The Jay Papers I: Mission To Spain


John Jay was only thirty-three when Congress picked him for the delicate assignment to Madrid. A tall, spare figure with aristocratic bearing (left), he never forgot for a moment that he was a lawyer, and lie had a lawyer’s capacity for close analysis and a lawyer’s caution both in action and language. Lacking neither self-assurance nor self-esteem, he had his own peculiar streak of obstinacy and was the kind of man who is not easily intimidated. These were some of the reasons behind his selection. But Congress also felt that court circles at Madrid would be impressed by Jay’s rank among the patriots and believed that he would favor France’s war aims and thereby prove a less obnoxious choice than some of the volubly anti-Gallican members of the isolationist wing of Congress.

France’s good will was important. She had come into the war as an ally of America in early 1778. Spain had secretly agreed to intervene on France’s side in the spring of 1779 and was openly at war with England a few months later. Sympathetic to one Bourbon house, Jay might be counted upon to persuade the frugal, devout, and highly intelligent Charles III (right), the hawk-visaged Bourbon ruler of Spain, of the merits of America’s cause.

America had great expectations of Spain, including large-scale aid and even an alliance. She also assumed that Spain, once she was in the war, would be willing to allow Americans to ship goods down the Mississippi, which, as a result of a transfer of territory from France to Spain in 1763, was now Spain’s exclusive preserve. There was little point in talking about a trans-Appalachian nation while navigation of the Mississippi was barred to its people. The furtherance of all these expectations, then, was John Jay’s mission when he and his wife of five years, Sarah Van Brugh Livingston, stepped aboard the Continental frigate Confederacy at Chester, Pennsylvania, on Delaware Bay on October 20, 1779.

Sarah was the beautiful and gracious daughter of William Livingston, governor of New Jersey and a leading patriot intellectual. She worshipped her “Mr. Jay,” senior to her by ten years, and he in turn was deeply in love with his “Sally.” Their marriage proved a tender and affectionate, as well as a durable, partnership. The Jays left their three-and-a-half-year-old son Peter Augustus in the care of Sally’s parents, but took in his place a twelve-year-old nephew, Peter Jay Mtinro. In addition, Jay, doubtless by persuasion of his wife, chose as his personal secretary Sally’s illnatured and somewhat overbearing brother, Colonel Henry Brockholst Livingston, a twenty-two-year-old veteran of the Revolutionary War. Also accompanying the Jays was William Carmichael of Maryland, whom Congress had designated as secretary to the Jay mission. Among their fellow passengers was jay’s friend Conrad Alexandre Gérard, the retiring French minister plenipotentiary to the United States, and Mme. Gérard.

Before departure, Sally received a touching farewell message from her father as well as a greeting from General Washington. To his boyhood friend and former law partner Robert R. Livingston (a second cousin of Sally’s), soon to be Secretary for Foreign Affairs, John Jay sent a homemade private cipher.

Trenton, 7 October 1779

Dear Sally,

It is with great pain that I am obliged to part with you across a wide Ocean, and to a foreign Land. … may God Almighty keep you in his holy Protection, and if it should please him to take you out of this World, receive you into a better. And pray my dear Child, suffer not the Gaities and Amusements of the World, and the particular Avocations of what is called high Life , to banish from your Mind an habitual sense of an all-present Deity, or to interrupt you in paying him the homage you owe Him. With my most ardent Wishes for your good Voyage and safe Return I am

your affectionate Father W IL. L IVINGSTON

West-point, October 7th, 1779

General Washington presents his most respectful compliments to Mrs. Jay. Honoured in her request by General St. Glair he takes pleasure in presenting the inclosed [a lock of Washington’s hair], with thanks lor so polite a testimony of her approbation and esteem. He wishes most fervently, that prosperous gales —and unruffled Sea—and every thing pleasing and desirable, may smooth the path she is about to walk in.

On Board the Confederacy near Reedy Island, 25 October, 1779

Dear Robert.

Accept my Thanks for your very friendly Letter. It recalled to my Mind many Circumstances on which it always dwells with Pleasure. I should have been happy in a personal Interview before my Departure, but since that has become impossible, let us endeavour to supply it by a regular and constant correspondence. To render this the more useful and satisfactory a Cypher will be necessary. There are twenty six Letters in our alphabet. Take twenty six Numbers in Lieu of them thus. [Jay then listed the letters of the alphabet and arbitrarily assigned a numerical equivalent to each. Thus, a was 5, d was 11, h was to, etc.]