A look at the first Chief Justice, John Jay
In 1789 on this day of September 26, John Jay was sworn in as the first chief justice of the United States—two days after George Washington nominated him.
Along with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Jay was the third (and often forgotten) writer of The Federalist Papers.
Jay wrote one about the powers of the Senate and four about “dangers from foreign force and influence” on the United States. He may have been able to write more, but Jay was injured during the 1788 Doctors’ Riot in New York, when he tried to calm down a mob that was incensed by body snatching from local graveyards.
The Supreme Court’s most influential decision when he was chief justice came in Chisholm v. Georgia in 1793—sometimes called “the first great case” decided by the Court.
By a 4-1 decision, the Court ruled that a citizen of South Carolina could sue the state of Georgia for the value of clothing the citizen had supplied during the Revolutionary War, because Article III of the Constitution gave the federal judiciary power over controversies between “a State and Citizens of another State.”
In a separate opinion, Jay endorsed the Federalist view that the states were subordinate to the federal government: He wrote that “the people are the sovereign of this country” and that Georgia wasn’t a sovereign when it came to lawsuits like this one.
The decision provoked a backlash against nationalist sentiment and was the first Court decision overturned by a constitutional amendment. The 11th Amendment took away from the Court’s jurisdiction lawsuits against a state by a citizen of another state or a foreign nation. One Jay scholar wrote that the controversy led him to the conclusion “that the Court was an ineffective instrument of domestic unification and diplomacy.”
Jay was talked about as successor to Washington as president, but the Jay Treaty that he negotiated in 1794 to settle unpaid American debts and economic disputes between citizens of the countries, to help avoid another war, was denounced as a sell-out to the British.
Instead, he was elected governor of New York, in 1795. In that role, he became the state’s leading proponent of abolishing slavery.
In 1799, the state passed a law calling for gradual emancipation of all slaves in New York, which happened by the time he died at the age of 83 in 1829.
President John Adams had asked him to become chief justice again in 1800, but Jay had declined, saying that the Court lacked “energy, weight and dignity.”
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