Thomas Paine. John Jay. Take a survey of current conservative/libertarian activists and you will probably find Paine’s numbers higher on the recognition scale. Everybody, it seems, likes to quote him. Even Ronald Reagan used Paine’s words when he said, “We have the power to begin the world anew.” Paine’s Common Sense was the catalyst as the American colonies reluctantly concluded that independence from Britain was necessary. His Crisis series of newspaper articles, begun at a low point in the American Revolution, are stirring. Even many of our poorly educated students probably can recall hearing these words somewhere: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
Yet this man who made such an impact on the early days of the Revolution was an utter failure in business back in England, was dismissed from his position as excise officer because of neglect of duty, and separated from his wife in 1774 just as he decided to emigrate to America. If not for Common Sense, in particular, his influence on the new nation would have been negligible. Some people are great with words and little else. Paine fit that mold.
When the American Revolution ended, he tried his hand at inventing, but being unsuccessful at that, he eventually traveled to France to take part in the Revolution stirring there. He became a French citizen, served in the Convention [legislature], though without distinction [he couldn’t speak French], and ended up in prison when the Revolution took an even more radical turn. Only the intercession of the American ambassador James Monroe extricated Paine from that predicament.
He then wrote The Age of Reason, an attack upon Christianity that did not go over well with the American public. Upon returning to America in 1802, he was not well received because of his radical religious views. Poverty, poor health, and alcoholism dominated his final years; his funeral in 1809 was attended by six people.
The name John Jay is relegated to the dim recesses of this same time period, at least among those who have only a cursory knowledge of the beginnings of the United States. Those who have studied it in depth realize what a debt is owed this man.
In many ways, he was the anti-Paine. A New Yorker who lived in the New World all his life [his family were French Huguenots who had to flee Catholic persecution], Jay was far more conservative than his wordsmith counterpart. He participated in many of the meetings prior to independence, always offering words of caution. He even helped draft the Olive Branch petition to the king as a last desperate effort to keep the empire from civil war.
Once the decision for independence was made, however, Jay threw himself into the fray with total dedication. He worked at both the state and national levels during the Revolution: Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court, then president of the Continental Congress. The Congress appointed Jay as ambassador to Spain to try to get more European backing for the new nation. He spent three years working in an almost thankless task, joining Franklin and John Adams at the end of the war as one of the chief negotiators with the British government for the Treaty of Paris.
Upon returning to the new United States, Jay was elected Secretary of Foreign Affairs, a post he held from 1784 to 1789. In the push to amend the Articles of Confederation, he collaborated with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in authoring the Federalist Papers. He didn’t write many of them simply because he suffered an illness at that time.
In Washington’s first administration, Jay was called upon to serve as Chief Justice of the new Supreme Court. When Washington needed an experienced diplomat to deal with Great Britain, he called upon Jay. We would never today mix the branches of government the way Washington did in this instance, but he felt no one else had the experience to handle the British.
He then did something no one would do now: he resigned as Chief Justice to become governor of New York. In that capacity, he had the privilege of signing into law a bill leading to the gradual elimination of slavery in that state, a goal Jay had been working for his entire life.
After his governorship, Jay retired from public life, but he didn’t retire from activity. He later became president of the American Bible Society, another indication that he was the anti-Paine.
Activists today revere Thomas Paine, due to his strong words. Few know of John Jay. Paine’s contributions were primarily words; Jay’s contributions were actions that helped shape what the nation would be. In our desire to change what we currently see taking place in our government, it’s tempting to be a Paine [and some people are, in both senses], but wouldn’t it be better to be a Jay? Paines have their uses, but Jays are indispensable.