In December of 1800, as his presidency concluded and he became desperate for the Federalists to maintain power, John Adams nominated John Jay for a second term as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Days later, Jay unequivocally rejected the job. “I left the bench,” he responded, “perfectly convinced that under a system so defective, it would not obtain the energy, weight, and Dignity which are essential to its affording due support to the national government, nor acquire the public confidence and respect, which, as the last resort of the justice of the nation, it should possess.” Adams then nominated John Marshall to the position, and, as the saying goes, the rest was history. For nearly forty years, Marshall revolutionized the Court’s power, most notably establishing the principle of judicial review in Marbury v. Madison. Marshall’s success raises important questions about the earliest years of the court, namely: why did Jay consider the system so defective? What problems did he encounter in his first tenure as Chief Justice—from 1789 to 1794—that led him to reject a return to the court in 1801?
My Honors Thesis in History, "Bringing 'Justice to Every Man’s Door': John Jay’s Struggle to Build the Supreme Court," seeks to answer these questions through a close reading of recently published Jay papers from his tenure on the court. In Chapter One, I argue that during the 1770s and 1780s, Jay articulated and worked to implement a vision of American union as robust as anyone from the period. That vision of government was an outgrowth of his years of varied public service, and it, in turn, had a significant influence on his conception of the judiciary as a tool to strengthen federal union. Yet once he joined the High Court, Jay struggled against both logistical and political barriers as he tried to implement that vision. In Chapter Two, I explore Jay’s time “riding the circuit” and presiding over circuit courts, examining his travel diaries, his correspondence, and newspaper coverage about his journeys to see how the burden of travel shaped his experience on the court. Finally, in Chapter Three, I consider how the public’s response to Jay’s ruling in the landmark case Chisholm v. Georgia shattered his hopes of achieving an auxiliary, rather than adversarial, understanding of federalism.
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