John Jay's Controversial Gubernatorial Campaign
When I started Founder of the Day, my plan was to spend a few months writing biographies of Founders and then focus on what I was excited about: interesting stories of the American Revolution.
Here we are 14 months later and I’ve written almost 400 biographies with no end in sight.
Therefore, I have decided to begin writing ‘studies’ which will look at more specific moments and happenings several times a week.
You can still expect these ‘bios’ I have been writing, but to keep things fresh these ‘stories’ will also be done regularly. (And don’t forget ‘Federalist Fridays’ which I began writing differently several weeks ago so if you didn’t care for them at first I’d love it if you gave them another try).
So, let’s begin with one of the most underappreciated Founders: John Jay. If you’d like to read my full bio on Jay (which was one of my original articles when the site was launched) it can be read here.
New York, 1792
Hard as it may be to imagine now, back in 1792 New York was the swingiest of swing States.
Just five years earlier, the Federalist Papers had been written in New York to convince New Yorkers to support the Constitution.
Despite Jay, along with Senator Philip Schuyler and his son-in-law, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, being Federalists, New York was jam packed with Democratic-Republicans. Notably, George Clinton had been Governor of the State for fifteen years. Clinton had been elected to the position after the Declaration of Independence which made him the first and (at that point) only Governor New York had known.
This was the backdrop of the controversial 1792 gubernatorial campaign for New York.
At a meeting of the State’s Federalist Party, Hamilton secured the nomination of Jay for Governor. He was chosen over Hamilton’s close friend Aaron Burr. (Although Burr was not upset at the time, years later this would be one of the grievances which lead to their famous duel.)
Jay accepted this nomination, but it is important to keep in mind that he was prepared to leave the position of Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. The idea that the man who held the highest possible lifetime appointment in the National Government would step down to claim an office with a term of just two years led to rampant speculation.
Clinton, one of the Anti-Federalist leaders during the ratification debates, still had wide support throughout the State. Despite this, the Democratic-Republicans of New York did not want to take any chances.
When the votes had been cast, John Jay had won the popular vote.
The opposition claimed the votes of three Upstate counties were not submitted through valid channels. The State Constitution mandated that a county’s votes be brought to the capital by the Sheriff. For one reason or another, these Sheriffs could not make it to the capital.
For example, at least one county was having an election at the same day…for the position of Sheriff! There was no way for the winner to accept his position and ride on horseback to the capital in time.
Due to this peculiar law, thousands of votes were not counted. The technicality led to the reelection of George Clinton, as Jay had overwhelming numbers in these areas and the election was decided by less than 600 votes.
We should not feel too bad for Jay.
He was still Chief Justice after all. That being said, things got worse before they got better.
Jay was soon chosen by Washington to travel to Great Britain and negotiate terms which would settle disputes between the two nations.
The resulting Jay Treaty established a trade agreement and prevented war, but was famously panned by Americans at the time, notably for failing to stop the impressment of United States citizens into the British Army. This would be a main reason for the War of 1812 almost twenty years later and Jay famously joked that he could travel from New York to Philadelphia by the light of his burning effigies.
An Easier Campaign
While he was in Europe the Federalists again submitted him as a candidate for Governor.
This time, he won.
Imagine for a moment, if you can, this scenario:
The Chief Justice of the United States goes to a hostile nation to act as Ambassador and while he’s away is chosen as Governor of an extremely powerful State.
That’s like if, in 2019, Chief Justice John Roberts went to Iran for peace talks and while he was gone was elected Governor of California despite not running a single TV ad. Crazy right!
Although independence had been declared almost twenty years prior, Jay was only the second person chosen as Governor of New York.
He sat in this office for six important (if uneventful) years during the nation’s infancy. When he decided to retire, he was replaced by none other than George Clinton.
Jay was nominated by President John Adams (and quickly approved by Congress) to take back the job of Chief Justice.
John Jay declined this honor, opting to retire after thirty years of service to his country.
As stated in the introduction, I hope to write more ‘stories’ like this in the future.
If you’d like to read some previous articles I’ve written that also fall into this category, check these out:
Humphrey Plowjogger’s Secret Identity (Spoiler Alert - it’s John Adams)
Do you know just how important John Jay was to the American Founding?
Jay was arguably the most important Founder born in New York. I would need to write a whole book to cover the laundry list of achievements he had.
Fortunately, Walter Stahr has already done that for me.
‘John Jay - Founding Father’ is one of the thicker Founder biographies I own, and with good reason. Jay is easily one of the top three most underappreciated, important people involved with the American Revolution
Pick up a copy through the Amazon affiliate link below (you’ll support this site, but don’t worry, Amazon pays me while your price stays the same) but be warned, it is very rare and therefore expensive.
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