The Trials of Chief Justice Jay


This system rests principally on their Confidence in the Uprightness Independence and wisdom of your Conduct. No other man whatever enjoys so completely the Esteem and Confidence of this Nation as you do; nor except the King is any one so popular. The idea which every where prevails is, that the Quarrel between Britain and America was a family Quarrel, and that it is time it should be made up; for my part I am making it up, and for cherishing this disposition on their part; by Justice, Benevolence and Good manners on ours. To cast ourselves into the Arms of this, or of any other nation, would be degrading, injurious and puerile; nor in my Opinion ought we to have any political Connection with any foreign power. …

The Tranquillity of the present session of Congress is a pleasing Circumstance; but I suspect it has proceeded more from their having had nothing to differ about, than from a spirit of forbearance or a desire of unanimity. The result of my negociations will doubtless produce fresh difficulties; and give occasion to much declamation, for I have no idea that the Treaty will meet with antifoederal approbation. Besides, men are more apt to think of what they wish to have, than of what is in their power to obtain. …

Jay returned to New York on May 28, 1795, to be saluted by a cannonade from the Battery and the ringing of church bells, and to be greeted by a welcoming delegation of citizens who notified him that he had recently been a candidate for the governorship of New York state and that on the basis of early returns it seemed as though he had been elected. Three years before, Jay had run for the governorship, only to be counted out by George Clinton’s Antifederalist machine. While he did not actively canvass votes at that time, neither did he seem to feel that he should resign from the Court in order to stand for elective office. If Jay established a precedent for judicial politicking, it has not survived into our modern era: Associate Justice Charles Evans Hughes resigned from the high court in 1916 when he ran for the Presidency, and similar action would be expected of any high judicial officer today.

His election to the governorship in 1795 could not have been a complete surprise to Jay. As early as December, 1793, Federalist political managers had held conversations with the Chief Justice about running for governor again. He expressed his preference for the Supreme Court, but, as his friend Egbert Benson reported to Rufus King, “he would not desert them.” King and Hamilton had expected Jay to return from England before the elections of April, 1795. When he did not return, various Federalist caucuses proceeded to nominate him in absentia, and the Republican factions closed ranks behind Abraham Yates, who happened to be the chief justice of the New York supreme court. The battle of chief justices was fought in Jay’s absence, with Jay, considered the man who would bring peace back from England, narrowly victorious by a vote of 13,481 to 11,892. His election confirmed, Jay sent a letter of resignation to the President on June 29 and two days later was sworn in as governor.

On that very day the newspapers carried the first summaries of the treaty he had concluded in London. The “declamation” Jay had foreseen now began—with a vengeance. A stunned nation denounced the treaty for making so few concessions to the United States.