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John Jay

It was the tyranny of Louis XIV., King of France, that drove the ancestor of John Jay to America. Pierre Jay, two hundred years ago, was a rich merchant in the French city of Rochelle. He was a Protestant--one of those worthy Frenchmen whom the revocation of the Edict of Nantes expelled from the country of which they were the most valuable inhabitants. In 1685, the Protestant Church which he attended at Rochelle was demolished, and dragoons were quartered in the houses of its members. Secretly getting his family and a portion of his property on board of a ship, he sent them to England, and contrived soon after in a ship of his own, laden with a valuable cargo, to escape himself.

It was not, however, from Pierre Jay that our American Jays were immediately descended, but from Augustus, one of his sons. It so happened that Augustus Jay, at the time of his father's flight, was absent from France on a mercantile mission to Africa, and he was astonished on returning to Rochelle to find himself without home or family. Nor was he free from the danger of arrest unless he changed his religion. Assisted by some friends, he took passage in a ship bound to Charleston in South Carolina which he reached in safety about the year 1686. Finding the climate of South Carolina injurious to his health, he removed to New York, near which there was a whole village of refugees from his native city, which they had named New Rochelle, a village which has since grown to a considerable town, with which all New Yorkers are acquainted. His first employment here was that of supercargo, which he continued to exercise for several years, and in which he attained a moderate prosperity.

In 1697 Augustus Jay married Ann Maria Bayard, the daughter of a distinguished Dutch family, who assisted him into business, and greatly promoted his fortunes. The only son of this marriage was Peter Jay, who, in his turn, married Mary Van Cortlandt, the child of another of the leading Dutch families of the city. This Peter Jay had ten children of whom John, the subject of this article, was the eighth, born in New York in 1745. In him were therefore united the vivacious blood of France with the solid qualities of the Dutch; and, accordingly, we find in him something of the liveliness of the French along with a great deal of Dutch prudence and caution.

After graduating from King's College, [Footnote: Now Columbia] John Jay became a law student in the city of New York, in the office of Benjamin Kissam--still a well-known New York name. An anecdote related of this period reveals the French side of his character. He asked his father to allow him to keep a saddle horse in the city, a request with which the prudent father hesitated to comply.

"Horses," said he, "are not very good companions for a young man; and John, why do you want a horse?"

"That I may have the means, sir," adroitly replied the son, "of visiting you frequently."

The father was vanquished, gave him a horse, and was rewarded by receiving a visit from his son at his country house in Rye, twenty-five miles from the city, every other week.

Another anecdote betrays the Frenchman. Soon after his admission to the bar, being opposed in a suit to Mr. Kissam, his preceptor, he somewhat puzzled and embarrassed that gentleman in the course of his argument. Alluding to this, Mr. Kissam pleasantly said:

"I see, your honor, that I have brought up a bird to pick out my own eyes."

"Oh, no," instantly replied Mr. Jay; "not to pick out, but to open your eyes."

Inheriting a large estate, and being allied either by marriage or by blood with most of the powerful families of the province, and being himself a man of good talents and most respectable character, he made rapid advance in his profession, and gained a high place in the esteem and confidence of his fellow-citizens; so that when the first Congress met at Philadelphia, in 1774, John Jay was one of those who represented in it the colony of New York. He was then twenty-nine years of age, and was, perhaps, the youngest member of the body, every individual of which he outlived.

Some of the best written papers of that session were of his composition. It was he who wrote that memorable address to the people of Great Britain, in which the wrongs of the colonists were expressed with so much eloquence, conciseness, and power. He left his lodgings in Philadelphia, it is said, and shut himself up in a room in a tavern to secure himself from interruption, and there penned the address which was the foundation of his political fortunes.

At an early period of the Revolution he was appointed Minister to Spain, where he struggled with more persistance than success to induce a timid and dilatory government to render some substantial aid to his country. He was afterwards one of the commissioners who negotiated the treaty with Great Britain, in which the independence of the United States was acknowledged, and its boundaries settled. Soon after his return home Congress appointed him Secretary for Foreign Affairs, which was the most important office in their gift, and in which he displayed great ability in the dispatch of business.

Like all the great men of that day--like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Patrick Henry, John Randolph, and all others of similar grade--John Jay was an ardent abolitionist. He brought home with him from abroad one negro slave, to whom he gave his freedom when he had served long enough to repay him the expense incurred in bringing him to America.

Mr. Jay, upon the division of the country into Republicans and Federalists, became a decided Federalist, and took a leading part in the direction of that great party. President Washington appointed him Chief-Justice of the Supreme Court, an office which he soon resigned. The most noted of all his public services was the negotiation of a treaty with Great Britain in 1794. The terms of this treaty were revolting in the extreme, both to the pride of Americans and to their sense of justice; and Mr. Jay was overwhelmed with the bitterest reproaches from the party opposed to his own. No man, however, has ever been able to show that better terms were attainable; nor can any candid person now hold the opinion that the United States should have preferred war to the acceptance of those terms. If a very skillful negotiator could have done somewhat better for his country, Mr. Jay did the best he could, and, probably, as well as any man could have done.

Never was a public man more outrageously abused. On one occasion, a mob paraded the streets of Philadelphia, carrying an image of Mr. Jay holding a pair of scales. One of the scales was labeled, "American Liberty and Independence," and the other, "British Gold," the latter weighing down the former as low as it could go, while from the mouth of the effigy issued the words:

"Come up to my price and I will sell you my country."

The effigy was finally burnt in one of the public squares.

Notwithstanding this storm of abuse, Mr. Jay was elected Governor of New York, from which office he retired to his pleasant seat at Bedford, where he spent the remainder of his life. He lived to the year 1829, when he died, aged eighty-four years, leaving children and grandchildren who have sustained his high character, illustrated his memory, and continued his work.