How Did John Jay Interpret the Constitution?

John Jay served as the first chief justice of the Supreme Court.
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Although John Jay did not attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he did play a critical role in the Constitution's passage. Most importantly, Jay was one of the authors of "The Federalists Papers," a series of essays that advocated for the Constitution. Later, Jay served as the chief justice of the Supreme Court, where he shed further light on his interpretation of the Constitution as supporting a strong central government.

1 Federalist Papers No. 2 Through No. 5

John Jay only published five articles in "The Federalist Papers," and his first four dealt exclusively with foreign affairs. Addressing the people of New York in favor of ratification of the Constitution, Jay argued about the ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation in an essay titled "Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence." Jay pointed to how the Articles of Confederation allowed the national Congress to declare war but did not authorize the drafting of soldiers or the collection of tax revenue. In this criticism of the Articles, Jay hinted at his belief that the new Constitution should provide a stronger central government. Jay thought a more united country without state-by-state loyalties and a stronger central government could better defend itself from foreign aggression. He thought the new Constitution rightfully limited states' authority.

2 Federalist Paper No. 64

In Federalist No. 64, Jay continued to elaborate on the Constitution's guidance on foreign affairs, this time concerning treaties. Unlike other Founding Fathers, Jay interpreted the Constitution as giving more power to the president in the passage of treaties. While the "advise and consent" clause was typically understood to give the Senate power to oversee treaty enactment, Jay interpreted the clause to give the president the right to decide when he wanted to seek "advise and consent" from the body. In this regard, Jay shed light on his belief that the Senate represented parochial state issues and was less capable in foreign affairs than the president. This is consistent with Jay's belief that the Constitution created a strong central government that was supreme to state interests.

3 Supreme Court: Chisholm v. Georgia

George Washington appointed Jay to be the chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1789. In this position, Jay decided the controversial Chisholm v. Georgia case, where he further elaborated on his belief in limiting state's rights. In a 1793 case, a South Carolina man named Alexander Chisholm sued the state of Georgia for merchandise the state purchased but did not pay for. Georgia, however, replied that federal courts had no authority over the state. John Jay and his fellow justices determined, however, that the state of Georgia was an "artificial being," and that interstate conflicts were subject to federal authority. Jay's use of the term "artificial being" scared states' rights proponents, and it prompted the passage of the 11th Amendment to the Constitution, which strengthened states' rights. Without that amendment, however, Jay interpreted the Constitution in an unusually nationalist and centralizing way where states were far inferior to the federal government.

4 Supreme Court's Role

Though Jay was an ardent nationalist who supported a strong central government, his position as chief justice did not imply that he supported a strong Supreme Court. Unlike his successor John Marshall, Jay did not intervene in judging the constitutionality of federal law. Jay believed the Constitution did not give the court the "energy, weight and dignity" it needed to have a large presence in national affairs. On the contrary, he thought its role was merely to decide who was legally correct in a contest between two litigants.

Kevin Wandrei has written extensively on higher education. His work has been published with Kaplan,, and Shmoop, Inc., among others. He is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration at Cornell University.