James Madison Papers

Virginia Delegates to Thomas Nelson, 16 October 1781

Virginia Delegates to Thomas Nelson

RC (Historical Society of Pennsylvania). In Edmund Randolph’s hand, except for the signatures of JM and Joseph Jones.

Philadelphia oct: 16. 1781


Your excellency’s favor of the 5th. instant gives us great reason to flatter ourselves upon the present prospect in Virginia Intelligence from New-York announces a fixed purpose in Sir Henry Clinton to force his way into the Chesapeake, with a fleet of 26 certainly, and probably of 29, ships of the line and ten fireships.1 But we trust, that the bravery and ability, which have hitherto distinguished the French nation, and were so eminently displayed in the late rencontre of the duke de Lauzun,2 will destroy the illusive opinion of Great Britain, that she reigns the sovereign of the sea.

We learn from the same source of information, that about 40 transports have arrived at New-York under convoy of a ship of 44 guns and two frigates.3

In our letter of the last week, we promised a copy of our protest against the proceedings of a committee of congress with respect to our western territory.4 Since that time we received notice to attend on saturday last at a conference between the committee and the agent for the Illinois, Ouabache, and Indiana companies. We requested the committee to postpone the conference, until the extent of their power should be ascertained by a vote of congress: but we found, that application had been made for postponing by the agent.5 This business was adjourned to thursday, and will then be entered upon, unless we can arrest it by a motion this morning. It is our wish therefore to defer any farther communication on this head, until the fate of the intended motion shall be known.

Altho’ we have refused to submit the territorial rights of Virginia to this committee, we cannot forbear to recommend, from an experience of the calumnies, to which her title is daily exposed, that a representation of her claims should be prepared, and authentic documents collected, at the instance of government.6 The time may come, when the exercise of jurisdiction in congress will not be so objectionable, and so much opposed to the confederation, as the conduct of the committee now is.7 Should the cessions of Virginia and New-York be rejected, a contest may possibly arise between them, on the subject of the ceded territory. Impressed by the importance of these considerations, and the danger of injury to public records in a season of war, New-York has compiled every paper, which bears the most distant reference to her claims. Ought not Virginia to be equally wakful? She would derive much advantage, were a copy of her title-papers transmitted to her delegates in congress. At present[,] tho’ we are conscious of the justice of her demands, and may probably from memory run thro’ the grounds of them, we shall not consider ourselves fully armed, until we are furnished in the most authentic, formal and official manner.

We shall endeavour to secure to Virginia her proportion of clothing, agreeably to your excellency’s recommendation.8

We have the honor to be Sir, with great respect Yr mo. obt. servts.

Jos: Jones

J Madison Junr.

Edmund Randolph.

1General Heath’s letter of 7 October, read in Congress six days later, was the source of some of this information (NA: PCC, No. 157, fols. 332–36). President Thomas McKean may have shared with the Virginia delegates his “secret informations,” relayed to Washington on 14 October, to the effect that a British fleet, of the probable strength mentioned in the present dispatch, likely had sailed on 13 October from New York harbor to relieve Cornwallis (Burnett, Letters description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (8 vols.; Washington, 1921–36). description ends , VI, 239–40). In a letter of 14–15 October to Cornwallis, Clinton wrote that he expected the fleet to start on the 19th. As the ships were getting under way on that day, the British army at Yorktown was laying down its arms. The fleet reached the Chesapeake capes on 24 October (Benjamin F. Stevens, ed., Campaign in Virginia, II, 184–86, 199–203).

3Although the “same source” was probably Heath and McKean, mentioned in n. 1, the delegates may have read in the Pennsylvania Packet of 13 October about the arrival at Sandy Hook of the remainder of Admiral Digby’s fleet, comprising thirty-four ships under the convoy of a forty-gun man-of-war and three frigates. See JM to Pendleton, 18 September 1781, n. 2.

4See Virginia Delegates to Nelson, 9 October, and their Protest of 10 October 1781.

5James Wilson of Pennsylvania was the president of the united Illinois and Wabash companies; and William Trent, Jr. (1715–1787), of the Indiana Company. Except between 1768 and 1784, when he lived in Trenton, N.J., Trent was a resident of Pennsylvania. Before the close of his military service in King George’s and the French and Indian wars, he was well known in western Pennsylvania and the Ohio country as an Indian trader. In 1768, by the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the Six Nations of the Iroquois granted to Trent, Samuel Wharton, and George Morgan of Philadelphia a huge tract of land, known as “Indiana,” within the territory claimed by Virginia. Likewise within her borders were the enormous acreages claimed by Wilson’s companies and the Vandalia Company. These speculators, at the outset, pooled their efforts to have their titles recognized by the Virginia General Assembly, and, when this failed, turned to the Continental Congress (Charles Page Smith, James Wilson, Founding Father, 1742–1798 [Chapel Hill, N.C., 1956], pp. 160, 193; Sewell Elias Slick, William Trent and the West [Harrisburg, Pa., 1947], pp. 128–34, 155–76). See also 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, 176–78, 188, 191; Virginia Delegates to Nelson, 9 October, n. 7; and Motion on Western Lands, 16 October 1781.

6See Motion on Western Lands, 26 October 1781. So far as is known, no report on Virginia’s claims was forwarded to the delegates in the fall of 1781 or the winter following. When the present letter was written, the relevant documents were probably unavailable, since most of the extant state records were still at Staunton. Even after their return to Richmond, Governor Benjamin Harrison on 26 June 1782 would lament the loss of many “public papers” (McIlwaine, Official Letters description begins H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Official Letters of the Governors of the State of Virginia (3 vols.; Richmond, 1926–29). description ends , III, 256).

7The meaning of this sentence would be clearer if the “in” before “congress” were made “by,” and if “opposed to” were changed to “out of harmony with.”

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