Sunday, October 3, 2010

In defense of John Jay: what makes somebody a "key Founder"?

In his post below on John Jay, Jon states that John Jay was not one of the "key" Founders.  I respectfully disagree on that point.  If one takes even a cursory look at Jay's career, I think he fits the bill.

Just take a look at some of Jay's outstanding and critically important achievements:
  • President of the Continental Congress
  • Diplomat (both during the Revolution and during the Washington administration -- the Jay Treaty with Britain is named after him)
  • Co-author of The Federalist Papers (with Hamilton and Madison)
  • First Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court
  • Governor of New York
  • Key mover behind New York's move for the gradual abolition of slavery in the 1790s
Now, if Jon wants to argue that Jay wasn't key in the same way that Washington was key, I would agree with him.  Nobody was as important as Washington when it came to the success of both the American Revolution and the early American Republic.  However, the Washington standard is one that very few of the Founders -- even the "top tier" Founders -- could meet.  Maybe Jefferson could meet the Washington standard, but even with Jefferson it would be something of a stretch. 

And while Jay may legitimately be excluded from the list of the "top tier" Founders, he still had a key role to play in both the success of the Revolution and the life of the early Republic at both the state and federal level.  And he was a leader in the early effort to acknowledge the full humanity of African-Americans in our country (something that can't be said about several of the "top tier" Founders like Jefferson and Madison).

He was a key Founder.


Jonathan Rowe said...

"And while Jay may legitimately be excluded from the list of the 'top tier' Founders,..."

Perhaps I should have chosen my words more carefully. I was using "key" and "top tier" synonymously. I DO consider Jay a 2nd tier FF.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I find the whole "key" Founder method to be sophistic. The biggest case in point is Thomas Jefferson, whose private writings on theology we poke through as if they had some great import.

But besides writing the Declaration [which was modified by Congress], Thomas Jefferson didn't start the Revolution, didn't fight the Revolution, and was in France was the Constitution was Framed. Neither was he an author of the Federalist Papers that helped get it ratified.

The Founding was a constellation of many great and able men, like a winning baseball team. The slugger might be the MVP, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't have won without him.

In the case of Jefferson, the Founding succeeded largely absent his efforts.

Washington was the "indispensible man," but contributed little to the ideas behind the Founding. Next up would be Madison, but what's surprising is that he lost more battles in the Framing than Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, and Roger Sherman, all able men whose names most folks don't even know. [Except for Morris, and probably only because of his weird first name that you have to google every time you want to spell it correctly.]

Mark in Spokane said...


I'm glad that any disagreement we may have had on this issue is so easily resolved! If we are arranging the Founders in tiers, I would put Jay at the very top of the second tier...


I share your sentiments here. After Washington, the Founding is a period where there are many people working to make the country what it is. Our perceptions of who is or isn't a "key" Founder is often shaped more by subsequent views of the relative importance of the people involved rather than an objective view of how important people were at the time. The Adams cousins were, for example, vastly more important to the ideological framing of the Revolution that Jefferson was. Jay was far more important during the Revolution than Jefferson was. Hamilton was far more influential during Washington's first term than Jefferson was. The list can go on and on. What makes Jefferson stand out though are: 1) he eventually became president; 2) he founded what would become the Democratic Party. Those accomplishments insured him the limelight of history.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I don't think we can't discount Authoring the DOI and serving as 3rd President (for two terms).

However, in addition, Jefferson's actions as a Founder in Virginia secure his role as a top tier "key Founder."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Something else when we talk about VA and state and philosophical documents. I know Jefferson, (or Jefferson & Madison) aren't the last word on the rights of conscience doctrine (or how "How America's Founders understood and applied Locke"). But they are two "key" or "top tier" men on one pole. The other pole (the pole that gets short shrift) is the Massachusetts pope, represented by, again "key Founders"/top tier J. Adams and G. Washington.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I know Jefferson, (or Jefferson & Madison) aren't the last word on the rights of conscience doctrine (or how "How America's Founders understood and applied Locke").

Yes, and they're the ones lionized by the academy, which prefers its heroes to be more secular, not religious.

That's precisely the point. Before Jefferson ever did anything, there was the maximum Calvinist Samuel Adams using Locke for religious conscience in 1772:

"In regard to religion, mutual toleration in the different professions thereof is what all good and candid minds in all ages have ever practised, and, both by precept and example, inculcated on mankind. And it is now generally agreed among Christians that this spirit of toleration, in the fullest extent consistent with the being of civil society, is the chief characteristical mark of the Church. Insomuch that Mr. Locke has asserted and proved, beyond the possibility of contradiction on any solid ground, that such toleration ought to be extended to all whose doctrines are not subversive of society."

Brian Tubbs said...


In the spirit of nit-picking words :-), I might differ with you when you say: "Washington was the 'indispensible man,' but contributed little to the ideas behind the Founding."

Yes, he was indispensable. Without Washington, there would be no United States of America today. I'm not sure we could say that of any other Founder.

Where I might differ is with respect to your statement that Washington contributed little to the ideas behind the founding.

I say "might," because you've got me thinking. I'm not debating you here. Just thinking out loud. Washington was not a leader when it came to the writing and discussion of ideas, but he was a player. He was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, the First Continental Congress, the Second Cont Congress (until being named Commander-in-Chief), the Constitutional Convention, and the first government (as President). He was at the center of things when the nation was being formed. By his presence and activity, he helped shape all that. So, while we don't have GW authoring the DoI or the VA Statute for Religious Freedom or anything like that, I'm not sure I'd go as far as you to say he "contributed little to the ideas..."

In fact, Washington's actions had a great deal to do with our nation not dissolving into a military coup at the end of the Revolution and being committed to civilian rule of the military. Also, the idea of leaders rotating peacefully out of office.

I think I know what you're saying, which is that Madison, Jefferson, etc. played a much more overt role in putting our ideas into writing, but I would say Washington put those ideas into PRACTICE - and, as such, carried as much, if not more, influence than the other Founders.

Brian Tubbs said...

I would agree, btw, that John Jay belongs in the second tier.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Brian, I agree completely. In fact, Jim Best brings out in his book

[which I enjoyed very much] that "Jemmy" Madison used Washington's great status---with GW's permission---to gather the delegates for what became the constitutional convention, The Framing.

[And Best makes some pretty good guesses about what Washington might have urged be put in the Constitution itself, behind the scenes, of course. That was GW's style.]

So even if I don't credit "Old Muttonhead" [John Adams' appellation] with ideas here, the Revolution falls apart and the Constitution never gets drafted in the first place without the "indispensable man."

And via John Fea, Ron Chernow's new book on Washington indeed shows him as both the great dashing leader and the muttonhead.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As for John Jay being second-tier, in comparison to Washington, they all were.

The Founding was two-headed: the Revolution and the Framing. GW was the only major figure generally recognized in both.

In fact, thinking about it, John Jay might be a bit underrated. He served as president of the Continental Congress during the war years, and also contributed to the Federalist Papers that helped get the Constitution ratified.

So much for "key" Founders. I think Mark has a live argument here:

"Our perceptions of who is or isn't a 'key' Founder is often shaped more by subsequent views of the relative importance of the people involved rather than an objective view of how important people were at the time."