Bill Providing for
Installment Payments on British Debts
[19 December 1785]
Whereas by the 4th art: of the Definitive Treaty of peace between the U. S. of America & G. B. it was stipulated among other things by the contracting parties, “that Creditors on either side shall meet with no lawful impediment to the recovery of the full value in sterling money of all bona fide debts heretofore contracted”. Be it therefore enacted by the Genl. Assembly that so much of all Acts of Assembly and ordinances of Convention made since the 19th. day of April 1775, as disable British subjects from prosecuting for the recovery of debts due from the Citizens of this Commonwlth, shall be and the same are hereby repealed:1 and that from and after the passing of this act, the said British subjects may sue and implead the Citizens of this Commonwlth in like manner as if such disabling acts or ordinances had never passed. Provided always, that in consideration of the almost total suspension of Commerce and the depredations of the Enemy during the late war, which render an immediate discharge of the whole of the said debts impracticable, the same so far as they become due before the day of the date of the provisional articles of peace, may be discharged by equal payments; the first of which shall be demandable on the day of in the year and the remaining payments successively on the same day in the years next following: But no interest on any debt due to any British subject from any Citizen of this Comonwlth shall be allowed for any intermediate time between the 19th. day of April 1775 and the 3d. day of March 1783, which intermediate time shall be considered in law as one day only in all matters depending between the said British Creditors and Citizens of this Commonwealth.
And whereas in many instances the Agents or Factors for British Merchants who remained here during the late war may have settled the Accounts of such Merchants with their debtors since the 19th day of April 1775, and taken bonds or [ot]her specialties therefor in specie in their own or such Merchants names, for the principal sum [d]ue, or for the Principal and interest together, whereby it may appear that such bonds or specialties were due to Citizens of this Commonwealth. Be it enacted that all Bonds, or other Specialties given to Citizens or others for any debt or debts due to British subjects since the said 19th day of April 1775 and prior to the day of shall be considered as British Debts [and] shall be recoverable as such only, and shall carry no interest during the period between the 19th day of April 1775 and the 3d. day of March 1783.
And be it further enacted that any of the said British debts which have been adjusted since the said 3d. day of March 1783, and bonds and other specialties given therefor, shall be discharged by way of the instalments aforesaid, notwithstanding their subsequent date to the said 3d. day of March 1783 and if any part of the specialty so given shall be for interest allowed between the 19th. day of April 1775, and the 3d. day of March 1783, the same so far as it shall be for such interest shall be and is hereby declared null and void.
And be it further enacted that if the Creditor is put to his Action at law for any balance due to him, execution on the Jdgt. when obtained shall issue for such proportion only of the same as shall have accrued at the time of rendering the Jdgt. according to the periods of payment heretofore established; and execution for the residue may issue annually until the whole shall be discharged, without any further proceedings on the said Jdgt.: provided always that the person agst. whom such Jdgt. shall be obtained shall in open Court with one or more sufficient sureties enter into recognizance for payment of such Jdgt. in the proportions and at the times prescribed by this Act: and in default thereof execution may issue for the full amount of such Jdgt. against the person or Estate of such debtor.
And be it further enacted that no Citizen of this Commonwlth who has been a resident within the same since the day of and who was a partner with any British Merchant or Merchts. shall be compelled to pay the debts due by such Copartnership otherwise than by instalments as is by this act directed in case of debts due to British subjects from Citizens of this Comonwlth. except for such part or share of such copartnership as may be held by such Citizen, for which he shall remain liable as other Citizens are, and shall also be entitled to recoveries in all respects equally with his fellow Citizens so far as the share held by him shall extend in debts due to such copartnerships.
Provided always and be it further enacted that in case the U S. in Congress shall at any time judge that the execution of this Act, ought for national purposes to be suspended, and shall signify the same it shall and may be lawful for the Governor with advice of the Council of State, by proclamation to suspend the operation of this Act until the next ensuing General Assembly.2
Ms (Vi). In JM’s hand and docketed by him, “A Bill to enable British subjects to recover their debts from Citizens of this Commonwealth.” Endorsed by clerks, with an annotation, facing a bracket symbol, “Madison, Stuart, A. White, Corbin, Thruston, Zane.”
1. JM and Joseph Jones were leaders of the faction in Richmond that believed a state could not act contrary to the pledged honor of the U. S. No doubt JM acted in concert with Jones at the May 1784 session of the General Assembly, when resolutions acknowledging the debts to British merchants and a proposal for installment payments were rejected (Resolutions on Private Debts Owed to British Merchants, 7–23 June 1784). When Jones moved to the Council of State the burden of leadership toward some kind of compromise fell on JM. Whatever his feelings regarding the justice of the anti-debt viewpoint in Virginia, he saw that with Henry still out of the legislature the chance of revising the bill (which had been sidetracked a year earlier) were much improved. “The shadow of assent” from those delegates usually under Henry’s thumb emboldened JM and his following; so they brought out this bill on 19 Dec., and after vigorous debate it was left on the table (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. 115). Then the old prejudices and vested interests came to the surface again, and as JM reported to Jefferson, friends of the measure “thought it best to let it sleep” (22 Jan. 1786). The matter was still unsettled in 1787 and became an issue in the ratification contest in Virginia (Harrell, Loyalism in Virginia, pp. 156–57; Jackson Turner Main, The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781–1788 [Chapel Hill, 1961], p. 229).
2. The strongest argument of the faction against debt repayment was that the infraction of the peace treaty was not one-sided. They continually insisted that no debts should be repaid until the British withdrew from the Northwest Territory posts they still occupied. This feeling was so intense that an act passed the General Assembly in 1787 suspending compliance with the 1783 treaty “until the governor with the advice of council shall by his proclamation, notify to this state, that Great Britain hath delivered up to the United States the posts therein now occupied by British troops” (Hening, Statutes description begins William Waller Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619 (13 vols.; Richmond and Philadelphia, 1819–23). description ends , XII, 528).