While on a visit to Seattle as part of a March book tour, Walter Stahr visited his nephew’s fifth-grade class. Fortuitously for Stahr—who had just published the book John Jay: Founding Father—the class had recently finished studying the American Revolution; each student had been asked to research one Revolution-era figure.
The students chose “a fairly wide panoply—Samuel Adams, Tom Paine, Patrick Henry,” Stahr says. “But none had worked on Jay, and it was not accidental. If you ask the average high-schooler to name 20 Revolutionary War figures, they will probably not name Jay.”
Jay is the Rodney Dangerfield of his generation. No soaring monuments or marble memorials honor him, not even a beer. All Jay has to show here for his work—prominent lawyer; revolutionary spymaster; co-author of the Federalist Papers; American diplomat to Great Britain, France, and Spain; and first chief justice of the Supreme Court—is a portrait at the Supreme Court and a street in Northeast, says Stahr.
Part of the reason for Jay’s enduring obscurity, Stahr says, is personal: Jay was a straight arrow and, frankly, a tad boring. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, Jay had no personal scandal; unlike Alexander Hamilton, he didn’t die in a duel; and unlike Ben Franklin, he wasn’t a great wit or a flirt extraordinaire. No one had even bothered to do a full-scale biography of him since 1935.
That’s where Stahr came in. A native of Southern California, Stahr, 47, attended Stanford and earned a law degree from Harvard. He pursued a career at the intersection of law and finance, including several years working in Asia. When Stahr was in Hong Kong, he found himself doing a lot of reading and figured he could put together a better book. The question was, What kind of book to write?
Stahr wasn’t a descendant of Jay; indeed, coming into the project, he knew little about him. But after some initial interest in writing about his more colorful contemporary, Gouverneur Morris, Stahr settled instead on the oft-ignored Jay. (It turned out to be a good decision: Two biographies of Morris have been published in the interim.)
As a lawyer and someone “not inclined to go on long drinking binges,” Stahr identified with Jay. In Asia, Stahr also felt the same sense of isolation that Jay felt when he was stationed abroad. And Stahr also sensed a connection to Jay as a conservative—though Jay harbored a few notable ideological contradictions, which Stahr makes clear in his biography.
Living in the North, Jay was a slaveholder for most of his life—even as he helped found the New York Manumission Society, which sought to end the Peculiar Institution. Despite Jay’s high-minded rhetoric about American freedoms, he proposed stringent anti-Catholic provisions in New York state. And despite his conservatism on many issues, Jay took the ultimate radical step by backing the Revolution—even though many of his friends and even his brother remained loyal to the Crown.
Stahr, a resident of Vienna, Va., and a senior counsel with a private equity firm in D.C., intends to write another biography from the same era, this one about Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris. But in the meantime, he’s not shy about his goals for boosting Jay’s reputation. “I’m hopeful that my book might lead to books for children, so that my nephew’s fifth-grade class can read about him,” he says. —Louis Jacobson