Academic journal article Faulkner Law Review

John Jay and Religious Liberty

Academic journal article Faulkner Law Review

John Jay and Religious Liberty

Article excerpt

The topic, "The Meaning of Religious Liberty in the Anglo-American Tradition," is of perennial concern. It has been debated and defended since the Puritan settlements of the seventeenth century, through the period of the American Revolution, and throughout the nation's history. (2) Still, in recent years, the meanings and contours of religious liberty have again been challenged and questioned in public discourse. Significant religious liberty cases have also come before the Supreme Court, including Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell (which has been granted writ of certiorari). (3) Within such public debates, an historical recounting of the development of the tradition of religious liberty is simultaneously useful and instructive.

To this end, the American jurist and Founding Father John Jay (1745-1829) provides valuable insights. Born in New York, he was educated at King's College (now Columbia University). He entered the bar at the end of the colonial period, and he built a thriving legal practice in New York City before the start of the American Revolution. (4) When the Revolution came, he was pulled into the press of public affairs, and he fulfilled his duties admirably for almost thirty years--including serving as the First Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Still, he never forgot his legal training, and he returned repeatedly to the significance of law for the structuring of society. It was his legal training that ultimately framed his constitutional beliefs and even his foreign policy approaches.

Along with his legal successes, Jay married into the prominent Livingston family, a connection that would draw him into the political conflict. He supported the patriot cause, and he was elected by New York City to the First and Second Continental Congresses. Jay was not present in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence because his presence was needed back in New York, to give leadership to the state's patriots. He was serving in the Convention when news of the Declaration reached them, and he led the body in endorsing the Declaration. The Convention quickly appointed Jay to serve as the first Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court. He filled that role for the next two years and provided material support for the Revolution. In 1778, New York sent him back to Congress, and the next year he served as President of Congress. At the end of 1779, Congress appointed him as a diplomat to the Spanish Court, and Jay attempted to further American standing abroad for the next several years. When the British indicated they would discuss peace, Congress sent Jay to Paris to negotiate alongside John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, In this way, Jay became an active participant in the movement for independence. (5)

After the Revolution, Jay contributed his talents to supporting the new republic. After signing the Peace Treaty, he returned home and found himself elected back to Congress and then named Secretary of Foreign Affairs. This position required executing Congress's legislation and dealing with foreign powers. In that position, Jay suffered under the national weakness that resulted from the Revolution and the Confederation government. Not surprisingly, Jay supported the effort to create a stronger national government through the movement for the new Constitution in 1787. Although New York did not appoint him to the Constitutional Convention, he approved of the resulting document.

Jay became a prominent and influential Federalist. He not only contributed to The Federalist Papers, but he also authored the influential Address to the People of the State of New-York, on the Subject of the Constitution. Furthermore, he carefully guided the New York Ratifying Convention to approve the document over vehement Anti-Federalist objections. Under the new government, Washington appointed Jay as the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, where Jay worked to guide the Court in a nationalist direction. …

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