Digital Exhibit: Slaves, Anti-Slavery, and Five Generations of Jays

The story of the Jay family, their slaves, and the way the generations of the Jays acted in response to slavery is complex, a subject this exhibit can only open small windows upon. Yet the glimpses of the past these stories give are enlightening, and in many cases, even surprising. Most of all, they can be a springboard toward developing a deeper understanding of all of the people who are part of this story: the Jays, the slaves, and the many people who strived to end slavery in America.


Thematic Tour: Slavery and Abolition

The Jays have a long, complicated history with slavery. Earlier generations were lifelong enslavers, never questioning the institution. John Jay is recorded as having conflicting views on slavery his entire life. He would publicly denounce slavery and make attempts to end the practice, all while owning slaves himself. Later generations of the Jay family were abolitionists. They used their education and positions of prominence to help both enslaved and free black individuals have access to justice.


Virtual Field Trip: Slaves, Slavery and the Jay Family
How is a servant different from a slave? What’s the difference between manumission and abolition? Why did many of the Founding Fathers continue to own slaves as they established a nation where “all men are created equal?” We provide an experience that will help your students answer these and other probing questions. While they virtually tour the historic house museum and study primary sources, your students will come to understand John Jay’s conflicting attitudes as slave owner and manumission advocate and learn about his son William’s role in the abolition movement. They will also learn about the lives of some of the slaves who lived at the Homestead.


Slavery and the Jay Family: A 7-Generation Story

Founding Father John Jay was descended from three generations of slavers. Jay himself is something of an enigma: he argued for abolition in the new state of New York as early as 1777, but he did not abolish slavery in his own household for another four decades. Yet his legacy included three generations of descendants who were abolitionists and civil rights activists. This illustrated program, presented via Zoom, examines the arc of slavery through seven generations of the Jay family.  It is a story that goes back almost to the introduction of slaves into the Dutch colony that became New York, and ends just months before the 13th Amendment abolished slavery everywhere in the nation.



Previous Lectures

Click here to explore and listen to past lectures that have been hosted at John Jay Homestead

  • Stacy Schiff,The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams
  • Karen Joy Fowler and Philip B. Kunhardt III, In Conversation on Booth
  • David GellmanLiberty’s Chain: Slavery, Abolition and the Jay Family of New York
  • Deborah WillisThe Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship
  • James OakesThe Crooked Path to Abolition:  Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution
  • Brenda Wineapple, The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation
  • Eric FonerThe Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution
  • Steve LuxenbergSeparate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation
  • Joanne FreemanThe Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War
  • Sean WilentzNo Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding
  • David BlightFrederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
  • Darren Walker and David Rubenstein in Conversation, Why History is Important
  • Hugh B. Price, This African-American Life: A Memoir
  • Russell Shorto, Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom
  • Albie Sachs in Conversation with Akhil Reed Amar,  The Making of the South African Constitution
  • James TraubJohn Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit
  • Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf, Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination



More to explore…


Object of the Week


Jay Family Stories


Abbe’s Ghost: Negotiating Slavery in Paris, 1783-1784


Yours for the Oppressed: Harriet Myers Exhibit


A Look Back on Founding Father John Jay’s Relationship With Slavery by David Levine


Mastering Paradox: John Jay As A Slaveholding Abolitionist by David N. Gellman


Slavery and the Extended Family of John Jay by Ned Benton and Judy Lynne Peters