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York. A public meeting was held on the 16th of May, 1774, when a committee of fifty was appointed to correspond with the other colonies. Mr. Jay was one of this committee, and also of a subcommittee to answer the letters received. He was afterwards elected one of the delegates from the city of New York to the first congress, which convened at Philadelphia on the 5th of September, 1774. He took his seat on the first day of the session. He was not yet twenty-nine years of age, and was the youngest member of that immortal band of patriots. All of them have long since departed; Mr. Jay was the last.
He was a member of the first committee appointed by congress, and was the author of the “ Address to the People of Great Britain," which Mr. Jefferson, without knowing the writer, pronounced "a production of the finest pen in America;" an opinion which it justly deserved, and which must have been generally conceded by his associates, if we may judge by the numerous labors of a similar character which were afterwards awarded to him by congress, and by the New York convention.
The address to the inhabitants of Canada, that to the people of Ireland, the appeal of the convention of New York to their constituents, which congress earnestly recommended to the serious perusal and attention of the inhabitants of the United States, and ordered to be printed in German, at the expense of the continent; and the address from congress to their constituents, on the state of their financial affairs, were among his subsequent productions; and they all bear the stamp of his genius, and evince the glowing fervor of his patriotism.
It is impossible to read these addresses without being reminded of the wells of classic learning, which supplied the rushing current of his thoughts with a style and language of never failing vigor and attractive beauty. It would scarcely be extravagant to say, they united the eloquence of Cicero with the pious patriotism of Maccabeus; it is certain that they prove their author to have been deeply imbued with the spirit of the ancient patriots, and not less those of Palestine than of Greece and Rome.
After Mr. Jay's return from congress, he was elected by the citizens of New York, a member of a “committee of observation;" and soon after of a committee of association, with general and indefined powers, which they exercised, in the absence of all legislative authority, by calling on the citizens to arm and perfect themselves in military discipline, and by ordering the militia to patrol the streets at night to prevent the exportation of provisions. The provincial congress assembled in May, 1775, and relieved the committee of their responsibility.
When the second congress assembled in Philadelphia on the 10th of May, 1775, Mr. Jay again attended as a delegate from New York. The battle of Lexington had occurred in the recess, and it was now apparent that hostilities were inevitable. An army was therefore to be organized, and preparations made for defence. To act on the defensive, and “to repel force by force," was the utmost extent of hostility which this congress would sanction; there were some of the members, and many of the citizens, who were not prepared to throw off their allegiance to the king, at least not until some further efforts were made to obtain redress. That all such might be left without excuse, Mr. Jay advocated another petition to the king, which he succeeded in carrying against a strong opposition. It proved, as he had anticipated, a useless appeal to the monarch, but added numerous friends to the American cause.
The exposed situation of New York, induced congress to recommend to the provincial legislature to arm and train the militia ; but unfortunately that province was distracted by a much larger proportion of tories than any other of the northern colonies, and in many instances the commissions for the field officers were declined. In this strait, Mr. Jay accepted of a colonel's commission, but he never acted under it, as his presence in congress was deemed of more importance. Until the spring of 1776, congress had restrained their measures within the bounds of forbearance, and had kept open the door of reconciliation; it then became apparent that the British ministry were determined to listen to no remonstrances, nor to stop short of a complete subjugation of the colonies. Congress, therefore, determined to abandon their hitherto defensive system, and to employ their arms in annoying their enemies, and especially to assail their commerce by privateers, which could speedily be despatched from numerous ports. This movement they thought necessary to explain and justify, and the task of preparing a suitable declaration was assigned to a committee of which Mr. Jay was a member. In April, 1776, while attending the general congress, he was elected to represent the city and county of New York in the colonial congress, which assembled on the 14th of May. Subjects of the highest importance were here to be acted on, which required all the firmness and wisdom of the ablest statesmen. The presence
of Mr. Jay was required. He attended accordingly, for by appointment of this body he held his seat in congress, and not by an election of the people. The convention therefore had a right to command his presence, and he was directed not to leave them until further orders. He was not permitted to return to his seat in the continental congress, but was constantly and actively engaged during the residue of the year in his native state, and was thus deprived of the honor of being in his seat when the declaration of independence was adopted. Had he been there he would have advocated it; for although he has been "estimated to have " kept the proceedings and preparations a year behind,"* nothing can be more certain than that he was himself at least a year in advance of most of his own constituents.
On the 31st of May, Mr. Jay reported to the New York convention, or congress, a series of resolutions, which were agreed to, calling on the people to elect deputies to a new convention with power to establish a form of government. That he recommended the establishment of a regular government in the state, and thereby renouncing all connexion with the British crown, is sufficiently expressive of his views on the subject of independence, but the following may also be added. The new convention with power to establish a permanent government for New York, met at Whiteplains on the 9th of July, and on the same day the declaration of independence was received from congress. This important document was immediately referred to a committee of which Mr. Jay was chairman, and he almost instanter reported the following resolution, which was unanimously adopted.
“ Resolved, unanimously, That the reasons assigned by the continental congress for declaring these united colonies free and independent states, are cogent and conclusive, and that while we lament the cruel necessity which has rendered this measure unavoidable, we approve the same, and will, at the risk of our lives and fortunes, join with the other colonies in supporting it."
A few days after this, he was appointed a member of a secret committee, for the purpose of obstructing the navigation of the Hudson river. The activity and zeal which he displayed on this occasion were no doubt stimulated by the unbounded confidence which he could not but feel was reposed in his integrity and judgment. He was dispatched by the committee to Connecticut for a supply of cannon and shot, “with authority to impress carriages, teams, sloops, and horses, and to call out detachments of the militia, and generally to do, or cause to be done, at his discretion, all such matters and things as he might deem necessary or expedient to forward and complete the business committed to his care."
* Jefferson's Correspondence, Letter CLXXIV.
He was successful in his exertions, and in a short time had twenty cannon delivered at West Point.
So numerous and important were the subjects which claimed the attention of the convention at this eventful period, that the special business of their appointment could not be taken up until the 1st of August, when a committee of which, as usual, Mr. Jay was one, was appointed to report a form of government; but the report was not perfected until the following year. In the mean time the convention exercised all the powers of government with a vigor and firmness, which, when the circumstances of the state are considered, are truly astonishing. The ability, energy, and decision of Mr. Jay, kept him in constant employment, so that we may safely say, whatever was done, he was among the foremost and most industrious performers.
He prepared the draft of the constitution which, with several amendments, was adopted on the 20th of April, 1777, but having been a few days before summoned to attend his dying mother, some articles which he intended to offer as amendments were omitted and some additions made, of which he did not approve. The state of New York being now provided with a constitution, Mr. Jay received the appointment of chief justice of the supreme court, and as the judges of that court were by the new constitution restrained from holding any other office than that of a delegate to congress on special occasions, and no such occasion existing at that time, his seat in congress was vacated.
Before the convention dissolved in May, 1777, they appointed a council of safety, from among their own members, to administer the government until the legislature should be organized. As one of this council, Mr. Jay was almost constantly occupied until the following September. On the 9th of that month, the first term of the supreme court was held at Kingston, and the chief justice presided. This was one of the most interesting periods of his official life: the government under which the people had been born, and which their education and habits had taught them to venerate, had just been abolished, and a new one formed on new principles, in the very seat of war, and in the presence of victorious enemies. Ticonderoga had fallen; one British army was approaching from the north, another from the south; the disaffected, numerous and active, and the friends of their country, sinking in despair. How worthy is the patriot of our admiration, who, at such a crisis, could retain his firmness, and with an unruffled mind and undiverted eye look forward to the end of his labors, with the full assurance of the righteousness of the cause, and of the favor of heaven. Such a patriot was John JAY.
The controversy between the legislature of New York, and the people of Vermont, afforded a “special occasion" to send the chief justice as a delegate to congress. He accordingly took his seat in that body on the 7th of December, 1778, and three days after, was elected president, on the resignation of Mr. Laurens. This office he held until the 27th of September, 1779, when he was appointed minister plenipotentiary to Spain. To obtain the acknowledgment of the independence of the United States, to negotiate a treaty of alliance, and to procure pecuniary aid, were the objects of his mission.
He sailed on the 20th of October, in the frigate Confederacy, which had been ordered to France, to carry home the French minister, Mr. Gerard; but on the 7th of November, the ship was dismasted in a storm, and with difficulty reached Martinico on the 18th of December; on the 28th, Mr. Jay embarked at St. Pierres in the French frigate Aurora, and arrived at Cadiz on the 22d of January, 1780. Having communicated his commission to the Spanish court, he was invited to Madrid, but at the same time was given to understand, that the formalities of an official reception must be deferred. He soon found, that although Spain was at war with our common enemy, she was not inclined to form an alliance with us, to grant us aid, or even to acknowledge our independence, unless on conditions which he was little inclined to comply with. The Spanish minister required that the United States should guaranty to Spain the possession of Florida, and the exclusive right of navigation on the Mississippi. To this, Mr. Jay, who looked forward to the future consequences of thus shutting up the mouth of one of our most important rivers, would not consent.* To add to the perplexity of
* Dr. Franklin approved of Mr. Jay's resistance to this proposition, observing, “poor as we are, yet as I know we shall be rich, I would rather agree with them to buy at a great price, the whole of the Mississippi, than sell a drop of its waters. A neighbor might as well ask me to sell my front door."