. Jay argued such a proposal demonstrated a lack of faith in other states. To forge conciliation, he penned a letter to the nation stating New York’s willingness to ratify provided a convention would be called to adopt amendments correcting the Constitution’s perceived flaws. On July 26, 1788 the ratifying convention adopted Jay’s measure and subsequently voted thirty to twenty-seven to ratify the Constitution. The battle was over, and the victory belonged as much to Jay as anyone.
For the remainder of his life, Jay devoted himself to the new federal government he had helped establish. In late 1789 President George Washington appointed John as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In addition to hearing national cases, he also attended sessions of lower circuit courts. Likely due in part to his frequent travels over rugged terrain, he ultimately concluded the government’s ability to “establish post roads” also allowed for the repair of those roads in disrepair. Much of his time, however, was spent establishing federal supremacy over the states, such as when he overturned a Rhode Island monetary statute when it clashed with the Constitution’s currency provisions. Above all, he strove to bring federal justice to all Americans. He was still in the process of doing that in early 1794 when President Washington dispatched him to Britain to negotiate a treaty to prevent America’s involvement in the war raging between Britain and Republican France. Although Jay was forced to give in to critical British demands, he did secure Britain’s abandonment of its forts along the U.S.’s western border, which opened the lands to settlement and brought the inhabitants under the authority of the national government. Upon his return to America in 1796, he served two terms as governor of New York, and because of his past experiences, he continued to advise Presidents Washington and John Adams on foreign policy. He retired in June 1801 but remained in contact with Adams and other colleagues. John Jay died in May 1829. Across the land he had labored to unify he was honored for his long and faithful service.
Like his fellow revolutionaries, John Jay gave his all to the American cause, but his fight took on a different form than many others. He helped forge the political union that took on the most powerful empire in the world, and he fought to gain American acceptance overseas. He was a master negotiator and mediator, both at home and abroad. His greatest contribution, however, was his fight to cement a new national government strong enough to protect American interests from internal and external threats. Unfortunately, the Federalist giants James Madison and Alexander Hamilton have often overshadowed him. Without Jay, however, it is possible New York would not have ratified the Constitution, and the fate of a fledgling nation would have been uncertain. For his unceasing exertions, John Jay, American patriot, could rightfully be known as — “Defender of the Constitution.”