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This month we are taking a brief look at the interesting life of John Jay’s brother, James Jay. Born into a large family, James was 13 years older than John, and left home to begin his medical studies in Edinburgh around the time of John’s birth in 1745. It is doubtful the boys ever had a relationship as children. James remained in England to practice medicine, settling in Bristol for several years. While in England, James was a key figure in securing funds to help establish Kings College, today’s Columbia University, and funds for Benjamin Franklin’s college which would become the University of Pennsylvania. In 1763, James was knighted by King George II for his fundraising efforts. After many years as a successful practicing physician in the U.K., James returned to the US in the early 1770s.

In October of 1778, James was appointed as representative in the New York State Senate, of New York’s Southern district where he sat in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th New York State Legislatures. During this time, by all accounts, James was a supporter of independence and his voting record as a member of congress reflects that notion.

James had a deep interest in chemistry, which he used to develop an invisible ink used by the Americans for military communications and in espionage. Many invisible inks in use at the time could be revealed simply by applying acid or heat. Sir James’ ink was immune to both techniques. A message written in his ink could be recovered only by applying a specific disclosing agent. Combining the two caused a chemical reaction that revealed the hidden message. Sir James called it “white ink.” George Washington called it “sympathetic stain.”

Sir James initially provided his white ink to his younger brother John in 1775, years before his service in Congress. John had been appointed to the Committee of Correspondence by the Continental Congress to organize and execute spy operations on behalf of the Continental Army. He used the ink to communicate with Silas Deane, an American secret agent in London. Three years later, in 1778, John Jay introduced Sir James, and his secret ink, to Washington. “I have experienced its Efficacy by a three years trial,” John Jay assured the general. Washington used the ink to communicate with his officers in the field. He also provided it to the Culper Ring, an important spy network reporting from behind enemy lines in New York City.

Despite James’ political support for independence and the value of his invisible ink to American espionage, a political stunt in the early 1780s led many, including his brother John, to question his support for independence. In 1782, he purposefully had himself arrested by the British authorities. He wanted to be returned to England, where he hoped to initiate peace talks between the two sides and be seen as some sort of diplomatic hero. Evidently, he believed his arrest would provide political cover, so the Americans would not consider him a Tory. But the British initially suspected he was a spy, and he was jailed in New York. Eventually, Sir James was released by British officer Guy Carleton, and he made his way to England. Nothing came of his peace plans, and neither side ever fully trusted his motives. His brother John separated loyalists into two categories, those who allied with England on principle, and those who did so out of self-interest, “the most dishonorable of human motives.” Since James fell into the latter category, his actions irreparably damaged their relationship. In a letter to a friend, John Jay wrote “He is no great loss to us and the enemy will gain little by him if he should be disposed to serve them…I shall endeavor to forget that my father has such a son.”

Sir James returned to the New York in 1784. He settled in New Jersey and became the personal physician to the state’s governor, William Livingston, who was John Jay’s father-in-law. About a year after moving back, in 1785, James began a relationship with Anne Erwin, and the couple went on to have two children. There is no record of the two being legally married, but since they were living together for many years and had children, they were common-law partners. As far as his relationship with John, the brothers never reconciled, and it is likely they never spoke again after James’ return from England.

Sir James Jay died in 1815 in New Jersey at the age of 83.