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


When Jay embarked on the Continental Frigate Confederacy bound for Spain in October 1779, his public service on behalf of the United States entered a new phase. This ministerial mission marked the first time that he experienced foreign travel and the onset of his career as a diplomat abroad. Jay was bound for disappointment, however, as he met with limited success in his efforts to secure military, political, and financial support from the royal court in Madrid. Jay took up his next assignment when he arrived in Paris in June 1782 to join the American peace commissioners that Congress had appointed a year earlier. Jay assumed the role as lead negotiator when an illness sidelined Franklin for two months. The Treaty of Paris was signed on 3 September 1783; it formally ended the Revolutionary War with Britain and acknowledged the independence and sovereignty of the United States of America. Although Jay gained a notable success with the provision recognizing the Mississippi River as the western boundary, other boundary and trade issues remained unresolved. Upon returning to the United States, Jay took up the post of Secretary of Foreign Affairs (later Secretary of State), an office he would hold for the following five years. Drawing on the vast experience he gained overseas, Jay introduced reforms and protocols to his department that endowed the young Republic with a reputable and dignified position among other nation-states. In April 1794, President Washington tapped Jay for an urgent mission to London to resolve both longstanding disputes and more recent tensions that disrupted Anglo-American relations. The resulting Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, signed on 19 November 1794, met with much criticism at home, but nonetheless proved instrumental in maintaining peace between the two countries for nearly twenty years.

Spanish Flag and Pendant of War. Spanish Merchant Flag, front

Spanish Flag and Pendant of War, and Spanish Merchant Flag, c. 1781

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Images such as these Spanish flags and pennants were most likely created for recognition and use by American naval officers, merchant captains, and customs officials.

John Jay Spanish Passport, front

John Jay Spanish Passport, 20 March 1780

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The Spanish government issued this passport to John Jay, allowing him to travel from Cadiz to Madrid. 

Continental Congress Declaration for Negotiations with Britain, front

Commissions of the Continental Congress to the Ministers Plenipotentiary for Negotiating a Treaty of Peace, 15 June 1781 (middle section of the document not shown)

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While carrying out his diplomatic duties in Spain, Jay received a commission from Congress to participate in the peace negotiations with Britain. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Laurens were also authorized to serve alongside Jay on reaching a treaty with the British government. Jefferson, however, declined the appointment.  

Draft of Commercial Treaty, front

William Wyndham Grenville, Draft of the Commercial Treaty, 30 August 1794 

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Grenville sent Jay draft treaties on the topics of amity and commerce on 30 August 1794. Jay was less than thrilled with the proposals contained in Grenville's drafts, as suggested by his comments to Grenville on 1 September that "The negotiation now becomes delicate, and I should experience more than proportionate Embarrassments, were it not for my confidence in your Lordship's candor and Liberality." Nonetheless, Jay and Grenville were able to hammer out an agreement over the course of the next two-and-a-half months. The resulting Treaty was met with extensive opposition in the United States, and its eventual ratification and implementation proved highly controversial.

Map of the Northwestern Boundary of the United States, front

John Trumbull, Two Maps of the Northwestern Boundary of the United States, 4 September 1794

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These two maps drafted by John Trumbull, Jay's secretary in London, served as corrections to Grenville's claims of 30 August regarding the northwestern boundaries of the United States. 

Lord Grenville Calling Card, front

William Wyndham Grenville, Lord Grenville Calling Card, 8 April 1795

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Several dignitaries and prominent figures, including William Grenville, sent Jay and his entourage invitations for dinner, tea, and card-playing. Jay and his son Peter Augustus enjoyed a very busy social calendar during their extensive stay in London. 

George Washington to John Jay, front

George Washington to John Jay, 18 December 1794, George Washington Papers

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Jay shared regular updates on the progress of his negotiations in London with President Washington and Secretary of State Edmund Randolph.


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