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John Jay Chapman was a lawyer, author, and the great-great grandson of John Jay. Born in 1862 in New York City, Chapman attended Harvard Law School and was admitted to the Bar in 1888. After only practicing law for a decade, he dedicated the rest of this life to writing books and essays focusing on social reform.
Chapman came from two families with long, storied histories of fighting for social causes. His paternal grandmother, Maria Weston Chapman, was a leading campaigner against slavery and worked with William Lloyd Garrison on The Liberator. His maternal grandfather, John Jay II, was an abolitionist and lawyer who defended numerous fugitive slaves in court and helped several gain their freedom. Chapman was heavily involved in Reform politics opposing Tammany Hall and more generally attacking the pervasive corruption of the Gilded Age.
Plagued by mental illness from a young age, Chapman was known for his extreme impulses, earning him the nickname “Mad Jack” amongst his college friends. In 1887 he assaulted a man for insulting the woman who would later become his wife. Tormented by remorse, he deliberately burned his left hand in a coal fire so badly that it had to be amputated. These same compulsions also fueled Chapman’s writing and sense of morality. In 1900 he wrote, “Our goodness comes solely from thinking on goodness; our wickedness from thinking on wickedness. We too are the victims of our own contemplation.”
While he never shied away from political rallies and protests, most of Chapman’s reform efforts consisted of writing and organizing. From 1897 to 1901, he published, at his own expense, a reformist monthly called Political Nursery. In 1898 he actively promoted Theodore Roosevelt as an independent reform candidate for governor of New York. Their alliance collapsed when Roosevelt chose instead to run, successfully, as a Republican candidate, which Chapman thought was no better than the corrupt democratic bosses of Tammany Hall.
Following the death of his wife and the failure of Roosevelt’s reform candidacy, Chapman withdrew from politics. In 1899, he married Elizabeth Chanler, a member of the affluent Astor family. They moved from New York City to Dutchess County in 1901 after he suffered a mental breakdown. For the next few years Chapman would write only for children, taking a break from the political activities that had dominated his life.
By 1910 he returned to writing thought-provoking essays and giving orations decrying social injustice. His most well-known speech occurred in 1912, marking the one-year anniversary of the lynching of Zachariah Walker in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. Walker, a black man, shot into a mob and killed Edgar Rice, a white man. Rather then allow the law to prosecute Walker, a mob of about 2,000 Coatesville residents surrounded the hospital where he was being held. He was then dragged from his hospital bed, thrown onto a pyre and burned to death. Only six people from the mob were prosecuted, all were acquitted. Chapman called Walker’s lynching “one of the most dreadful crimes in history” and said “our whole people are…involved in the guilt.” His speech was reprinted in several newspapers throughout the country.
Chapman was a supporter of the United States involvement in World War I. He felt it necessary for old international conflicts to be put aside and for the United States to support the Allied powers. In 1917 Chapman wrote in Ode on the Sailing of our Troops for France, “Go fight for Freedom, Warriors of the West! At last the word is spoken: Go! Lay on for Liberty. ‘Twas at her breast. The tyrant aimed his blow; And ye were wounded with the rest. In Belgium’s overthrow.”
John Jay Chapman’s son, Victor Emmanuel Chapman was the first American killed in World War I in 1916. Having dual French/American citizenship, Victor joined the French Foreign Legion and was later trained as a fighter pilot. The following year John published Victor Chapman’s letters from France, with memoir by John Jay Chapman as a memorial to his son. He continued to write until his death in 1933 at the age of 71.
In all, Chapman wrote approximately 25 books, including a biography of William Lloyd Garrison, collected Songs and Poems (1919); and volumes of criticism such as Emerson, and Other Essays (1898), Greek Genius, and Other Essays (1915), and A Glance Toward Shakespeare (1922).