The engraved inscription around the box reads: "Presented by the Corporation of the City of New York with the Freedom of the City to John Jay Esq."
[With:] Original engrossed proclamation granting Freedom of the City of New York to John Jay, as follows:
DUANE, James (1733-1797). Manuscript document signed ("Jas Duane") as Mayor, and by Robert Benson, Recorder of the City of New York, New York, N.Y., 4 October 1784. 1 page, oblong, 11¼in. high by 13¾in. wide, ON FINE PARCHMENT, text in an ornate copperplate hand, circular wax seal of the City of New York (diameter: 2¼in.) pendant at bottom on a ribbon of blue silk. Professionally double-matted and in a fine giltwood frame.
The document, boldly headed "City of New York," states that "James Duane Esquire, Mayor, and the Recorder Aldermen and Assistants of the City of New York in Common Council convened To All People to whom these Presents shall come or concern" proclaim "Whereas the glorious Revolution which hath secured our Liberties and Independence will not be more celebrated for the illustrious Events which have marked its Progress; than for the Roll of Statesman and Heroes by whose Wisdom and Valour under the divine Favour, it hath been established on the most solid Basis And Whereas among these worthy Patriots the honorable John Jay Esquire is highly distinguished having in our own Convention-in our first Seat of Justice-as a Member and as President of the United States in Congress assembled-and as a Minister Plenipotentiary both in Spain and France-executed the important Trusts committed to him with Wisdom Firmness and Integrity: and thus by a Series of eminent Services obtained the national Confidence and Esteem and universal Applause: Now therefore know ye that We feeling a singular Pleasure in paying just Tribute to the Merits of the said John Jay our Fellow Citizen have received and admitted and by these Presents Do receive and admit him to be a Freeman of this his native City to hold exercise and enjoy all the Rights Privileges Advantages and Immunities to the Freedom of the said City incidents or appertaining as a publick Testimony of the respectful Sentiments We entertain towards him and as a Pledge of our Affection, and of our sincere Wishes for his Happiness and Prosperity In Testimony Whereof We have caused the publick Seal of the said City to be hereunto affixed and these Presents to be enclosed in a golden Box--Witness James Duane Mayor of the said city this fourth Day of October in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty four and of the Soverignity and Independence of the State of New York the Ninth
By order of the
Common Council Robt Benson, clk
[italics added for emphasis]
Seventeen eighty-four was a momentous year for American patriots in the city of New York. The British evacuated the city in the late autumn of 1783, and by the following February, New York had organized its government and elected its first mayor, James Duane (1733-1797). The city seal was redesigned with the old crest of a royal crown replaced by a globe surmounted by a soaring eagle, in homage to the new era of liberty. With peace and freedom at hand, the City fathers decided to pay honor to those who had contributed bravely and sacrificed much for the cause of Independence.
On September 11, 1784, the Common Council of the City of New York unanimously voted "that five respectful Addresses from this Corporation be presented with the freedom of this City in Gold Boxes, one to his Excellency, the Governor [Dewitt Clinton], one to his Excellency General Washington, one to the honble John Jay Esqr, one to the honble the Marquis Delafayette, & one to Major General Baron Steuben."
Of these five gold freedom boxes created by Samuel Johnson, only two survive. The first, presented to Baron Steuben, is in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery. The second surviving gold box is the one presented to statesman and founding father, John Jay. The Jay box is particularly significant as the original parchment presentation document conferring the freedom of the city on Jay also survives with it.
Small snuffboxes, made of precious and rare materials, were a traditional European gift to someone who had brought great honor to the country, often through political or military prowess. The taking of snuff was a courtly and aristocratic fashion in the eighteenth century. Tobacco, being a rare commodity, required vessels appropriately costly and stylish. Monarchs gave jewel-encrusted snuff boxes, containing their own portrait, to honored subjects or foreign dignitaries. Louis XVI presented a diamond-bordered enameled gold snuff box to Benjamin Franklin, the United States Minister Plenipotentiary to France. Cities, universities, or corporations presented deserving personages with a snuff box, which enclosed a parchment giving them the Freedom of the city.
This tradition of presenting the freedom of the city carried over to the American colonies. Gold, however, was an expensive and rare commodity in eighteenth century America, where it was generally used only in small items of jewelry, such as clasps, buttons, and wedding or mourning rings. Eighteenth century gold snuffboxes were far more rare. There were only about twenty ever made, almost all by New York craftsmen. Only a handful still exist; in addition to the two Samuel Johnson freedom boxes, there is one by Charles Le Roux which was presented to Alexander Hamilton in 1735 (now at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania) and another by Otto Paul Paul de Parisien which was presented to the British Lieutenant General Thomas Gage in 1773. Both the Le Roux and Parisien boxes are engraved with the Seal of the City of New York with the royal crown crest. The only other two surviving gold boxes known are one by Jacob Hurd, circa 1735 (now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and another by Myer Myers, circa 1750.
The gold boxes commissioned by the Common Council were each engraved with the Seal of the City of New York that was designed in 1784. In addition to replacing the imperial crown with a globe surmounted by an eagle, the seal bears emblems of the original industries of the New York: two flour barrels and two beavers divided by the sails of a windmill.
Most important, the engraving on the Jay box is signed by the engraver, Peter Rushton Maverick (1755-1811). Signed engraving is virtually unknown in American silver, and points to the pride Maverick must have taken in this commission. Peter Rushton Maverick was the first of a family of engravers that spanned three generations and produced more than 2,300 known engravings and other works (see Stephens, The Mavericks: American Engravers, 1950). The Jay Freedom Box would have been one of his very earliest commissions. Maverick opened his shop in Crown Street in 1784, the same year the box was commissioned. He advertised in the New York Packet on June 10, 1784: "Peter Maverick, Engraver, Takes this method to inform the public that he takes in Engraving at No. 3, Crown-Street, next to the Old Quaker-meeting, where gentlemen may have their coats of arms, crests or cyphers done in the neatest manner, ladies may have their tea-table plate ornamented in the newest fashion, with elegancy and dispatch, by applying to their humble servant."
John Jay was one of New York's most illustrious citizens and a natural choice for the honor of the freedom of the city. Born in New York City in 1745, he graduated from King's College in 1766 and married Sarah Livingston in 1774. He quickly became a leader of the city's young revolutionaries. Jay was New York's delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774, where he drafted a statement advocating the claims of the colonists, Address to the People of Great Britain. He was elected president of the Second Continental Congress in 1778. In 1779, Jay was appointed the minister plenipotentiary to Spain and in 1782, he joined Benjamin Franklin in Paris as joint negotiator for peace with Great Britain.
After five years abroad, Jay set sail for the United States in the spring of 1784. He returned to public acclaim and more duties. While he was in transit, Congress appointed him the Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Although longing to return to a private law practice, Jay continued to serve his country. He served as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs for eight years, during which time he lobbied for a more strongly centralized government and collaborated with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison on the Federalist Papers. In 1789, President Washington appointed Jay the country's first chief justice. Jay was thought to be a strong candidate for presidency, but in 1794 he negotiated the "Jay Treaty" with Great Britain, which sought to address unresolved grievances from the Revolution. The treaty was widely seen as a sell-out to the British and public opinion against Jay ran high. Always popular in New York however, he was elected governor of the state in 1795 and retired to his farm in Katonah, New York, six years later.
His deep appreciation for the honor that his native city bestowed on him can be found in his words, as recorded in the minutes of the Common Council for October 4, 1784:
Accept my warmest Thanks for your affectionate Congratulations on my Return to my native Country; and for the particular Mark of Approbation with which you have honored my Endeavors to do my Duty in promoting it's Welfare.
This being a Land of Light and Liberty I bless God it is the Land of my Nativity. Here my Forefathers sought and found freedom and Toleration. I am bound to it by the strongest Ties, and as it's Happiness has been the first Object of my Endeavours from early Life, so the most fervent Wishes for it's Prosperity shall be among those of my latest Houses."
(see references in Literature for sources consulted)