James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Arthur Campbell, 28 October 1785

From Arthur Campbell

Washington1 Octo. 28th. 1785


An early acquaintance, a similarity of sentiment, and the deserved estimation you have attained to, in America, encourage me to address you on a subject, that is believed to be highly interesting to the Western Inhabitants, and perhaps not less so, to the eastern parts of the State.

After various essays of the People for a separation, and the subject being agitated, both in Congress, and before the legislature, the period seems to be arrived when a last discussion and final decision are to take place; in performing this weighty task aright, it will not only call for the best exertions of the able politician, but the temper of the good man.

The fixing of proper boundaries may be the most intricate part of the business. Men may be too apt to argue, and perhaps to vote, from their own feelings, and the lights they have at the present day, without taking into consideration, either the interests or approbation of posterity. The decisions now made, ought to invite an affectionate and grateful attachment, which will be more efficacious in promoting public security, than stone walls, or military engines.

On a careful perusal of that signal Act of Congress of April 23. 1784, it must be acknowleged, there is in it, striking marks of wisdom and foresight; yet we may be permitted to doubt, whether it will beneficially apply in all cases. Natural boundaries, where they nearly coincide with artificial ones, surely should have been prefered; and why might not that amendment be made by Congress yet.2

From what I have learnt, no doubt it will be expected by most of the States, that Virginia will follow the example of North Carolina, and fix her limits on the highths of the Allegany; a small departure from those limits, may be found the most convenient, and in time satisfactory to all. For instance, a line extended West: from the South West corner of Maryland, to the top of great Laurel-Mountain, thence Southwardly along the top of sd. Mountain, to where it is intersected by the great Kanhawa; up said River to the confluence of little River (near Ingles Ferry), thence South to the top of the Allegany or Apalachian Mountain; thence along the highest part of the same to the North-Carolina boundary. That part of the Western Country, over the Laurel Mountain and above the Kanhawa should be added to what is expected to be the State of Washington. That below the Kanhawa, and north of the 37°. degree, until that parallel touch the top of the Laurel Mountain, and east along that Mountain to the Kanhawa, to be the State of Kentuckey. The remaining half degree to be added to the State of Frankland. This will accord with the plan of Congress. By this scheme, it is judged that three New States might have existance immediately, which would vastly increase the strength, riches, and population of the United States. Washington, with a necessary cession from Pensylvania, would soon become a firm barrier against any attempts from the Western parts of Canada. Kentuckey, and Frankland, would circulate eastwardly some of the riches of Mexico, and keep the Spaniards, the Southern and Western Indians in awe. There may be local and individual interests, that will combat this scheme; but Virginia ought to see, that it will secure her Peace, and promote her lasting prosperity.3 The actual traveller may form the best judgment, or Commissioners sent to the spot to judge what are the most suitable boundarys; however, Mr. Hutchins Map gives a tolerable correct view of the Country.4

I cannot agree with the politicians, who urge, that we must ere long, have a consolidated Empire under one head, and abolish the different legislatures. Equally extravagant it appears, for one, or a few States, to erect a separate government, and dissolve the present Confederacy. Is not there much less difficulty, and far less danger, to limit the large States to a convenient, and suitable bounds; and then parcel out the Western territory, into proper divisions for free Communities, reform such of the Constitutions of the original States, as may be essentially defective and then make an effort, in good earnest, to give purity of manners, and morals, of course public virtue, a prevalence. Then may not twice thirteen States, if so many there be, unite in the closes[t] bands of amity, and reciprocal good offices, as to all national purposes, leaving to each of the Members of the Union, sovereignty and independence, as to internal legislation, and judiciary decisions.

Doctor Price, Abbe Mably, and Monsieur Turgot, hath lately said a number of good things, that ought to be attended to. I suppose we must agree with the latter, that it will take years, yet to come, to perfect our governments. When you, and I, sat in Convention in 1776, I thought the Virginia Constitution, was a specimen of consummate wisdom. I see many defects now; and it would perhaps surprize the World, if Frankland, those wild half civilized People, would produce a Form, as much superior to it, as Massachusetts is to Georgia. Divers essays ought therefore to be made, to improve the form of our government. The time may not be far distant, when we may feel the effects of external force, as well as secret intrigue to destroy it. If my intelligence from a distant Correspondent, is right; Great Britain from the moment she acknowleged our independence, set about devising means to render it of little avail. What she has already done, by introducing luxury, draining our money, impairing public credit, and destroying public spirit, may discover, that she will be systematical, in aiming at our destruction.

The foregoing hints, I have taken the liberty to transmit to you, not doubting but you will improve and make the best use of them; nor would I have used the freedom, had they not been approved, by a respectable Society in the Western Country, who aspires at the character of being real Commonwealths-Men.

I enclose a copy of some Resolves of the Frankland Assembly,5 that may shew the necessity of the Virginia Legislature, giving some attention to the present state of this Country, and the more especially, as the County of Washington, has no legal Representatives this year.6 Also a copy of a Petition of the Inhabitants,7 the original was sent to Mr. Stuart, one of the Members from Botetourt, some time ago; who it is expected, will present it to the Assembly, that our business may go hand, in hand, with that of Kentuckey. I am Sir, with much Esteem & Respect your most obedient Hlb. Servt.

Arthur Campbell

RC (DLC). Addressed. Docketed by JM, and in two unidentified hands. Enclosures missing.

1Washington County, Virginia, Campbell’s political base, when he was not urging statehood movements in Kentucky or North Carolina.

2The congressional resolution of 23 Apr. 1784 specified that land ceded to the Confederation “shall be divided into distinct states … as nearly as such cessions will admit; that is to say, by parallels of latitude, so that each State shall comprehend from north to south two degrees of latitude … and by meridians of longitude, one of which shall pass through the lowest point of the rapids of Ohio, and the other through the western cape of the mouth of the Great Kanhaway …” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXVI, 275). This was a stumbling block to Campbell’s plans for a state organized out of Washington County; so he tried to explain objections to the plan for a rational division of the western territory. Congress continued its formula for rational division in the Land Ordinance of 20 May 1785 (ibid., XXVIII, 375–81), but Campbell chose to ignore this development as he cherished dreams for a “State of Washington.”

3By Oct. 1785 Campbell’s plans to organize Washington County into an independent state were meeting stiff resistance both from local residents and the Virginia legislature. He probably wrote this letter to JM because the latter had been influential in the congressional motion for the cession of western land by Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. Since the motion discussed the future statehood of the ceded lands, Campbell hoped JM could provide some constitutional basis for his actions in Washington County.

Campbell had begun his program to separate Washington County from Virginia in 1782, by soliciting the opinions of its residents about the formal cession of their territory to the Confederation. By Jan. 1785 he had been successful enough in arousing support for separation that a petition for such action was presented to the Virginia Assembly. This, and the July 1785 declaration of independence by “the state of Frankland” had an effect opposite to Campbell’s plans. In the Oct. 1785 session of the Virginia legislature, a strong treason act was passed. Early in 1786, Campbell was accused of treasonous behavior, and depositions were taken showing that Campbell was more interested in increasing his landholdings than in preserving and promoting the freedom of the county residents. After new depositions were taken, Campbell was called before a board of commissioners and deprived of his office as county judge. His efforts to build support across his county were not, however, forgotten, and he was reinstated as judge at the request of the county court. In 1787 he was elected to the House of Delegates, and continued his career in spite of the blemish of separation activities (Lillian Stuart Butt, “The Political Career of Arthur Campbell,” unpublished M.S. thesis, University of Virginia, 1934, pp. 15–47).

4Thomas Hutchins prepared a map for A Topographical Description of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina … (London, 1778), and traveled extensively through the west, keeping journals and drawing maps. In 1785 he was Geographer of the United States (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXVII, 291).

5Two Franklin resolves were passed by the second general assembly held at Jonesborough on 1 Aug. 1785. The first concerned what were considered illegal confiscations of land; the second, the establishment of “a lasting and permanent union as well with North Carolina as the rest of the States on the continent.” These resolutions were formally submitted to the North Carolina Assembly (Williams, History of the Lost State of Franklin [1933 ed.], pp. 90–91).

6Campbell’s cryptic remark goes against the facts. Andrew Kincannon and William Russell represented Washington County in the 1785 session of the House of Delegates (Swem and Williams, Register description begins Earl G. Swem and John W. Williams, eds., A Register of the General Assembly of Virginia, 1776–1918, and of the Constitutional Conventions (Richmond, 1918). description ends , p. 22). The House found no illegality in their election (JHDV 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 is the one in which the journals for 1777–1786 are brought together in two volumes, with each journal published in Richmond in either 1827 or 1828 and often called the “Thomas W. White reprint.” description ends , Oct. 1785, p. 74).

7At the Oct. 1785 session the only petition from Washington County read in the House concerned the division of Lincoln County into three districts; the division affected the boundary of Washington County (ibid., Oct. 1785, p. 63). Campbell may allude to a separatist petition which Archibald Stuart of Botetourt County prudently seems to have ignored.

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