- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 19, 2005


By Walter Stahr

Hambledon & London, 482 pages, $29.95


In the early 1960s, at a glittering White House gathering of famous musicians, artists, Nobel laureates, and other distinguished guests, President Kennedy quipped that so much talent had not been present in the room since “Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” JFK might have said the same about John Jay even though Jay never made it to the presidency. But he did become our first chief justice of the Supreme Court, appointed by President George Washington.

Of all the leaders in the American Revolution, John Jay (1745”1829) is one of the least known. Yet he was a major figure in establishing the legitimacy of the new nation among unfriendly European countries, unfriendly because a revolution was an abhorrent phenomenon to Europe’s monarchists.

And when the time came for the ratification of the new U.S. Constitution by the now 13 states, Jay was one of the three authors (James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were the other two) of the Federalist Papers, a series of influential essays which evaluated the Constitution and countered the arguments against it. (The Federalist Papers, especially No. 10 and No. 51 can still be read today with profit.)

In a pantheon of great Americans, the Founders — Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin — Jay would certainly be included. It is hard to explain how these men and many others in the 13 colonies could have produced such a stellar generation who came up with two ideas in mind: shaking off the British yoke and creating something new in the 18th-century world, a democracy.

As Seymour Martin Lipset pointed out in his seminal work, “First New Nation,” these Founders not only created a modern democracy but they pioneered a practice never seen before in all history: the peaceful transfer of power by an incumbent government to a political party which won a popular election in 1800.

Walter Stahr, an independent scholar, has written a fascinating, learned and beautifully written biography about a major figure of the American Revolution, one who has been too long overlooked. Mr. Stahr deserves consideration for the Pulitzer Prize for biography. His loving description of Manhattan in Jay’s time filled me, a onetime New Yorker, with nostalgia.

Mr. Stahr follows the modern genre of Founding Father re-evaluative biography — Richard Brookhiser on George Washington, David McCullough on John Adams, Walter Isaacson on Benjamin Franklin, Ron Chernow on Alexander Hamilton.

Jay was a precocious young man who entered Kings College (later, Columbia University) at age 14. Following his graduation he studied law and was admitted to the bar at 23. He was immediately singled out as what we could today call a comer.

Mr. Stahr sees Jay as among the most conservative among the Founders and especially among the many, like Tom Paine, who wanted an immediate break with England. Jay sought a reconciliation with the motherland. He retired from the Continental Congress rather than sign the Declaration of Independence.

But his self-exile didn’t last. He was elected to the Continental Congress in 1788 and then voted president of that body. A year later he was appointed minister to Spain. With Madrid as a base he sought support, financial and political, for the fighting colonies. In 1782, he was one of the signers of the peace treaty with Britain.

With the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, Washington appointed Jay Chief Justice of the Supreme Court established under Article III. As to Jay’s importance in the founding of the Republic, without Jay, wrote John Adams, “this country would never have been independent & the Constitution would never have been made.”

Walter Stahr’s biography, which sometimes reads like a novel because of its episodic quality, has opened up a whole new vista of the 13 colonies on the eve of battle and the miraculous aftermath that made possible the United States of America. I look forward to reading more history from this gifted scholar.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Research Fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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