November 12, 2012

John Jay, the first US Secretary of State

John Jay, by Gilbert Stuart/From Wikipedia
Yes, you read that header correctly. Of course, that’s not reality.

But, in the next of my occasional series of posts on counterfactual history, and especially counterfactual political histories, he IS the first Secretary of State.

And, there’s solid actual history behind it.

In fact, George Washington offered John Jay the position first. Only after he turned it down did Washington look to Thomas Jefferson.

So, what might have turned out differently had Jay taken the offer rather than eventually accepting the Chief Justiceship at the Supreme Court.

First, I’ll say that Jay stays two full terms, ingratiates himself more with Washington, and, in the process, builds up a Middle Atlantic power base. Among the side results, John Adams gets more marginalized among possible Federalist successors to Washington. To some degree, Hamilton may. More on him below.

Jefferson certainly gets more marginalized, as well more radicalized by remaining in France during the Terror and making some impolitic statements about it.

As a result, accepting the truth that Washington won’t, and deciding he wants a national-level political future, Jay forms the first political alliance of America, before Jefferson, meeting with Henry Lee, aka “Light Horse Harry” Lee and suggesting him for the vice presidency in a “team.” It works.

Hamilton remains outside the new government, at least at first. However, he maintains more cordial relations with Jay than he did with Adams in reality. 

Like Adams did, Jay avoids war with France, but smartly vetoes Alien and Sedition Acts legislation.

Result? Jefferson looks for partners in 1800 and lays on Burr, as in reality. Both parties court Adams for a dignified version of an “endorsement,” but he passes.

Hamilton works to negate Burr in New York, get non-Adams Federalists in New England, and succeeds. He opts to remain, again, outside of government The country finds a need for a 12th Amendment as Jay and Lee tie. Lee gracefully persuades the House to elect Jay; Hamilton works to this end, too.

Lee runs in 1804 against Madison. Elbridge Gerry thinks Madison is not anti-federalist enough and runs on his own. The race goes to the House and Lee wins.

Hamilton, meanwhile, eventually decides to work to become president of the Bank of the United States, having generated less personal antagonism from Burr in 1800 than in reality. As the first Bank of the United States faces renewal issues ahead, and Hamilton is unsure of how “sound” Lee is, from his point of view, on the Bank, he looks for moderate anti-Federalists/Democratic-Republicans, as well as Federalists, with whom to deal. This includes “Federalist” collaborator James Madison.

At this point, I will break off the alternative history, as the degree of speculation grows.

But, had Jay, with hindsight, seen how little work the Supreme Court would do, seen how the Secretary of State position could become a “launching pad,” and decided he wanted to launch himself past Adams, all of this actually could have happened.

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