BOOK REVIEW: Liberty’s Chain: Slavery, Abolition, and the Jay Family of New York by David N. Gellman (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2022)
America’s Founders are routinely criticized for creating a republic that tolerated, and often defended, African slavery, but at least one of the Founders, New York’s John Jay, inaugurated a family tradition of anti-slavery activism. In Liberty’s Chain, David Gellman, a professor of history at DePauw University, traces the evolution of the Jays’ relationship with slavery and their commitment to racial justice from Jay’s support for gradual emancipation through the more radical abolitionism of his son William to the post-Civil War era of William’s son John Jay II.
A lawyer and grandson of a French Huguenot who immigrated to America after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, John Jay served at different times as president of the Continental Congress, as the first chief justice of the United States Supreme Court and as governor of New York. A champion of the ratification of the Constitution and a leader of the emerging Federalist Party, Jay also held a variety of foreign policy posts, both at home and abroad. His record on the question of slavery was, to be sure, ambiguous. Jay owned enslaved people, but never on a large-scale. African Americans in the Jay household seemed to have worked mainly as personal servants—one of the few lacunae in Gellman’s otherwise well researched and thorough narrative is a relative lack of detail about what they actually did. Jay claimed he had a policy of freeing his enslaved workers after several years of forced labor. He could be legalistic in dealing with the enslaved, but he could also show considerable concern for elderly Blacks who had served the family.
Gellman believes Jay may have first expressed anti-slavery views when the New York constitutional convention of 1777 rejected a proposal to condemn slavery. He regretted the decision. Shortly thereafter, he endorsed Pennsylvania’s 1780 law freeing slaves born after the effective date of the act when they turned twenty-eight. Jay helped negotiate a provision in the Treaty of Paris of 1783 that supposedly prevented British forces, as they left American soil, from evacuating slaves, but he later refused to press the issue when the British failed to honor their commitment. In 1795, Jay became a founding member of the New York Manumission Society, and while he was governor in the late 1790s, the New York legislature passed a gradual emancipation bill. Missouri’s application for statehood in 1818 eventually triggered the first great, national crisis over slavery. Jay opposed Missouri’s admission to the Union as a slave state, but by then leadership on issue of emancipation was passing to a new generation. John Jay died in 1829.
Jay’s oldest son, Peter Augustus Jay, and the elder Jay’s nephew Peter Jay Munro both served terms as president of the New York Manumission Society and continued the struggle for African American rights, with little success, as members of the New York legislature and as delegates to the state constitutional convention of 1821. A double defeat they suffered at the convention illustrated a paradox in the Jays’ political philosophy. Over their opposition, the delegates eliminated the property requirement for white voters but retained it for African Americans. The family’s concern for racial justice was never part of a broader commitment to the expansion of democracy.
John Jay’s younger son William plays a larger part in Gellman’s story. A writer and state court judge, William Jay endorsed immediate abolition, but he feared the racial egalitarianism of William Lloyd Garrison and his disciples could prove counterproductive. Nevertheless, he fought for equal treatment of African Americans within his own Episcopal Church, and he condemned the African colonization movement, despite its popularity among anti-slavery moderates. William did not believe Congress had the authority to abolish slavery within the slave states, and he clashed with anti-slavery activists who took on other causes, specifically prohibition. He also opposed the public participation of women in the abolitionist cause.
William initially eschewed electoral politics and hoped to end slavery through moral suasion, but he eventually embraced more aggressive tactics. In 1844, William ran for Congress as the nominee of the new, anti-slavery Liberty Party. He lost his race; his abolitionist views had earlier led to his ouster from the judgeship he had held for twenty-five years. The Mexican War, which he condemned as unprovoked American aggression for the ignoble purpose of expanding slavery, enraged him. Seemingly undeterred by the prospect of civil war, William called for open resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He died in 1858.
William’s son John Jay II fully embraced radical abolitionism. He proposed expanding the Supreme Court to check the pro-slavery Chief Justice Roger Taney, he believed from the beginning of the Civil War that military necessity could justify a broad presidential order ending slavery, and he supported voting rights and educational opportunities for freed slaves. Yet, John Jay II had a less idealistic side. He seemed unconcerned with the carnage wrought on the nation by the Civil War, but he tried to keep his soldier son out of combat. Despite favoring equal treatment of African Americans, John Jay II followed family tradition in opposing universal male suffrage. He had long sought a diplomatic appointment, and after U.S. Grant’s election as president, Jay became minister to Austria, a post which removed him from the battle over Reconstruction policy. Returning to the United States in 1875, John Jay II accommodated himself “to the new era in which sectional reconciliation and civil service reform took precedence over African American rights.” (page 388) Serving as president of the New York Civil Service Commission and as president of the American Historical Association, he attacked political corruption, foreign immigration, and the Roman Catholic Church. Ironically perhaps, Liberty’s Chain makes clear that the Jay family tradition included elitism, nativism and religious prejudice as well as anti-slavery activism.