James Madison Papers

Report on Personal Liability of Officers of the United States, 13 March 1782

Report on Personal Liability
of Officers of the United States

MS (NA: PCC, No. 19, V, 171–73). Docketed in JM’s hand: “Report of the Committee on the letter from Colo. Pickering—Mr Livermore Mr Madison Mr Clarke[.] Passed March 19. 1782.” A copy of the report is owned by Charles M. Storey of Boston.

March 13th. 1782.

The Committee to whom was referred the report of the Committe[e] on the letter of   day of   from Coll. Pickering submit the following report.1

It being represented to Congress that divers suits have been & that others probably will be brought agst. the officers & servants of the U. States, for debts contracted by them with individuals for supplies furnished, or services rendered to the U. States, whereby such officers & servants may be exposed to great trouble & expence, in cases2 where the failure to discharge their contracts hath proceeded from the deficiency of the advances recd. by them from the public treasury: And Congress having by their Resolution of the 2d. of Novr. last provided for the redemption of certificates for supplies & services afforded to the U. S. by resolving to accept the same from the States producing them in payment of balances due on former requisitions; & by subsequent resolutions3 having directed the appointment of Commisers. for liquidating & settling4 all such certificates & other demands agst. the U. S. as also Commisers. for settling finally the Accts. of the aforesaid officers & servants, whereby it will appear in what cases non payment of the debts contracted by them hath proceeded from misapplication of public monies advanced to them; & Congress having moreover recommended to the several Legislatures to make the necessary provision for the speedy & effectual recovery in behalf of the U. States of all balances which shall be found due from such officers & servts.


That it be & hereby is recommended to the Legislatures of the several States to make suitable provision for staying all suits wch. have been brought & preventing future suits by individuals agst. the aforesaid officers & Servants for debts contracted by them for supplies furnished or services rendered to the U. States.5

1The copy owned by Charles M. Storey begins: “By the United States in Congress Assembled—March 19th. 1782—On a report of a Committee, consisting of Mr. Livermore, Mr. Madison and Mr. Clark to whom was committed a report on a Letter of the twenty fifth of February from Colonel T. Pickering Quarter Master General.” Although no mention of the fact appears in the printed journal, Congress referred Timothy Pickering’s letter (NA: PCC, No. 192, fol. 89) to a committee of five members, with John Morin Scott as chairman. Following the submission of their report on 7 March, Congress named a new committee to rewrite the recommendation (ibid., No. 192, fols. 93–96). The present version bears little resemblance to Scott’s report, but the resolutions at the close of the two drafts are alike in their general tenor. Pickering’s request that state courts be barred from entertaining suits against him or his agents when, through no fault of their own, they were unable to fulfill their contracts for the purchase of military supplies recalls JM’s committee report to Congress about Quartermaster General Nathanael Greene’s liability for the financial dealings of members of his staff whom he could not closely supervise (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (4 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , II, 44–46).

2At first JM wrote “even in cases.”

3For the resolution of 2 November 1781, see JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 1091. For the “subsequent resolutions,” see Report on Settlement of Accounts, 20 and 27 February 1782; and JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXII, 83–86, 102–4.

4After “settling,” JM wrote and deleted “the accounts of the aforesaid officers & servants.”

5The following addendum was moved by Abraham Clark and accepted by Congress: “Provided always that nothing in said Resolution contained shall be construed to imply an Opinion in Congress that the af[oresai]d. Officers & Servants of these united States are personally liable for any debts contracted by them for the Use & Benefit of the said States” (NA: PCC, No. 19, V, 175). Although Governor Harrison was not officially notified of the present resolution (an omission he attributed to “accident”), he invited the attention of the Virginia General Assembly on 4 June to the resolution as printed in the journals of Congress. Again on 21 October, following his receipt of Robert Morris’ letter of 17 August 1782 on the subject, Harrison followed the same course (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, 242, 348). The legislature declined to act. On 17 May 1783 William Finnie, stating that he was being sued “in his private character” for obligations incurred during his service as deputy quartermaster general of the southern army, petitioned the Assembly to adopt the congressional resolutions as state law. His petition was rejected by the House of Delegates (Journal of the House of Delegates description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia; Begun and Held at the Capitol, in the City of Williamsburg. Beginning in 1780, the portion after the semicolon reads, Begun and Held in the Town of Richmond. In the County of Henrico. The journal for each session has its own title page and is individually paginated. The edition used, unless otherwise noted, is the one in which the journals for 1777–1786 are brought together in two volumes, with each journal published in Richmond in 1827 or 1828, and often called the “Thomas W. White reprint.” description ends , May 1783, pp. 10, 34).

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