John Jay’s Circuit Court Diary

"Your Letter by the Miss Allens is the last that I have recd— I ought to have seen those Ladies, but the Court has unceasingly engrossed my Time– we did not adjourn until 9 last Night– I feel fatigued in body and mind; but Reflections of this kind are not to be endulged– . . . I am very anxious to be with you, and the moment the preparatory measures here will permit, I shall set out–" April 19 1794 John Jay to Sarah Livingston Jay

While many people know that John Jay was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, most do not know that during his tenure, the Justices were required to "ride circuit" or preside over cases in the circuit courts of the various federal judicial districts. The arduousness of this task can be seen in the many letters between Jay and his family and friends during this period, and vividly in the diary he kept between April 1790 and August 1792.

John Jay's Circuit Court diary is a small, worn, leather-bound notebook, housed now in a custom case for protection. In tiny script, Jay recorded not only the cases he presided over, but the miles he journeyed, the people he met, and the places he stayed. Jay provides a veritable Baedeker of the inns and taverns of the Eastern Circuit, commenting (sometimes not so favorably) on the food, entertainment, and beds. Throughout, he shows a keen interest in the state of the country, the development of political and social institutions, the sentiments of the inhabitants, and the progress of agriculture and industry, as well as recording interesting bits of gossip and unusual stories.

However, Jay's legendary prudence sometimes leaves the reader unsatisfied. For example, on May 25 1790, he wrote "Dined with Mr. Barretts– His Gardens are pretty– his House in order– Entertains well– heard many anecdotes, not to be written–"

The diary, much of Jay's correspondence of this time, and drafts of his charges to the Grand Juries of the Eastern Circuit may be found in the John Jay Papers collection, located in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Scans of many of the documents, including the diary, may be viewed in the digital archive, The Papers of John Jay.  The Circuit Court diary will be published in volume 5 of The Selected Papers of John Jay.

Leave a Reply