Cynthia Crofoot Rignanese, Esquire
Thinking Globally, Practicing Locally in Central Florida Since 1990

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Least Known Founding Father of Interest

I am an avid student of US Constitutional and FOUNDING FATHERS history. I believe the Founding Fathers had vision beyond their time! 

Since my blogs on two of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, were so popular, I will focus this blog on the least known of the Founding Fathers, John Jay.

The inner circle of founders has been set for as long as anyone can remember – Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton and Madison.

Almost never mentioned is John Jay. Most people know something about him. … But very few know the full breadth of his accomplishments.

As more of his papers have become available in the past decade, Jay’s admirers, ranging from specialists to popular historians, have been arguing that a founder they believe underrated deserves a closer look – for achievements that extend to virtually every branch of government, on the state, federal and international level.

Jay was one of three contributors to the Federalist Papers, which helped define American government. He was president of the wartime Continental Congress, then served as secretary of foreign affairs, precursor to secretary of state, after the Revolutionary War ended. He was an essential diplomat whose peace negotiations with England, leading to the Treaty of Paris, vastly expanded U.S. territory.

For his accomplishments heading a network of informants during the revolution, actions that helped inspire James Fenimore Cooper’s novel “The Spy,” the CIA’s website calls Jay “the first national-level American counterintelligence chief.” He also helped write the New York Constitution, was a founder of the New York Manumission Society and as governor signed legislation that phased out slavery in the state. (Jay himself owned slaves.)

The founders bickered colorfully among themselves, but they agreed on the virtues of Jay. Noting his centrality in the talks with England, John Adams praised him as “of more importance than any of the rest of us.” Alexander Hamilton turned to Jay first when conceiving the Federalist Papers, and George Washington thought so much of him that when he was forming his original Cabinet, he offered the first position – any position – to Jay, who chose the Supreme Court.

A merchant’s son, John Jay was born in New York in 1745 and grew up comfortably on an estate in Rye, about 25 miles north of the city. He had planned a career in law and, like Franklin, was a moderate in the early years of the revolution, believing that differences with the British could be negotiated. The British use of military power to enforce order changed his mind.

Luck, timing and politics may have harmed his legacy. He was in New York at the time the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, and some scholars have said it was unclear whether he would have endorsed the document or was still hesitating to break with England. He wrote only five of the 85 Federalist Papers essays, published in 1787-88, because he fell ill.

His greatest controversy involves a document that bears his name. In 1794, more than a decade after the Treaty of Paris, then-Chief Justice Jay was asked by Washington to return to London and prevent what the president and others feared was imminent war. The final agreement, the Jay Treaty, maintained peace but was criticized for being too favorable to the British. Jay, already suspected as pro-British by the rival Republican Party, was burned in effigy in several cities. Scholars still debate whether Jay got the best terms possible.

From the mid-1770s to the early 1800s, he was rarely out of public life and could have stayed longer. Late in John Adams’ administration, which ended in 1801, he wanted Jay to return as U.S. chief justice. Jay, who had left that position in 1795 to become New York’s governor, declined, and the job went to the man who shaped the modern court, John Marshall.

Like a proper gentleman of his time, Jay settled peacefully in the country, having long dreamed of retirement with his wife, Sarah. In an early letter to his wife, dated July 21, 1776, when his work on behalf of independence had kept them apart, he expressed “a kind of Confidence or Pre Sentiment that we shall yet enjoy many good Days together, and I indulge myself in imaginary Scenes of Happiness which I expect in a few Years to be realized.

But Sarah fell ill and died, in 1802, within months of their move. Devastated at first but sustained by his religion, Jay looked after his farm, advocated for education for blacks and became president of the American Bible Society. As his health faded, he asked that instead of a high-priced funeral his family find “one poor widow or orphan” and donate $200. Jay died on May 16, 1829.

Source: A.P. and P B S

Ms. Rignanese is the Founding Member and Managing Partner of Rignanese & Associates; she has been practicing law in Winter Haven, Central Florida since 1991. Her practice focuses in estate planning, business, corporate and real property law. In her free time, she is an avid reader and self-educated historian with particular interest in the Founding Fathers and Constitutional Law.

Rignanese & Associates is available to work with clients on their individual legal matters. Please reach out to us at our new headquarters at 203 Avenue A, NW, Suite, 101, Winter Haven, Florida 33881 at 863.294.1114.

© Cynthia Crofoot Rignanese, Esquire
 

Cynthia Rignanese