Jay, John (1745–1829), the first chief justice of the United States. Jay was one of the nation's ablest public officials, holding a number of important posts during the Revolutionary War and in the early years of the republic. He was a conservative who believed “the people who own the country [that is, property owners] ought to govern it.” Like his friend Alexander Hamilton, he favored a strong central government. Jay was a signer of the U.S. Constitution.
Jay was born in New York City, the sixth son of a rich merchant whose father was a French Huguenot exile. John Jay graduated from King's College (now Columbia University) in 1764 and was admitted to the bar in 1768. Though at first opposed to independence he became prominent in the patriot cause, serving in the Continental Congress, 1774–79, and as its president, 1778–79. In 1777 he helped write New York's constitution. He was the state's first chief justice, 1778–79.
As minister to Spain, 1779–81, Jay unsuccessfully sought recognition of America's independence, but did secure a loan. Jay then joined John Adams and Benjamin Franklin as a peace commissioner, and helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris (1783), ending the Revolution.
Jay was appointed secretary of foreign affairs by Congress in 1784. His work was hampered by the weakness of the central government under the Articles of Confederation, especially by its inability to force the states to abide by its treaties. As a result, Jay strongly supported a reorganization of the government, and after the Constitutional Convention of 1787 he wrote five of the Federalist papers, urging adoption of the Constitution.
As chief justice, 1789–95, Jay was careful to uphold the independence of the judiciary. Later, however, he wrote that the Supreme Court was lacking in “energy, weight, and dignity.” In 1794 Jay was a special envoy to Britain. He negotiated the unpopular Jay Treaty. While in England, Jay, a Federalist, was elected governor of New York. He served two terms, 1795–1801, and then retired to his farm near Bedford, New York.