Brian J. Rees, Marist ’12
If one thing can be understood about the men responsible for the creation of the United States as it exists today, it is that they were individuals of immense talent and capacity for thought. This penchant for thinking led to the development of documents such as the Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution. John Jay was one of these Founding Fathers, and he is most remembered for his position as the first Chief Justice of the United States. Yet the course of Jay’s career following this role is just as important in understanding the man.
A lifetime resident of New York, Jay worked tirelessly to improve conditions in his home state, even as the Revolutionary War was being fought. His work on the first state Constitution in 1777 revealed his progressive attitudes, including his attempt to bring about the end of slavery—a proposal that was not adopted by the Constitutional Convention.1 In 1778, Jay traveled from Poughkeepsie to Philadelphia, where he served as president of the Continental Congress, tasked with keeping these meetings in order, important due to the many and disparate personalities involved in the birth of the new nation. Serving as leader of Congress for ten months—during a time that latter came to be known as the “Year of Division” 2
Jay would go on to serve his country as Minister Plenipotentiary to Spain, a peace commissioner for the Treaty of Paris, Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and first Chief Justice of the United States. He served with a degree of distinction in each of these positions. After Jay’s notable contributions to the burgeoning country, including his work on the Treaty of Paris and Jay Treaty, he returned to his home state of New York, where he continued to make important contributions to law. Jay would serve as governor for six years, from July of 1795 to June of 1801.3 A landmark piece of legislation in 1799 gave Jay his first opportunity to sign off on a law that would phase out slavery in the state, although this proved controversial at the time.4 His deed is an important milestone in the fight for emancipation of all slaves, his victory coming almost four decades before some form of nationwide abolition was introduced.
Today, the laws and documents drafted by great men serve as indelible reminders of their contributions to the history of the United States, but there are fewer physical reminders of their presence. In the case of the Jay family, careful preservation has allowed their homestead in Katonah, Westchester County, to remain extant.
The house and surrounding farm were designed to provide a quiet country home for John Jay in the days following his formal retirement from politics. As surviving letters show, Jay remained in correspondence with members of government, although he stopped short of making his comments public. These letters touch on subjects ranging from foreign relations to the evils of slavery and its continued existence in the country.5 They show Jay’s progression from his role as a statesman to his retirement and beliefs as a manumissionist.
That it is possible to see the very home in which Jay spent the final years of his life is inspiring. Typical of its time period, it is a splendid example of a sprawling country farm. (Jay had inherited the house and 750 surrounding acres from his father.6 ) The main home is elegant in its simplicity. Featuring a wide porch, the exterior is painted a shade of eggshell, with deep green shutters and door providing a traditional look.
The interior is furnished to portray the home as it may have looked during the 1820s, with care taken to illustrate everyday life. About half the furnishings are reproductions; however, some pieces, such as John Jay’s travelling bookcase, and most of the artwork are original. There are several period paintings on display—portraits of the Jays and replicas of famous works in which John Jay is depicted, most notably The American Peace Commissioner by Benjamin West. Additions that turned Jay’s farmhouse into a fifty-five room mansion provide evidence of the succeeding generations who lived on the estate until Eleanor Iselin, the final surviving resident, died in 1953. The property was purchased by Westchester County, until legislation in 1958 gave the property its status as a New York State Historic Site.7
While the John Jay Homestead represents the achievements of a man nearing the end of his life, it also documents the maturation of another. William Jay, John Jay’s second son, continued his father’s fight for equality in the country as the issue of slavery became more divisive between the different economic areas of the nation. During William’s occupancy of the Homestead, in which he developed into a thriving farm, New York saw its final slave emancipated.
Despite all of their efforts on behalf of America’s slaves, the fact remains that Jay and his family were known to own slaves, a contradiction for any person who espoused anti-slavery beliefs. Jay’s belief on the subject has been well reported in various forms over the years: “I purchase slaves and manumit them at proper ages and when their faithful services shall have afforded a reasonable retribution.” 8 Jay’s attitudes reflect the complex situation at the time, in which slave labor accounted for a large part of New York’s workforce.9
By adopting a personal policy of gradual abolition, Jay influenced an 1817 law that resulted in the freedom of slaves born before July 4, 1799. Jay was an intelligent and persuasive individual who realized that immediate changes to established law would upset the delicate economic and social climate of the time. In Jay’s opinion, only through gradual abolition could businesses effectively stop the use of slave labor. Some suggest Jay may have adopted this position because a stance against slavery would have been a liability during his 1792 gubernatorial run.10
While it is somewhat easy to make the argument for a political motive behind his actions, Jay had drafted a memorial to stop the exportation of slaves in 1786, long before running for governor.11 Additionally, one must look at the language and culture surrounding slavery in New York during the late eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. At a time when indentured servitude and apprenticeship were common, many sought to change the use of the word “servant” to mean something more all-encompassing. In a society that understood what slavery meant in the context of freedom, liberty, and equality, calling a slave the more acceptable “servant” meant that individuals could feel at least somewhat more at ease with keeping a human being locked in a life with little or no choice in the matter. Those in the business of slavery were happy to blur the lines when it suited them, and often grouped slaves in with other types of servants.
Jay was well aware of this solemn fact, relenting that: “The treatment which slaves in general meet with in this state is very little different from that of other servants.” 12 This fact may have colored public perception of the benefits of slavery, no doubt aided by the fact that New York did not possess an industry that demanded large quantities of human labor. Because slavery did not account for a large portion of the economy in New York, the institution was allowed to remain for a longer period of time. Even after many states in the Northeast had outlawed slavery, New York continued to allow for its unimpeded use—until passage of the gradual manumission law in 1799 began to turn the tide against its practice in the state.13
The themes of John Jay’s antislavery efforts were echoed in a 2012 exhibit at the Homestead that focused on the family’s contributions to the cause. Documents and articles from the time period indicate that they were involved with multiple aspects of the anti-slavery movement.
The exhibit included a volume of William Jay’s personal compilation on slavery, which eventually filled nineteen volumes of these anti-slavery pamphlets, with a handwritten index by Jay. The displays also include information about Peter Augustus, John Jay’s father, who owned six slaves.14
The exhibit notably illustrated the shift over time in the family’s stance on slavery. John Jay’s policy of gradual manumission was eventually superseded by William’s more pointed call for immediate and total abolition. It is here where John Jay freed the final slave under his control, carrying out the wishes of the Manumission Society he had headed decades earlier.15 Perhaps more than any other, this example sets the tone for how difficult the issue of slavery was for Jay, who helped found a nation based on the ideals of freedom and equality, and struggled to find a way to achieve it himself as well.
The John Jay Homestead Historic Site is located at 400 Jay Street in Katonah. Beginning in April, the State Historic Site holds tours from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Saturdays through Wednesdays and during the winter months, from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Tours cost $7.00 for adults, $5.00 for students and seniors, and are free for children up to age 12 and to members of the Friends of John Jay Homestead. It is closed on Easter and most holidays (call for information). The Gallery is available for viewing on Sundays from noon to 2:00 p.m. and Mondays from 10:00 a.m.to noon, with admission at $2.00 per person. School and group visits are by appointment only, and the Homestead can be reached at 914.232.5651 for further information and scheduling. For further information, and a virtual tour of the Homestead, visit the Friends of John Jay Homestead’s website at http://www.johnjayhomestead.org/.
1. S tahl, Walter, John Jay (London: Hambleton and London, 2005), p.78.
2. ibid, p.119.
3. ibid, pp.340, 364.
4. D ouglas Harper. “Slavery in New York,” last modified March 2003,
5. L anda M. Freeman, Louise V. North, Janet M. Wedge ed., Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah
(London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005), pp.9-23, 9.
6. John Jay Homestead Historic Site. “Our History”, last modified 2011,
9 H arper, “Slavery in New York”
10. D aniel C. Littleford, “John Jay, the Revolutionary Generation, and Slavery,” New York History,
Volume 81 (2000): 95-132., p.96.
11. ibid, p.97.
12. ibid, p.95.
13. ibid, p.95.
14. ibid, p.96.
15. ibid, p.130.