Story type: Essay
Calm repose and the sweets of undisturbed retirement appear more distant than a peace with Britain.
It gives me pleasure, however, to reflect that the period is approaching when we shall be citizens of a better ordered State, and the spending of a few troublesome years of our eternity in doing good to this and future generations is not to be avoided nor regretted. Things will come right, and these States will yet be great and flourishing.
–Letter to Washington
America should feel especially charitable towards Louis the Great, called by Carlyle, Louis the Little, for banishing the Huguenots from France. What France lost America gained. Tyranny and intolerance always drive from their homes the best: those who have ability to think, courage to act, and a pride that can not be coerced.
The merits possessed by the Huguenots are exactly those which every man and nation needs. And these are simple virtues, too, whose cultivation stands within the reach of all. These are the virtues of the farmers and peasants and plain people who do the work of the world, and give good government its bone and sinew. To a great degree, so-called society is made up of parasites who fasten and feed upon the industrious and methodical.
If you have read history you know that the men who go quietly about their business have been cajoled, threatened, driven, and often, when they have been guilty of doing a little independent thinking on their own account, banished. And further than this, when you read the story of nations dead and gone you will see that their decline began when the parasites got too numerous and flauntingly asserted their supposed power. That contempt for the farmer, and indifference to the rights of the man with tin pail and overalls, which one often sees in America, are portents that mark disintegrating social bacilli. If the Republic of the United States ever becomes but a memory, like Carthage, Athens and Rome, drifting off into senile decay like Italy and Spain or France, where a man may yet be tried and sentenced without the right of counsel or defense, it will be because we forgot–we forgot!
In moral fiber and general characteristics the Huguenots and the Puritans were one. The Huguenots had, however, the added virtue of a dash of the Frenchman’s love of beauty. By their excellent habits and loyalty to truth, as they saw it, they added a vast share to the prosperity and culture of the United States.
Of seven men who acted as presiding officer over the deliberations of Congress during the Revolutionary Period, three were of Huguenot parentage: Laurens, Boudinot and Jay. John Jay was a typical Huguenot, just as Samuel Adams was a typical Puritan. In his life there was no glamour of romance. Stern, studious and inflexibly honest, he made his way straight to the highest positions of trust and honor. Good men who are capable are always needed. The world wants them now more than ever. We have an overplus of clever individuals; but for the faithful men who are loyal to a trust there is a crying demand.
The life of Jay quite disproves the oft-found myth that a dash of Mephisto in a young man is a valuable adjunct. John Jay was neither precocious nor bad. It is further a refreshing fact to find that he was no prig, simply a good, healthy youngster who took to his books kindly and gained ground–made head upon the whole by grubbing.
His father was a hard-headed, prosperous merchant, who did business in New York, and moved his big family up to the little village of Rye because life in the country was simple and cheap. Thus did Peter Jay prove his commonsense.
Peter Jay copied every letter he wrote, and we now have these copy-books, revealing what sort of man he was. Religious he was, and scrupulously exact in all things. We see that he ordered Bibles from England, “and also six groce of Church Wardens,” which I am told is a long clay pipe, “that hath a goodly flavor and doth not bite the tongue.” He also at one time ordered a chest of tea, and then countermanded the order, having taken the resolve to “use no tea in my family while that rascally Tax is on–having a spring of good, pure water near my house.” Which shows that a man can be very much in earnest and still joke.
John was the baby, scarcely a year old, when the Jay family moved up to Rye. He was the eighth child, and as he grew up he was taught by the older ones. He took part in all the fun and hardships of farm life–going to school in Winter, working in Summer, and on Sundays hearing long sermons at church.
We find by Peter Jay’s letter-book that: “Johnny is about our brightest child. We have great hopes of him, and believe it will be wise to educate him for a preacher.” In order to educate boys then, they were sent to live in the family of some man of learning. And so we find “Johnny” at twelve years of age installed in the parsonage at New Rochelle, the Huguenot settlement. The pastor was a Huguenot, and as only French was spoken in the household, the boy acquired the language, which afterwards stood him in good stead.
The pastor reported favorably, and when fifteen, young Jay was sent to King’s College, which is now Columbia University, kings not being popular in America.
Doctor Samuel Johnson, who nowise resembled Ursa Major, was the president of the College at that time. He was also the faculty, for there were just thirty students and he did all the teaching himself. Doctor Johnson, true to his name, dearly loved a good book, and when teaching mathematics would often forget the topic and recite Ossian by the page, instead. Jay caught it, for the book craze is contagious and not sporadic. We take it by being exposed.
And thus it was while under the tutelage of Doctor Johnson that Jay began to acquire the ability to turn a terse sentence; and this gained him admittance into the world of New York letters, whose special guardians were Dickinson and William Livingston.
Livingston invited the boy to his house, and very soon we find the young man calling without special invitation, for Livingston had a beautiful daughter about John’s age, who was fond of Ossian, too, or said she was.
And as this is not a serial love-story, there is no need of keeping the gentle reader in suspense, so I will explain that some years later John married the girl, and the mating was a very happy one.
After John had been to King’s College two years we find in the faded and yellow old letter-book an item written by the father to the effect that: “Our Johnny is doing well at College. He seems sedate and intent on gaining knowledge; but rather inclines to Law instead of the Ministry.”
Doctor Johnson was succeeded by Doctor Myles Cooper, a Fellow of Oxford, who used to wear his mortarboard cap and scholar’s gown up Broadway. In young Jay’s veins there was not a drop of British blood. Of his eight great-grandparents, five were French and three Dutch, a fact he once intimated in the Oxonian’s presence. And then it was explained to the youth that if such were the truth it would be as well to conceal it.
Alexander Hamilton got along very well with Doctor Cooper, but John Jay found himself rusticated shortly before graduation. Some years after this Doctor Cooper hastily climbed the back fence, leaving a sample of his gown on a picket, while Alexander Hamilton held the Whig mob at bay at the front door.
Cooper sailed very soon for England, anathematizing “the blarsted country” in classic Latin as the ship passed out of the Narrows.
“England is a good place for him,” said the laconic John Jay.
So John Jay was to be a lawyer. And the only way to be a lawyer in those days was to work in a lawyer’s office. A goodly source of income to all established lawyers was the sums they derived for taking embryo Blackstones into their keeping. The greater a man’s reputation as a lawyer, the higher he placed his fee for taking a boy in.
In those days there were no printed blanks, and a simple lease was often a day’s work to write out; so it was not difficult to keep the boys busy. Besides that, they took care of the great man’s horse, blacked his boots, swept the office, and ran errands. During the third year of apprenticeship, if all went well, the young man was duly admitted to the Bar. A stiff examination kept out the rank outsiders, but the nomination by a reputable attorney was equivalent to admittance, for all members knew that if you opposed an attorney today, tomorrow he might oppose you.
To such an extent was this system of taking students carried that, in Seventeen Hundred Sixty-eight, we find New York lawyers alarmed “by the awful influx of young Barristers upon this Province.” So steps were taken to make all attorneys agree not to have more than two apprentices in their office at one time. About the same time the Boston newspaper, called the “Centinel,” shows there was a similar state of overproduction in Boston. Only the trouble there was principally with the doctors, for doctors were then turned loose in the same way, carrying a diploma from the old physician with whom they had matriculated and duly graduated.
Law schools and medical colleges, be it known, are comparatively modern institutions–not quite so new, however, as business colleges, but pretty nearly so. And now in Chicago there is a “Barbers’ University,” which issues diplomas to men who can manipulate a razor and shears, whereas, until yesterday, boys learned to be barbers by working in a barber’s shop. The good old way was to pass a profession along from man to man.
And it is so yet in a degree, for no man is allowed to practise either medicine or law until he has spent some time in the office of a practitioner in good standing.
In the Catholic Church, and also in the Episcopal, the novitiate is expected to serve for a time under an older clergyman; but all the other denominations have broken away, and now spring the fledgling on the world straight from the factory.
Several other of his children having sorely disappointed him, Peter Jay seemed to center his ambitions on his boy John. So we find him paying Benjamin Kissam, the eminent lawyer, two hundred pounds in good coin of the Colony to take John Jay as a ‘prentice for five years. John went at it and began copying those endless, wordy documents in which the old-time attorney used to delight. John sat at one end of a table, and at the other was seated one Lindley Murray, at the mention of whose name terror used to seize my soul.
Murray has written some good, presentable English to the effect that young Jay, even at that time, had the inclination and ability to focus his mind upon the subject in hand. “He used to work just as steadily when his employer was away as when he was in the office,” a fact which the grammarian seemed to regard as rather strange.
In a year we find that when Mr. Kissam went away he left the keys of the safe in John Jay’s hands, with orders what to do in case of emergencies. Thus does responsibility gravitate to him who can shoulder it, and trust to the man who deserves it.
It was in Kissam’s office that Jay acquired that habit of reticence and serene poise which, becoming fixed in character, made his words carry such weight in later years. He never gave snapshot opinions, or talked at random, or voiced any sentiment for which he could not give a reason.
His companions were usually men much older than he. At the “Moot Club” he took part with James Duane, who was to be New York’s first continental mayor; Gouverneur Morris, who had not at that time acquired the wooden leg which he once snatched off and brandished with happy effect before a Paris mob; and Samuel Jones, who was to take as ‘prentice and drill that strong man, De Witt Clinton.
Before his years of apprenticeship were over, John Jay, the quiet, the modest, the reticent, was known as a safe and competent lawyer–Kissam having pushed him forward as associate counsel in various difficult cases.
Meantime, certain chests of tea had been dumped into Boston Harbor, and the example had been followed by the “Mohawks” in New York. British oppression had made many Tories lukewarm, and then English rapacity had transformed these Tories into Whigs. Jay was one of these; and in newspapers and pamphlets, and from the platform, he had pleaded the cause of the Colonies. Opposition crystallized his reasons, and threats only served to make him reaffirm the truths he had stated.
So prominent had his utterances made his name, that one fine day he was nominated to attend the first Congress of the Colonies to be held in Philadelphia.
In August, Seventeen Hundred Seventy-four, we find him leaving his office in New York in charge of a clerk, and riding horseback over to the town of Elizabeth, there joining his father-in-law, and the two starting for Philadelphia. On the road they fell in with John Adams, who kept a diary. That night at the tavern where they stopped, the sharp-eyed Yankee recorded the fact of meeting these new friends and added, “Mr. Jay is a young gentleman of the law … and Mr. Scott says a hard student and a very good speaker.”
And so they journeyed on across the State to Trenton and down the Delaware River to Philadelphia, visiting, and cautiously discussing great issues as they went. Samuel Adams, too, was in the party, as reticent as Jay. Jay was twenty-nine and Samuel Adams fifty-two years old, but they became good friends, and Samuel once quietly said to John Adams, “That man Jay is young in years, but he has an old head.”
Jay was the youngest man of the Convention, save one.
When the Second Congress met, Jay was again a delegate. He served on several important committees, and drew up a statement that was addressed to the people of England; but he was recalled to New York before the supreme issue was reached, and thus, through accident, the Declaration of Independence does not contain the signature of John Jay.
* * * * *
In Seventeen Hundred Seventy-eight, Jay was chosen president of the Continental Congress to succeed that other patriotic Huguenot, Laurens. The following year he was selected as the man to go to Spain, to secure from that country certain friendly favors.
His reception there was exceedingly frosty, and the mention of his two years on the ragged edge of court life at Madrid, in later years brought to his face a grim smile.
Spain’s diplomatic policy was smooth hypocrisy and rank untruth, and all her promises, it seems, were made but to be broken. Jay’s negotiations were only partially successful, but he came to know the language, the country and the people in a way that made his knowledge very valuable to America.
By Seventeen Hundred Eighty-one, England had begun to see that to compel the absolute submission of the Colonies was more of a job than she had anticipated. News of victories was duly sent to the “mother country” at regular intervals, but with these glad tidings were requests for more troops, and requisitions for ships and arms.
The American army was a very hard thing to find. It would fight one day, to retreat the next, and had a way of making midnight attacks and flank movements that, to say the least, were very confusing. Then it would separate, to come together–Lord knows where! This made Lord Cornwallis once write to the Home Secretary: “I could easily defeat the enemy, if I could find him and engage him in a fair fight.” He seemed to think it was “no fair,” forgetting the old proverb which has something to say about love and war.
Finally, Cornwallis got the thing his soul desired–a fair fight. He was then acting on the defensive. The fight was short and sharp; and Colonel Alexander Hamilton, who led the charge, in ten minutes planted the Stars and Stripes on his ramparts.
That night Cornwallis was the “guest” of Washington, and the next day a dinner was given in his honor.
He was then obliged to write to the Home Secretary, “We have met the enemy, and we are theirs”–but of course he did not express it just exactly that way. Then it was that King George, for the first time, showed a disposition to negotiate for peace.
As peace commissioners, America named Franklin, John Adams, Laurens, Jay and Jefferson.
Jefferson refused to leave his wife, who was in delicate health. Adams was at The Hague, just closing up a very necessary loan. Laurens had been sent to Holland on a diplomatic mission, and his ship having been overhauled by a British man-of-war, he was safely in that historic spot, the Tower of London.
So Jay and Franklin alone met the English commissioners, and Jay stated to them the conditions of peace.
In a few weeks Adams arrived, still keeping a diary. In that diary is found this item: “The French call me ‘Le Washington de la Negociation’: a very flattering compliment indeed, to which I have no right, but sincerely think it belongs to Mr. Jay.”
Jay quitted Paris in May, Seventeen Hundred Eighty-four, having been gone from his native land eight years. When he reached New York there was a great demonstration in his honor. Triumphal arches were erected across Broadway, houses and stores were decorated with bunting, cannons boomed, and bells rang. The freedom of the city was presented to him in a gold box, with an exceedingly complimentary address, engrossed on parchment, and signed by one hundred of the leading citizens.
Jay spent just one day in New York, and then rode on horseback up to the old farm at Rye, Westchester County, to see his father. That evening there was a service of thanksgiving at the village church, after which the citizens repaired to the Jay mansion, one story high and eighty feet long, where a barrel of cider was tapped, and “a groce of Church Wardens” passed around, with free tobacco for all.
John Jay stood on the front porch and made a modest speech just five minutes long, among other things saying he had come home to be a neighbor to them, having quit public life for good. But he refused to talk about his own experiences in Europe. His reticence, however, was made up for by good old Peter Jay, who assured the people that John Jay was America’s foremost citizen; and in this statement he was backed up by the village preacher, with not a dissenting voice from the assembled citizens.
It is rather curious (or it isn’t, I’m not sure which) how most statesmen have quit public life several times during their careers, like the prima donnas who make farewell tours. The ingratitude of republics is proverbial, but to limit ingratitude to republics shows a lack of experience. The progeny of the men who tired of hearing Aristides called The Just are very numerous. Of course it is easy to say that he who expects gratitude does not deserve it; but the fact remains that the men who know it are yet stung by calumny when it comes their way.
That fine demonstration in Jay’s honor was in great part to overwhelm and stamp out the undertone of growl and snarl that filled the air. Many said that peace had been gained at awful cost, that Jay had deferred to royalty and trifled with the wishes of the people in making terms.
And now Jay had got home, back to his family and farm, back to quiet and rest. The long, hard fight had been won and America was free. For eight years had he toiled and striven and planned: much had been accomplished–not all he hoped, but much.
He had done his best for his country, his own affairs were in bad shape, Congress had paid him meagerly, and now he would turn public life over to others and live his own life.
All through life men reach these places where they say, “Here will we build three tabernacles”; but out of the silence comes the imperative Voice, “Arise, and get thee hence, for this is not thy rest.”
And now the war was over, peace was concluded; but war leaves a country in chaos. The long, slow work of reconstruction and of binding up a nation’s wounds must follow. America was independent, but she had yet to win from the civilized world the recognition that she must have in order to endure.
Jay was importuned by Washington to take the position of Secretary of Foreign Affairs, one of the most important offices to be filled.
He accepted, and discharged the exacting duties of the place for five years.
Then came the adoption of the Federal Constitution, and the election of Washington as President of the United States.
Washington wrote to Jay: “There must be a Court, perpetual and Supreme, to which all questions of internal dispute between States or people be referred. This Court must be greater than the Executive, greater than any individual State, separated and apart from any political party. You must be the first official head of the Executive.”
And Jay, as every schoolboy knows, was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. By his sagacity, his dignity, his knowledge of men, and love of order and uprightness, he gave it that high place which it yet holds, and which it must hold; for when the decisions of the Supreme Court are questioned by a State or people, the fabric of our government is but a spider’s web through which anarchy and unreason will stalk.
In Seventeen Hundred Ninety-four, came serious complications with Great Britain, growing out of the construction of terms of peace made in Paris eleven years before.
Some one must go to Great Britain and make a new treaty in order to preserve our honor and save us from another war.
Franklin was dead; Adams as Vice-President could not be spared; Hamilton’s fiery temper was dangerous–no one could accomplish the delicate mission so well as Jay.
Jay, self-centered and calm, said little; but in compliance with Washington’s wish resigned his office, and set sail with full powers to use his own judgment in everything, and the assurance that any treaty he made would be ratified.
Arriving in England, he at once opened negotiations with Lord Grenville, and in five months the new treaty was signed.
It provided for the payment to American citizens for losses of private shipping during the war; and over ten million dollars were paid to citizens of the United States under this agreement.
It fixed the boundary-line between the State of Maine and Canada; provided for the surrender of British posts in the Far West; that neither nation was to allow enlistments within its territory by a third nation at war with another; arranged for the surrender of fugitives charged with murder or forgery; and made definite terms as to various minor, but none the less important, questions.
A storm of opposition greeted the treaty when its terms were made known in America. Jay was accused of bartering away the rights of America, and indignation meetings were held, because Jay had not insisted on apologies, and set sums of indemnity on this, that and the other.
Nevertheless, Washington ratified the treaty; and when Jay arrived in America there was a greeting fully as cordial and generous as that on the occasion of his other homecoming.
In fact, while he was absent, his friends had put him in nomination as Governor of New York. His election to that office occurred just two days before he arrived, and when he landed his senses were mystified by hearing loud hurrahs for “Governor Jay.”
When his term of office expired he was re-elected, so he served as Governor, in all, six years. The most important measure carried out during that time was the abolition of slavery in the State of New York, an act he had strenuously insisted on for twenty years, but which was not made possible until he had the power of Governor, and crowded the measure upon the Legislature.
Over a quarter of a century had passed since John Adams and John Jay had met on horseback out there on the New Jersey turnpike. Their intimacy had been continuous and their labors as important as ever engrossed the minds of men, but in it all there was neither jealousy nor bickering. They were friends.
At the close of Jay’s gubernatorial term, President Adams nominated him for the office of Chief Justice, made vacant by the resignation of Oliver Ellsworth. The Senate unanimously confirmed the nomination, but Jay refused to accept the place.
For twenty-eight years he had served his country–served it in its most trying hours. He was not an old man in years, but the severity and anxiety of his labors had told on his health, and the elasticity of youth had gone from his brain forever. He knew this, and feared the danger of continued exertion. “My best work is done,” he said; “if I continue I may undo the good I have accomplished. I have earned a rest.”
He retired to the ancestral farm at Bedford, Westchester County, to enjoy his vacation. In a year his wife died, and the shock told on his already shattered nerves.
“The habit of reticence grew upon him,” says one writer, “until he could not be tricked into giving an opinion even about the weather.”
And so he lived out his days as a partial recluse, deep in problems of “raising watermelons, and sheep that would not jump fences.” He worked with his hands, wore blue jeans, voted at every town election, but to a great degree lived only in the past. The problems of church and village politics and farm life filled his declining days.
To a great degree his physical health came back, but the problems of statecraft he left to other heads and hands.
His religious nature manifested itself in various philanthropic schemes, and the Bible Society he founded endures even unto this day. These things afforded a healthful exercise for that tireless brain which refused to run down.
His daughters made his home ideal, their love and gentleness soothing his declining years.
Death to him was kindly, gathering him as Autumn, the messenger of Winter, reaps the leaves.
* * * * *
No one has ever made the claim that Jay possessed genius. He had something which is better, though, for most of the affairs of life, and that is commonsense. In his intellect there was not the flash of Hamilton, nor the creative quality possessed by Jefferson, nor the large all-roundness of Franklin.
He was the average man who has trained and educated and made the best use of every faculty and every opportunity. He was genuine; he was honest; and if he never surprised his friends by his brilliancy, he surely never disappointed them through duplicity.
He made no promises that he could not keep; he held out no vain hopes.
As a diplomat he seems nearly the ideal. We have been taught that the line of demarcation between diplomacy and untruth is very shadowy. But truth is very good policy and in the main answers the purpose much better than the other thing. I am quite willing to leave the matter to those who have tried both.
We can not say that Jay was “magnetic,” for magnetic men win the rabble; but Jay did better: he won the confidence and admiration of the strong and discerning. His manner was gentle and pleasing; his words few, and as a listener he set a pace that all novitiates in the school of diplomacy would do well to follow.
To talk well is a talent, but to listen is a fine art. If I really wished to win the love of a man I’d practise the art of listening. Even dull people often talk well when there is some one near who cultivates the receptive mood; and to please a man you must give him an opportunity to be both wise and witty. Men are pleased with their friends when they are pleased with themselves, and no man is ever so pleased with himself as when he has expressed himself well.
The sympathetic listener at a lecture or sermon is the only one who gets his money’s worth. If you would get good, lend your sympathy to a speaker, and if, accidentally, you imbibe heresy, you can easily throw it overboard when you get home.
John Jay was quiet and undemonstrative in speech, cultivating a fine reserve. In debate he never fired all his guns, and his best battles were won with the powder that was never exploded. “You had always better keep a small balance to your credit,” he once advised a young attorney.
When the first Congress met, Jay was not in favor of complete independence from England. He asked only for simple justice, and said, “The middle course is best.” He listened to John Adams and Patrick Henry and quietly discussed the matter with Samuel Adams; but it was some time before he saw that the density of King George was hopeless, and that the work of complete separation was being forced upon the Colonies by the blindness and stupidity of the British Parliament.
He then accepted the issue.
During those first days of the Revolution, New York did not stand firm, as did Boston, for the cause of independence. “The foes at home are the only ones I really fear,” once wrote Hamilton.
First to pacify and placate, then to win and hold those worse than neutrals, was the work of John Jay. While Washington was in the field, Jay, with tireless pen, upheld the cause, and by his speech and presence kept anarchy at bay.
As president of the Committee of Safety he showed he could do something more than talk and write. When Tories refused to take the oath of allegiance he quietly wrote the order to imprison or banish; and with friend, foe or kinsman there was neither dalliance nor turning aside. His heart was in the cause–his property, his life. The time for argument had passed.
In the gloom that followed the defeat of Washington at Brooklyn, Jay issued an address to the people that is a classic in its fine, stern spirit of hope and strength. Congress had the address reprinted and sent broadcast, and also translated and printed in German.
His work divides itself by a strange coincidence into three equal parts. Twenty-eight years were passed in youth and education; twenty-eight years in continuous public work; and twenty-eight years in retirement and rest.
As one of that immortal ten, mentioned by a great English statesman, who gave order, dignity, stability and direction to the cause of American Independence, the name of John Jay is secure.
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