John Jay And His Contributions To The

American Justice System Essay, Research Paper

On December the twelfth, Seventeen Hundred and Forty-five one of the greatest minds in the history of the human race was born in New York City. John Jay, with a great love for his country and an undying quest for justice, was to later build the fledgling United States of America’s justice system into the powerful force it is today. From his early education at King’s College to his later years as Governor of New York, Jay was dedicated to his beliefs and principles of fairness amongst all and the equality of all men. It was these beliefs which drove Jay in his crusade for justice.

Jay attended King’s College (now Columbia University) and graduated in 1764 to become a lawyer. While at King’s College Jay was an exceptional student and began to display his lawyer-like qualities, much to the dismay of some of the faculty. A good example of Jay’s stubbornness and combativeness which aided in his political career occurred in Jay’s senior year. Some of Jay’s classmates had broken a table in the dining room and the High Tory President, Doctor Myles Cooper, lined up all the students to interrogate them and find out who had broken the table. Each student told Doctor Cooper they did not break the table nor had they any idea who had, until he reached Jay. Cooper asked Jay if he knew who broke the table. Jay replied “Yes, sir.” Cooper asked who it was and Jay responded, “I choose not to tell you, sir.” Consequently, the faculty suspended Jay, despite the fact that he had looked through college regulations and determined that no where did it say one student had to inform against another. However, he was allowed to return in time for graduation with his class (Morris, pg. 59). Jay displayed this stubborn streak of his many times and it played a big part in his being recognized by the law community. On a few occasions Jay almost went too far because of this trait. Being one of the social elite, Jay belonged to various social clubs. He was on the board of one of these clubs and turned down the application of a Robert Randall. Randall accused Jay of giving a “stab to his honor” and Jay admitted that Randall had a “right to satisfaction.” He then said to Randall, “I will either ask your pardon or fight you.” (Morris, pg. 62) This displayed how Jay would stick to his decisions no matter the consequences and would not sacrifice his beliefs for anything.

Jay’s beginnings in politics were at about the same time of the closing of the Port of Boston and the Boston Tea Party. A committee in New York was called and Jay was in attendance. He took leadership of the assembly almost immediately and called for a gathering of a general congress. Thus, in September 1774 the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia. The author of the Address to the People of Great Britain Jay played a prominent role in this first organized form of government of a not yet formed independent country. Jay was accused of abandoning his principles by some conservatives, even though he would not rush into revolution, despite the battles at Lexington and Concord. A Second Continental Congress was called for in 1775 which Jay was once again a delegate to.

Jay went from conservative to staunch patriot rather fast after the passing of the Declaration of Independence and the invasion of New York by the British. He gained his first real position in the new government by serving as President of the Second Continental Congress from 1778-1779.

After a long and costly war with Great Britain the colonies had defeated the British and were ready to make peace. A commission was appointed to negotiate a treaty of peace with Great Britain. This commission consisted of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Henry Laurens, and Thomas Jefferson (Jefferson never reached Paris and therefore did not take place in the negotiations). Jay and Franklin were the primary negotiators of the treaty and Jay was rather vehement in seeing that the United States received formal recognition of the independence it had fought so hard for. Thus, John Jay with his strong sense of honor and principle had ensured this countries independence from any country.

Jay’s next position in government was as Secretary of Foreign Affairs which he began to serve in 1784. This was a difficult position to be in especially due to us being a new nation and many of the established nations challenging our power and will. Britain in the Northwest and Spain in the Southwest were particularly troublesome with this virtually ignoring our official boundaries. Jay tried to negotiate a treaty with Diego de Gardouqui of Spain to gain trading privileges and a settlement of Western problems. The agreement suggested would have given up American trading rights on the Mississippi for 30 years and was defeated by mostly Southern votes.

During these first few years of the United States, the country was being governed under the Articles of Confederation, a rather weak plan of government which Jay did not believe to work well at all. In 1786 a convention was called in Annapolis and here they called for a new convention with the intent to revise the Articles of Confederation. Fifty-five55 delegates from all the states except Rhode Island met at this convention and realized that it was useless to revise the Articles, that an entirely new plan of government was needed. The result was later to be called the Constitutional Convention. There was great fighting amongst the members of the convention on how the government was to be built. There were basically two schools of thought on how the government should be, those who wanted a strong state government like Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, and those who wanted a strong federal government, such as Jay and Alexander Hamilton. To try to receive more support for a strong federal government Jay, Hamilton, and James Madison collaborated on a series of 85 political essays which they entitled The Federalist.

Written under the pen name of “Publius,” The Federalist is considered one of the most brilliant essays on political theory ever. The Supreme Court has even cited them in certain controversial cases as an interpretation of the Constitution. Written to refute the anti-federalist arguments opposing ratification of the Constitution, they definitely did there job. Jay, who contributed five essays in all (he became ill and had to withdraw his direct involvement so he would be able to continue his other official duties), along with Hamilton and Madison are perhaps the three individuals most responsible for the ratification of the United States Constitution. They all shared the common belief that a strong federal government was necessary to ensure order and justice. They believed that a weak federal government would allow for anarchy and without a strong central government law and order would be nearly impossible.

After ratification of the Constitution in 1789 by the 13 states Jay was appointed Chief Justice of The Supreme Court by the newly elected President George Washington. Jay was by far the best choice for this position. He had all the qualities which were needed to execute this job. As said in the Federalist Paper No. 78, “There is no position which depends on clearer principles, than that every act of a delegated authority, contrary to the tenor of the commission under which it is exercised, is void.” With Jay’s strong sense of principle, he fit this profile perfectly. While serving on the Supreme Court, the most important decision he handed down would probably be Chisholm v. Georgia. It established the principle that a citizen of one state had the right to sue another stated in the federal courts (This decision was later negated by the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution).

Even though we had gained our independence from Great Britain they were still harassing the U.S. and in 1794 Jay was sent to Britain to try and work something out to solve these problems without going to war. The agreement which was decided on and approved by the Senate was to become known as Jay’s Treaty. It called for the evacuation of British posts within American territory and that Britain pay compensation for seizures of American shipping in 1793. However, the treaty ignored basic maritime rights and this infuriated many Americans, especially those in the south.

Jay returned from Europe in 1795 to find out that he had been elected Governor of New York. He resigned from his position as Chief Justice on June 29, 1795 and took the office of Governor of the state of New York on July 1, 1795. He served as governor until June of 1801 when he retired to his private life.

John Jay, American statesman, jurist, diplomat, chief justice, and governor was definitely a dedicated and willing public servant. He loved his country and his countrymen and believed that all men were equal and deserved to be treated accordingly. He was a man of incredible self-esteem and a man of devout principles which he would not give up. Many of his theories and beliefs are what hold up our modern justice system and without him they would not be what they are today, and neither would this country.


Bemis, Samuel Flagg, Jay’s Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy. Yale University Press; New Haven and London. 1967.

Faragher, John Mack, ed., The Encyclopedia of American History; 4th Edition. Guilford; Connecticut. 1991.

Hamilton, Alexander, “Federalist Paper No. 78.” 1788 (Located on SIRS Government Reporter, Fall 1995 Release. 1995 SIRS, Inc.)

McGuinnes, Colleen, ed., American Leaders. Congressional Quarterly; U.S.A. 1991.

Morris, Richard B., Witness at the Creation: Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and the Constitution. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston; New York. 1985

Rembar, Charles, The Law of the Land: The Evolution of Our Legal System. Simon & Shuster; New York. 1981.

Seligman, Edwin R.A., ed., Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences; vol. VII-VIII. The Macmillan Company; New York. 1967.


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