John Jay: An American Wilberforce?

On June 11, 1794 the London Times reported the arrival of the American envoy extraordinary aboard the Ohio at Falmouth in Cornwall. President Washington had dispatched the Honorable John Jay, Chief Justice of the United States, as his point man for mending increasingly strained relations between His Majesty's Britannic Empire and the young republic of the United States. Indeed many Americans justly feared that another Anglo-American war was imminent.

The geo-political backdrop to Mr. Jay's mission was the political ferment in France. A bloodbath ensued in Paris as revolutionaries killed counter-revolutionaries with sickening and efficient rapidity on Dr. Guillotine's scaffold of terror. Fifteen hundred people were tried and executed in Paris in the summer 1794. Some victims included the personal friends of Jay from his earlier foreign service on the Continental Congress' Paris Peace Commission. Additionally, the revolutionary government in France was waging an international war against the British Empire that would continue for eleven more years. Already tens of thousands of men had perished in sea and land battles. Britain itself faced internal threats from radicals hoping for an English sequel to the French Revolution. Prime Minister William Pitt's government had arrested and imprisoned some leading radicals, and Parliament approved a severe measure for suppressing political dissent by suspension of the right to petition for habeas corpus. International politics at the close of the 18th Century presented a clear and present danger to the safety, security, and sovereignty of the United States, and the new nation was desperate to avoid any unnecessary foreign entanglements that might lure it into another war.

With the arrival of the American delegation Mr. Pitt was eager to resolve tensions with Great Britain's former colonies in a way advantageous to the Mother Country and disadvantageous to the United States' former ally, France. Thus, the warmest hospitality and good temperament were extended to Jay and his staff which included his eldest son, Peter, and the painter, John Trumbull. Not only was Jay formally received by the minister William Wyndham Lord Grenville and officially presented to King George and Queen Charlotte, but he was often invited to dinner parties and entertainments of Great Britain's governing and social elites. In due time, Pitt, Lord Chancellor Loughborough, War Secretary Henry Dundas, Sir Edmund Burke, Jeremy Bentham, and William Wilberforce dined with Jay.

Wilberforce recorded the occasion of his meeting Jay in his diary with a provocative and telegraphic entry:

"Dined at Hampstead to meet Jay (the American envoy), his son, etc., --quite American – sensible. I fear there is little spirit of religion in America; something of French, tinctured with more than English simplicity of manners; very pleasing, well-informed men. American Abolition of Foreign Slave Trade." [1]

The meeting of Jay and Wilberforce at Hampstead would be the beginning of a friendship, correspondence, and collaborative relationship that would carry on for the following fifteen years.

This brief record of Wilberforce meeting Jay stokes the imagination with regard to the content of their first conversation. No doubt both men soon discovered how much they shared in similar background and outlook. In historical retrospect one can ponder a striking comparison of the background of each.

Both men were born as subjects of the Crown in the British Empire. Jay (b. 1745) was fourteen years senior to Wilberforce (b. 1759). Each hailed from seaport towns and was reared in wealthy merchant families. Jay was born in New York, a town of eleven thousand on the fringe of a global empire. Wilberforce was born in Yorkshire, England in the trade and shipping center of Hull, a town of fifteen thousand.

As children both men experienced personal loss and profound grief. Four of Jay's siblings were handicapped by physical or emotional afflictions, and a sister did not live to see adulthood. Wilberforce lost his father at age 8 and two of his sisters did not survive to adulthood. Perhaps a vibrant childhood Christian piety provided comfort and consolation to their grief. Jay was raised in an Anglican home characterized by evangelical conviction and Calvinist severity. Wilberforce was also raised in an Anglican home, though nominally so. His aunt and uncle, however, were devout Anglicans who exposed their darling nephew to evangelical faith while serving as his guardians for two years during a prolonged illness of young Wilberforce's mother.

Both Jay and Wilberforce were privileged to be accorded a good education by private tutors and college. Jay attended Kings College (today's Columbia University) and was graduated in 1764. Wilberforce entered St. John's College, Cambridge in the eventful year 1776.

Jay and Wilberforce entered politics while yet in their twenties. A "high-tide in the affairs of men" swept both of them into public office at an early age. Tea and taxes proved consequential for Jay's political career. In the aftermath of Boston's "Tea Party" in December, 1773, Parliament suspended civil government in the Massachusetts colony and instituted a naval blockade of Boston's port. In solidarity with the plight of the Bostonians, New Yorkers hosted their own tea party in April, 1774 by casting East India Company tea cargo into the harbor. The upshot of this protest was the formation of a New York committee of fifty-one persons appointed by the city to consider appropriate measures in response to Parliament's acts relative to Boston. Jay was elected to the committee at the age of twenty-nine years. From this committee he and four others were selected to represent New York at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in September, 1774.

Jay's politics, like his religious faith and social views, was conservative in temperament. He was a high Whig of the Burke variety from the very beginning. Principled, prudential, and polite the young Jay was not intimidated by Virginia's famed orator, Patrick Henry, in the Continental Congress assembled at the Carpenters Hall, Philadelphia. Historian Richard Ketchum relates Jay's debut into American politics:

The Virginia firebrand Patrick Henry broached the issue [of independence] at the outset, when he proposed that voting should be proportionate to population (slaves to be excluded). In an emotional outburst, he shouted, "Government is at an End. All Distinctions are thrown out. All America is thrown into one Mass." The presence of fleets and armies proved that "Government is dissolved," and that "We are in a State of Nature."

John Jay of New York rose immediately to disagree.... "I can't yet think that all Government is at an End. The Measure of Arbitrary Power is not full, and I think it must run over before we undertake to frame a new Constitution."[2]

Jay's high Whig conservatism won the day. The Congress chose the tempered and eloquent New York delegate to draft "An Address to the People of Great Britain," which was enthusiastically received and approved by the Congress. The address took a firm stance toward the Mother Country but with a conciliatory tone, even tacitly admitting that Boston radicals were in violation of the law in destroying East India Company tea. But Britain had over-reacted in suspending the colony's charter. The document's argument appealed to the English law and jurisprudence and the British people's inherent sense of equity. Jay's moderation had helped to forestall the impending war.[3]

Wilberforce was also drawn into politics by the issue of the American war for independence as it played out in the drama of British politics and Parliament. From the visitor's gallery of the House of Commons, young Wilberforce was captivated by the debate surrounding the war. With rapt attention he listened to Great Britain's mighty men of affairs including: Lord North, Charles Fox, and Burke. The oral arguments concerning the imposing issues of the day inspired Wilberforce to be a part of their company. It was in the gallery that Wilberforce made fast friends with Pitt. Pitt's vehement opposition to the war further influenced Wilberforce of the merits of extricating Britain from the conflict with its colonies. Both resolved to stand for election upon reaching the eligible age of twenty-one. Pitt was elected to represent Cambridge and Wilberforce to represent Hull in 1780. Lord Cornwallis' humiliating surrender at Yorktown, Virginia in October, 1781 brought significant political pressure on the North government to end the war, yet North was resolute to continue the conflict. Before the House of Commons in February, 1782 Wilberforce delivered an effective speech against Lord North's administration and its plans "to pursue the ruinous war in the former cruel, bloody, and impracticable manner."[4] Within weeks North's government was brought down by his resignation. Britain soon began peace negotiations culminating in the Treaty of Paris in 1783 with Jay as a principal negotiator. During this time, Benjamin Franklin, one of the American Peace Commissioners, warmly greeted Wilberforce as "a rising member of the English parliament, who had opposed the war with America."[5] Wilberforce's statesmanship had helped to bring an end to the unhappy war.

The American War of Independence was the catalyst for the rise of Jay and Wilberforce as eminent statesmen. By the occasion of their first meeting in 1794 Jay had already entered the pantheon of America's principal founders and was nearing the apex of his political career. To date his public service included being a Member of the New York Committee of Correspondence, 1774; Delegate to the Continental Congress, 1774-76; Member of the New York State Constitutional Convention and First Chief Justice of the State of New York, 1777; Delegate and elected President of the Continental Congress, 1778-79; Minister to Spain, 1779-82; Peace Commissioner, 1782-83; Secretary of Foreign Affairs, 1784-88; First Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789 – present; and concurrently Envoy Extraordinary to Great Britain. Additionally Jay substantially contributed to the ratification of the 1787 U.S. Constitution by his Federalist essays (in collaboration with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison) and his published "Address to the People of the State of New York" in 1788.

Wilberforce, though well advanced in his public life, was more than a decade away from the apex of his political career. Having undergone a "great change" in his life in the mid 1780s, Wilberforce experienced a profound religious reorientation for his personal and professional life's direction and purpose. Having contemplated holy orders in the Church of England, Wilberforce decided to remain in Parliament, through the spiritual counsel of former slave trader turned Anglican clergyman, John Newton. But now Wilberforce's politics were guided by evangelical conviction, and he resolved to dedicate his life to "two great objects:" the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.

Upon meeting Jay in 1794 Wilberforce had made great strides toward his life's tasks. Already Parliament had debated various bills for abolition of the slave trade on several occasions, and though consistently defeated, there were hopeful signs of growing public and parliamentary support of the cause. Regarding the reformation of manners, in the late 1780s Wilberforce spearheaded a cultural and social renewal movement to reinvigorate British civil society. The goal was to foster a healthy spiritual and moral climate through voluntary associations dedicated to moral suasion with the object of making "goodness fashionable." The catalyst in this campaign would be a Society for the Reformation of Manners governed by Great Britain's leading political, social, cultural, and religious figures. With the public endorsement of King George III by a royal "Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue" in 1787, Wilberforce launched the Society and set a major social reform movement in motion. Wilberforce's biographer, Kevin Belmonte, writes:

The society obtained many valuable acts of Parliament and was also a center from which many other useful plans proceeded. The voluntary societies that sprang up from 1780-1830 numbered in the hundreds. A partial list included groups dedicated to publishing and distributing Bibles, educating the blind, helping animals, treating ailing seamen, promoting vaccination, and easing the plight of the poor and those in debtor's prison.[6]

With this background information on Jay and Wilberforce what can be made of Wilberforce's diary entry describing Jay as "quite American – sensible"? In the period the word "sensible" often conveyed the idea of liveliness, perhaps even too alive. In this meaning of the word, "sensible" might be as appropriate a word to describe Wilberforce himself. Clearly with their similar background and common outlook on faith, morals, society, politics, and personal calling Jay was very much like Wilberforce.

Wilberforce also recorded in his diary that he "feared there is little spirit of religion in America; something of French, tinctured with more than English simplicity of manners." It is reasonable to conjecture that Wilberforce expressed this fear after an interview with Jay on the state of Christianity in America. Wilberforce's interest in the topic was more than academic. Not only had he personally experienced a spiritual awakening ten years prior to this meeting, but he had labored for the revival of what he termed "real Christianity" in his own country. In 1789 Wilberforce began a writing project that would culminate in the 1797 publication of his best-selling book A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity. In this work Wilberforce argued for the recovery of a vibrant evangelical Christian faith informed by the Bible and established Christian doctrine. He was especially critical of a nominal Christianity that was concerned little more than ethical matters. To Wilberforce this sub-Christian moral system was insufficient to weather the intellectual and political currents flowing from France. Wilberforce desired a spiritual and intellectual revival of the culture forming Christian faith that had positively influenced Great Britain's past. He earnestly believed that Great Britain's prosperity and posterity presently demanded real Christianity. With five years invested in his book manuscript at the time of meeting Jay, these religious, sociological, and political questions were no doubt on his mind with respect to America as well.

How might have Jay discussed the matter of American religion with Wilberforce? Clearly the philosophical ideas and political ideology emanating from France were a concern to all religious, social, and political conservatives in America at the time. Many Americans had imbibed deeply in the philosophical libations to an intoxicating effect. Deism, skepticism, and unbelief were on the rise. Britain also was a conduit for revolutionary radicalism in religion and politics. In 1794 the English Unitarian minister, political radical, and scientist, Joseph Priestly immigrated to Pennsylvania to escape popular harassment in England for his religious heresies and Jacobin politics. He was warmly welcomed in America by Thomas Jefferson and others sympathetic to the French Revolution. Jay, on the other hand, had no regard for the leveling doctrine of democracy and its religious illusions regarding human perfectibility and the inevitability of progress. To the contrary, his faith was informed by a biblical realism about the condition of human nature. Humankind was fallen and in need of supernatural grace and redemption.

As to the position that "the people always mean well," or in other words, that they always mean to say and do what they believe to be right and just, -- it may be popular, but it cannot be true. The word people ... applies to all individual inhabitants of a country....That portion of them who individually mean well never was, nor until the millennium will be, considerable."[7]

Too many in your state [Pennsylvania], as in this [New York], love pure democracy dearly. They seem not to consider that pure democracy, like pure rum, easily produces intoxication, and with it a thousand mad pranks and fooleries.[8]

French Revolution ideology was especially dangerous to American society coming on the heels of its own revolution. Just as the exigencies of revolution are always inclined to leveling, so war's effusion of blood is constrictive of religion. In the aftermath of the War of Independence American Christianity was at low ebb. The country was especially susceptible to European religious currents of revolutionary ideology.

Jay's own denomination was in very dire straights. By the conclusion of the War of Independence the Anglican Church in America had lost 131 of its 286 clergy to flight or exile. Parishes in the Northern states were especially hard hit. A church denomination so closely tied to the British Monarchy and its colonial policies was not very popular among patriots.[9] The Anglican Church by constitution was an "episcopal" church or one ruled by bishops. Parishes in America, however, had no bishop. In colonial days, Anglican parishes were under the ecclesiastical governing jurisdiction of the Bishop of London. With American independence, ties to the Mother Country and correspondingly, the mother church, were broken. A major problem for American Episcopalians was that they had no bishops, and therefore no constitution. Even with a few remaining clergymen they could not hope for future ordinations without bishops. Therefore, the task facing the devastated American church was the total re-formation and re-organization of their Protestant denomination. While serving as Foreign Secretary for the Confederation Congress, Jay also worked as an active volunteer layman in helping to reconstitute the former Church of England in America as the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.

Elected as one of two wardens on the vestry of Trinity Church in New York in 1785, Jay was not only active in local parish life including the superintendence of the construction of a new church building, but he was also selected as a lay delegate to a church convention in Philadelphia to discuss a new constitution for the Episcopal Church. In his capacity as the American Foreign Secretary he relayed a letter from the convention addressed to English bishops through the American minister to Great Britain, John Adams. The correspondence sought the Bishops' mind on their willingness to consecrate American bishops who had been nominated for office by the American church. Jay encouraged Adams to meet with the Archbishop of Canterbury on behalf of the interests of the Episcopal Church. English consecration of American bishops was eventually approved paving the way for a new constitution for the Episcopal Church. New York Episcopalians nominated Jay's pastor and close friend, the Reverend Samuel Provoost, for the office of Bishop. Provoost and the Reverend William White, Chaplain of the Continental Congress and Rector of Christ Church in Philadelphia, were consecrated Bishops in February, 1787 in England. By 1789 the Episcopal Church had three dioceses in Connecticut, New York, and Philadelphia and an American Book of Common Prayer. Jay's significant efforts had contributed to the re-birth of the oldest Protestant tradition in North America. Both Wilberforce and Jay were active in reformation of the Anglican Communion in Great Britain and the United States respectively.

Given Wilberforce's life work and his Herculean accomplishment in the abolition of the slave trade, perhaps the most intriguing record in Wilberforce's diary entry of the Jay meeting is: "American Abolition of Foreign Slave Trade."[10] Written as if making a mental note to himself, one wonders what Wilberforce had in mind subsequent to his conversation with Jay that evening. It is reasonable to conjecture that Wilberforce learned of Jay's own commitment to and work toward manumission. Additionally, Wilberforce may have envisaged future collaboration with the influential American statesman.

Jay was an early and leading advocate of manumission. Because his father, Peter Jay, was one of the largest slave owners in New York, Jay had first hand knowledge of the institution. Slaves on the family estate in Rye worked in the fields and in the household. Early in his political career and as a member of New York State's first constitutional convention Jay sought the abolition of slavery in 1777, a full decade prior to Wilberforce's initial efforts to restrict the trade in the British Empire. Jay's effort however, failed as he was overruled by the convention. Two years later, as President of the Continental Congress, Jay used his public office to thank Anthony Benezet, a Quaker activist, for some anti-slavery publications, and he assisted Hamilton and Henry Laurens with their proposal to offer slaves freedom in exchange for military service in the Continental Army.[11] The following year Jay praised a Pennsylvania law that gradually abolished slavery and commended it to his friend, Egbert Benson, as model legislation for the State of New York:

An excellent law might be made out of the Pennsylvania one for the gradual abolition of slavery. Till America comes into this measure her prayers to heaven for liberty will be impious. This is a strong expression but it is just. Were I in your legislature I would prepare a bill for the purpose with great care, and I would never cease moving it till it became law or I ceased to be a member. I believe God governs this world, and I believe it to be a maxim in His as in our court that those who ask for equity ought to do it.[12]

In December 1779, just 10 months prior to writing the above letter Jay was way-laid on the Caribbean island of Martinique while en route to Spain as the newly appointed American minister. During his stay on Martinique Jay was an eye witness to the evils of West Indian slavery. Even so, he purchased a 15 year-old boy, Benoit, to serve as a household servant in his mission. In 1784 Jay manumitted Benoit writing that "the children of men are by nature equally free, and cannot without injustice be either reduced to or held in slavery."[13] Further insight into Jay's slave-holding practice is revealed in his official correspondence with tax officials years later while serving as the Governor of New York:

I have three male and three female slaves – five of them are with me in this city [Albany]; and one of them is in the City of New York. I purchase slaves and manumit them at proper ages and when their faithful services shall have afforded a reasonable retribution.[14]

In 1785, while serving as the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Confederation Congress, Jay helped to form a voluntary association committed to manumission. Patterned after Pennsylvania's successful Society for the Abolition of Slavery, the Relief of Free Negroes, and Improving the Condition of the Colored Race, Jay, Hamilton, Philip Schuyler, and several other New York notables organized the New York Manumission Society. As its first president Jay was influential in successfully lobbying for legislation to introduce gradual abolition along the pattern of Pennsylvania's model. The bill, having passed both the Assembly and Senate, was ultimately vetoed because of an unacceptable amendment denying voting rights to freed slaves. Jay's hopeful political expectations were tempered by a realistic anthropology and resignation to Providence as evidenced in a letter to the Reverend Richard Price, a dissenting English clergyman and abolitionist:

That men may pray and fight for their own freedom and yet keep others in slavery is ...very inconsistent as well as unjust and impious. But the history of mankind is filled with instances of human improprieties. The wise and the good never form the majority of any large society and it seldom happens that their measures are uniformly adopted.... [All that wise and good men can do is] to persevere in doing their duty to their country and leave the consequences to him who made men only; neither elated by success, however great, nor discouraged by disappointments however frequent or mortifying.[15]

Jay and the Manumission Society were more successful with incremental legislative measures, such as securing a law to prohibit the importation of slaves for sale in New York in 1788 and another to make the manumission of slaves easier for owners. Efforts were also made to prohibit slave exportation from the state.

The Society also attempted to exert its influence nationally by urging the Philadelphia constitutional convention to ensure that the new constitution would prohibit importation of slaves. Political realities forestalled their hopes and the 1787 Constitution effectively tabled the issue of importation for twenty years. Article 1, Section 9, expressly limited Congress from prohibiting importation of slaves before 1808.

By the 1780s a fairly well developed trans-Atlantic cooperation for the abolition of the slave trade was emerging. Therefore, abolitionists in Britain were disappointed to learn of the failure of the American government to prohibit the trade. Social activist Granville Sharp, Chairman of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade and a colleague of Wilberforce, wrote to Jay and the leadership of the Manumission Society:

Remembering the declarations of the American Congress so frequently repeated during the Contention with Britain we could not but flatter ourselves that the late [constitutional] Convention would have produced more unequivocal proofs of a regard to consistency of Character than an absolute prohibition of the proposed federal government from complying with the acknowledged obligations of humanity and justice for the term of twenty-one years.[16]

Sharp and the British abolitionists had been hopeful that an American prohibition would have strengthened their own lobbying efforts in the British Parliament. Their opposition in Parliament had recently been arguing that "if the British Nation ... lay down the Trade, other Nations [presumably France, the United States, etc.] will take it up; & therefore that the situation of the Africans would not be improved, though England would sustain a considerable loss [of profits]."[17] Regretfully, America did not lead the world in prohibiting the slave trade.

The Manumission Society did develop non-legislative strategies for applying public, economic, and legal pressure on the slave trade. Newspapers were pressured not to advertise slave sales. Economic intimidation tactics were used at auction houses and shipping companies to discourage the trade. Pro bono legal assistance also was made available to slaves for filing lawsuits against owners and traders. The Society also founded New York's African Free School in 1787 as a long-range cultural transformation strategy for combating slavery in New York. A similar school in Philadelphia had helped to convince Franklin of the racial equality of the African American as he witnessed the scholastic successes of young learners.

In Jay's political philosophy education was the "soul of the Republic" and the best fortification against a pernicious alliance of "the weake [ignorant] and the wicked." Writing to Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia in March, 1785 to congratulate him on securing a charter for Dickinson College Jay penned:

[N]othing is to be left undone to afford all ranks of people the means of obtaining a proper degree of [education] at a cheap and easy rate. I wish to see all unjust and unnecessary discriminations everywhere abolished, and that the time may soon come when all our inhabitants of every colour and denomination shall be free and equal partners in our political liberty.[18]

Jay's high goal of education for all was reinforced with his leadership, professional prestige, and personal funding. He regularly contributed money to the school and helped in fund raising and fiduciary management. By 1834 the New York African Free School was incorporated into the New York school system. It had educated more than 2,000 free blacks and groomed the future leadership of African Americans in early republic of the United States.

Five years after meeting Wilberforce and while serving in his last public post as the Governor of New York, Jay signed legislation to emancipate slaves in the state. This official act was the closing chapter of twenty-two years of political activism for the abolition of slavery in New York. In 1799 "An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery" passed the legislature with only token opposition. The specifics of the law freed all children born to slave women after July 4, 1799, but not immediately. Males became free at age 28, and females at age 25. All enslaved blacks born prior to July 4 remained slaves for life, though the law reclassified them as "indentured servants."

In 1801 Jay was 55 years old and longing to retire from the affairs of state. Turning down President John Adam's nomination for a second turn as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Jay retreated to his farm in Bedford, New York. There he dedicated the remainder of his life to the obligations of domestic family life, religion, community, and citizenship. Wilberforce corresponded with Jay in his retirement to seek his counsel on and support of various reform efforts, but especially to facilitate trans-Atlantic cooperation in addressing slavery.

By 1808, the slave trade was prohibited in both the British Empire and in the United States. Legislative victories in Parliament and Congress had secured abolition of the slave trade in statutory law. The remaining task in regard to the practice of the slave trade was to enforce the law with British and American naval sea power. Writing to Jay in August of 1809 Wilberforce sought Jay's prestige and influence to lobby for an Anglo-American convention on anti-slave trade laws:

I heard with sincere pleasure the other day from an American acquaintance, that you were living in wealth and comfort, though retired from public life ...I am aware indeed that your Retirement may prevent your taking any part in public [affairs], in the case I am about to mention; your opinion, your good wishes, maybe useful to us.[19]

Wilberforce continues his letter by informing Jay of a new society that has been formed "for the purpose of promoting civilization and improvement in Africa." Its membership was impressive and included representatives from both Houses of Parliament, and the Duke of Gloucester served as its head. The pressing concern of the society was the inability for effective enforcement of the anti-slave trade laws. Wilberforce appealed for Jay's support in influencing the United States' full cooperation in enforcing its own law. He further suggests that "a convention could be made between our countries by which, the ships of war of each should be authorized and encouraged" to seize for forfeiture the ships employed in the unlawful trade. The letter closes with Wilberforce's recollection of their last meeting in England:

I cannot address you without having my way to the period when we were last together, through the long & interesting interval which lies between that [and] the present moment what events have since happened! What events may take place in the same number of years yet to come. How many whom we loved have gone in the last 13 years, how many will go in the next? How strongly we are admonished my dear Sir, to place our happiness on a firmer and more secure basis that it can enjoy in this world which never more than of late verified the character given of it by one of our greatest and best churchman, Hooker, that it is full (made up I think he says) of perturbations...."[20]

Wilberforce's international lobbying efforts were cast in the context of a long and enduring personal relationship and shared faith. Successes are in retrospect. In America Jay had helped to secure the abolition of slavery in New York, and Congress had outlawed the trade in 1808. British Parliament had done so in the previous year. There is good reason to assume that these significant accomplishments and others were in Wilberforce's mind. Losses were in retrospect as well, especially the personal losses of friends and loved ones. All this had happened in the course of 13 years. Wilberforce then anticipates the unknowable and possibly tumultuous future with confidence that his life and Jay's are secured on an eternal foundation. He ends his thought with a quote of the judicious divine, Richard Hooker, the 16th Century architect of Anglicanism, saying that life is made up of "perturbations." Frustration and often futility in our labors is the consequence of man's fallen condition in this temporal world. For both Wilberforce and Jay, there is no doubt that their own experience in statecraft confirmed this verity.

Jay responded to Wilberforce's letter about three months later and affirmed the desirability of an Anglo-American convention agreeing to help. Having retired from public office and with the opposition party in power, Jay wrote, "I can do but little – that little shall be done." In closing his letter he responded to Wilberforce's reflections on the lessons of life:

The observation you cite from Hooker is very just, and so are your remarks on this turbulent & transitory scene. To see things as they are – to estimate them aright and to act accordingly, is to be wise – but you know my dear sir that most men, in order to become wise, have much to unlearn as well as to learn – much to undo as well as to do. The Israelites had little comfort in Egypt, and yet they were not very anxious to go to the promised land. Figuratively speaking we are all at this Day in Egypt, and a Prince worse than Pharaoh reigns in it, although the Prophet "like unto Moses" offers to deliver from Bondage, and invites us to prepare and be ready to go with him, under divine guidance and Protection, to the promised land; yet great is the number who prefer remaining in slavery, and dying in Egypt."[21]

Jay's adoption of Israel's history as an enslaved people to illustrate the human condition as spiritually enslaved and in need of deliverance could not have been lost on the English abolitionist.

During his years in retirement Jay was very reticent to publicly express his opinions or views on many political issues of the day. He led a quiet self-imposed retreat from the affairs of New York and the nation. However, there was one exception to his customary practice of political silence. In the fall of 1819 an aggressive public campaign was launched by anti-slavery advocates to prevent Missouri's admission to the union as a slave state. Both principle and politics were at stake as Missouri's incorporation into the union would upset the parity of power in the U.S. Senate. New Jersey's Elias Boudinot, a signer of the Declaration and former colleague of Jay in the Continental Congress, distributed a circular letter of New Jersey anti-slavery activists which argued that permission of slavery in new states perpetuates the institution. The letter solicited public support and organized cooperation for preventing the introduction of slavery in Missouri and all future states to be admitted to the union. Jay responded:

I concur in the opinion that it ought not to be introduced nor permitted in any of the new states; and that [it] ought to be gradually diminished and finally abolished in all of them. To me the constitutional authority of the Congress to prohibit the migration and importation of slaves into any of the states does not appear questionable.[22]

According to Jay the national government had the constitutional authority and power to proscribe slavery in new states. He fueled further controversy in public debate surrounding the question with additional comments that slavery was in "discordancey with the Principles of the Revolution." He even suggested that the framers of the 1787 Constitution were conscious of the fact that slavery was "repugnant" to the Declaration of Independence's proposition that "all men are created equal."[23] His letter to Boudinot was published widely in many newspapers inciting more controversy. The incendiary debate was eventually diffused by the Missouri Compromise in 1820. This measure allowed Missouri to be admitted to the union as a slave state along side of Maine as a free state. An additional provision prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Territory in any future states north of the thirty-sixth parallel.[24]

In addition to Jay's continuing efforts at suppression of slavery while in retirement, he also remained involved in various activities that directly supported and fostered the advancement of the Christian faith. In 1815 Jay became president of the West Chester Bible Society. He also supported the American Tract Society for the distribution of Christian literature and the Sunday School Union for its inter-denominational outreach for Christian education. In early retirement Jay contributed funds to build St. Matthews Episcopal Church for want of a worship facility in his community of Bedford.

The most prominent and well known of his Christian and charitable activities was his involvement as an organizing officer and later president of the American Bible Society. The Society was patterned after the British and Foreign Bible Society, another organization with which Wilberforce was involved. Jay's son, William, an alumnus of Yale College under the leadership and tutelage of evangelical Timothy Dwight, was a principal architect of the Society and recruited his father's involvement. Upon the death of its first president, Boudinot, Jay agreed to take leadership of the Society in 1821. His major responsibility as president was to deliver the Society's annual address. These speeches were more like sermons and provide insight into the faith and religious commitments of Jay.

In his first address to the Society Jay surveyed the scope of salvation history as recorded in the Bible. Having done so, he then turned his remarks to contemporary commentary on world affairs in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. He was particularly concerned about efforts to propagate the knowledge of the Gospel amid the devastations and desolations inflicted upon Europe by the Wars. Jay hailed the achievement of British Christians as inspiration in leading the pathway to world evangelization:

The people of Great Britain formed, and nobly supported their memorable Bible Society. Their example has been followed not only by the people of this country, but by [other nations].... At no former period have the people of Europe and America instituted so many associations for diffusing and impressing the knowledge and influence of the Gospel, and for various other charitable and generous purposes, as since the beginning of the present century.[25]

Jay then excoriated the slave trade as having hindered the advancement of the Gospel in Africa. Britain and the United States had removed the trade as a scandal of the Christian religion and stumbling block to the Gospel. He then singled out the Great Britain's Parliament and especially William Wilberforce as examples of inspiration to the watching world:

Throughout many generations ... professing Christians, who, under the countenance and authority of their respective governments, treated the heathen inhabitants of certain countries in Africa as articles of commerce; taking and transporting them like beasts of burden, to distant regions to be sold, and to toil and die in slavery. During the continuance of such a traffic, with what consistence, grace, or prospect of success, could such Christians send missionaries to present the Bible, or preach the Christian doctrines of brotherly kindness and charity to the people or those countries? So far as respects Great Britain and the United States, that obstacle has been removed.... It will be recollected that many influential individuals deeply interested in the slave-trade, together with others who believed its continuance to be indispensable to the prosperity of the British West India Islands, made strenuous opposition to its abolition, even in the British parliament. Delays were caused by it, but considerations of a higher class than those which excited the opposition finally prevailed, and the parliament abolished that detestable trade. Well-merited honor was thereby reflected on the Legislature; and particularly on that excellent and celebrated member of it, whose pious zeal and unwearied perseverance were greatly and conspicuously instrumental to the removal of that obstacle. Their example, doubtless, has weighed with those other nations who are in a similar predicament, and must tend to encourage them to proceed and act in like manner....[26]

Inspired by these examples and conscious of the opportunities that their labors have made for the distribution of Scriptures and the knowledge of the Gospel, Jay concludes his speech by directing the Society to the task at hand:

Let us therefore persevere steadfastly in distributing the Scriptures far and near, and without note or comment.... They comprise the inestimable writings by which the inspired apostles, who were commanded to preach the Gospel to all people, have transmitted it, through many ages, down to our days. The Apostles were opposed in preaching the Gospel, but nevertheless persisted. We are opposed in dispensing the Scriptures which convey the knowledge of it; let us follow their example."[27]

In 1829 Jay was laid to rest in the family cemetery at his ancestral home in Rye. His work for the cause of emancipation was left unfinished. Just as Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us that "Nothing worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime," so Jay's religiously motivated work would be carried on by his children and theirs. Jay's son, William, and his grandson, John Jay II, became prominent abolitionists. His namesake was an active leader of the Free Soil Party and later organizer of the Republican Party. Wilberforce died four years later in 1833 in the satisfaction that he had lived to see the emancipation of slavery in the British Empire. His labors for the reformation of manners would also be carried on by his children, three of whom became Anglican clergymen, including the future bishop of York.

Was John Jay an American Wilberforce? To the extent the America ever had a Wilberforce John Jay should be considered as a possible candidate. Today there is a growing scholarly and popular interest in the life and work of William Wilberforce. Charles Colson's Wilberforce Forum, Kevin Belmonte's fine biography, Hero of Humanity (NavPress, 2002), Walden Media's current Hollywood film project, Amazing Grace, and most recently the newly launched Wilberforce Center for Colorado Statesmanship are prima facie evidence of a growing and welcomed interest in the story of the amazing British Christian and statesman.

Revived American interest in Wilberforce is especially prevalent among evangelical Protestants and has largely paralleled a reemergence of religious social conservatives in the public square within the last quarter century. These two developments are not unrelated. What Wilberforce's story provides for evangelical Protestants who are engaged in the political area is a heritage of social action and reform and a compelling success story. For a contemporary religious movement that is largely uninformed by history and its own tradition and continuity with the past, Wilberforce's life and story is very important. It provides meaning, sanction, inspiration, heritage, and hope to Christians who are readily challenged and sometimes doubtful about the legitimacy, value, and prospect of effecting religious, cultural, and political renewal in American society. Indeed Wilberforce's story is a great chapter in the history of the Church as it has struggled with what H. Richard Niebuhr called the "enduring problem" – how to be in the world but not of the world.

There are other stories to do the same. More importantly there are stories of American Christian statesmen for which people of faith may find meaning, sanction, inspiration, heritage, and hope. The American founding presents us with several evangelical Protestants of interest: Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, Roger Sherman, Elias Boudinot, Patrick Henry, and John Jay. As subjects of religious and intellectual biography, John Jay stands out among these men as the most religious, social, and political conservative of the principal founders. The parallels of his life story including: family, faith, political service, and social activism are especially intriguing when compared to William Wilberforce. The fact they knew each other and collaborated on mutual causes of interest is especially provocative. Perhaps the question is not whether John Jay was America's Wilberforce, but rather, was Wilberforce England's John Jay?

Alan R. Crippen II is president of the John Jay Institute for Faith, Society and Law in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Institute is a para-academic center dedicated to preparing Christians for principled leadership in public life.

Copyright © Alan R. Crippen II 2005. The moral rights on the above text have been asserted.


[1] Robert Isaac and Samuel Wilberforce, Life of William Wilberforce (London: John Murray, 1838), Volume II, p. 57.

[2] Richard M. Ketchum, Divided Loyalties: How the American Revolution Came to New York (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2002), pp. 288-89

[3] Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904), Volume I. 1774, pp. 82-89.

[4] The Parliamentary History of England from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803 (London: Hansard, 1814, 1817), xxii, col. 1042.

[5] Life of William Wilberforce, i. 41.

[6] Kevin Belmonte, Hero for Humanity: A Biography of William Wilberforce (Colorado Springs, Col.: Navpress, 2002), pp. 158-59.

[7] Letter to Richard Peters, March 14, 1815, The John Jay Papers Project, Hereafter cited as: JJPP.

[8] Letter to Richard Peters, July 24, 1809, JJPP.

[9] Allen C. Guelzo, For the Union of All Christendom: The Irony of the Reformed Episcopalians (Penn State University Press, 1994), p.25.

[10] The British used the word "abolition" to refer to the ending of slave trade. Later American usage of the word refers to the ending of slavery itself. John Jay's use of the word differs significantly from that of William Lloyd Garrison and the later abolitionists. Jay supported manumission – a deliberate and steady approach to ending the institution of slavery. Cf. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves by Adam Hochchild (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

[11] Walter Stahr, John Jay (New York and London: Hambledon and London, 2005), p. 94.

[12] Letter to Egbert Benson, September 18, 1780, JJPP.

[13] John Jay. pp. 126, 192-93.

[14] Property inventory submitted by John Jay for tax assessment, November 8, 1798, JJPP.

[15] Letter to the Reverend Richard Price, September 27, 1785, JJPP.

[16] Letter to the New York Manumission Society from Granville Sharp, May 1, 1788, JJPP.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, March 24, 1785, JJPP.

[19] Letter to John Jay from William Wilberforce, August 1, 1809, JJPP.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Letter to William Wilberforce, November 8, 1809, JJPP.

[22] Letter to Elias Boudinot, November 17, 1819, JJPP.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Stahr, p. 373.

[25] Norman Cousins, "In God We Trust" The Religious Beliefs of the American Founding Fathers (New York:Harper Brothers, 1958), p. 375.

[26] Ibid. p. 375-76.

[27] Ibid. p. 376.

The direction of my life has been significantly shaped by my time at the Institute."
Kiley Humphries
B.A. The King's College