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). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.