James Madison Papers

Motion on Navigation of Mississippi, [1 February] 1781

Motion on Navigation of Mississippi

MS (LC: Continental Congress Miscellany). Entirely in JM’s hand. Docketed by Charles Thomson, “Motion, Respecting the Mississipi by the delegates of Virginia Feby. 1. 1781.”

[1 February 1781]1

The Delegates from Virginia have received an instruction from the General Assembly of that State2 which authorises them to inform Congress, that the zeal of their Constituents to promote the general object of the Union and to remove as far as depends on them every reasonable obstacle to the speedy conclusion of an Alliance between his Catholic Majesty & these States has so far prevailed over all considerations of a particular interest, that they have consented to withdraw the claim urged in their former instructions to their Delegates on the subject,3 to the navigation of the river Mississippi, except of such part thereof as forms their Western boundary: provided such cession shall be insisted on by Spain; and relying on Congress for their utmost endeavours to obtain for that & the other States having territory on the said river a free port or ports below such territory. In pursuance of the object of this instruction the Delegates aforesaid propose that the following letter of instruction be immediately transmitted to the Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States at the Court of Madrid.


Congress having, since their instructions to you of the   day of  4 relative to the claim of the United States to the free navigation of the river Mississippi & to a free port or ports below the 31st. degree of N. Latitude resumed the consideration of that subject, & being desirous to manifest to all the world & particularly to his Catholic Majesty the moderation of their views, the high value they place on the friendship of his Catholic Majesty and their disposition to remove every reasonable obstacle to his accession to the Alliance subsisting between his M. C. Majesty & the U. States, in order to unite the more closely in their measures & operations three powers who have so great a Unity of Interests, & thereby compel the common Enemy to5 a speedy just & honorable peace, have resolved, and you are accordingly hereby instructed to recede from the instructions above referred to, so far as they insist on the free navigation of that part of the river Mississippi which lies below the 31st degree of N. L and on a free port or ports below the same; provided such cession shall be unalterably insisted on by Spain, and provided the free navigation of the said river above the said degree of N Latitude shall be acknowledged & guaranteed by his C Majesty to the Citizens of the United States in common with his own subjects. It is the Order6 of Congress at the same time that you exert every possible effort to obtain from his C. Majesty the Use of the river aforesaid with a free port or ports below the said 31st. degree of N. Latitude for the Citizens of the United States,7 under such regulations & restrictions only as may be a necessary safeguard against illicit commerce.8

1Although this is the date on the docket, the printed journal of the Continental Congress contains no reference to this statement and proposed letter until 15 February.

3See Bland to Jefferson, 22 November 1780, n. 4. Instead of the word “urged,” JM first wrote “stated” and then deleted it.

4See Draft of Letter to John Jay, 17 October 1780. On 15 February 1781, when Congress agreed to this proposed letter, these blanks were filled in with “the 29th September, 1799, and 4 of October, 1780” (Journals of the Continental Congress, XIX, 152). If the printed journals are accurate, it was on 28 (not 29) September that Congress first instructed Jay to stand firm at Madrid for “the free navigation of the river Mississippi into and from the sea.” Congress reaffirmed this instruction on 4 October 1780 (ibid., XV, 1119; XVIII, 900).

5After “to,” JM wrote “bestow” and then crossed it out.

6Here JM first wrote “command,” and above it he put “directed.” He crossed out the latter and substituted “order,” but neglected to delete “command.”

7Following “States,” JM at first wrote “having territory therein.” By striking out these qualifying words and then inserting “United” before “States,” he significantly changed the extent of the concession which Jay was to “exert every possible effort” to obtain.

8As printed in the journal, “I am, &c. S. Huntington, President” follows “commerce.” Congress adopted the letter by a vote of seven state delegations. Three states, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and North Carolina, were opposed and New York was equally divided. The votes of New Jersey and Maryland were lost because each had only one delegate in Congress (ibid., XIX, 153–54). Jay received the instruction on 18 May 1781 (Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, D.C., 1889). description ends , IV, 740).

Index Entries