James Madison Papers
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From James Madison to George Washington, 11 November 1785

To George Washington

Richmond Novr. 11. 1785

Dear Sir

I recd. your favor of the 29th. ulto. on thursday. That by Col. Lee had been previously delivered. Your letter for the Assembly was laid before them yesterday.1 I have reason to believe that it was received with every sentiment which could correspond with yours. Nothing passed from which any conjecture could be formed as to the objects which would be most pleasing for the appropriation of the fund. The disposition is I am persuaded much stronger to acquiesce in your choice whatever it may be, than to lead or anticipate it: and I see no inconveniency in your taking time for a choice that will please yourself.2 The letter was referred to a Committee which will no doubt make such report as will give effect to your wishes.

Our Session commenced very inauspiciously with a contest for the Chair which was followed by a rigid scrutiny into Mr. Harrison’s election in his County. He gained the Chair by a majority of 6 votes and retained his seat by a majority of still fewer. His residence was the point on which the latter question turned. Doctr. Lee’s election was questioned on a similar point and was also established; but it was held to be vitiated by his acceptance of a lucrative post under the United States.3 The House have engaged with some alacrity in the consideration of the Revised Code prepared by Mr. Jefferson Mr. Pendleton and Mr. Wythe. The present temper promises an adoption of it in substance. The greatest danger arises from its length compared with the patience of the members. If it is persisted in it must exclude several matters which are of moment, but I hope only for the present Assembly. The pulse of the H. of D. was felt on thursday with regard to a general manumission by a petition presented on that subject. It was rejected without dissent but not without an avowed patronage of its principle by sundry respectable members. A motion was made to throw it under the table, which was treated with as much indignation on one side, as the petition itself was on the other. There are several petitions before the House against any step towards freeing the slaves, and even praying for a repeal of the law which licences particular manumissions.4 The Merchants of several of our Towns have made representations on the distresses of our commerce, which have raised the question whether relief shall be attempted by a reference to Congs. or by measures within our own Compass. On a pretty full discussion it was determined by a Large majority that the power over trade ought to be vested in Congress, under certain qualifications. If the qualifications suggested & no others should be annexed, I think they will not be subversive of the principle tho’ they will no doubt lessen its utility. The Speaker Mr. M. Smith & Mr. Braxton are the champions against Congress. Mr. Thruston & Mr. White have since come in, and I fancy I may set down both as auxiliaries. They are however not a little puzzled by the difficulty of substituting any practicable regulations within ourselves. Mr. Braxton proposed two that did not much aid his side of the question; the 1. was that all British vessels from the W. Indies should be excluded from our ports—the 2. that no Merchant should carry on trade here untill he sd. have been a resident years. Unless some plan freer from objection can be devised for this State, its patrons will be reduced clearly to the dilemma of acceding to a general one, or leaving our trade under all its present embarrassments. There has been some little skirmishing on the ground of public faith, which leads me to hope that its friends have less to fear than was surmised. The Assize & Port Bills have not yet been awakened. The Senate will make a House today for the first time. With the greatest respect & regard I have the honor to be Dr. Sir, Yr. Obedt. & very Hble Servt.

J. Madison Jr.

P. S. Inclosed herewith are two reports from the Commssrs for examining the head of James River &c. and the ground between the waters of Elizabeth River & N. Carolina—also a sensible pamphlet said to be written by St. George Tucker5 of this State.

RC (DLC: Washington Papers); FC (DLC). Cover and enclosures missing. Docketed by Washington.

1Washington’s letter to Governor Henry of 29 Oct. 1785 (Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, 1931–44). description ends , XXVIII, 303–4). Washington followed JM’s (and others’) advice by declining ownership of the canal company shares and allocating them to philanthropic purposes.

2The act repealing the gift set no time limit on Washington’s decision but instead appropriated the shares “and profits hereafter accruing therefrom … to such objects of a public nature, in such manner” as Washington “by deed during his life, or by his last will and testament, shall direct” (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, 44). See Freeman, Washington, VI, 28–29.

3Arthur Lee’s election to the House of Delegates as a Prince William County representative was upheld by his peers, but they did an about-face when Lee’s right to serve in the legislature, and also to hold office as a U. S. treasury commissioner, was challenged. Thereupon, the House decided Lee had to vacate his seat. JM voted for Lee’s retention of the seat, a maneuver perhaps made expedient because of Lee’s family connections (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, pp. 15–17). After Lee left the General Assembly he served in the department of finance until 1789, when the treasury board was dissolved (R. H. Lee, Life of Arthur Lee, I, 172–73).

4The petition for emancipation of the slaves was drawn up by a group of Methodists under the leadership of Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke in early May 1785. It “was given to every Preacher, intreating the General Assembly of Virginia, to pass a Law for the immediate or gradual emancipation of all the Slaves. It is to be signed by all the Freeholders we can procure, and those I believe will not be few” (Matthews, “Notes on the Proposed Abolition of Slavery in Virginia in 1785,” Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Publications, VI [1904], 371, 375–76; Thomas Coke, Extracts of the Journals of the Rev. Dr. Coke’s Three Visits to America [London, 1790], p. 39). Notice of the petition was published in the Va. Gazette description begins Virginia Gazette, or, the American Advertiser (Richmond, James Hayes 1781–86). description ends , 6, 13 Aug., 5 Nov. 1785. Presented and read to the House on 8 Nov. 1785, it was rejected “nemine contra dicente” 10 Nov. On the same day petitions against a general emancipation from Amelia, Brunswick, Halifax, and Pittsylvania were presented. On 29 Nov. petitions for repeal of the 1781 law allowing personal manumission were presented from Lunenburg and Halifax counties. Carter Henry Harrison on 14 Dec. reported from the Committee of Propositions and Grievances on the Halifax petitions, resolving that the repeal of the act to authorize the manumission of slaves is reasonable. A parliamentary struggle ensued in which a motion was made to strike out “is reasonable” and insert “be rejected.” The House was divided 50 ayes to 50 noes, and the motion lost when Speaker Benjamin Harrison voted no. The main question was then put to the House and passed by a vote of 52 to 51. In both instances, JM voted against repealing the act. The Committee of Propositions and Grievances was then ordered to prepare and bring in a bill, which was rejected on 24 Dec. A special committee ordered to bring in a bill to amend the act authorizing manumission was presented and rejected on 17 Jan. 1786 (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, pp. 27, 30, 31, 65, 91–92, 110, 145). See also JM to Ambrose Madison, 15 Dec. 1785, for JM’s opinion of the significance of the controversy, and JM to Jefferson, 22 Jan. 1786, for JM’s report on the slavery issue during the session.

5Most likely Reflections on the Policy and Necessity of encouraging the Commerce of the Citizens of the United States of America, and of granting them exclusive Privileges of Trade (Richmond, 1785). The pamphlet is attributed to Tucker by both Evans description begins Charles Evans, ed., American Bibliography … 1639 … 1820 (12 vols.; Chicago, 1903–34). description ends (19214, 20036) and Sabin description begins Joseph Sabin et al., eds., Bibliotheca Americana … (29 vols.; New York and Portland, Me., 1868–1936). description ends (97381).

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