John Jay was born on December 12, 1745, in New York City, the son of a wealthy merchant family. He graduated from King's College (later Columbia University) in 1764, and began his legal studies as a law clerk in the office of Benjamin Kissam, a prominent New York City attorney. Admitted to the bar in 1768, Jay started a legal practice with Robert R. Livingston, Jr., before setting up his own law office in 1771.
Jay was a member of the Continental Congress of 1774-1776 and 1778-1779, and in the intervening months was a delegate to the New York Convention of 1776-77 where he was one of the principal drafters of the New York State Constitution.
The New York Convention appointed Jay Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature. The position required confirmation by the Council of Appointment and when, on October 1, 1777, Thomas Hadden sought a writ of habeas corpus, the Justices of the Supreme Court (Jay, Yates and Hobart) were powerless to act. Hadden appealed to the New York State Assembly which ensured that the appointments were confirmed shortly afterward.
During Jay's term as Chief Justice, the most populated regions of New York were still under English rule, and the Provincial (English Colonial) judicial system was still in force in those areas. Accordingly, little important business came before the Court, and the New York Supreme Court never sat en banc. Jay, in a letter to Gouverneur Morris wrote: I am now engaged in the most disagreeable part of my duty, trying criminals. They multiply exceedingly. Robberies become frequent; the woods afford them shelter, and the Tories food. Punishment must of course become certain, and mercy dormant, - a harsh system, repugnant to my feelings, but nevertheless necessary.
In December 1778, Jay was appointed President of the Continental Congress and resigned from the New York Supreme Court of Judicature. Several years later, Jay was a member of the delegation that negotiated the 1783 Treaty of Paris that formally ended the Revolutionary War.
Jay was in favor of the proposed Federal Constitution and, under pseudonym of "Publius," that he shared with Hamilton and Madison, wrote five of the eighty-five papers that collectively became known as the Federalist. Jay authored the second, third, fourth and fifth papers before falling ill and thereafter was able to write only one more, the sixty-fourth, published on March 5, 1788.
John Jay's involvement with the proposed Federal Constitution was greater than would appear from his participation in the Federalist. He was the author of the following materials recognized as documentation of the intent underlying the Constitution:
On September 24, 1789, President George Washington appointed John Jay first Chief Justice of the United States, a position that he held until his resignation on June 29, 1795. Meanwhile, in April of 1794, the President selected him to negotiate a treaty with Great Britain aimed at resolving outstanding issues between the two nations (The Jay Treaty).
When Jay returned from London in 1795, he found that during his absence he had been elected Governor of New York. He assumed the office and served two three-year terms. His legacy as Governor includes the 1799 signing into law of "An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery" and legislation that enacted judicial reforms. He also signed into law a revised criminal statute that restricted the death penalty to treason, murder and sacrilege, and that abolished flogging as a punishment.
John Jay died May 17, 1829, leaving instructions for his funeral: "I would have my funeral decent, but not ostentatious, no scarfs, no ring. Instead thereof, I give $200 to any one poor deserving widow or orphan of this town whom my children shall select."
The Essex County town of Jay, New York is named in his honor, as is the John Jay Park in Manhattan.
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
National Governors Association. Biographies of Former Governors.
Columbia University Libraries. A Brief Biography of John Jay.
George Pellew. John Jay, vol. 9 (1898).