John Jay was the first Chief Justice of the United States. Appointed at a time when the Supreme Court played a far more diminished role than it does today — the Court heard only four cases during Jay’s six years on the bench — Jay took a break from his judicial duties to serve as President Washington’s envoy to negotiate a trade agreement with Great Britain.
It’s difficult to exaggerate the divisiveness of the Jay Treaty. As Ron Chernow details in the book that inspired the musical Hamilton, this treaty formed one of the sharpest dividing lines between Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans. To Jefferson’s faction, “the Jay Treaty represented, its rawest form, a Federalist capitulation to British hegemony and a betrayal of the historic alliance with France.”
Graffiti appeared in Boston proclaiming “Damn John Jay! Damn everyone who won’t damn John Jay!! Damn everyone that won’t put lights in his windows and sit up all night damning John Jay!!!” Jay himself once quipped that he could travel at night from Boston to Philadelphia guided only by the light of his burning effigies.
It’s as if Justice Ginsburg had spent the Court’s summer recess drafting and personally lobbying for Obamacare, taking a break only to negotiate an open borders agreement with Mexico. The first Chief Justice of the United States was the central figure in one of the most contested issues in the nation’s early history — an issue so divisive that it played a significant role in the creation of coherent political parties in the United States.