Thomas Jefferson Papers

Benjamin Harrison to the Virginia Delegates in Congress, 25 October 1783

Benjamin Harrison to the Virginia Delegates in Congress

Octo: 25th. 1783.


I am much disappointed in not receiving a letter from you by the last post, as we are all anxious to know where Congress means to fix its permanent residence, reports say it is to be in the woods near Princeton or on the delaware a little below Trenton. I think it impossible that either can be true. If I should be mistaken it will fix this state in an opinion that there is a decided majority against the southern states, and that they are not to expect that justice they are entitled to when the interest of the other states shall induce a deviation from it. Tho’ great offers were made Congress to remove to us yet I never expected a compliance nor would I have voted for it if not Commanded so to do, as the common principles of honor would have forbidden it. Maryland is the central state and there it ought to have been fixed, no great matter in what part of it tho’ George town was certainly the most proper. A sufficient of members are not yet met to hold the assembly nor do I think we shall have one before the middle of next week.

I am &c.

FC (Vi); caption reads: “The Virginia Delegates in Congress.”

Harrison’s “disappointment in not receiving a letter … by the last post” reflects a dissatisfaction that he occasionally voiced, especially with regard to John F. Mercer’s failures as a correspondent. On one occasion he chided Mercer bluntly and on another, when the proceedings in Congress on the Virginia cession of western territory were laid by him before the House of Delegates, he pointedly stated that the document “this moment came to hand in a blank cover from Mr. Mercer” (Harrison to Speaker of the House, 11 Dec. 1783, Executive Letter Book, Vi). There is no doubt but that Harrison placed much more value upon TJ’s communications from Congress and that he approved the plan of regular correspondence that TJ devised (see TJ to Harrison, 17 Dec. 1783). great offers were made congress to remove to us: On 28 June 1783, the last day of the session, the General Assembly unanimously adopted resolutions offering a “fixed place of residence for Congress” in the following terms: (1) that if Williamsburg should prove “a fit Place,” the General Assembly would present “the Palace the Capitol and all the public buildings and three hundred acres of land adjoining the … city together with a Sum of money not exceeding one hundred thousand pounds this States Currency to be paid at five annual Installments and to be expended in erecting thirteen Hotels for the Use of the Delegates in Congress”; (2) that the General Assembly would cede a district adjoining Williamsburg not over “five miles square with such exempt Jurisdiction … as the inhabitants residing therein shall consent to yield to Congress”; (3) that if Congress preferred “any place on the River Patowmack within this Commonwealth,” the General Assembly would offer similar terms governing any place that should be selected, plus the additional purchase of 100 acres of land for erecting such public buildings as Congress might direct to be built; and (4) that if the legislature of Maryland should be willing to join in a cession of territory on the Patomac, the General Assembly would make a cession opposite to that ceded by Maryland, “freely leaving it with Congress to fix their residence on either Side of the said River as they may see proper,” but if Congress decided in this event to locate on the north side of the river, then Virginia would “contribute forty thousand pounds for the aforesaid Purposes in full confidence that the State of Maryland will supply the Deficiency” (attested copy of joint resolution in DLC: PCC No. 46, f. 55; endorsed in part by Thomson: “Read July 16. 1783. Copies to be made out and sent to the several states”; see JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, Washington, D.C., 1904–37, 34 vols. description ends , xxiv, 438, note; JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , May 1783, 1828 edn., p. 97, 98).

These resolutions also required that the “Governor with Advice of Council … make application to the … Citizens [of the district five miles square adjoining Williamsburg] and report their assent” to the Virginia delegates in Congress. This Harrison promptly did, apparently without consulting the Council (no reference to this matter appears in MS Va. Council Jour., Vi), by writing to the mayor of Williamsburg to “fall on some mode for obtaining” the sentiments of the inhabitants on the matter of yielding jurisdiction.” He added that “the sooner it is done the better as I am convinced from a late Circumstance Congress will not remain long where they now are. The Advantages that will derive to the Inhabitants of the City are so great that I doubt not their giving as ample Jurisdiction as Congress could wish” (Harrison to the mayor of Williamsburg, 4 July 1783, Executive Letter Book, Vi). On the same day Harrison sent the resolutions forward to the delegates in Congress, and exhibited evidence that the offer of Williamsburg was not expected to be accepted, but was apparently made to place Virginia and the Southern states in an advantageous bargaining position: he thought the legislature’s “offers are liberal, and I should think if consider’d impartially the latter [i.e., the last] would be accepted, as it will certainly be more central on either side of the Patowmack than at any of the other places proposed” (Harrison to Virginia delegates, 4 July 1783, same). But Harrison’s confidence that the inhabitants of Williamsburg would grant “ample Jurisdiction” encountered a reluctance not without parallel in the twentieth century when the permanent site of the United Nations was being selected. At a meeting of the citizens of Williamsburg, “together with those residing within five miles thereof,” the resolutions of the General Assembly and Harrison’s covering letter were discussed, with George Wythe presiding. The inhabitants stated that they were “fully sensible of the great Advantages which will redound to the state in general, as well as to the said district in particular” if Congress should decide to accept the offer and, if this should happen, they were “fully determined to exert their best endeavours to make the place agreeable, by promoting harmony and good order, that the members of that august body may never have reason to resent their choice.” But, they added, “this meeting are not authentically advised, what extent of jurisdiction would be satisfactory to Congress, and they find themselves upon that account at a loss to define with precision the cession they might be willing to make in that respect and can only deal in generals, until they can have an opportunity of seeing the expectations of the honorable Congress drawn more to a point.” In consequence, they concluded, “this meeting are willing to submit to any such jurisdiction as may be compatible with their political welfare, and worthy of generous minds either to demand or yield” (clerk’s copy of proceedings, DLC: PCC, No. 46, f. 89, endorsed: “Proceedings of the Inhabitants of Williamsburg … Read July 23. 1783. Referred to Mr. Duane Mr. Wilson Mr. Reed Mr. McHenry Mr. Madison”; JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, Washington, D.C., 1904–37, 34 vols. description ends , xxiv, 444, note).

“I now fulfil my Promise [to forward the account of the Williamsburg proceedings],” Gov. Harrison wryly informed the Virginia delegates, “… tho’ you will collect nothing from it, but that they are still jealous of our Liberty and are unwilling to give up any part of it even to Congress. However when your desires on the subject are made known which I wish to be as speedily as possible I doubt not but they will by their Moderation remove the apprehensions the Inhabitants of the District may be under of a loss of any part of their Liberty, and perhaps quiet some of the grave ones, on the score of the Luxury your Attendants will probably introduce” (Harrison to Virginia delegates, 12 July 1783, Executive Letter Book, Vi). But in the bitter contests that were developing over the permanent location of Congress, such cautious dealing “only … in generals” was not calculated to have any weight in the decision; two days before the present letter was written Elias Boudinot expressed the fear that “the late maneuvres relating to our erratic residence … [would lay] a solid Foundation for future divisions. It [the decision of Congress to have two residences, one at or near Trenton on the Delaware and the other at or near Georgetown on the Patomac; JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, Washington, D.C., 1904–37, 34 vols. description ends , xxv, 697–715] was not obtained in the most candid and generous way, and was finally accomplished by the most heterogenous Coalition that was in the power of Congress to Form” (Boudinot to Robert Morris, 23 Oct. 1783, Burnett, Letters of Members description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress description ends , vii, No. 410).

On the offers of Maryland, New Jersey, and New York, see same, vii, No. 215, note 2; these offers, along with that from Virginia, were transmitted to the governors of the various states on 22 July 1783 (same, vii, No. 272).

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