The path to common ground can sometimes be guided by looking back to where we have been in order to find the path to where we can be going. If you have been following our book recommendations during the month of July, you know that we have been focusing on aspects of the beginnings of our nation, how we celebrate and the people who were influential to America’s beginnings.
Most of us probably can name at least a few of the “Founding Fathers,” such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton. However, one of the Founders who often gets lost and might well be the most relevant to issues taking place today is John Jay who was the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Today, most scholars agree that Jay has been sorely overlooked and considering that John Adams said of Jay, “he was “of more importance than any of the rest of us,” historians now seem to be attempting to rectify the neglect.
There is much about Jay that is worth highlighting such as his writings in The Federalist Papers, his tenure as Governor of New York where he sought penal reform, fought for the abolition of slavery, and “in 1799 succeeded in passing a gradual emancipation act, whereby children of slaves became free on their 25th birthday for girls and 28th for boys, thus bringing about the emancipation of all slaves in New York.” Interestingly, he is also known as the Father of Counterintelligence.
However, it was his appointment by George Washington as the first Chief Justice that is particularly germane to our current national scene. Washington had offered Jay any spot in his cabinet that Jay wanted, but he chose the Supreme Court instead. While he only presided over four cases during his tenure, those cases included Chisolm vs. Georgia. Jay ruled in favor of the right of people to sue the states. The decision, in that case, was later overturned by the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution, and subsequently modified to some extent to allow for appeals in the federal courts. However, Jay’s philosophy was on display in the original ruling when he wrote:
“[T]he people are the sovereign of this country, and consequently … fellow citizens and joint sovereigns cannot be degraded by appearing with each other in their own courts to have their controversies determined. The people have reason to prize and rejoice in such valuable privileges, and they ought not to forget that nothing but the free course of constitutional law and government can ensure the continuance and enjoyment of them.”
At a time when we continue to discuss some of the same issues and try to reach common ground over what roles do “the people” play versus the government, John Jay seems to be a worthy person to read about. While there is actually a dearth of books about him compared to the other Founders, two of the most recent is John Jay: A Life From Beginning to End by Hourly History and John Jay: Founding Father by Walter Stahr. Both books seek to explore the crucial roles and ideas of Jay and bring him to the forefront of the Founders. So if you want to learn a little bit more about the Supreme Court through the eyes of its first Chief Justice at a time when we are gearing up to debate the role of the Court, Jay’s biographies are an excellent place to start.