The Jay Papers Ii: The Forging Of The Nation


Jay found New York a ruined city. The lower section of town had twice been gutted by fire, and the parts which the flames had spared had scarcely recovered from the wounds of military occupation and the wanton stripping by departing Tories. His initial impression of affairs was cautiously optimistic, but within three months Jay noted signs of impending dangers. To Benjamin Vaughan, who had been the British intermediary in the peacemaking, he wrote, “The Policy of Britain respecting this Country is so repugnant to common Sense that I am sometimes tempted to think it must be so. … It is certain that we are trading at a wild Rate, and it is no less true that your People are giving most absurd Credits to many who neither have or ought to have any at Home.” (It is revealing of Jay’s anti-imperialist stance that in the same letter to Vaughan he condemned Great Britain’s policy toward India: “Do justice and all is easy; cease to treat those unhappy Nations as slaves, and, be content to trade with them as with other independent Kingdoms. … Your Tribute indeed would be at an End, but it ought not to have had a Beginning, and I wish it may ever prove a Curse to those who impose and exact it in any Country.” Save for John Quincy Adams, so high an American official did not venture to criticize the British position in India again until the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.)

Meanwhile, Jay was buckling down to his work as Secretary for Foreign Affairs, for which, he was paid the munificent salary of four thousand dollars a year. He expressed displeasure at the prospect of having to travel to Trenton, New Jersey, where Congress was silting, but he was told that Congress would soon settle in New York. He also demanded the privilege of appointing his own clerks. This was granted, and on September 21, 1784, he entered on the duties of his office.

Jay’s conception of that office was to prove of the utmost importance in the formation of the executive department. While his friend and predecessor, Robert R. Livingston, had been Secretary, correspondence from foreign nations had been directed to the president of Congress and then referred to Livingston. Jay wanted his office to be separate and distinct from Congress, and insisted that he, not Congress, conduct the foreign affairs of the Confederation. He lost no time in making his position clear, and on February 11, 1785, Congress decided that “all communications to as well as from the United States in Congress assembled on the subject of foreign affairs, be made through the Secretary for the department of foreign affairs, and that all letters, memorials or other papers on the subject of foreign affairs, for the United States in Congress assembled, be addressed to him.”

In addition, it became customary for the heads of the thirteen states to use Jay as intermediary in their correspondence with Congress. Somehow the notion got around that the Secretary for Foreign Affairs also had some responsibility for supervising the postal system. Congress, by a secret act of September 7, 1785, authorized Jay at his discretion to open letters in the post office. In view of the treatment accorded his own letters by foreign nations when he served abroad, it is understandable that Jay would have hesitated to exercise this singular power, and there is no evidence that he ever did.

Jay also showed caution in another area. He wisely sought no power of appointment (except that of his own staff), and even declined to recommend candidates to Congress. He evaded all sorts of pressures, even those of family and friends. When in 1787 John Adams’ son-in-law, Colonel William Stephens Smith, sought Jay’s intercession to succeed his father-in-law as minister to England, Jay politely declined. It was not unusual for foreign ministers in other countries to recommend candidates for the foreign service, but, Jay pointed out, “the case is different here.” In 1788 a committee of Congress issued a revealing study of Jay’s administration of his office which reported:

… That two Rooms are occupied by this Department, one of which the Secretary reserves for himself and the Reception of such Persons as may have Business with him, and the other for his Deputy and Clerks.

That the Records and Papers belonging to the Department are kept in a proper Manner, and so arranged as that Recourse may be had to any of them without Delay or Difficulty.

That they find his Method of doing Business is as follows: the daily Transactions are entered in a minute Book as they occur, and from thence are neatly copied into a Journal at Seasons of Leisure. This Journal contains a Note of the Dates, Receipt and contents of all Letters received and written by him, with References to the Books in which they are recorded, of all Matters referred to him, and the Time when, and of his Reports thereupon; and in general of all the Transactions in the Department. It is very minute and at present occupies 2 Folio Vol.

His official Letters to the Ministers and Servants of Congress and others abroad, are recorded in a Book entitled Book of foreign Letters , and such Parts as required Secrecy are in Cyphers.

His official Correspondence with foreign Ministers here, and with the Officers of Congress and others in the United States, including the Letters received and written by him, are recorded at large in a Book entitled American Letter book.…