From Edmund Pendleton
Edmundsbury1 [Va.] Sepr 11. 1793
Being called to a public communication with you, I feel an Indispensible duty & inclination to pay you my personal respects at the same time, if it were only to reiterate, which I hope is unnecessary, sincere Assurances that neither time, or the dirty scriblings with which the public has been lately pestered, have produced the smallest abatement in my private Affection for you, or my unlimited confidence in yr Public Administration, both which are so rivited as not to be shaken by attacks much more weighty than those “Trifles light as Air.” such I hope and beleive is their estimation with you, so as to give you no uneasiness.2
Sequestered as I am in a manner from the Public world, I know little of what is doing in it, further than is retailed in the papers; and those appear to me in most instances a source of Partial, false or delusive Information. I find however that the Officer at the head of the fiscal department stands charged by some Members from hence, with misapplication of the public money, a charge & enquiry which will probably be revived & pursued with spirit at next Session—my wish is that it may be probed to the bottom, Impartial Justice done and the Public guarded agt all deviations from the laws of appropriation, (before the mischief is become considerable, or the practice acquires the strength of Custom,) except in extraordinary cases, by order of the Executive, and to be communicated to Congress for their approbation.3
I am an Utter stranger to the Gentn at the head of that department, & pretty much so to the detail of his Conduct, but I will confess to you Sir, that all his reports on Ways & means, from that on the funding System to the present day, have impressed me with an Idea of his having made the System of the British Minestry, the model of his conduct as assumed American Primate—chusing rather to trust to a monied Interest he has created, for the Support of his measures, than to their rectitude—I don’t say these were his motives, but such they appear to me, & I fear we shall long feel the effects of the System even if it were now to be changed, wch it is supposed would be improper, at least as to the funding System.
The Nondiscrimination he so much laboured, appeared to me a Sacrifice of the substance of Justice to it’s shadow; its effects do throw unearned wealth into a few unmeriting hands, instead of diffusing it (after repaying them their purchase money) to those who entitled themselves to it by the most Meritorious consideration.4
The assumption of the State debts in a lump before it was ascertained that they were created for common benefit (which would make them an equitable charge on the Union) seemed to me unaccountable, unless derived from the Secretary’s position that increase of public debt is beneficial; A maxim adopted by the British Cabinet, but unsupported by reason or other example, & it’s National effects there strangely misrepresented.5
The various kinds & Value of the new Certificates, I see inconveniencies in, but can discover no other reason for than to give the rich Speculators at or near the Seat of Government an advantage over the distant, uninformed, unwary or distressed Citizens and the recommended irredeemable quality, as a means of increasing their Credit in circulation, is a paradox of which no Solution has yet Occurred to my mind.6
A moderate Impost on all imported articles ad valorem, for the sole purpose of Revenue, laid equally through the States, altho’ it would have fallen more heavily on some than others, would yet have been unexceptionable, since the inequality would have been the effect of the chosen System of each. But to point out particular Articles as the subjects of high taxation, either as a Sumptuary regulation, or as a bounty, premium, or protecting duty to encourage American Manufactures, appears to Me an improper intermedling of Governmt with the labour of the Citizens7—peculiarly inconvenient, & producing effects partial & unjust in an Union of confederated States, dissimilar in their Systems of employing their labour; And rendring the amount of the estimated revenue precarious, which must be dim[in]ished in proportion, as the end proposed of prohibiting the importation, is answered, or the smugling of it increased by that of the temptation.
To the Sinking fund & Bank Systems have been attributed the Character of Handmaids in the hands of the Secretary, to aid his money’d Interest in accumulating still more Wealth to their unbounded Mass, by Speculations:8 but as I don’t throughly understand them, & they seem to be the Subjects of principle charge agt him & remain to be Agitated before the proper Tribunal, I will forbear any Observations as to them, and proceed to beg pardon for the Liberty I have taken in the free expressions of my sentiments on the others: I seldom wish to obtrude my Opinions where I am not called by duty, or request to give them—To you, Sir, I can do it freely, because I know you will make no improper use of what I say—if there be any hint which may be useful & has not occur’d, you will improve it to Public benefit; if none such, you will throw by the whole as the well meant reveries of a fireside Politician, who never had much Pretensions to the Character of a Statesman, but cordially hates all Intrigues, finesse & Stratagems in Government, as well as in Private transactions.
It may be thought that I owe a particular Appology for my freedom in the cases which have been sanctioned by Laws, to you who approved them but I can truly say I neither meant, nor do I think you involved in the mistaken Policy, if it was such; and as this may seem as great a paradox as that I have imputed to the Secretary, I will at Least attempt it’s Solution, as thus—I ever considered Your modified Negative upon the Laws, tho’ useful, as the most delicate part of the Presidential duty, (until the preservation of Neutrality in the present situation of things Occur’d.) For one man to set up his Opinion agt that of a Majority of two numerous bodies, representing the people to be governed by a law, & on that ground only to disapprove a law so Passed, would be very disagreable & no doubt much complained of: I always considered the Power as intended to be exercised on great Occasions, either when A law violates the Constitution (& so it has been once exercised, I believe wth general Approbation)9 or is produced by sudden heat of Parties. I therefore do not consider your suffering an Act to pass, as a proof that you would as a Member have voted for it, but to evince that you do not judge it a case in wch the Constitution meant you should interpose yr Negative. If this Solution don’t furnish my Appology, I know I shall find one in yr Candor, & on that I rest.
I am sorry to hear that Philadelphia is visited by a Pestilential fever, & cordially wish you may escape it, for your own Sake & that of mankind. After strugling for 8 years through various complaints apparently of a Chronic kind, I find myself tolerably easy, except as to lameness & the effects of 72, an old age for a man who has spent upwards of 50 of them in a Stretch of his mental powers, tho’ not equal to Mansfield or Franklin.10
That you may Long Continue here & happy, & when removed from this, experience increased & never ending Felicity in a better Countrey; & that the good Mrs Washington may participate in both, is the Cordial wish of Millions, but of none more so, than of My Dr Sir Yr ever Affectionate & mo. Obt Servt
1. Edmundsbury was the name of Pendleton’s plantation on Maracossic Creek, about nine miles southeast of Bowling Green in Caroline County.
2. In his public letter to GW of this date, Pendleton enclosed resolutions from a meeting of Caroline County, Va., citizens. “Trifles light as Air” is a reference to Iago’s lines in Act 3, Scene 3 of William Shakespeare’s “Othello”: “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ.”
3. For the congressional investigation into Alexander Hamilton’s actions as secretary of the treasury, see U.S. House of Representatives to GW, 23 Jan., n.1. Representative William Branch Giles of Virginia set out the case against Hamilton in a speech on 23 Jan. (Annals of Congress description begins Joseph Gales, Sr., comp. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature. 42 vols. Washington, D.C., 1834–56. description ends , 2d Cong., 2d sess., 835–40).
4. Pendleton is alluding to Hamilton’s argument in his Report on Public Credit of 9 Jan. 1790 that in the funding of the public debt no discrimination should be made “between original holders of the public securities, and present possessors, by purchase” (Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 6:73–78). In urging the contrary view, which was rejected in a House vote on 22 Feb. 1790, James Madison had argued that non-discriminatory funding would result in “exhorbitant accumulation of gain. . . made at the expence of the most meritorious part of the community” (Discrimination between Present and Original Holders of the Public Debt, 18 Feb. 1790, Madison Papers description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds. The Papers of James Madison, Congressional Series. 17 vols. Chicago and Charlottesville, Va., 1962–91. description ends , 13:47–58, quotation at 57).
5. Hamilton’s Report on Public Credit also argued for the assumption of state debts by the United States, which, along with funding, was made part of “An Act making provision for the [payment of the] Debt of the United States,” 4 Aug. 1790 (Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 6:78–83; Stat. description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends , 1:138–44).
6. The “Act making provision for the [payment of the] Debt of the United States” provided for subscriptions to “a loan to the full amount of the . . . domestic debt . . . payable in certificates issued for the said debt” of six different types therein listed (Stat. description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends , 1:139–40).
7. Here Pendleton is evidently taking issue with Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures of 5 Dec. 1791, which recommended the protection of a range of American manufactures by bounties or protective duties (Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 10:230–340). Hamilton had also used a sumptuary argument in partial justification of the increases in duties on wine, spirits, tea, and coffee recommended in his Report on Public Credit (Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 6:99–104).
8. In Hamilton’s Report on Public Credit, he recommended applying the post office revenue to a sinking fund for the payment of the national debt. He also briefly recommended the establishment of a national bank, although he saved the detailed exposition of his bank proposal for his “Second Report on the Further Provision Necessary for Establishing Public Credit,” 13 Dec. 1790, which was communicated to the House on 14 Dec. 1790 (Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 6:106–8, 7:305–42).
9. See GW to the United States House of Representatives, 5 April 1792, which stated two constitutional objections to “An Act for an apportionment of Representatives among the several States according to the first enumeration.”
10. Pendleton was referring to Benjamin Franklin and, probably, the noted judge William Murray (1705–1793), first earl of Mansfield.