John Jay would probably be amused if he knew that many, many years in the future, his old Alma Mater—then King’s College, now Columbia—would honor his legacy by naming a dormitory after him. It was a dorm room incident in the original College Hall in 1764 that earned him a suspension from the College and almost prevented him from graduating.
John Jay enrolled at King’s College in 1760 as a very young but very serious 14-year-old from Rye, New York. For his first two years, Jay lived “in town.” He had a room in a house belonging to a Lawrence Roome on the corner of Broadway and Verlettendbergh Hill (now Exchange Place). As a new student, Jay had to write out the College’s statutes in full and to promise to comply faithfully with the stated rules. The document included rules related to admission requirements (Greek and Latin), chapel attendance (mandatory morning prayers), moral behavior (no gambling), and academic requirements (no skipping classes). Jay’s signature appears next to the College President’s, Samuel Johnson, dated August 29, 1760.
On May 5, 1762, Jay moved into College Hall, where he would live and have his meals for his two remaining years. In addition to the new living situation, the College also had a new President, Myles Cooper. Jay had to write out the new, revised statutes and he signed them (again) along with Cooper on May 2, 1763. The exact text of this student “contract” would come to matter just a few months later.
So what exactly happened in the spring of 1764? Jay himself only made one rather cryptic reference to the fateful night in his 1817 “Memoranda” on his life: “April 1764 Dispute
with ^between^ Dr. Cooper & students abt. wooden Horse.” We have to rely on family lore to get a fuller version. According to the family, Jay was in the dorm one evening, when a group of students (reasons unknown) broke a table. Destroying college property was one of the violations included in the statutes. In an investigation into the events of the evening, Cooper interrogated the students to find out who was responsible. All of the students claimed ignorance, but Jay, when asked by the College President himself, replied “I choose not to tell you, sir.” Jay would not reveal the name of the culprit! The future Supreme Court Justice argued that his refusal to identify the guilty student(s) did not violate the College’s statutes. Cooper and the faculty, however, disagreed. Jay was suspended and sent home to Rye. A month later, with the matter apparently resolved, he was allowed to return for graduation and, at Commencement, delivered the speech “On the Happiness and Advantages arising from a State of Peace.” To this day, the identity of the table-breaker remains a mystery.
To learn more about John Jay as a student at King’s College, see Herbert Johnson’s “When John Jay was Jack,” Columbia College Today, Spring-Summer 1963, 48-51. For the relevant documents in the John Jay Papers, see Jennifer Steenshorne’s “The Graduate” from The Selected Papers of John Jay. There is a fuller version of the events of the infamous evening and its aftermath in Frank Monaghan’s biography of John Jay.