A Federal Christmas at the John Jay Homestead

When the chill north winds of autumn begin to swirl over the forests and fields, farms and towns of northern Westchester County in New York State, families of today begin to pull covers tighter to their chins, await the first snowfall, and look forward to the holidays. The Jays of Bedford in the early nineteenth century did likewise.

When Founding Father John Jay decided to retire in 1801, he built as the primary residence for his family a "modest mansion" on his Bedford estate some fifteen miles northeast of the bustling Hudson River town of Sing Sing, now called Ossining. A two-and-a-half-story house with a gambrel roof and set-back wings on either side, it incorporated elements of both Georgian and Federal architecture and was comfortable but not ostentatious. Jay looked forward to solitude and the pleasures of family and farm after a distinguished career in law and politics.

Jay's wife, Sarah, known as Sally, whose father had been governor of New Jersey, also longed for her husband's retirement. In a letter to him in 1799 she wrote, "Indeed my love, I more than ever wish for the time that will put a period to your public cares & permit the indulgence of retirement, rural quiet, &c." While their retirement home was being readied, Sally and daughter Ann made a brief visit about which she wrote her husband.

The joyous gatherings that Mrs. Jay anticipated did take place in the years the family lived in the "Bedford house," as it was known, but they were tinged with sadness at first, for Mrs. Jay died in 1802, less than a year after the family, including the three youngest of the five Jay children, took up residence. Ann, then 19 years old, took on the considerable responsibility of managing the household and caring for her father and younger siblings: William, 13, and Sarah Louisa, 10. Ann remained in her father's home until his death in 1829.

Father and daughter worked together to run the household. With the approach of winter, Jay's concern was to lay in supplies for the months ahead. In a letter to his daughter Maria, living in New York City, he wrote, "We are, thank god, prepared for winter having plenty of both food and fuel." Though he purchased a wide variety of goods from city shops and markets, John Jay depended on his own orchards, gardens, fields, and mills to provide the necessary staples for the kitchen larder. For firewood, logs were culled from his extensive wood lots in the area.

As the December holidays neared, activities at the Homestead increased in expectation of visits from family and friends. It fell to Ann to marshal the talents and considerable effort necessary to make visitors comfortable and to feed and entertain them in style. Fruits, flowers, and greens were used to decorate the house. In this endeavor grandson John assisted, as a letter to an aunt attests. "A day or two before Christmas I took a walk to Spruce Brook . . . to get Evergreens to dress the parlor." Silver was polished and the best china brought out. Menus were planned to include sumptuous meals, elegant desserts, and special holiday treats. John Jay's ledgers and account books show numerous entries for lobsters, turkeys, meats, fish, cheese, spices, sugars, coffee, tea, and cocoa. Monthly transfers of cash to Ann's household accounts are also indicated, although Ann's own accounts, which may have shown details of personal expenditures, perhaps for finery, do not survive.

The house was frequently filled with the laughter of grandchildren, both resident and visiting. Although John enjoyed the little ones, it was necessary from time to time to escape the din. On these occasions the library served as a refuge. Here men gathered before a roaring fire, pipes in hand, to discuss the latest harvest, new farming innovations, land prices, and politics. Here was also the place for cards, chess, ribald stories that could not be shared with the ladies, and the punch bowl containing a salubrious concoction of spirits, spices, sugar, and fruits. Jay's ledgers record yearly purchases of wines and spirits in good quantities to last through the long winter months.

Family letters show that the ladies would enjoy afternoon teas, sleigh rides, formal dinner parties, and evening frolics, all providing cheerful interludes during the cold, snowy winters.

The Indispensable Mr. Jay

The illustrious and very public political career of John Jay contrasts sharply with the private life he enjoyed in retirement. Of French Huguenot and Dutch ancestry, Jay was born in New York City in 1745 and grew up on his father's farm in Rye, New York. Privately schooled, he entered Kings College (now Columbia University) at 14. After graduation he prepared for a law career in the time-honored colonial way: clerking for an established lawyer and studying on the side. Admitted to the bar in 1768, he opened a law office in New York City with his friend Robert R. Livingston. Their practice prospered.

A contemporary described Jay as "remarkable for strong reasoning powers, comprehensive views and indefatigable application, and uncommon firmness of mind." His chief biographer, Frank Monaghan, characterizes him as spirited, principled, moral, self-reliant, and self-controlled, a man with a strong religious faith, a sense of humor, and a cheerful outlook.

In 1774, John Jay married Sarah Van Brugh Livingston, whose father was the governor of New Jersey and a staunch patriot. With the advent of war with Britain, Jay's political obligations required him to spend much time away from home. Although separated, the newlyweds wrote to each other often. Jay's letters are full of tenderness, devotion, and pain at their separation.

During the war years (1775-83), Jay served his state and nation in many important capacities: delegate to the Continental Congress, member of the convention to draft the New York State Constitution, Chief Justice of New York State, and President of the Second Continental Congress. In 1779 he was sent to Spain as Minister Plenipotentiary, with the mission of persuading the Spanish government to give money and political support to the struggling new nation. Mrs. Jay accompanied her husband, but their young son, Peter, was left with his maternal grandparents. The two years the Jays spent in Spain were fruitless politically and tragic personally when their first daughter, born in Madrid, survived only four weeks.

After the defeat of the British at Yorktown in 1782, Jay was called to Paris by Benjamin Franklin to assist in negotiating the peace. Determined to seek terms he believed to be in the best interests of the new nation, Jay ignored instructions from Congress to claim land to the Appalachian Mountains and took it upon himself to negotiate--successfully--for the territory all the way to the Mississippi River.

She eased into the social whirl surrounding the royal court and was a much sought-after guest. Returning to the United States in 1783, the Jays built a three-story stone residence at No. 8 Broadway in New York City, where Sally's dinner parties became justly famous.

Jay, for his part, found the responsibilities of Secretary for Foreign Affairs burdensome and frustrating. A confirmed Federalist, he was convinced that the country needed a strong central government in order to survive. For this reason he was kept from attending the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia by New York's anti-Federalist governor, George Clin-ton, who sought to diffuse efforts to establish a stronger government. When a new constitution was drawn up, Jay campaigned for its adoption in New York State by authoring, along with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, a number of newspaper articles explaining its merits. Collectively these became known as The Federalist Papers.

With the Constitu-tion ratified and a new government sworn in, President Washington offered his long-time friend John Jay the position of his choice. Jay chose to become the nation's first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. As Chief Justice he established institutional precedents that endure to this day; he also secured public respect for the new federal judiciary and played a significant role in persuading the states to accept the authority of both the federal government and the power of treaties.

"There is a serious determination to send me to England, if possible to avert war," wrote Jay in 1793. John Jay did go to London in the hope of securing a treaty that would stabilize the rapidly deteriorating relations between the two nations. He was successful, but because the terms of the treaty that bears his name seemed to favor the British, it was not well received in the United States. Indeed, effigies of Jay were hanged and burned in New York City. Clearly, however, the Jay Treaty did safeguard the infant nation from war until a time when it was better able to defend itself.

During the ruckus surrounding the treaty, John Jay quietly resigned the position of Chief Justice and took office as the newly elected governor of New York. He served two three-year terms. During the latter terms, to his intense satisfaction, Jay was finally able to enact a bill for the gradual abolition of slavery in New York. As his second term was nearing its end he declined an offer from President John Adams to be reappointed Chief Justice and instead made plans for his retirement from public life to his farm in Bedford. There, after the death of his beloved wife, "conversation, books, and recollections" sustained him until his own death in 1829 at the age of eighty-three.


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