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John Jay: The Legend Beyond the Dining Hall

Portrait by Gilbert Stuart via the National Gallery

Bwog’s Local Historical Figures Bureau Chief Grant D’Avino recounts a particularly laudatory and well-rounded examination of the life and politics of our very own John Jay.

We all proudly hold John Jay in our collective Columbian memory as the first Chief Justice of the United States. But Thursday night, noted historian John Kaminski crafted a different, more grandiose portrait of Jay, maintaining that during his time as Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation, Jay was the young nation’s de facto Prime Minister, the “Washington of Diplomacy,” and “The Most Important Man in America”.

The well-attended event marked the release of the first volume of Elizabeth Nuxoll’s “The Selected Papers of John Jay”. Kaminski, Director of The Center for the Study of the American Constitution at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, declared with a hopeful chuckle that with the release of this volume “at last we will find out what the 2nd Amendment really meant.” Before delving into his prepared remarks, he established John Jay as one of the five most important figures of the American Revolutionary period, highlighting his roles as coauthor of the Federalist Papers and as primary author of New York’s Constitution.

Kaminski made clear that his approach to the period’s history is grounded in an understanding of the founders not as myth, but as they really were. Their values of justice, manliness, and prudence, among others, were essential to both their political and private conduct. Avoiding a conflation of abstraction and concrete reality, Kaminski argued that by no means did the shared values of the founders render them carbon copies of one another. Instead, each man’s unique mix of personality and politics had a profound impact on the nascent republic. Excited to include details of the personal histories of the founders, Kaminski often deviated from his well constructed presentation to make charming historical asides such as “George Washington almost never talked about himself; John Adams never stopped talking about himself.”

Jay was a staunch supporter of a strong union between the states, hoping to engender “national spirit” by bringing them more closely together. As a diplomat, he felt that a unified federal government could negotiate more effectively with established powers in Europe and North Africa than a loose confederation of states. Under the Articles of Confederation governmental authority was decentralized except for the conduct of foreign affairs. Thus as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, John Jay was the most powerful officer of the federal government. Indeed, Congress became no more than an instrument of Jay as he almost single-handedly directed American policy. This is the power that Kaminski argues made him “The Most Important Man in America”.

Kaminski described Jay’s tough views on foreign affairs. He practiced highly secretive diplomacy, believing that the public ought to be privy to as little information as possible. For Jay, bribery was a pragmatic tool in the rough arena of international relations rather than an unscrupulous tactic. But, of course, despite some hard-nosed and less than savory tactics, Jay believed in adhering to the core American beliefs we hold so dear to this day. Kaminski concluded, “It takes a great deal of effort to make sovereigns out of subjects, and that’s what he was trying to do.”

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