In Service to the New Nation: The Life & Legacy of John Jay

Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

Tasked with selecting a new Cabinet and filling executive appointments, President Washington reportedly gave Jay a choice of positions in the new government. Based on his experience as Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court and general expertise of jurisprudence, Jay opted for the role of Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Jay and his fellow justices who served on the Supreme Court bench were all staunch Federalists who had fully supported the formation of the new government. Jay's dignified temperament, writing and oratorical talents, and organizational skills helped establish the legitimacy of the federal court system and defined his tenure as one of a creative statesman and activist chief justice. If Chief Justice Jay found particular fault with the new judicial system, he would have pointed to the practice of riding circuit, a duty imposed by the Judiciary Act of 1789. Jay and his colleagues not only had to sit in session at the Supreme Court in the nation's capital, they also had to preside over sessions held in state districts that were organized into three regional circuits: the Eastern Circuit, Middle Circuit, and Southern Circuit. No duty proved more arduous or onerous to Jay and his colleagues than riding the circuit. Indeed, when President John Adams requested in December 1800 that Jay return to the Supreme Court and again take up the post of Chief Justice, Jay recalled the hardships associated with circuit riding and, accordingly, refused the appoinment.  

John Jay's Oath as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, attested to by Richard Morris, front

Richard Morris, John Jay's Oath as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, attested to by Richard Morris, 19 October 1789

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John Jay's oath as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court was attested to by Richard Morris, who served as chief justice of the New York Supreme Court.

Charge to the Grand Juries on the Eastern Circuit, front

John Jay, Charge to the Grand Juries on the Eastern Circuit, April 12 to May 20, 1790

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Chief Justice Jay and the other presiding federal judges who rode circuit would charge the grand jury at the start of each term of the court. These charges informed the grand jurors of their duty and how it should be carried out. Widely praised for their eloquence and powerful argument, the charges that Jay delivered on the Eastern Circuit focused on issues of dissent, the constitutional framing of the federal court system, and the effective enforcement of penal laws.   

John Jay's Circuit Court Travel, Eastern District, Spring 1792 Term (15 April-10 July)

John Jay's Circuit Court Travel, Eastern District, Spring 1792 Term (15 April-10 July) in Elizabeth M. Nuxoll, et al., The Selected Papers of John Jay, volume 5, 1788-1794, Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2017, 392-93

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For the Spring 1792 term of the Eastern District, Chief Justice Jay attended court sessions in New York City, New Haven, Boston, Portsmouth, Newport, and Bennington. To perform these duties, he had to travel through six states, covering a distance of 913 miles in a period of 87 days. 

Circuit Court Diary, page beginning "Octr 1790 parted with Judge Cushing"

John Jay, Circuit Court Diary, 16 April 1790 - 4 August 1792

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During his circuit court travels Chief Justice Jay kept a diary of his experiences on the road. The entries taken from his stay in Hartford in October 1790 tell of his visits with local dignitaries, attendance at a church service, and thoughts on the local population and economy.

George Washington to John Jay, front

George Washington to John Jay, 2 July 1795, George Washington Papers

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On 29 June 1795, Chief Justice Jay wrote to President Washington announcing his resignation from the Supreme Court bench. Jay's recent election as the governor of New York meant that he would exchange his federal office for a state post. Washington's reply thanking Jay for his service, presented here, was written a few days later.

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