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1784 Two Hundred Years Ago

March 2023
1min read

John Jay returned to New York in July 1784. He had been in Paris, helping Benjamin Franklin negotiate the peace treaty with Great Britain, which had been signed the preceding September, the last of a series of tasks that had kept him abroad for five years.

Jay planned to retire to private life and resume the practice of law. But he discovered on his arrival that, in May, Congress had appointed him secretary of foreign affairs, an office invented in 1781 and first filled by Robert R. Livingston. Livingston is said to have given it up because it didn’t pay enough. Jay was above this, but he had other objections. He believed that the office should be something different and something more than it had been under Livingston, who had contented himself simply with obeying the directions of the Congress. Jay held that if his was to be the voice of a new nation dealing with foreign governments, that voice should be respected. He wanted a degree of autonomy and, above all, the right to choose his own clerks, a right which Congress had reserved to itself. He won his point and accepted the job in December.

Once in office he put some order into its affairs. He established a coherent filing system for the mass of documents and demanded that correspondence from abroad come first to him. Under Livingston all the mail relating to foreign affairs had gone directly to the Congress.

Livingston had had a lot to do. He arranged treaties of commerce with Prussia and Morocco and discussed such possibilities with Austria, Denmark, and Portugal. And there were still the British to deal with; in defiance of the peace treaty they maintained armed garrisons on American soil. Jay could not know this, but the day before the peace treaty was signed, George III’s government had, in fact, sent secret orders not to evacuate them.

Jay remained in office until March 1790, when Thomas Jefferson replaced him to become the first secretary of state, for now—the Constitution having been adopted—there was a state.

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