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Biography of John Jay


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Jay, John (1745-1829), the first chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. He was a native of New York City. His father was a merchant of Huguenot descent, his mother belonged to an old Dutch family. He was educated at King's College, now Columbia. His graduation oration lauded the blessings of peace. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War his voice was for smoothing over the difficulties with the mother country; but when he became convinced that "there is no peace," he joined the American cause. He sat in the Continental Congress and drafted an address to the people of Canada, asking them to join in refusing British rule. By right Jay's signature should have appeared on the Declaration of Independence, but, when it was signed, he was detained at home to prepare a constitution for his native state. Later he was a minister to Spain. At the close of the war he joined Franklin in Paris, and took an important part in the negotiations for peace. He and Franklin were not quite in accord. Jay and Adams suspected France of a design to limit the United States' territory to the Appalachian tract. Their insistence finally persuaded Franklin to act with them, and a very favorable treaty was secured. During the debates on the adoption of the constitution Jay wrote many able papers, since included in The Federalist, in its favor. Upon the organization of the general government Washington appointed Jay chief justice, an honor which he later resigned to be minister to England. In this capacity he negotiated the Jay treaty which made him exceedingly unpopular. Though offered the chief-justiceship again he declined and retired to an estate of 800 acres at Bedford, about forty-four miles from New York City. Here he was fond of a long clay pipe after dinner, and spent a large part of his time in reading and writing. He led a regular, simple life, preaching economy and thrift. At his death he left directions that his funeral be simple, and that $200, which might otherwise have been spent, be sent to a poor, worthy widow of the neighborhood. His children carried out his last wish.