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John JayJohn Jay: Found­ing Fa­ther by Wal­ter Stahr

John Jay ar­guably is the least known of the most sig­nif­i­cant Found­ing Fa­thers. Yet at one time, he was con­sid­ered by many to be the log­i­cal suc­ces­sor to Wash­ing­ton as chief ex­ec­u­tive of the new coun­try. His résumé is the most im­pres­sive of those who did not serve as president. Among the po­si­tions he held were: pres­i­dent of the Con­ti­nen­tal Con­gress, min­is­ter plenipotentiary to Spain, mem­ber of the peace com­mis­sion which ne­go­ti­ated the 1783 Treaty of Paris, sec­re­tary of for­eign af­fairs, co-au­thor of The Federal­ist, first chief jus­tice of the United States Supreme Court, and two term gov­er­nor of New York. In re­tire­ment, he was pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Bible So­ci­ety. Al­ways, he demon­strated in­tegrity and abil­ity.

With this book, his first, Wal­ter Stahr has filled a void in Amer­i­can his­tor­i­cal writ­ing and has surged into the ranks of sig­nif­i­cant Amer­i­can his­to­ri­ans. Not since Frank Mon­aghan’s study of Jay came out in 1935 has there been pub­lished a com­plete bi­og­ra­phy of this great but too lit­tle known mem­ber of our found­ing gen­er­a­tion. Stahr spec­u­lates on the dearth of Jay studies, suggesting that his being the most con­ser­v­a­tive of the major founders could have been a fac­tor. He also came to sup­port in­de­pen­dence later than most other key leaders. Fur­ther, al­though a firm sup­porter of lib­erty and free elec­tions, he was sus­pi­cious of too much democ­racy. Fi­nally, he was a de­vout Chris­t­ian. All these points are ac­cu­rate, but the ne­glect of Jay may be more at­trib­ut­able to his not being a mil­i­tary leader, a president, or a col­or­ful char­ac­ter about whom juicy scan­dals could be re­lated.

Stahr dis­cusses Jay’s slow evo­lu­tion to sup­port of in­de­pen­dence. He was a con­ser­v­a­tive who be­lieved, as Rus­sell Kirk later set forth, that a civ­i­lized so­ci­ety must have order, justice, and free­dom. The se­quence is es­sen­tial. With­out order, noth­ing can func­tion. Once order is es­tab­lished, jus­tice can come into being and once order and jus­tice pre­vail, freedom can arise and flour­ish. Jay was con­cerned lest war come be­fore other op­tions had been ex­hausted and that mob rule could re­sult from the poli­cies and ac­tions of some advocates of in­de­pen­dence. When he be­came con­vinced that noth­ing else would secure freedom for the colonists, he be­came a fer­vent sup­porter of the war. Dur­ing the con­flict, he served hon­or­ably and ef­fec­tively in the Con­ti­nen­tal Con­gress, cul­mi­nat­ing in the presidency of that body, as a key counter-in­tel­li­gence leader, and as a diplo­mat.

It was as a mem­ber of the Amer­i­can team which ne­go­ti­ated the 1783 Treaty of Paris which se­cured Amer­i­can in­de­pen­dence and ended the war, that Jay shone with par­tic­u­lar brightness. Five men were cho­sen by Con­gress. Thomas Jef­fer­son de­clined to cross the Atlantic then. Henry Lau­rens was cap­tured on the high seas by the British and im­pris­oned, only being re­leased near the end of the talks. Ben­jamin Franklin al­ready was in Paris. John Adams was rep­re­sent­ing the United States in the Nether­lands. For a time after ar­riv­ing from Spain, Jay was the only ac­tive del­e­gate, Franklin being ill and Adams de­layed in the Nether­lands. Jay in­sisted that the United States be rec­og­nized by Britain as an independent coun­try from the be­gin­ning rather than hav­ing recog­ni­tion be part of the treaty. Stahr re­garded this as ex­ces­sive on Jay’s part, that he was being stub­bornly legalistic. “On bal­ance, al­though one can ad­mire Jay’s pa­tri­o­tism in want­ing to see early recog­ni­tion of Amer­ica’s sta­tus, one has to ques­tion his judg­ment in in­sist­ing that this be dealt with as a pre­con­di­tion.” Since the British ended up ac­cept­ing Jay’s de­mand, even though ne­go­ti­a­tions were de­layed for two months, it is hard to fault Jay for his stal­wart defense of this coun­try’s sta­tus.

Jay, along with Alexan­der Hamil­ton and James Madi­son, au­thored The Fed­er­al­ist, arguably the most sig­nif­i­cant work of po­lit­i­cal thought in Amer­i­can his­tory and among the most im­por­tant in the adap­ta­tion of the core con­cepts of West­ern po­lit­i­cal thought—order, justice, and free­dom—to the United States. In par­tic­u­lar, The Fed­er­al­ist was vital in bringing about the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Con­sti­tu­tion.

Stahr also dis­cusses well Jay’s tenure as the first chief jus­tice of the United States Supreme Court. Stahr, though, does not rank Jay among the great­est chief jus­tices. Granted his record suf­fers in com­par­i­son with John Mar­shall, but Jay does de­serve rank­ing in the upper ech­e­lons of those who held this of­fice. He in­sisted on the in­de­pen­dence of the judiciary, doing much to so­lid­ify the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers. Prece­dents were es­tab­lished, such as the right of fed­eral courts to rule on the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of laws and their hav­ing jurisdiction over the ac­tiv­i­ties of for­eign gov­ern­ments on U.S. ter­ri­tory. He re­jected Hamilton’s call that he join him in at­tack­ing the Vir­ginia res­o­lu­tions op­pos­ing the assumption of state debts by the na­tional gov­ern­ment. As a Fed­er­al­ist, he agreed with Hamil­ton on the mat­ter, but did not be­lieve that Supreme Court jus­tices should be involved in pol­i­tics. Dur­ing his four years as chief jus­tice, Jay’s in­tegrity, ded­i­ca­tion to the Con­sti­tu­tion, knowl­edge of the law, and abil­ity es­tab­lished con­fi­dence in the Supreme Court and in the other fed­eral courts.

While serv­ing as chief jus­tice, Jay rep­re­sented the United States in ne­go­ti­a­tions with Britain over a num­ber of is­sues so con­tentious that an­other war was by no means inconceivable. Con­sid­er­ing the weak hand he had to play, U.S. armed forces hav­ing been sub­stan­tially re­duced, Jay did well to avoid war with Britain, se­cure the evac­u­a­tion of fortified posts they still oc­cu­pied on Amer­i­can soil, and to gain some ex­pan­sion of our trade with British ter­ri­tory. Stahr con­curs with most his­to­ri­ans that Jay did as well as anyone could have under the cir­cum­stances.

Jay was a de­vout Chris­t­ian, be­liev­ing firmly in the Bible as Di­vine rev­e­la­tion, and Stahr gives the depth of Jay’s faith its ap­pro­pri­ate place. Al­though Jay prac­ticed his Chris­tian­ity by being faith­ful to his wife and by in­tegrity in of­fice, he did not es­pouse, at least pub­licly, the na­tional recog­ni­tion of Chris­tian­ity—of God as sov­er­eign and of His rev­e­la­tion as norma­tive for all areas in­clud­ing gov­ern­ment. Still, though, he clearly ap­pears to have been a gen­uine be­liever in the fun­da­men­tals of Chris­tian­ity.

What, though, of the other lead­ers of the found­ing gen­er­a­tion? A con­vinc­ing case can be made that this was the great­est gen­er­a­tion of po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in the his­tory of West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion. A Chris­t­ian world­view was evinced by the writ­ers of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, but how deep and how ex­ten­sive was their Chris­t­ian be­lief? Schol­ars dif­fer. For ex­am­ple, Russell Kirk and John Ei­dsmoe be­lieved that the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of the fifty-five del­e­gates to the Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion ad­hered to or­tho­dox Chris­t­ian doc­trine whereas Mark Noll and Harold O. J. Brown were far more skep­ti­cal about the sound­ness of their be­liefs. Cer­tainly there were men who were deeply Chris­t­ian and those who were not in the Chris­t­ian camp. All had been in­flu­enced in vary­ing de­grees by the clash­ing forces of Christianity, es­pe­cially the First Great Awak­en­ing, and by the dis­be­lief of the Enlightenment.

What is sig­nif­i­cant in the con­sid­er­a­tion of their Chris­tian­ity is that there is no men­tion of God in the Con­sti­tu­tion, no state­ment of a covenant re­la­tion­ship be­tween God and government as is found in colo­nial doc­u­ments such as the First Char­ter of Vir­ginia, the Mayflower Com­pact, the Fun­da­men­tal or­ders of Con­necti­cut, the Mass­a­chu­setts Body of Lib­er­ties, and the Ar­ti­cles of Con­fed­er­a­tion of the New Eng­land Con­fed­er­a­tion. Those who established these gov­ern­ments be­lieved that God re­vealed His will to guide not just the church, the fam­ily, and the in­di­vid­ual, but also civil gov­ern­ment, that all should acknowledge the lord­ship of Christ. They be­lieved that peo­ple are truly free only within the frame­work of an or­dered so­ci­ety based on Chris­t­ian prin­ci­ples. Fur­ther­ing the spread of Chris­tian­ity, ob­vi­ously not by force, is a key re­spon­si­bil­ity of gov­ern­ment.

By the time the Con­sti­tu­tion was writ­ten, though, this doc­trine had been eroded by Enlightenment sec­u­lar­ism to the ex­tent that the Pre­am­ble to this doc­u­ment at­trib­uted the found­ing au­thor­ity to “We the Peo­ple of the United States,” a far cry from the Mayflower Com­pact recog­ni­tion of pur­pose: “Hav­ing un­der­taken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Chris­t­ian Faith . . . .” Popular sov­er­eignty now re­placed that of God.

Some, such as Pat Robert­son and Clarence Car­son do not re­gard the omis­sion as significant, that it was not ap­pro­pri­ate or necessary to do so. This think­ing is to­tally different from that of those who wrote the colonial doc­u­ments al­luded to pre­vi­ously. Rousas Rush­doony wrote in This In­de­pen­dent Re­pub­lic: Stud­ies in the Na­ture and Meaning of Amer­i­can His­tory that:

When ref­er­ence is made to the Chris­t­ian na­ture of the United States, the ob­jec­tion im­me­di­ately raised is the ab­sence of ref­er­ence to Chris­tian­ity. The Constitu­tion would never have been rat­i­fied had such a ref­er­ence been made . . . .

His point was that op­po­si­tion to a na­tional state church mo­ti­vated this con­vic­tion. Maybe so, but it is more likely that a weak­en­ing of Chris­t­ian con­vic­tions was the cul­prit.

Still, all things con­sid­ered, the United States Con­sti­tu­tion is a re­mark­able po­lit­i­cal achievement, wor­thy of re­spect and em­u­la­tion. There re­mains, though, the glar­ing ab­sence of any acknowledgment of God and of Chris­tian­ity as the basis of pub­lic order. A state church would not be ad­vis­able, or in­deed pos­si­ble, since we have a mul­ti­tude of denominations in this coun­try. A re­vival of Chris­tian­ity, though, could lead to a renewed understanding of Chris­t­ian foun­da­tions of our na­tional gov­ern­ment (with free­dom for dissenters), cor­rect­ing the omis­sion of 1787, and re­assert­ing the prin­ci­ple of Chris­t­ian govern­ment.

In sum­ma­tion, Wal­ter Stahr’s bi­og­ra­phy is well worth buy­ing and read­ing. We long have needed a thor­ough study of this out­stand­ing leader from what was our great­est gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers.

The books on the founding may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay is published here with the gracious permission of the University Bookman. It was originally published in the University Bookman, (Vol­ume 44, Num­ber 1 Fall 2005).

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Published: Feb 15, 2011
John Pafford
Dr. Pafford, professor emeritus, taught history and philosophy at Northwood University from 1976-2013 and received the Northwood University Award for Faculty Excellence in 1995. A member of the Board of Scholars of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, he is the author of six books, including “Russell Kirk” and “John Jay: The Forgotten Founder” as well as numerous articles on history, theology and contemporary events. He received his doctorate from International College in Los Angeles.
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