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John Jay was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Like all of us, he was a multi-faceted human being.

John Jay by Gilbert Stuart and John Trumbull. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Jay was a devout man in a devout family. Each morning the family came together to worship God. Every evening at nine o’clock, Jay read his family a chapter from the Bible.

Jay’s ancestors were French Huguenots. When the French government abolished the rights of Protestants in 1685, John Jayʹs great-grandfather Pierre Jay fled to England. Pierreʹs son Augustus (John Jay’s grandfather) emigrated from England to America. He went first to South Carolina and later to New York where he settled among other Huguenots. There he married a fellow Huguenot.

Augustus’ son Peter (John Jay’s father) married Mary Van Cortlandt, who was Dutch. Peter and Mary had ten children, seven of whom lived to adulthood. John Jay, the future Chief Justice, was their sixth child.  Shortly after John was born, the Jay family moved from Manhattan to Rye, New York. Two of their children became blind after an illness and two of their other children had mental handicaps. Peter believed Rye would be a more suitable setting for his children.

John Jay’s mother Mary taught him literature at home. When he was eight years old, he began studying with a Huguenot minister. At age 14, John entered King’s College, an Anglican school in New York City. It is now Columbia University. John graduated in 1764 and became a law clerk. At age 23, Jay became a lawyer.

In April of 1774, John Jay married Sarah Van Brugh Livingston, the daughter of the governor of New Jersey. That same year Jay became a delegate to the First Continental Congress. He kept busy in the lead-up to the American Revolution and during the Revolution. He was a diplomat in Spain. Then, after Cornwallis and his British soldiers surrendered to George Washington and his Continentals at Yorktown in 1781, Jay worked on the Treaty of Paris with Benjamin Franklin and future president John Adams.

Jay was also one of three authors of The Federalist Papers that helped to convince reluctant Americans to ratify the U.S. Constitution. The other two authors were future first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and future president James Madison.

When George Washington became the first President of the United States, he chose John Jay as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Jay filled the position from 1789 to 1795. President Washington sent him to Great Britain to negotiate a treaty to settle continuing differences between the two countries.

When John Jay came home from England, he learned that the state of New York had elected him as its governor. He served two terms.

After that John Jay was done. He was ready for a quiet country life. For many years, he had looked forward to retiring to the homestead in Katonah, New York, he had inherited from one of his grandfathers. The grandfather had purchased the land in 1703 from a native chief named Katonah. Jay, his wife, Sarah, and the youngest three of their five children moved to Katonah in 1801. After only a few months, his wife Sarah died. He never got over missing her and he never married again.

However, John Jay did not wallow in self-pity. He made his farming operation a thriving business and he served other people. He was active in his church. He stayed interested in government. He wrote to and received letters from his fellow founding fathers.

He also got involved in two great causes: manumission and giving people Bibles.

Freeing Enslaved People

John Jay’s father owned many enslaved people. However, John Jay was a founding member of the New York Manumission Society. The society began in 1785 for the purpose of ending slavery. Jay served as its first president. He also maintained a friendship with William Wilberforce, who was working to end slavery in Great Britain. The Jay family’s anti-slavery work was multi-generational. John Jayʹs son William was an abolitionist, as was William’s son John Jay II.

While we applaud this work, Jay’s attitude toward slavery was also a puzzle. John Jay purchased enslaved persons himself. He explained that he gave them their freedom at a proper age after their services had paid him back for the price he paid for them. He saw the people that he purchased as a type of indentured servant.

In 1799, while serving as governor of New York, Jay signed a law for slavery to be abolished gradually. The law stated that any child born to enslaved parents after July 4, 1799, would become free after an apprenticeship. Males would serve their mother’s owner until age 28; females would serve their mother’s owner until age 25. After that time, they would be free.

Jay also encouraged education for black Americans. He wrote to leading physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush: “I consider knowledge to be the soul of a republic.” He told Rush that he wanted to see discrimination ended everywhere.

In 1787 Jay helped to found the African Free School. The school educated many black students. Jay continued to support it financially.

Giving Away Bibles

Americans who wanted to provide people with Bibles founded the American Bible Society (ABS) in New York in 1816. Elias Boudinot, who had served as a delegate to the Continental Congress and as director of the U.S. Mint, was the first ABS president. John Jay was its first vice president. Jay became president of the American Bible Society in 1821 after Boudinot died. Jay served until 1828.

One of the first efforts of the American Bible Society was to distribute Bibles to the crew of an American ship, the USS John Adams. In 1818 the Society published the books of 1, 2, and 3 John with translations in English and the native Delaware language side by side. Five years later the American Bible Society sent a donation to British missionary William Carey to support his efforts to translate the Bible in India. The group printed and gave away Bibles in China. In addition, the Society helped the New England Institution for the Blind provide the first Bibles for people who were visually impaired.

John Jay was not the only government official to serve as president of the American Bible Society. Following Jay as president was Richard Varick, former mayor of New York City. Two other ABS presidents in the 1800s were former members of the U.S. Senate.

The way John Jay lived his life gives us much to admire, and yet his attitude about slavery is inconsistent. His life reminds us that we should always be seeking to learn more and to grow in Christ, allowing Him to define what our attitudes and behaviors should be. I think it’s good to let children know that people do good sometimes and bad sometimes, that sometimes they see clearly and sometimes they don’t.

We always have room to grow.

. . . but speaking the truth in love, 
we are to grow up in all aspects
into Him who is the head, even Christ,
Ephesians 4:15

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