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John Jay: the Conservative Revolutionary

ISSUE:  Summer 1976
John Jay, The Making of a Revolutionary, Unpublished Papers, 1745—1780, Vol. I. Edited by Richard Morris. Harper & Row. $25.00.

THE appearance of this long-awaited first volume of John Jay’s papers under the editorship of Professor Richard B. Morris and a distinguished group of younger scholars will be particularly welcome to revolutionary scholars. Handsome in format and copiously annotated, it contains more than 800 pages of letters and documents, few of which have hitherto been readily available. The publication of the Jay Papers may well have important consequences for the editors of other documentary projects. Spiraling costs and proliferation of “papers” projects have increasingly elicited critical comment on the duplication of material, particularly in the letterpress editions of the papers of the Founding Fathers. The editors of the Jay Papers have met this challenge by including in their projected three volumes only significant material which has either previously been unpublished or which has appeared in earlier editions with substantial errors or omissions, excepting only a few state papers of great importance. This device obviously has its drawbacks. Researchers will find that it will be difficult to use the volume independently of older sources in which some of Jay’s most important documents appear: the earlier editions of his writings, Force’s American Archives, the Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, and even occasionally Francis Wharton’s unsatisfactory Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence. The editors have, however, handled their procedure with a remarkable degree of success. The documents included in this volume, which covers Jay’s early and highly conservative career during the first days of the Revolution, his gradual commitment to independence and support of the revolutionary movement, his presidency of the Continental Congress, and the first phase of his mission to Spain, are all preceded by highly informative headnotes giving extensive background on each aspect of Jay’s career, Professor Morris has been more fortunate than the editors of most documentary projects in having access to an unpublished collection of major importance. In 1957 Columbia University purchased Jay’s papers from his great-great-granddaughter. The Iselin collection contained a large body of family papers, including unpublished Jay correspondence with Washington, Adams, Franklin, and many others of his major contemporaries. Although it was a nucleus of primary importance, there were clearly important gaps in the collection. Jay’s sons were less than vigilant in preserving their father’s papers intact—some were deliberately destroyed—although they did have the good judgment to refuse access to the collection to Jared Sparks, the major despoiler of other 18th-century collections. The editors have spent nearly 20 years reconstructing Jay’s correspondence, collecting from all parts of the world additional documents to supplement the Iselin collection. The material acquired from foreign repositories will be particularly welcome to American scholars.

Jay’s character emerges clearly in this volume. A man of unusual integrity, immense ability, and indefatigable industry, he was almost universally respected by his contemporaries. Although at one time or another he held almost every major office in the new republic, most of the positions were appointive. Never at any stage of his career a crowd-pleaser, Jay was not attractive to the electorate. The warmth evident in his letters to his family and friends was rarely displayed toward social inferiors or political opponents, who too often found him overbearing and opinionated. Some of this self-satisfaction undoubtedly arose from his impeccable social background. His father’s family were prosperous Huguenot refugees, his mother a Van Cortlandt; he was related to some of New York’s leading families. In 1774 he married the lovely and vivacious Sally Livingston, daughter of William Livingston, soon to be Whig governor of New Jersey but a former member of the powerful New York “triumvirate.”

Jay emerged as a revolutionary leader from the turmoil of New York politics, and the notes and documents in this volume trace his gradual conversion from conservative to revolutionary. In the years after the Stamp Act crisis the colony had become a cauldron of conflicting factions. Merchants who during the French and Indian War had conducted a thriving trade in provisioning the military found their business languishing, and British mercantile acts were resented as an intolerable burden. City artisans were equally affected by a deepening depression in New York City between the end of the war and the early 1770’s. The city teemed with unemployed sailors. Land speculators railed at Whitehall’s Indian policy. Landed gentry, New York City merchants, yeomen farmers, radical “mechanics” or artisans formed temporary and shifting alliances which quickly fell apart when the moment of crisis had passed. By the early 1770’s political allegiance tended to gather around one of two factions: the pro-Tory De Lanceys or the whiggish Livingstons, although allegiances cut across class lines, and the radical mechanics were as divided in their opinions as their social superiors.

In the early seventies, when he was embarking on a promising legal career after an apprenticeship as Benjamin Kissam’s law clerk, Jay was part of the coterie of New York gentry, many of them lawyers, who were determined to keep control of the growing revolutionary movement in their own hands. They felt themselves thwarted by the Crown and were willing to form an uneasy alliance with radical artisans and farmers but, as Gouverneur Morris put it, “the heads of the nobility grow dangerous to the gentry, and how to keep them down is the question.” Jay, by now an adherent of the Livingston party, shared the general alarm over the increasing effectiveness of Alexander McDougall and other radicals. Indeed, at this stage Jay might easily have become a Tory. His immediate family leaned to the Whigs, but his relatives were divided and even while he was serving as a delegate to the First Continental Congress he was fishing—unsuccessfully—for a royal appointment.

Jay entered New York politics as a member of the De Lancey controlled Committee of Fifty-one, and in November 1774 he was elected to the more radical Committee of Sixty. Appointed as delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, he became a leader of the conservative delegates. In September 1774, he was writing a friend from Congress: “God knows how the Contest will end. I sincerely wish it may terminate in a lasting Union with Great Britain.” The rejection of Congress’s petition to the Crown of October 1774 led to a last-ditch attempt on the part of such moderates as Jay to draw up one more petition. On such relatively new material as Jay’s draft of the June 1775 Olive Branch Petition, the editors’ work is indispensable. There is an excellent headnote on the sources influencing Jay’s conciliatory draft, which probably reflected the opinions of the Tory-dominated New York legislature, and an enlightening comparison with the final version prepared by John Dickinson. By the time Jay attended the Third New York Provincial Congress he was still reiterating that the people of New York had not authorized Congress to commit the province to independence (his resolution possibly prevented his state’s congressional delegates from voting for independence). Untenable positions, however, were not for Jay, and by July 9, 1776, he was drafting the Provincial Congress’s committee report endorsing independence.

Jay’s yeoman service in the Continental Congress and his presidency of that body from December 1778 to September 1779 are amply covered, particularly by previously unpublished letters between Jay and Washington, Nathanel Greene, Schuyler, Gates, and other general officers. Jay’s correspondence with Alexander McDougall illuminates military activities in New York at the beginning of the war. There are numerous editorial gems: a four-page headnote on the case of Enoch Crosby, Westchester County spy; an account of Jay’s role in ferreting out the details of the so-called “Hickey Plot” to assassinate Washington; a long note discussing Jay’s debated authorship of the New York Constitution of 1777. The volume is unexpectedly rich in the social history of the Revolution. Letters to John and Sally from the Jay and Livingston families, often in the path of the armies of both sides, indicate that the rich and powerful were not exempt from the rigors of war.

The largest amount of new material is in Jay’s mission to Spain in 1779, the first phase of which is covered in this volume. Much important material appears on the manipulations in Congress over his appointment. (Jay had written in April 1779 that “There is as much intrigue in this State-house as in the Vatican but as little secrecy as in a boarding-school.” ) His final appointment, at the expense of the Lee faction in Congress, resulted from a compromise with the New England delegates: Jay would go to Spain to seek Spanish aid, and John Adams would go to Paris. Jay’s frustrating experiences in Spain with Floridablanca and Gardoqui are superbly annotated, obviously benefiting from Professor Morris’s foreign researches for The Peacemakers. The editors have wisely decided to include the letters to the Jay family from Sally, who alone among the Revolution’s “diplomatic wives” accompanied her husband to Europe, no light undertaking, as her vivid descriptions of the rigors of foreign travel attest. Jay’s efforts to secure recognition and aid failed principally because of Spain’s insistent denial of the right of free navigation of the Mississippi and her instinctive distrust of revolutionary governments. The experience left Jay with an abiding suspicion of foreign courts. Revolutionary historians will be grateful for a very useful editorial note on unravelling the codes and ciphers used by Jay and Congress and for the reprinting of many documents which earlier editors, in particular Francis Wharton, originally published with the coded portions silently omitted.


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