Record-Keeping and Power Dinners: John Jay, Sarah Livingston Jay, and the Practices of Foreign Policy during the Critical Decade

Robb K. Haberman
Record-Keeping and Power Dinners: John Jay, Sarah Livingston Jay, and the Practices of Foreign Policy during the Critical Decade

John Jay, by Gilbert Stuart and John Trumbull, 1784‒1818, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

For much of the Confederation era, John Jay played a leading role in formulating and implementing American foreign policy while he resided at home and abroad. Following his appointment as minister plenipotentiary to Spain in September 1779, John traveled to that country accompanied by his wife Sarah Livingston Jay and spent nearly two years in Madrid on a mission seeking Spanish recognition and financial support for the young United States. John’s subsequent duties as member of the peace commission in Paris kept the couple in Europe for an additional two years. Alongside his colleagues serving in the American delegation, John engaged in prolonged negotiations with his British counterparts over issues of territory, trade, resources, and sovereign status. Upon returning to the United States in July 1784, the Jays settled in NewYork, where John headed the Office of Foreign Affairs, a post that he would retain through the end of the Confederation era and then unofficially hold during the opening months of the Constitutional era.

John drew on the lessons of his diplomatic experiences to guide his management and coordination of U.S. foreign relations. With the country in the midst of a difficult transition from a time of war to one of relative peace, John took up the herculean task of choreographing its performance on the global stage as a respected and responsible sovereign state. Accordingly, he worked to establish an effective consular system and prioritized that the United States abide by international law and honor its treaties with other countries. By instituting these and other reform measures, John provided a secure foundation for the soon-to-be established Department of State and the nascent diplomatic corps.

The correspondence and public records appearing in The Selected Papers of John Jay document John’s endeavors to attain a reputable status for the U.S. in the realm of international affairs.[1] The primary materials contained in these edited volumes offer exciting new areas of research and have also helped to launch investigations that broaden current understandings of how John conducted foreign policy during the critical decade of the 1780s. I have selected for this essay two innovative topics deserving of more scholarly attention: The first focuses on the role of Sarah Livingston Jay in shaping the period’s diplomatic culture, and the second explores how John Jay aided the formation of a diplomatic archive.

As mentioned above, Sarah accompanied her husband on his European missions, yet few have considered the political implications of her actions. Her letters to family members describe the pleasures of scenic surroundings and social affairs, even as she endured the “bad Roads, Fleas, & Bugs” and mourned the loss of a newborn daughter.[2] Her correspondence, moreover, touched on political affairs, and she discussed in detail the unhappy relationship between her husband and his secretary, William Carmichael. Although John was at home in polite society, he cut something of a stiff figure amid court life and aristocratic culture, which he detested. He therefore relied on Sarah to help him navigate this milieu, leaning on her skills of sociability that had been honed for years at her family estate, Liberty Hall (New Jersey), and in New York. When the Jays returned to New York, Diego de Gardoqui, a Spanish dignitary, actually tried to ingratiate himself with John by flattering and sending presents to Sarah. Gardoqui admitted as much in a letter and further remarked that Sarah “dominates” her husband and that “her opinion prevails.”[3]

Sarah Livingston Jay, by Daniel Huntington, John Jay Homestead Historic Site, Katonah, NY.

Sarah’s purchases in Paris of furniture, clothing, jewelry, and furnishings also merit attention as these activities identified her as an American woman of cosmopolitan and refined status. These items would have been on conspicuous display during the “power dinners” that she hosted in the nation’s capital in 1787‒88 that included leading statesmen and diplomats and their families. Indeed, scholars who have studied these social gatherings credit Sarah for being one of the individuals who successfully imported the “French salon” to America.[4]

The second area of prospective research involves John’s work in establishing a diplomatic archive during the 1780s. My interest in this topic arose from current editing work on the period of John’s retirement (1801‒1829). In dozens of letters produced during these three decades, John discussed individuals and events of the revolutionary era with a range of correspondents. These included other founding figures (including John Adams) who sought to set the record straight or had a political axe to grind; their surviving relatives and descendants who were undertaking family histories; and authors and members of historical societies who were both compiling documentary records and writing accounts of the war of independence and the nation’s founding.[5] John’s consistent mentions of record-keeping and documentary evidence got me thinking about how he approached these activities during his time spent as a wartime diplomat and foremost official of foreign policy. A reexamination of his writings penned during the critical decade reveal that he prioritized the production, circulation, and storage of state communications and thought about how these practices could be improved. For instance, he discussed the importance of such security measures as using codes and ciphers to protect sensitive information and relying on private messengers to avoid the interception of mail by foreign governments. John kept meticulous records throughout his European travels, maintaining drafts and letter books of his own outgoing letters and keeping files of letters and dispatches that he received. While serving as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, he explained to John Adams, “I have collected your public Letters and Dispatches, and a good Clerk has already neatly recorded a Large Volume of them. It is common in the Course of Time for loose & detached Papers to be lost, or mislaid, or misplaced.—It is to Papers in this office that future Historians must recur for accurate accounts of many interesting affairs of the late Revolution.”[6]

Jay and his staff at the Office of Foreign Affairs continued to transcribe and file documents of the post-revolutionary era. John undertook these actions for several reasons. He perceived that the creation of such an archive would provide his department with a sense of legitimacy and historical identity. Moreover, he recognized the practical necessity for institutional memory as future bureaucrats and diplomats would need to reference older records to carry out their work. John’s message to Adams also points to his expectation that these official papers would eventually be made available to the public as published histories and documentary editions for the purpose of cultivating a shared past, social cohesion, and national belonging among the general population. A concern for his personal legacy also motivated John to preserve historical documents. Like other members of the founding generation, he was fiercely committed to controlling to the best of his ability future perceptions of his role in bringing about independence and adopting the Constitution for the new nation.

The stories of Sarah Livingston Jay’s diplomacy and John Jay’s archival labors are but two of several topics worthy of our attention. Sarah’s power dinners and John’s record-keeping need to be written about, for they offer new approaches and new understandings of American foreign policy in the critical decade.


[1] See Elizabeth M. Nuxoll et al., eds., The Selected Papers of John Jay, Vol. 2, 1780‒1782 (Charlottesville, VA, 2012); Vol. 3, 1782‒1784 (Charlottesville, VA, 2013); Vol. 4, 1785‒1788 (Charlottesville, VA, 2015). Original documents from the Columbia University’s John Jay Papers Collection may also be accessed via The John Jay Papers Image Database, a free and open-access database that is term-searchable. I would like to thank my co-editors of the John Jay Papers Project for their collaborative work on the Jay volumes.

[2] Quote taken from John Jay to Robert R. Livingston, June 14, 1782, Selected Papers of John Jay, 1780‒1782, 2: 799‒800. Sarah Livingston Jay to William Livingston, June 24, 1781; Sarah Livingston Jay to Catharine W. Livingston, July 25, 1781, Selected Papers of John Jay, 1780‒1782, 2: 479‒85, 524‒26.

[3] Diego de Gardoqui to José Moñino, conde de Floridablanca, Sept. 3, 1785, referenced in John Jay to Diego de Gardoqui, Oct. 4, 1785, note 2, Selected Papers of John Jay 1785‒1788, 4: 196.

[4] See Nicole Mahoney, “Liberty, Gentility, and Dangerous Liaisons: Francophilia in the Early Republic, 1775‒1800,” PhD. diss., University of Maryland, 2017, 80‒107; and Amy H. Henderson, “French & Fashionable: The Search for George and Martha Washington’s Presidential Furniture,” American Furniture (2019), 78‒155. For more on the dinners hosted by Sarah Livingston Jay in New York City, see the Invitation Lists from 1786 through June 1788, Selected Papers of John Jay, 1785-1788, 4, 459-60, 462-63, 479-80, 481, 522, 534-35, 545, 555-56, 640-41, 648, 653-54, 676-77, 714, 718-19.

[5] For more information about Jay’s discussion of revolutionary events during his retirement years, see the editorial headnote “Jay, History, and Memory” in The Selected Papers of John Jay, Vol. 7, 1799-1829 (Charlottesville, VA, forthcoming).

[6] John Jay to John Adams, July 25, 1787, Selected Papers of John Jay, 1785‒1788, 4: 527‒28. For more on Jay’s early efforts to assemble a diplomatic archive, see “Introduction,” Selected Papers of John Jay, 1782-1784, 3, xxiii-xxiv.

26 October 2020

About the Author

Robb K. Haberman is associate editor of The Selected Papers of John Jay at Columbia University.

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