James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Thomas Law, 18 October 1797

From Thomas Law

Washington City Octor 18th 1797.


For particular reasons (a chief one is that I have a claim for 10000 £ Stg now pending in England) altho’ I am married to a Virginian Lady1 & have almost the whole of my fortune vested in America, I am adverse to taking the oath required to entitle me to the rights of Citizenship. I therefore wish to hold lands in Virginia as a foreigner & to request your advice & aid if you approve of my petitioning the legislature.2

Pensylvania has flourished by the introduction of foreign capitals & by the emigrants who promote agriculture & manufactures & open roads dig Canals & increase industry & consequently prosperity.3

In New York the State has not granted a general permission, but foreigners upon petitioning obtain an Act without difficulty to hold lands4 & shortly after my arrival there a gentleman gave me a Petition to sign & leave was immediately granted to me & I bought lands which I wish to sell or to exchange for other land in Virginia, as the latter will be more under my inspection & as I have a plan to settle Mrs Laws slaves on a tract to work out their freedom.

It were presumption in me to expatiate upon the political consequences to result from encouraging Europeans to settle in Virginia, because I cannot be so fully acquainted with the various arguments that m[a]y arise; one I have heard is that a European will benefit by buying the land, but surely that jealous objection would go to selling of tobacco flour &ca. Another more specious objection is, that they might influence elections, but what interest can a foreigner possess difft. from that of the State—& how very few comparatively would hold Lands. The object of a purchaser would be to improve his estate by emigrants & by roads buildings &ca. I conceive that Virginia should particularly adopt every method to introduce more whites & if possible to diminish the blacks, whereas an enemy to America once exultingly told me that the blacks multiplied faster than the whites & that if the French got a footing to the Southward their first step would be to proclaim freedom to the Negroes & thus bloodshed & anarchy would ensue. If emigrants were fixed to the Westward would they not combat against Indians & Negroes? But I forbear to digress. My friends—in India are looking to this Country for quiet & security,5 but I cannot now purchase a tract of land for any one in Virginia & must therefore look towards the Mississippi. I have known some foreigners lately take the old simple oath of allegiance to the United States & hold lands in Virginia without forswearing for ever their King & Country according to the New Oath,6 & I have heard of some who have taken the ne⟨w⟩ oath as a mere matter of form & assert that they are still subjects of the king of Great Britain. I despise evasions & therefore desire openly to hold lands as a foreigner & I apply to you for advice & aid because my mind does not suggest any solid reason against the adoption of the proposed measure to allow it on Petition. With particular Compts. to Mrs Maddison I remain yr mt faithful & obt St

Thomas Law7

RC (DLC). Docketed by JM.

1Thomas Law married Elizabeth Parke Custis (1776–1832), a granddaughter of Martha Washington, in 1796 (Jackson and Twohig, Diaries of George Washington, 4:72, 6:239).

2Law’s petition to hold title to land was necessary because Virginia adhered to the common-law doctrine that an alien could not acquire real property. A 1792 Virginia act permitted foreigners to “assign or transfer warrants or certificates of survey for lands” and “locate and have the same surveyed,” but they were given two years to become citizens or to transfer their rights in the land. One of JM’s criticisms of the Jay treaty was that article 9 permitted “aliens to hold land in perpetuity,” a permission that he claimed was not found “in any treaty that ever was made.” There is no evidence that Law followed through with his intention to petition the Virginia legislature (Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England [4th ed., 1770], 1:371–72; Shepherd, Statutes description begins Samuel Shepherd, ed., The Statutes at Large of Virginia, from October Session 1792, to December Session 1806 … (new ser.; 3 vols.; Richmond, 1835–36). description ends , 1:72; JM’s speech of 15 Apr. 1796, PJM description begins Robert J. Brugger et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison: Secretary of State Series (1 vol. to date; Charlottesville, Va., 1986—). description ends , 16:317).

3A Pennsylvania law passed in February 1789 enabled alien friends to purchase and hold real estate in that state (Alexander J. Dallas, Laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania [4 vols.; Philadelphia, 1793], 2:645).

4New York allowed aliens to purchase land on a case-by-case basis (see Kline, Papers of Burr description begins Mary-Jo Kline, ed., Political Correspondence and Public Papers of Aaron Burr (2 vols.; Princeton, N.J., 1983). description ends , 1:288 n. 4, 289).

5Despite the social ostracism experienced by wealthy Anglo-Indian “nabobs” in England at the time, Thomas Twining, who visited Law in 1796, was skeptical of his plan to encourage the emigration of his old East Indian friends, writing that he “deeply regretted this delusion.… I could not think, nor hardly hope, that they [East Indians] would desert the refined charms of the Thames, their families and country, to colonize and smoke their hookahs on the banks of the Potomac” (James M. Holzman, The Nabobs in England: A Study of the Returned Anglo-Indian, 1760–1785 [New York, 1926], pp. 15–33; Thomas Twining, Travels in America 100 Years Ago [New York, 1893], p. 110).

6The Naturalization Act of 1795, unlike that of 1790, required “an oath of abjuration, as well as of allegiance” (JM to Jefferson, 11 Jan. 1795, PJM description begins Robert J. Brugger et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison: Secretary of State Series (1 vol. to date; Charlottesville, Va., 1986—). description ends , 15:440).

7Thomas Law (1759–1834) worked in India for nearly twenty years as an administrator for the British East India Company. After immigrating to the U.S. in 1794, Law plunged heavily into land speculation and the development of Washington, D.C., which eventually led him into difficulties and the loss of most of his large fortune. Thomas Twining was prescient when he wrote, “as a foreigner, and particularly as an Englishman, Mr. Law could never possess any political weight in the country; and his inexperience in commercial affairs … might expose him to litigation and disappointment, and involve a considerable diminution of his fortune” (George A. Townsend, “Thomas Law, Washington’s First Rich Man,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, 4 [1901]: 222–45; Twining, Travels in America, p. 110).

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