James Madison Papers

From James Madison to Edmund Pendleton, 18 September 1781

To Edmund Pendleton

RC (LC: Madison Papers). Docketed by Pendleton, “James Maddison Esqr. Sepr. 18th. 1781.”

Philada. Sepr. 18th. 1781

Dear Sir

I was yesterday favored with yours of the 10th. instant. The various reports arrived of late from Chesapeake prepared us for a confirmation from our correspondents of a fortunate rencontre between the 2 fleets. A continuation of these reports although unsupported by any authentic evidence still keeps up the public anxiety. We have not heard a word of de Barras.1 The arrival of Digby is far from being certain, and the circulating reports have reduced his force to six ships of the line.2 The preparations at New York for some movement are pretty well attested. The conjectures of many are directing it against this City, as the most practicable & important object within the reach of Clinton.3 The successful blow struck by the parricide Arnold against the Town of New London is described as far as the particulars are known here in the inclosed gazettes4 There have been several arrivals of late from Europe with very little intelligence of any kind & with none from official sources. It all relates to the junction of the French & Spanish fleets, for the purpose of renewing the investiture of Gibralter, and enterprising something against Minorca.5 Thus the selfish projects of Spain not only withholds from us the co-operation [of their] armaments, but diverts in part that of our Allies, & yet we are to reward her with a cession of what constitutes the value of the finest part of America.6

Genl. Washington & the Ct. de Rochambeau with the forces under them have I presume by this time got wi[th]in Virginia.7 This revolution in our military plan can not fail to produce great advantages to the Southern department and particularly to Virginia, even if the immedia[te] object of it should be unexpectedly frustrated. The presence of the Commander in chief with the proportion of our force which will always attend him, will better protect the Country against the depredations of the Enemy[,] although he should be followed by troops from N. Y.8 which wd. otherwise remain there, than it has hitherto been, will leave the Militia more at leisure to pursue their occupations at the same time that the demands of their Armies will afford a sure market for the surplus provisions of the Country, will diffuse among them a share of the gold & silver of our Ally9 & I may now say of our own of wch. their Northern Brethren have hitherto had a monopoly which will be peculiarly grateful to them after having been so long gorged with depreciating paper; and as we may suppose that the Ships of our Ally allotted for our service will so long as his troops remain in the S. States be kept in Chesapeak,10 it will revive the trade thro’ that channel, reduce the price of imported necessaries & raise the staple of the Country11 once more to its proper value.

I am Dr. Sir your sincere friend & obt. Servt.

J. Madison Junr.

1See JM to Pendleton, 3 September, n. 3; and Jameson to JM, 15 September 1781, n. 8. The first news of Barras’ arrival in Chesapeake Bay was apparently received in Philadelphia on the day this letter was written (Burnett, Letters description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (8 vols.; Washington, 1921–36). description ends , VI, 222).

2In his dispatch of 24 September to Cornwallis, Clinton wrote, “Admiral Digby is this moment arrived at the Hook, with three sail of the line” (Benjamin F. Stevens, ed., Campaign in Virginia, II, 160). See also Virginia Delegates to Nelson, 24 July 1781, n. 6.

3On 30 September Clinton wrote Cornwallis to ask whether he could hold out until the reinforcements from New York reached Virginia. Clinton added that, if the reply was negative, “I will immediately make an attempt upon Philadelphia by land” (Benjamin F. Stevens, ed., Campaign in Virginia, II, 172). See also Virginia Delegates to Nelson, 11 September 1781, and n. 2.

4Probably the Pennsylvania Packet of 13 and 18 September 1781. The earlier of these issues contains the first mention by a Philadelphia newspaper of Arnold’s burning of New London and Groton, Conn., on 6 September. See Virginia Delegates to Nelson, 18 September 1781, and n. 3.

6The “reward” to Spain, provided that her king gave military assistance, was to be a relinquishment by the United States of the right of Americans to navigate the Mississippi River freely, thereby, in JM’s view, destroying the main asset of the West. For JM’s prominent share in this issue, see Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (2 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , II, 108, n. 9; 115; 130; 132–35; 205, nn. 3, 8, 15; 231; 302–3.

7See Jameson to JM, 15 September 1781, n. 1. By 14 September Washington had established his headquarters at Williamsburg (Douglas S. Freeman, George Washington, V, 329–30).

8By “the Country,” JM meant Virginia, and by “troops from N. Y.,” all or a part of Clinton’s command.

9Grasse brought in 800,000 livres in silver, a pile of metal so heavy that the floor of the room in which it was stored “broke in pieces with a great noise” and hurled the servant of the French commissary into the cellar (Thomas Balch, ed., The Journal of Claude Blanchard, Commissary of the French Auxiliary Army Sent to the United States during the American Revolution, 1780–1783, translated by William Duane [Albany, N.Y., 1876], p. 143).

10Following his arrival in Chesapeake Bay, Grasse was “in a great hurry to return” to the West Indies or to engage the British fleet at New York. Importuned by Washington, Grasse promised on 25 September to remain and “act in concert for the good of our operations” (Louis Gottschalk, ed., Letters of Lafayette to Washington, p. 225; Institut Français de Washington, ed., Correspondence of General Washington and Comte de Grasse, 1781, August 17–November 4, Senate Doc. 211, 71st Cong., 2d sess. [Washington, 1931], pp. 46, 48–52).


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