- The Selected Papers of John Jay, volume 4, 1785–1788 ed. by Elizabeth M. Nuxoll, et al.
Edited by ELIZABETH M. NUXOLL, MARY A. Y. GALLAGHER, ROBB K. HABERMAN, AND JENNIFER E. STEENSHORNE
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015
The more we learn about John Jay, the harder it is to understand his comparative obscurity among the American founders. Even scholars tend to overlook his accomplishments and miss his significance. But among the members of his generation, only James Madison outlived him and few could match his record of sustained engagement in the important public affairs of his age. Jay was a foreign minister, a diplomat, Supreme Court chief justice, and governor of New York; and, in addition to those and other political roles, he also played a crucial role in the creation of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America and the New York Manumission [End Page 749] Society. Jay’s reach was wide and his circle of correspondents across the nation and the globe was vast. In short, Jay should be better known than he is and the contents of this volume help to make it clear why that is the case.
The four years of his life covered by this fourth installment of his papers saw him fully engaged in various critically important activities. Not only do we see Jay at work in diplomacy, politics, religion, and the push for a new constitution, we also see on display in all these realms one of his characteristic personality traits: his conciliatory and moderating tone and behavior, a mind-set that defused tense situations and headed off potential problems while allowing him to resolve disputes by finding compromise. This is obviously a key trait for diplomats that served Jay well in the various negotiations recorded in these papers, and it resurfaces in nearly all of his dealings.
Jay played a critical role in the drive for a stronger central government, and his part in promoting and furthering the new frame of government is a central feature of this book. While Jay is best known for his five essays for The Federalist (1788), this volume makes clear that his efforts to secure ratification were much more extensive than that modest output suggests. Jay frequently discussed the unacceptable conditions the United States faced under the articles with various correspondents, with none more frequently or more significantly than George Washington. Even as he was carrying out important diplomatic missions with Don Diego de Gardoqui, for example, he was always thinking and working to bring about a national government of requisite power and stability.
It is very helpful to have here not just the final versions of Jay’s five Federalist essays but his draft essays as well, for they reveal much about the way Jay wrote. As the editors note, Jay revised his papers significantly for matters of style, tone, and content. “A careful workman even under pressure, Jay labored over the drafts of The Federalist letters,” they write, observing that the final published versions “differ in some cases in significant ways” from his working drafts (577). In some cases, Jay revised his initial drafts to achieve that desired tone of moderation and conciliation. His draft of Federalist 5 displays “Jay’s tendency as a prudent lawyer to tone down his language and avoid stridency,” often in favor of “the more guarded language that appears in the final text” (578). The editors make the important point that his very careful, precise drafting of Federalist 64 on treaty-making power was probably aimed specifically at voters in Virginia, whose ratification [End Page 750] convention had not yet met and many of whose political leaders had been furious with Jay for his seeming willingness in the 1786 Jay-Gardoqui treaty to surrender American navigation rights on the Mississippi River, a sore point still over two years later. Jay, likely with some coaching from his Publius coauthor James Madison, crafted an essay that suggested that any weaknesses or problems that citizens might detect in the treaty with Spain actually stemmed from weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation government. If some...