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

Governor of New York

John Jay first stood for governor against the longstanding incumbent George Clinton in 1792 and lost in a disputed contest. Jay emerged victorious in the subsequent election and went on to serve for two terms (1795-1801). During his first administration, Jay confronted the serious challenges posed by multiple yellow fever outbreaks and the threat of maritime attacks on New York City by French privateers and naval forces. In his last years as governor, Jay found himself hamstrung by the expanded power of the Democratic-Republicans in both the state legislature and the Council of Appointment. Jay locked horns with Senator DeWitt Clinton who blocked the governor's ability to fill important posts, such as sheriffs, auctioneers, and clerks, throughout the towns and counties of New York. Despite the intense partisanship that characterized state politics in the 1790s, Jay frequently laid political rivalries aside when possible in the interests of efficient administration. He chose appointees on the basis of merit and experience, not party affiliation, and frequently worked closely with Democratic-Republicans in order to carry out governmental programs and policies.


An Account of the Epidemic Fever which Prevailed in the City of New-York during the Summer and Fall of 1795, title page

Richard Bayley, An Account of the Epidemic Fever which Prevailed in the City of New-York during the Summer and Fall of 1795, title page, New York, Thomas and James Swords, 1796, Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library Special Collections

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During Jay's governorship, New York City residents endured a series of devastating yellow fever epidemics in 1795, 1796, 1798, 1799, and 1800. In addition to causing severe commercial loss and economic downturn, these outbreaks of infectious disease claimed the lives of over 3,300 New Yorkers, with the one in 1796 resulting in 732 deaths. Jay sought to formulate a cohesive health policy to stop the spread of yellow fever. He both issued orders and approved legislation that appointed health officials and commissioners, constructed a new lazaretto, quarantined ships that entered the port, cleaned public spaces and buildings, and inspected foodstuffs and provisions.

Specific for the Yellow Fever, front

Specific for the Yellow Fever, 1795

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Jay did more than merely suggest and approve regulatory measures: he also sought out information about yellow fever and learned all that he could about its symptoms and treatments. The materials that he collected from throughout the Atlantic world included this remedy that recommended doses of calomel; before reaching the hands of New York's governor, it was first sent from medical authorities in Jamaica to their counterparts in London.

A Chart of Newyork harbour

A Chart of NewYork harbour, c. 1800, in Elizabeth M. Nuxoll, et al., The Selected Papers of John Jay, volume 6, 1794-1798, Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2020, 400

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Jay worried about the vulnerability of New York City and its port to naval attack. His fears increased during the Quasi-War with France (1798-1800) and the years leading up to this conflict. One of his top priorities as governor therefore was to build up the fortifications throughout Manhattan and its environs. Jay was not completely successful in carrying out this agenda due to a lack of cooperation from the state legislature, New York City Council, and federal officials.

Fort Jay (Photograph), front

Robb K. Haberman, Fort Jay (photograph), 1 September 2017, private collection

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One of the primary defensive points for New York's harbor was Fort Jay, located on Governors Island. In the 1790s, this installation consisted of a square-shaped fort made of wood and earth embankments.

Peter Augustus Jay Militia Commission, front

New York (State), Peter Augustus Jay Militia Commission, 11 April 1798

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Peter Augustus Jay served as a militia officer and rose rapidly in rank during the Quasi-War. This commission appointed him a lieutenancy in Colonel Jacob Morton's Regiment. Partisanship infected the state's militia units throughout the 1790s, as many officers and rank and file tended to show more allegiance to either the Federalist or Democratic-Republican Party than to the State of New York. 

Report of the Regents to the State Legislature, front

Regents of the State of New York, Report of the Regents to the State Legislature, c. 1796-1801

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This account of Columbia College sent to Governor Jay reported that, due to a lack of adequate funding, the institution had recently lost three professorships and that the Medical School was "languishing and stands in need of Aid and encouragement."

John Jay to Peter Troup, front

John Jay to Robert Troup, 28 December 1799

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The death of George Washington in December 1799 set off a period of national mourning. The news struck Jay as a double blow, as Washington was both a friend and political ally with whom he had worked closely throughout his decades in public service. Moreover, Jay worried that the loss of "that singularly virtuous and great man" might have a destabilizing impact on an already divided nation. He therefore urged that Washington's achievements and contributions to the United States be commemorated for current and future generations.   

Alexander Hamilton to John Jay, detail of endorsement

Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton to John Jay, detail of endorsement, 7 May 1800

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Alexander Hamilton wrote Governor Jay an anxious letter in early May 1800, warning that Thomas Jefferson would soon be elected as the next U.S. president. To prevent a transfer of power from the Federalist to the Democratic-Republican Party, Hamilton urged Jay to change the process by which the state electors were chosen in New York. Jay questioned the legitimacy of such a maneuver and wrote the following comment on the reverse of Hamilton's letter: "Gen Hamilton 7 May 1800 proposing a measure for party purposes wh. I think it wd. not become me to adopt."

Resolutions of Federalist Freeholders of New York City, front

Federalist Freeholders of New York City, Resolutions of the Federalist Freeholders of New York City, 13 January 1801

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As his tenure of governor drew to a close, some of John Jay's political allies urged him to serve another term. Yet he refused on the grounds that years of public service had exhausted him; he now looked forward to a life of ease and retirement with his wife and family at their newly constructed estate in Bedford. Upon leaving office, Jay received good wishes and notes of gratitude from Federalist colleagues located throughout the state. In the ensuing election for New York governor in 1801, the Democratic-Republican nominee and former governor, George Clinton, defeated the Federalist candidate Stephen Van Rensselaer.

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