James Madison Papers
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To James Madison from Edmund Pendleton, 2 April 1790

From Edmund Pendleton

Virga. April 2d. 1790

Dr. Sir

I should have sooner acknowledged yr. obliging favr. of March 4th.,1 but was taken wth. a Cold about the time of it’s receipt, which, as usual, brought on a fever & short breathing, from which I am but now relieved. I thank you for your Attention to Dr. Murrow’s application.2

The Secretary’s Plan of finance3 is really too deep for my comprehension, I cannot however accord with his position that Public debt is a blessing; it may be a convenient engine to Government, considered as having a distinct Interest from that of the Citizens, but can never be so, where they are united, as ought to be our case. Upon his principles, I wonder he did not assume all private debts, since it would have increased the Public Capital, &, as he reasons, the wealth of America, & would have gained him many Partizans. I did Not know how Virga. might be Affected by this project, but from it’s first Appearance, I had feelings repulsive of the measure on general considerations, of the fœdral debt being thus unnecessarily increased, & difficulties in it’s adjustment multiplied, and that it was an Officious intermedling wth. the State Governments, which will be considered as a stride towards consolidation, and this increased, rather than diminished by his wish to absorb all the Powers of taxation in the fœdral head, as one of the reasons for the Assumption.

My Sentiments on the other great subject you have long known, & I need not repeat them. Yr. Opponents appear to me, instead of considering the subject in a great & general view & applying general principles of Justice to a case new & extraordinary, to have become bar advocates for a favourite measure, calling for precedents, and reiterating maxims establishing the general faith of contracts, without distinguishing their ground, and stating the cases in which they may be departed from, consistent wth. good faith; As if there were no such things as Vices in Contracts, wch. render them Nul in law, Equity & Honour, and that if a sharper can once get a bond signed, or transfer’d, it becomes like a law of the Medes & Persians unalterable, tho’ obtained thro’ the weakness, ignorance of the Subject, or necessity of the other, & an Advantage gained wch. no honest man would insist on: whereas it is one of the great purposes of Society & Government to protect it’s members from such Oppressions. The Statutes of Usury for instance have this foundation, and Courts of Equity are occupied Perhaps half their Sessions, in giving relief in such instances as laws can’t reach & provide against. But “The new Government is declared by the Constitution to be bound for the debts of the old,”4 true & surely they ought to be, but how does this apply? The question is what is the debt, & to whom it is due? When those are ascertain’d, the obligation to pay is indisputable.

I am almost tempted to say of these Advocates As Warburton does of his, that “so far from a good Argument, to the disgrace of their Profession, they can scarce make a tolerable quibble.”5 However, we must submit to a Majority & wish for the best.

The Progress of Illumination & liberty in Europe, is pleasing to my feelings as a Man, but peculiarly grateful to me as an American, since I think we may, without Arrogance, Assert that the foundation was laid in this revolution, and the sensible publications on that Occasion. May it proceed wth. as little bloodshed as may be, ’til all mankind are happy. We have not a word of News. That I retain the warmest regard & affection for you is not such, as I am truly Yr. firm friend

Edmd Pendleton

RC (owned by Richard Gilder, Jr., New York, N.Y., 1990). Docketed by JM. Calendared as letter not found in 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 , 13:135. A similar Pendleton letter, addressed to John Page and dated 15 Mar. 1790 (also in the Gilder collection), was docketed twice by JM and retained by him among his papers.

1PJM 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 , 13:85–87.

2For David Morrow, see Henry Lee to JM, 25 Jan. 1790 (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 , 13:5 and n. 1).

3For Alexander Hamilton’s report on public credit, see JM to James Madison, Sr., 21 Jan. 1790 (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 , 13:1, 2 n. 2). JM noted his objections to the report in his letter to Pendleton, 4 Mar. 1790 (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 , 13:85–86).

4Pendleton paraphrased a point Hamilton made in his “Report on Public Credit” (see Syrett and Cooke, Papers of Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and Jacob E. Cooke, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (27 vols.; New York, 1961–87). description ends , 6:77).

5Pendleton probably conflated two separate remarks made by the Right Reverend William Warburton. In his “Remarks on Tillard,” Warburton wrote: “Our advocate hath given me so little room to quarrel with him on this head, that the reader must needs have had a very poor and meagre entertainment. Nothing but a still-born blunder, and the ghost of a departed quibble.” And in his “Occasional Reflections,” he wrote: “When I spoke of Answerers by profession, I meant Lawyers by profession; who, without flattering them, I may say, deserve as little the character there given of the said answerers as I do the calumnies here bestowed by this letter-writer” (Richard Hurd, ed., The Works of the Right Reverend William Warburton [12 vols.; London, 1811], 11:159, 236–37).

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