John Jay

John Jay, Founding Father and Abolitionist

John Jay was born into a wealthy family of merchants and government officials in New York City. He became a lawyer and joined the New York Committee of Correspondence, organizing opposition to British polices in the time preceding the American Revolution.

Jay was a slaveholder, as were many wealthy New Yorkers during the time period. However, in 1774 Jay drafted the Address to the People of Great Britain, which draws upon the image of slavery and compares the British treatment of blacks to the British treatment of all colonists.

Friends and Fellow-Subjects: When a Nation, lead to greatness by the hand of Liberty, and possessed of all the Glory that heroism, munificence, and humanity can bestow, descends to the ungrateful task of forging chains for her friends and children, and instead of giving support to Freedom, turns advocate for Slavery and Oppression, there is reason to suspect she has either ceased to be virtuous, or been extremely negligent in the appointment of her Rulers.

After 1777, Jay took a more active leadership role in the movement to abolish slavery. Between 1777 and 1785, two laws abolition laws he drafted failed to pass. Almost every member of the New York legislature had voted for some form of emancipation in 1785, but they were unable to agree on which rights to give the newly free black New Yorkers.

Aaron Burr also called for immediate abolition, and numerous slaveholders independently freed their slaves after the Revolution, but thousands were held in New York City alone.

This item, and others like it, can be found in Accessible Archive’s African American Newspapers Collection. This enormous collection of African American newspapers contains a wealth of information about cultural life and history during the 1800s and is rich with first-hand reports of the major events and issues of the day.

Jay was the founder and president of the New York Manumission Society in 1785, which organized boycotts against newspapers and merchants involved in the slave trade, and provided legal counsel for free blacks claimed or kidnapped as slaves.

The Society helped enact the 1799 law for the gradual emancipation of slaves in New York, which Jay signed into law as governor. “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” provided that, from July 4 of that year, all children born to slave parents would be free (subject to lengthy apprenticeships) and that slave exports would be prohibited.

As President of the New York Manumission Society, he received an anonymous letter containing a donation to the friends of the Society. The following exchange still existed in 1852:

October, 6th, 1786

Sir: Conceiving very highly of the Society for promoting the manumission of slaves, and protecting such of them as have been or may be liberated, I have enclosed L20, ($50), which I request may be applied an such manner as the society of which your President may think most beneficial.

Jay’s Reply:

Honorable John Jay, Esq:

It is thought proper to publish this letter, as well for the satisfaction of the generous and unknown writer, as because it will probably suggest inducements to others to promote the views of the Society. It certainly is formed on the purest and most disinterested principles of benevolence and good will towards men; and they have already, in more than one instance, been the means of rescuing oppressed individuals from the hands of those who cruelly make merchandise of men.

Let the charitable consider that they can seldom practice that virtue with more benefit to others, or more consolation to themselves, than by promoting lawful and honest measures for preserving poor unoffending citizens in the enjoyment of their freedom and families, and preventing husbands and wives, parents and children, from being torn from each other, and carried to market in different and distant places. What acts of public or private justice and philanthropy can occasion more pleasing emotions in the breasts of Christians, or be more agreeable to HIM who shed his blood for the redemption of men, than such as tend to restore the oppressed to their natural rights, and to raise unfortunate members of the same great family with ourselves, from the abject situation of beasts of burthen, bought and sold and worked, for the benefit and at the pleasure of persons who were not created more free, more rational, more immortal, nor with more extensive rights and privileges than they were.

Source: Frederick Douglass Paper, January 8, 1852

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