A Look Back on Founding Father John Jay’s Relationship With Slavery

John Jay by Gilbert Stuart 1818

How could John Jay and his fellow Founding Fathers fight against slavery while owning slaves themselves?

The history of the United States is inseparable from the history of slavery. That history began in earnest in the northern colonies, making slavery one of the larger inconvenient truths about life in colonial and antebellum America, including here in the Hudson Valley.

Slaves were brought into New Amsterdam as early as 1626, just 10 years after its settlement. As the patroons stole the land from the indigenous tribes up and down the river valley, every one of them had slaves working their lands and serving their homesteads. The British, who took over in 1664, only increased the slave trade. According to the Scarsdale Historical Society, New York had more slaves than any other northern colony, with more than 7,000 slaves imported into New York between 1700 and 1774. They labored for both city and country landowners, among them the most prominent names in the American story, such as the family of John Jay.

John Jay by Gilbert Stuart 1818
John Jay by Gilbert Stuart 1818

Although Jay, and many like him, were deeply opposed to slavery and worked tirelessly to end it by the time the late 1700s rolled around, they also failed to walk their own talk. Jay argued for abolition in the new state of New York as early as 1777 but did not end slavery in his own household (he grew up in Rye, at 210 Boston Post Road, and lived there for a portion of his adult life, before retiring to 400 Jay Street in Katonah) for another four decades.

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People being who they are, doing the wrong thing should never be shocking. Even a young Saint Augustine struggled with doing the right thing, asking his Lord to “give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Still, how can we understand the concept of men like Jay, who held one belief but lived another? By climbing through seven generational branches of his family tree, says Barry Abisch, a retired journalist, self-described amateur historian, and 14-year volunteer at the John Jay Homestead in Katonah. The Jays, he says, were “active participants in an evolving story.”

The story begins in 1659, with Margaret Hardenbroeck (c.1630-91), John Jay’s maternal great-grandmother. She was born in the Netherlands and came to the New World to work in her cousin’s shipping business. The Dutch allowed women more freedoms than most European cultures, and in time she became a businesswoman — a “she-merchant,” as she called herself — who owned a fleet of trading ships.

She married Peter DeVries in 1659, and they had two children, including Jay’s grandmother, Maria, born in 1660. When DeVries died a year later, she inherited his considerable wealth. In 1662, she married Frederick Philipse, another prominent businessman; he adopted Maria and changed her name to Eva. The new family grew ever wealthier through the trade of furs, tobacco, timber, imported linens, and other goods. Hardenbroeck, though, wanted more. She sailed to Amsterdam in 1664, took on a supply of slave shackles and went to Angola, where she bought 146 Africans, 32 of whom died en route to America. She sold all but nine of the slaves in Barbados and brought the rest to Philipse Manor. When Hardenbroeck died, in 1691, she was the wealthiest woman in the colony and Philipse the wealthiest man. He had no qualms about the secret to his fortune: “It is by negroes that I finde my chievest Proffit. All other trade I only look upon as by the by,” he wrote in a 1695 letter.

In 1691, Eva Philipse married Jacobus Van Cortlandt (1658-1739). He, too, owned lots of land, along with six slaves. Their daughter Mary married Peter Jay, whom you will meet next.

Jay’s grandfather, Auguste Jay (1665-1751), a refugee protestant Huguenot, came to New York City in 1686. He changed his name to Augustus and became a merchant, trading, among other goods, slaves. Abisch cited data showing that Augustus’ ships carried 108 slaves on 11 trips, between 1717 and 1740, from the Caribbean to New York. Augustus’ son Peter Jay (1704-1782) — John Jay’s father — became one of largest slaveholders in the area. The 1755 Census, Abisch found, listed nine slaves on his farm in Rye; only one person in all of Westchester County owned more.

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By the time John Jay was born, in 1745, three previous generations on both sides of his family had been slave owners and traders. The three subsequent generations were committed abolitionists and activists. He was both at once. “As far as we know, he never attempted to explain the disconnect. But neither did he ever try to defend slavery,” Abisch says.

Abisch contends that Jay did not share the view of many Southern slaveholders that Black Africans were somehow less than human. He notes a passage in a letter Jay wrote to his son, Peter Augustus Jay, in 1791: “Providence has placed these persons in stations below us. They are servants, but they are men; and kindness to inferiors more strongly indicates magnanimity than meanness.”

That humanity “makes it even more difficult to understand Jay’s willingness to participate in an institution he opposed,” Abisch says. Jay was far from alone in that conflict, however. “We can speculate that he may have thought along the lines expressed by Patrick Henry,” Abisch says, who once wrote: “Would anyone believe that I am master of slaves by my own purchase? I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them. I will not – I cannot justify it, however culpable my conduct.” The wealthy landowners needed slaves to maintain their lifestyles, while at the same time found slavery dishonorable. “I think that’s where John Jay was,” Abisch says.

Jay advocated manumission, which allowed slave owners to free their slaves on their own terms, a slower process than abolition. Jay was a founding member of the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves (along with Alexander Hamilton; see sidebar) and its first president. Manumission gave slave owners time to earn a return on their investment, and Jay, who owned as many as six slaves at one time, was a capitalist. “I purchase slaves and manumit them at proper ages and when their faithful services shall have afforded a reasonable retribution,” Jay admitted.

But Jay also championed abolition… sort of. He called for it in 1777, “not immediately but gradually,” Abisch says, during the writing of the constitution for the new state of New York. After serving as the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, Jay was elected governor in 1795. Four years later, he signed the state’s first abolition law, titled “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.” This half-backed measure stated that from July 4 of that year, any child born to slave parents would be free. However, these same children were still required to serve the mother’s owner until males reached age 28 and females 25. “The law thus defined the children of slaves as a type of indentured servant while slating them for eventual freedom,” according to an article on the Selected Papers of John Jay website, at Columbia University. It wasn’t until 1827 that male slaves were freed.

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Though he opposed bondage, Jay grievously misunderstood it. When his wife, Sally Jay, traveled to Europe, she took with her a slave named Abigail. While in Paris, Abigail ran away. She was captured and jailed. Sally Jay arranged for her release, but Abigail became ill and died. Jay was stunned. “I cannot conceive a motive,” he wrote in a 1783 letter. “I had promised to manumit her upon our return to America, provided she behaved properly in the meantime.” He, like many slaveholders, saw himself as a “good” owner, when there is no such thing when it comes to possessing like property another human being.


Neither of John Jay’s sons, Peter Augustus or William, owned slaves. Both became activists. Peter advocated furthering emancipation and even called for voting rights for free Blacks. William took up the cause fully, becoming a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He once called slaveholding “a heinous crime in the sight of God” and may have helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad. Abolition was his vocation,” Abisch says. Frederick Douglass even published a eulogy for William in his antislavery newspaper, The North Star.

Though he opposed BONDAGE, Jay grievously misunderstood it.

Future generations continued the fight. William’s son, also named John Jay (1817-94), was credited with helping seven slaves escape through Stephen and Harriet Myers’ Underground Railroad station in Albany and was a leader, in 1855, in the newly formed, antislavery Republican Party. His son, William Jay (if you’re keeping score at home, that’s the first John Jay’s great-grandson), served in the Union Army even though he was wealthy enough to buy himself out, because of his antislavery ideals, Abisch says.

From his great-grandparents to his great-grandchildren, John Jay was centrally involved in the United States’ original sin. As a Founding Father, and along with fellow slave owners George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, we should not expect any less. How we come to grips with that is still to be determined.


When Jessie Serfilippi, a historical interpreter at the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site in Albany, was doing research into Philip Schuyler’s slaveholding past, she came across primary source documents that she hoped weren’t true. They revealed that Schuyler’s son-in-law, Alexander Hamilton, also owned slaves.

Alexander Hamilton Portrait
Alexander Hamilton Portrait by John Trumbull

It was long known that Hamilton had helped purchase and sell the Schuyler’s slaves, even as he fought against slavery, a practice he called “an odious and immoral a thing.” Serfilippi pieced together records in Hamilton’s own cash book, in his hand, accounting for the value of his servants. “You can’t place monetary value on somebody unless you enslave them,” she says. “That was the ultimate piece of evidence.”

It wasn’t the only evidence, and after two years of research and vetting by New York State historians – and despite denials from his descendants – Hamilton now joins the list of Founding Fathers who also were slave owners. Like them, he offers few clues about how he could have been both for and against slavery. “I don’t know how they justified that, but it was common, clearly,” Serfillippi says.

David Levine, a frequent contributor to Westchester and 914INC, is the author of The Hudson Valley: The First 250 Million Years.

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