The Lesser Known, but Very Essential U.S. Founder

Article excerpt

Byline: Arnold Beichman, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In the early 1960s, at a glittering White House gathering of famous musicians, artists, Nobel laureates, and other distinguished guests, President Kennedy quipped that so much talent had not been present in the room since "Thomas Jefferson dined alone." JFK might have said the same about John Jay even though Jay never made it to the presidency. But he did become our first chief justice of the Supreme Court, appointed by President George Washington.

Of all the leaders in the American Revolution, John Jay (1745-1829) is one of the least known. Yet he was a major figure in establishing the legitimacy of the new nation among unfriendly European countries, unfriendly because a revolution was an abhorrent phenomenon to Europe's monarchists.

And when the time came for the ratification of the new U.S. Constitution by the now 13 states, Jay was one of the three authors (James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were the other two) of the Federalist Papers, a series of influential essays which evaluated the Constitution and countered the arguments against it. (The Federalist Papers, especially No. 10 and No. 51 can still be read today with profit.)

In a pantheon of great Americans, the Founders - Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin - Jay would certainly be included. It is hard to explain how these men and many others in the 13 colonies could have produced such a stellar generation who came up with two ideas in mind: shaking off the British yoke and creating something new in the 18th-century world, a democracy.

As Seymour Martin Lipset pointed out in his seminal work, "First New Nation," these Founders not only created a modern democracy but they pioneered a practice never seen before in all history: the peaceful transfer of power by an incumbent government to a political party which won a popular election in 1800.

Walter Stahr, an independent scholar, has written a fascinating, learned and beautifully written biography about a major figure of the American Revolution, one who has been too long overlooked. Mr. Stahr deserves consideration for the Pulitzer Prize for biography. …