This Day in History: John Jay’s forgotten contributions to America’s founding

On this day in 1829, John Jay passes away. His name is unfamiliar to most modern Americans, but Jay played a critical role in the founding of our country. One little-known contribution was made in 1782, about ten months after the British surrender at Yorktown.

John Jay and Benjamin Franklin were both then in Paris, trying to negotiate a peace treaty with Great Britain. Those negotiations were all but impossible! Americans were STILL dealing with a British government that was recognizing individual colonies, instead of the United States of America.

Indeed, the British negotiator, Richard Oswald, had been given instructions to negotiate a peace with “the said Colonies or Plantations, or any of them, or any part or parts thereof.” In other words, “the United States of America” was not mentioned.

Apparently, in the British view, the American government was an unnecessary participant in the peace negotiations?

The mistake was reminiscent of mistakes that had been made during the Revolution. As early as 1775, the British government had refused to work with the Continental Congress. At the time, Americans suspected that the approach was a ruse to divide the colonists and to turn them against each other.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Jay was pretty unhappy about Oswald’s commission. Another American emissary then serving abroad agreed. On August 10, John Adams wrote to Jay: “[I think that we ought to] insist upon full powers to treat with us in character, before we have a word more to say upon the subject. They are only amusing us.” Then he wrote Jay, again, on August 13:

“I think we ought not to treat at all, untill we see a Minister authorised to treat with ‘The United States of America’ or with their Ministers. . . . Firmness and Patience for a few Months, will carry us triumphantly to that Point, where it is the Interest of our Allies, of Neutral Nations, nay even of our Enemies, that we should arrive: I mean a Sovereignty, universally acknowledged by all the World.”

Fortunately, any crisis was averted. On September 1, Jay reported good news: Oswald had requested “further Instructions.” A few weeks later, more good news would arrive. Oswald received a second commission, which authorized him to negotiate with “any Commissioners or Persons vested with equal Powers, by and on the part of the Thirteen United States of America.”

Our history books may teach about the Battle of Yorktown, won by George Washington on October 19, 1781. But far too often, history books forget to mention that the American victory was followed by two long years of political maneuvering as peace negotiations were conducted.

Jay was one of the forgotten heroes who worked to navigate this difficult time.

Nor was that Jay’s only contribution to America’s founding. He was the first Chief Justice of the United States. He helped negotiate a second treaty with Britain during George Washington’s presidency, potentially staving off (another) war with Great Britain. He was one of three co-authors for the Federalist Papers, a series of essays that helped ensure ratification of the Constitution. He was a President of the Continental Congress during the American Revolution.

Naturally, his contributions in these other positions are stories for another day. 🙂

P.S. The picture is of the negotiators for the Treaty of Paris. It is unfinished because the British commissioners refused to pose.