(AP) — The inner circle of founders has been set for as long as anyone can remember – Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton and Madison.
Almost never mentioned is John Jay.
“Most people know something about him. … But very few know the full breadth of his accomplishments. Most are very surprised by what they learn,” explains Heather Iannucci, director of the John Jay Homestead in this Hudson River town, where the July Fourth celebration will include a reading of the Declaration of Independence, music and tours of the stately, shingled house where the country’s first chief justice lived his final years.
As more of his papers have become available in the past decade, Jay’s admirers, ranging from specialists to such popular historians as Joseph Ellis and Walter Isaacson, have been arguing that a founder they believe underrated deserves a closer look – for achievements that extend to virtually every branch of government, on the state, federal and international level.
Jay was one of three contributors to the Federalist Papers, which helped define American government. He was president of the wartime Continental Congress, then served as secretary of foreign affairs, precursor to secretary of state, after the Revolutionary War ended. He was an essential diplomat whose peace negotiations with England, leading to the Treaty of Paris, vastly expanded U.S. territory.
For his accomplishments heading a network of informants during the revolution, actions that helped inspire James Fenimore Cooper’s novel “The Spy,” the CIA’s website calls Jay “the first national-level American counterintelligence chief.” He also helped write the New York Constitution, was a founder of the New York Manumission Society and as governor signed legislation that phased out slavery in the state. (Jay himself owned slaves.)
The founders bickered colorfully among themselves, but they agreed on the virtues of Jay. Noting his centrality in the talks with England, John Adams praised him as “of more importance than any of the rest of us.” Alexander Hamilton turned to Jay first when conceiving the Federalist Papers, and George Washington thought so much of him that when he was forming his original Cabinet, he offered the first position – any position – to Jay, who chose the Supreme Court.