Founders and the Constitution

John Jay (1745-1829)

Clock One 45-minute class period.

In this lesson, students will study the life of John Jay. They will learn about the significance of Jay’s Treaty, Jay’s efforts to abolish slavery on a state and national level, his political roles during and after the Revolutionary period, and much more.

Founding Principles

Civil Discourse image

Civil Discourse

Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.

Federalism image


The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

Representative / Republican Government image

Representative / Republican Government

Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.


This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest of ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties. - John Jay (1787)


John Jay epitomized the selfless leader of the American Revolution. Born to a prominent New York family, John Jay gained notoriety as a lawyer in his home state. He favored a moderate approach to Britain but joined his fellow Patriots once the Declaration of Independence was signed. Jay’s fellow Founders regarded him so highly that they elected him President of the Assembly, the highest office in the land under the Articles of Confederation.

Ten years later, President George Washington appointed him the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He reluctantly resigned from the Supreme Court because he had been elected Governor of New York—an office he neither desired nor sought. As Governor, Jay fought for the emancipation of slaves by organizing and mobilizing abolitionist groups and signing an emancipation bill.

Jay left his mark on the new nation despite being somewhat marginalized by history. Jay wrote five essays in The Federalist Papers, but James Madison and Alexander Hamilton receive recognition for the now classic commentary. He worked for the Treaty of Paris, but history has given Benjamin Franklin and John Adams most of the credit. He negotiated a trade treaty with Great Britain that helped avoid a war, but history emphasizes his failures. He led the fight against slavery in New York, but his efforts are often overlooked on the national scale. He touched several of the foundations of our nation, while never really capturing attention in one area. His contributions were invaluable to a struggling infant nation and appreciated by his fellow Founding Fathers.

Relevant Thematic Essays


In this lesson, students will learn about John Jay. They should first read as homework Handout A—John Jay (1745–1829) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers to those in class, the teacher should have students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: John Jay on Slavery in which Jay expresses his opposition to slavery in the new states. As a preface, there is Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions, which will help the students understand the document. Handout D—Analysis: Founding Documents will help students put Jay’s argument in historical context.

There is a Follow-Up Homework Option, which asks students to reflect further on Jay’s statements about slavery. Extensions asks students to research the roles of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, or to speculate on how the modern political landscape would change if more officials were, like Jay was, elected to an office without having campaigned for it.


Students will:

  • explain the historical significance of Jay’s Treaty.
  • explain Jay’s efforts to abolish slavery on a state and national level.
  • understand John Jay’s various political roles during and after the Revolutionary period.
  • analyze Jay’s Letter to Elias Boudinot in terms of the ideas in two American Founding documents.
  • appreciate John Jay’s contributions to his country.


Student Handouts

  • Handout A—John Jay (1745–1829)
  • Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
  • Handout C—In His Own Words: John Jay on Slavery
  • Handout D—Analysis: Founding Documents

Additional Teacher Resources

  • Transparency Master A: Founding Documents
  • Answer Key


CCE (9–12): IC2, IIA1, IID1
NCHS (5–12): Era III Standard 1B; Era IV, Standard 2D; 3B
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10

Background Homework

Ask students to read Handout A—John Jay (1745–1829) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.

Warm-up 10 min.

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of John Jay.

    John Jay served as President of the Assembly under the Articles of Confederation; the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; and Governor of New York. He wrote five essays in The Federalist Papers, negotiated “Jay’s Treaty,” and worked for the emancipation of slaves.

Context 5 min.

Explain to students that as new states entered the Union, Congress was forced to debate the issue of slavery in those new states. Many were concerned that the balance of representation in Congress would tip in favor of one side or the other. The question remained: could Congress regulate trade in the new states? Or was it up to the states themselves? Point out to the class that John Jay had retired as Governor of New York nineteen years prior to writing this letter, and he was living as a private citizen in Westchester. Boudinot was a private citizen who advocated religious tolerance and abolition of slavery.

In His Own Words 20 min.

  1. Before class, print out each of the quotes from Transparency Master A: Founding Documents. Post them on large, colored poster paper on the opposite walls of the classroom. Leave a large border of poster exposed around the quotes.
  2. Write the following question on the board: Are you ruled by reason or by emotion? Ask students to write a personal response on their own paper in response to the question. While students are writing, continue with part C.
  3. As the class is writing, have one row of students temporarily stop and get up and walk to each poster. As a group, they should read the document, discuss it, and then decide on one adjective that describes the statement on the poster. They should then write that adjective on the poster border. Continue with remaining rows. When all students have finished, read each document and the adjectives students wrote. The teacher may share additional ones from the list below.

    Students may suggest for document A: legal, complicated, definite, or old-style language.
    Teacher may add for document A: rational, legislative, logical, official, or ordered.

    Students may suggest for document B: grand, happy, fancy, or religious.
    Teacher may add for document B: moral, philosophical, emotional, or universal.

  4. Distribute Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions and Handout C—In His Own Words: John Jay on Slavery.
  5. Have students read Handout C and complete the vocabulary and context questions on Handout B individually.
  6. Put up an overhead of Transparency Master A, divide the class into groups of three, and give each group a copy of Handout D—Analysis: Founding Documents.
  7. Have each group use Handout D to record Jay’s thesis, and analyze the ways Jay uses each document to support his position.
  8. Once students have finished, ask each group to decide which document they believe supports Jay’s argument most effectively.

Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.

Reconvene the class and conduct a large group discussion to answer the following questions: Why do students believe either document provides the stronger support? Or do both documents support it equally, but in different ways? Finally, how does each document support Jay’s argument?

Students who believe Article 1, Section 9 supports Jay’s argument may say it does so because the Constitution is the law of the land. To use the Constitution to support abolition is the strongest possible tactic. Other students may say, however, that since the Constitution does not use the word “slaves,” nor does it say anything specific about new states, that it is not a strong support for the position that Congress can outlaw slavery in the new states. Students who believe the Declaration of Independence is the stronger support for Jay’s argument may say that it is based on the concept of natural (or inalienable) rights. Slavery, they may say, is obviously in opposition to the concept of natural rights. Others may say, however, that at the time, slaves were considered property and not people. Therefore, they did not in fact have natural rights. Furthermore, as property, they were protected by the Constitution. The Constitutional support is a rational argument based on the law, while the Declaration of Independence support is a philosophical argument based on natural law.

Follow-Up Homework Options

John Jay wrote a letter to R. Lushington in 1785 in which he said, “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.” Ask students to write a two or three paragraph response to this quote.

Source: “What the Founders Said About Slavery.” George Mason University. <>.


  1. Have students research the roles and responsibilities of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and present their reports to the class using presentation software.
  2. John Jay returned from overseas in 1795 to learn he had been elected governor. He had neither desired nor sought this office. Ask students how modern politics would change if officials who had never campaigned were elected. How would it improve government? What would be the disadvantages?


Johnson, Herbert A. John Jay, 1745–1829. Albany: State American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, 1970.
Morris, Richard B. John Jay: The Making of a Revolutionary, 1745–1780. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
Morris, Richard B. Witnesses at the Creation: Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and the Constitution. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1985.
Stahr, Walter. John Jay: Founding Father. London: Hambledon & London, 2005.

“The American Revolution: John Jay.” <>.
Federalist Papers authored by John Jay.” Founding Fathers Home Page. <>.
“The Jay Court.” The Supreme Court Historical Society. <>.
“John Jay.” The Independence Hall Association. <>.
“The Papers of John Jay.” Columbia University Libraries. <>.

Selected Works

By John Jay

  • Address to the People of Great Britain (1774)
  • The Federalist Papers (with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton)(1787–1788)
  • Letter to Elias Boudinot (1819)

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