Slavery & Abolition
Jay displayed a deep-rooted hostility to slavery throughout his adult life, opposing the institution on legal, moral, and religious grounds. Jay's antislavery sentiments are apparent throughout his decades in public service. At the New York State Convention of 1777, he sought without success to include a provision in the State Constitution that would phase out slavery in New York. Following the conflict with Britain, Jay was instrumental in forming the New-York Manumission Society and applied his legal expertise to help the enslaved community. As shown by the documents below, Jay continued to affiliate with anti-slavery activists and abolitionist societies throughout the early national era. Arguably, Jay's greatest achievement as Governor of New York was to see through the successful passage of the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, which was passed by the state legislature on 21 March 1799. Yet these activities should not blind us to the fact that the Jay family household included enslaved persons. This circumstance presents us with a conundrum that scholars are still seeking to untangle and explicate. Jay never fully reconciled his antislavery views with his slaveholding status: this paradox is exemplified in a conditional manumission drafted for an enslaved young man named Benoit (see below). In this document, Jay asserted that "The Children of Men are by Nature equally, free and cannot without Injustice be either reduced to, or held in Slavery."
John Jay and his family were slaveholders. Although Jay opposed the institution of slavery, he nonetheless personally participated in the enforced labor of others and profited from their activities. This inventory of Jay's property, taken in late 1798, records his ownership of six enslaved people, five of whom resided in Bedford, and one who lived with a Jay family member in New York City. Although the names of the enslaved people are not given in the document, five of them can be identified with a degree of certainty: the three enslaved women were probably Clarinda, Dinah, and Phillis, the last of whom was living in New York City. Two of the three enslaved men were probably Jack and Peter.
When Jay embarked on a voyage to Spain in the fall of 1779, rough conditions caused his ship to make an unintended stop in Martinique. During his brief stay in Martinique, Jay observed Caribbean slavery and the operations of a sugar plantation and purchased a young man named Benoit. Years later, while serving as a diplomat in France, Jay drew up a conditional manumission for Benoit stating that he would be freed following three more years of service marked by a "common & reasonable Degree of Fidelity."
Jay's involvement with anti-slavery extended beyond New York. He corresponded with like-minded individuals in other parts of the United States. Jay's activities gained him membership in the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.
Jay's anti-slavery affiliations also spanned the Atlantic. He received information about abolitionist activities from such organizations as the Société des amis des noirs, which was founded in Paris in 1788.
Jay made the acquaintance of William Wilberforce, a leading British abolitionist and social reformer, while serving on his diplomatic mission to London in 1794. Jay and Wilberforce remained friends and corresponded with one another over the ensuing decades.
William Hamilton, a free African-American who worked as a carpenter and served as the first president of the New York Society for Mutual Relief, wrote to Governor John Jay requesting that he take action to end the practice of slavery. In his letter, Hamilton quoted two stanzas from William Cowper's 1788 anti-slavery poem The Negro's Complaint. No answer to this letter has been found.
According to William Jay, Governor Jay worked tirelessly behind the scenes to enact a law that would end slavery in New York. State lawmakers introduced bills to achieve this objective in every session of the state legislature between 1796 and 1799. By the time they passed "An ACT for the gradual abolition of Slavery" on 21 March 1799, every northern state with the exception of New Jersey had a similar law on the books. New York's statute stipulated that all enslaved children born in New York after 4 July 1799 would attain their freedom at the age of 28 if they were men and at the age of 25 if they were women.