John Jay was quiet and undemonstrative in speech, cultivating a fine reserve. In debate he never fired all his guns, and his best battles were won with the powder that was never exploded. “You had always better keep a small balance to your credit,” he once advised a young attorney.
When the first Congress met, Jay was not in favor of complete independence from England. He asked only for simple justice, and said, “The middle course is best.” He listened to John Adams and Patrick Henry and quietly discussed the matter with Samuel Adams; but it was some time before he saw that the density of King George was hopeless, and that the work of complete separation was being forced upon the Colonies by the blindness and stupidity of the British Parliament.
He then accepted the issue.
During those first days of the Revolution, New York did not stand firm, as did Boston, for the cause of independence. “The foes at home are the only ones I really fear,” once wrote Hamilton.
First to pacify and placate, then to win and hold those worse than neutrals, was the work of John Jay. While Washington was in the field, Jay, with tireless pen, upheld the cause, and by his speech and presence kept anarchy at bay.
As president of the Committee of Safety he showed he could do something more than talk and write. When Tories refused to take the oath of allegiance he quietly wrote the order to imprison or banish; and with friend, foe or kinsman there was neither dalliance nor turning aside. His heart was in the cause—his property, his life. The time for argument had passed.
In the gloom that followed the defeat of Washington at Brooklyn, Jay issued an address to the people that is a classic in its fine, stern spirit of hope and strength. Congress had the address reprinted and sent broadcast, and also translated and printed in German.
His work divides itself by a strange coincidence into three equal parts. Twenty-eight years were passed in youth and education; twenty-eight years in continuous public work; and twenty-eight years in retirement and rest.
As one of that immortal ten, mentioned by a great English statesman, who gave order, dignity, stability and direction to the cause of American Independence, the name of John Jay is secure.
I avow my adherence to the Union, with my friends, with my party, with my State; or without either, as they may determine; in every event of peace or war, with every consequence of honor or dishonor, of life or death. —Speech in the United States Senate, 1860
[Illustration: William H. Seward]