Monday Morning Insight, from the First U.S. Chief Justice

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)


Today is John Jay’s birthday (born in 1745). Jay was President of the Continental Congress in 1778-79, wrote five of The Federalist Papers in support of the U.S. Constitution, and once the Constitution was ratified he served from 1789-95 as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Before and after presiding over the Continental Congress, in 1777 and again in 1785, Jay — a slaveholder himself — tried to get slavery abolished in his home state of New York. In a 1785 letter, he wrote,

That men should pray and fight for their own freedom, and yet keep others in slavery, is certainly acting a very inconsistent, as well as unjust and, perhaps, impious part, but the history of mankind is filled with instances of human improprieties.

And he wrote in a 1786 letter,

It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honour of the States, as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.

Upon leaving the Supreme Court, Jay became Governor of New York. He served in that office from 1795-1801, and in 1799 he signed into law an act to emancipate the slaves in that state. In order to pass the legislature, the emancipation was only gradual, but by the time Jay died on 17 May 1829, there had been no slaves and no indentured servitude in New York for nearly two years.

Chain expressing freedom

(Image: “Chain expressing freedom,” by Stepph, on Wikimedia Commons.)


Like other Founding Fathers of our great nation, Jay was a complex and sometimes contradictory fellow. Some would chide him for not doing enough to abolish slavery, for not being forceful enough or speeding up the process. But even if he did not take the final step, he had the courage to take the first steps.

May we all have the courage to take the first steps toward whatever we deem important.

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