A review of John Jay: Founding Father, by Walter Stahr

On paper John Jay was the man: Revolutionary spymaster, Chief Justice of New York, President of the Continental Congress, negotiator of the treaty that ended the War for Independence, Secretary for Foreign Affairs under the Confederation, author of five Federalist papers, Chief Justice of the United States, and Governor of New York. Yet Jay is today "largely forgotten," writes Walter Stahr in John Jay: Founding Father, the first life of the statesman in more than three decades. 

This obscurity is at first sight puzzling, for Jay is in some ways nearer to us than Washington, Jefferson, or Hamilton. The Virginia presidents belonged to a slave-owning squirearchy that began to decline while Jefferson himself was still living. The class is now as extinct as the Prussian Junkers. Hamilton, the Über-hero of the early republic, embodied a type that never caught on in the United States. The qualities that made him a great statesman—his candor, his abhorrence of platitude, his odor of hubris—made him a poor politician, and no man bent on rising high in American public life would care to emulate him very closely. 

Jay, by contrast, emerged from the class of New York civic leaders—lawyers, bankers, jurists—that until recently exercised a considerable influence in the national government, particularly in foreign policy and the intelligence-gathering services. Jay was the spiritual father of a line of New York eminences, more sober than Hamilton in style and less flamboyant in personal ambition, yet with an impressive tradition of service to the republic. Chancellor Kent, John Henry Hobart, Elihu Root, Henry L. Stimson, Charles Evans Hughes, Pierre Jay, W. Averell Harriman, John Jay McCloy, Frank Lyon Polk, the brothers Dulles, and the cousins Hand are some of the notable figures whose careers owe something to Jay's example and inspiration. The patriarch of the Wise Men ought to be a more arresting figure than Jay has proved to be. Why, Stahr asks, has this accomplished man been denied a place among the Republic's fathers? 

Stahr, a lawyer, suggests that Jay's conservatism is partly responsible for his eclipse. Jay was "a reluctant democrat: he believed that elections were the best way to select leaders, but he also believed that the people would often choose poor leaders, and he deplored the popular democracy which emerged during the early nineteenth century." The difficulty with this argument is that it applies equally to Hamilton, who had just as little faith in the people. Yet Hamilton's contempt for demotic forms and his avowed preference for the English constitution have never entirely dimmed his flame. He has continued to be a central figure in the nation's historical imagination, indispensable to the mythmakers. This was true even during the New Deal, when Franklin Roosevelt and Claude Bowers labored to restore the cult of his rival Jefferson. To some New Dealers Hamilton was a capitalist villain, the first of the "economic royalists," while to other Progressives he was an inspiration, the original impresario of Big Government.

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No, to understand why Jay has been denied admission to the pantheon, we must look not to his conservatism, but to the qualities of the mercantile aristocracy that spawned him. The great families of old New York, Edith Wharton wrote, belonged to a "prosperous class of merchants, bankers, and lawyers." Collectively they formed a "little aristocratic nucleus." It was the class, sober in comportment and for the most part Anglican in devotional practice, to which Jay belonged. His paternal grandfather was a Huguenot merchant who prospered in Anglo-Dutch New York, and Jay himself was related by blood or marriage to the leading families of the city's merchant patriciate. 

It was the mixed fortune of this merchant aristocracy to have come of age in an era of revolution, in a republic that rapidly became a democracy. Unlike many in his circle who remained loyal to George III, Jay embraced the cause of American independence, but after the British were expelled he became "uneasy and apprehensive" about the direction of American affairs. The "spirit of licentiousness," he said, "appears more formidable than some at first apprehended." Such sentiments were characteristic of the Federalists generally, but in New York they acquired a different complexion. "Shall we have a King?" he asked in a 1787 letter to Washington. "Not in my opinion while other Expedients remain untried." But if conditions continued to deteriorate, he warned Jefferson, "the more sober part of the people may even think of a king." 

The "more sober part of the people" is a euphemism for Jay's own class. Sometimes he called them "the better sort" of people. When the cloth was removed and Jay could be candid, he spoke of them as the "people who own the country." He looked after their interests. "Our Government," he told Washington, "should in some Degree be suited to our Manners and Circumstances, and They you know are not strictly democratical." Indeed we do know: no republic, no democracy, has yet existed without an upper crust—a primeval nobility, as in Athens, or senatorial and equestrian orders, as in Rome. Stahr, in his otherwise admirable book, passes too lightly over the predicament of his protagonist, that of the aristocratic man in a "democratical" country. Too many Americans, Jay said, loved "pure democracy too dearly; they seem not to consider that pure democracy, like pure rum, easily produces intoxication, and with it a thousand mad pranks and fooleries." As a precautionary measure Jay developed techniques and habits of conduct which, when they came to be adopted more generally by the "better sort" of people, enabled them to prosper, even under an egalitarian regime. Jay developed the defensive armor—the protective coloration—that enabled his species to perpetuate its kind amid the unruly fauna of a modern democracy. 

It is not so dramatic a tale of the patrician-in-crisis as Coriolanus. Jay was as little disposed as the Roman to "stand naked" before the people, but Coriolanus belonged to a martial aristocracy, and he defended his prerogatives with the weapons of a warrior caste. Jay, the scion of merchant princes, chose different instruments. The cardinal article of his code was discretion; the wit and aristocratic exuberance of Gouverneur Morris were foreign to his nature. He was cautious, reserved, and austere of manner. He once ventured, in a draft of a letter to Washington, to make a joke, but thought better of it and struck the passage. Like later New York mandarins, Jay excelled in occupations in which the sober virtues trade at a premium. When the British descended on New York he was appointed to the state's conspiracies committee. The retiring patrician became a skilled spymaster. The violence of New York's revolutionary mobs had shocked him, and he had developed an instinct for camouflage. When the Sons of Liberty frolicked, Jay lay low. This was prudence, not cowardice—as a counterintelligence officer Jay was courageous. His work, Stahr writes, brought him "far closer to the 'front lines' of the Revolution than is generally assumed." The quality of his espionage was acknowledged by the CIA itself, which named a room in Jay's memory at Langley. It is difficult to envision Jefferson or Hamilton excelling as Jay did in a craft which required such perfect self-effacement. Jay had established a tradition, that of the well-born but otherwise faceless New York spymaster—one that reached its boring perfection in F. Trubee Davison and Allen Dulles. 

Jay enjoyed being a spymaster as much as his reserved nature allowed him to enjoy anything. In his declining years he regaled James Fenimore Cooper with an account of his experiences, material which Cooper used in his novel The Spy. Politics, by contrast, frequently elicited Jay's contempt. Seldom has the political scene worn a more interesting aspect than in 1775, yet in that year Jay professed himself "sick of the subject." As a matter of course the fastidious aristocrat shunned the greasier forms of democratic self-promotion. He held, it is true, a number of executive, or rather quasi-executive, positions. (Until the Federalists broke the spell with the Constitution of 1789, Americans were enamored of impotent executives.) He served as President of the Continental Congress and Governor of New York, but in neither case did his selection require him to appear on the hustings. He was placed in the president's chair because he was a "calm and judicious" lawyer, and personally inoffensive; he became governor without having to stoop to the indignity of a personal canvass—he was out of the country at the time, and returned only as the votes were being counted. 

This diffidence was part of the legacy Jay bequeathed to his class. With the exception of the two Roosevelts, New York's mandarins have generally adhered to the precedent; they have been content to work behind the scenes in such fields as diplomacy, Jay's forte. Together with Franklin and Adams, Jay established the country's diplomatic tradition. How many Wall Street lawyers and bankers since have been sustained, during their labors over the brief or the bond issue, by the dream of being called, like Jay, to some exotic diplomatic service! Those titans of the bar and the stock exchange who despaired of making a name in foreign policy were at last driven to set up a State Department of their own, the Council on Foreign Relations, an institution conceived in the very image of Jay: abounding in the "better sort" of people, discreet, and a trifle secretive.

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At the heart of Jay's career—at the heart of Federalism itself—is the question of the proper place, in a republic, of the aristocratic element. In The Creation of the American Republic (1969), Gordon Wood argued that the Federalist "Constitution was intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period." This is an accurate characterization of the New York Federalism of Jay; it is less true of the Virginia Federalism of Washington. Washington could be purer in his republicanism precisely because, in the manorial environment of Virginia, the aristocratic element was so apparently secure. The New York merchant prince, by contrast, walked out every day into Broadway, where he mingled with poorer citizens who possessed—or would soon obtain—the vote, and who might vote him out of his property. 

Thus the familiar Federalist safeguards: a strong president, a ponderous senate, and most brilliantly, judicial review, the brainchild of Hamilton and Marshall. Jay's contribution to the "Federalist persuasion" was rather a matter of style. He eschewed both the high-souled ambition of Hamilton and the provocative plumage of the Virginia gentry. He did not, like Hamilton, die a young and darkly Greek death, nor did he, like Washington and Jefferson, retire to a porticoed mansion. His last years were spent in a modest farmhouse in Bedford where he read the Bible and lamented the decay of the republic—a preppie nirvana. 

Jay was not a reluctant democrat: he was a boring aristocrat, and in history the penalty for dullness is obscurity. Had he openly defended the aristocratic ideal he cherished, his claims would be greater. The materials were there, but the candor was lacking. Greek culture, Werner Jaeger wrote in Paideia, "begins in the aristocratic world of early Greece, with the creation of a definite ideal of human perfection, an ideal towards which the élite of the race was constantly trained." 

The knightly ideal of old Greece— kalokagathia, beauty and loftiness of spirit—became in Athens a democratic ideal; Jefferson sought to make it the touchstone of American democracy, and in Greek accents he spoke of the time when, "under our democratic stimulants," every man "is potentially an athlete in body and an Aristotle in mind." Roundhead bigotry might deny it, but the aristocratic temperament, when not ossified and feudal, has something to contribute to the moral and spiritual life of a people. In Jay, however, as well as in the mandarin class which he inspired, all the characteristic virtù of nobility is lost in caution and defensiveness, in mere gentility. Stahr's book, scrupulously researched and carefully composed, cannot finally make a compelling figure of a man who, for all his decency, concealed too much of what he was.