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

Home & Family

John Jay started courting Sarah Livingston (1756-1802), the cousin of his law partner and best friend Robert R. Livingston, in the winter of 1772-73. The couple married on 28 April 1774 at Liberty Hall, the Livingston family Manor located in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. The marriage proved politically expedient as the Livingstons were one of the most powerful families in New York. Moreover, Sarah was highly regarded as an intelligent, politically savvy, charming, and graceful woman, and her relationship with John can be best described as a companionate marriage, marked by mutual affection, respect, and a devotion to family. Since judicial and diplomatic duties frequently pulled John away from home for months at a time, Sarah had to see to the welfare of the Jay household on her own, and she also shared the responsibilities of tending to the family's investments and real estate businesses with her son Peter Augustus and nephew Peter James Munro. Sarah's untimely death at the age of forty-five to illness occurred on 28 May 1802. She and John had spent barely a year together in Bedford, and her passing left him with a deep personal void that he bore throughout his retirement. 

Mrs. John Jay, front

Alonzo Chappel, Mrs. John Jay, 1872, General Portraits

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Sarah Livingston Jay's home served as a salon for polite society in Federalist New York. In addition to rubbing shoulders with members of other leading families, such as the Van Cortlandts, De Peysters, Van Rensselaers, and Morrises, Sarah aided her husband's political activities by hosting dinners for influential diplomats and politicians. 

Sarah Jay and Her Children, front

James Sharples, Sarah Jay and Her Children, 1797, Private Collection

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John and Sarah had six children: Peter Augustus (b. 1776), Susan (b. and d. 1780), Maria (1782), Ann (1783), William (1789), and Sarah Louisa (1792). This pastel shows Sarah with her two youngest children.

Lifestyles of the Wealthy & Prominent

These receipts showing items bought by the Jay household shed light on the daily life of a well-to-do family in late eighteenth-century New York. These ephemeral documents reveal purchases of tableware and glassware from Paris, fashionable clothing, including a cloak with a "linning of hamster," and copious amounts of sherry wine. Such lavish expenditure served more than personal consumption, however, as it was also an important yet overlooked component of social and political life, identifying the Jays as a family of cosmopolitan taste and refined status.

The last receipt has to do as much with family health as with wealth. In July 1796, Sarah Livingston Jay and her daughter Maria spent twenty-seven days convalescing at the bathhouse run by Isaac Terboss in Lebanon Springs, New York. Sarah took the theraputic waters at the spring to treat a leg injury, and Mary went to treat a facial ailment. As Jay wrote to his wife, "I hope this Letter will find you at Lebanon in better Health than when you left us--The Passage, the Journey, Change of air, and Leisure will all aid the Waters in the Recovery of your Health" (John Jay to Sarah Livingston Jay, 25 July 1796).

Sarah Livingston Jay to Samuel Lyons, front

Sarah Livingston Jay to Samuel Lyon, 14 November 1794

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Sarah Jay supervised the construction of the Bedford property while John was overseas in London in 1794-95. She engaged in a serious dispute with the estate manager Samuel Lyon, accusing Samuel and his son John of poor workmanship. Specifically, she criticized them for not completing a mill that was being built on the grounds and for not properly tending to horses that belonged to the Jays.

In her letter to Lyon, Sarah Jay remarked, "I am convinced you have yourself too much sensibility to reflect without regret on having wounded the feelings of a Lady who has invariably treated you with cordiality & politeness." 

In response to these accusations, the senior Lyon tendered his resignation.    

John Jay to Peter Augustus Jay, front

John Jay to Peter Augustus Jay, 8 April 1784

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Both John and Sarah Jay deemed intellectual development and religious instruction to be of paramount importance in the upbringing of their children. In this letter, John reminds his eldest son that "The Bible is the best of all Books, for it is the word of God, and teaches us the way to be happy in this world and in the next." 

John Jay to Maria Jay and Nancy Jay, front

John Jay to Maria Jay and Ann Jay, 1 June 1792

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John Jay passed on similar sentiments regarding education and Christianity to his daughters Maria and Ann: "Now is the Time for you to lay the foundations of your future Characters. Virtue and Religion must be the corner Stones; & if with these you connect useful Knowledge, mildness of Temper, & Prudence and good manners, you will not only have great Reason to expect Happiness here, but what is of more Importance, be certain of it hereafter."

John Jay to Peter Augustus Jay, front

John Jay to Peter Augustus Jay, 25 April 1792

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Landscaping and planting trees had a deep-rooted significance for John Jay. He related the familial and generational bonds of these activities to Peter Augustus: "It always gives me pleasure to see Trees which I have rear'd & planted; and therefore I recommend it to you to do the same-- my father planted many Trees, and I never walk in their Shade without deriving additional pleasure from that Circumstance-- The Time will come when you will probably experience similar Emotions."

Sarah Livingston Jay to John Jay, front

Sarah Livingston Jay to John Jay, 30 July 1800

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A little less than a year before John stepped down as New York's governor in 1801, Sarah wrote to him, expressing her delight at the prospect of retirement that awaited them and noting "how happy I shall be when freed from public care, you may by your company enhance every enjoyment of your sincerely affectionate Wife."

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