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Resolutions Reaffirming American Rights to Navigate the Mississippi, 29 December [November] 1786

Resolutions Reaffirming American Rights
to Navigate the Mississippi

Editorial Note

The issue of the free navigation of the Mississippi had long occupied JM’s mind, and his concern had been aroused in the summer of 1786 when Monroe had kept him informed of the proceedings in Congress on the Jay-Gardoqui negotiations in an almost continuous stream of letters. By August JM was deeply disturbed at what the consequences would be of Jay’s negotiating away the Confederacy’s rights to the river in return for limited trading rights and of Congress’s sanctioning such an agreement with Spain. In expressing his apprehensions to Jefferson, JM anticipated the reaction in the Virginia assembly. He feared that the proposed treaty with Spain would rekindle Virginians’ jealousy of the northern states, foster antagonism toward federal measures, and alienate altogether the people on the western waters from the federal government. Worst of all, even an unsuccessful attempt by the northern states in Congress to ratify the treaty might be “fatal … to an augmentation of the federal authority, if not to the little now existing. My personal situation is rendered by this business particularly mortifying. Ever since I have been out of Congress I have been inculcating on our assembly a confidence in the equal attention of Congress to the rights and interests of every part of the republic and on the western members in particular, the necessity of making the Union respectable by new powers to Congress if they wished Congress to negociate with effect for the Mississipi” (12 Aug. 1786 [partly in code]).

Once in the October 1786 General Assembly session, JM’s major concern was to forward the proposals made by the Annapolis convention for a thorough reform of the Articles. Despite the antifederal sentiment caused by the Mississippi issue, the House implemented the Annapolis recommendations early in November, before the western issue arose. When the Mississippi question was introduced by a petition of the Kentucky delegates in the House, the widely shared grievance found expression in a series of four resolutions, which were reported out of a Committee of the Whole and carried to the Senate by Thomas Mathews (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. 1786, pp. 66–67).

Both Rives and Brant assert that JM was the author of these resolutions (Life of Madison, II, 138–42; Madison, II, 399). The evidence is circumstantial, but the attribution seems justified by JM’s long concern in the matter. Moreover, the style of the resolutions supports the contention that JM at least in part was the author. In a proprietorial tone JM informed Washington that although the resolutions were considered too pointed by some members of the Senate, “they certainly express in substance the decided sense of this Country at this time on the subject, and were offered in the place of some which went much farther and which were in other respects exceptionable” (7 Dec. 1786). By proposing resolutions less extreme and provocative in their language than those first presented, JM perhaps served as a moderating influence in the Committee of the Whole on 29 November.

The resulting resolutions embodied JM’s thoughts not only on the Mississippi, but also on the American confederacy. In unequivocal terms they asserted the right of the United States to “the free and common use of the River Missisippi” and the equal rights among the various parts of the confederacy. Further, the revision of the federal government and even the survival of the Union itself were staked upon the outcome of the negotiations with Spain. These instructions, to be forwarded to the Virginia delegates in Congress, were an emphatic statement against Jay’s treaty proposals and a call for equity and unity among all sections of the country.

In the House of Delegates,

Resolved,2 that the common right of navigating the River Missisippi, and of communicating with other Nations through that Channel ought to be considered as the bountiful Gift of Nature to the United States as Proprietors of the Territory watered by the said River and its eastern Branches;3 and as moreover, secured to them by the event of the late Revolution;4

Resolved,5 that the Confederacy having been formed on the broad basis of equal rights in every part thereof, to the protection and guardianship of the whole, a sacrafice of the rights of any one part, to the supposed or real interests of another part, would be a flagrant violation of Justice, a direct contravention of the end for which the foederal Government was instituted, and an alarming innovation of6 the System of the Union.7

Resolved,8 that the Delegates, representing this State in Congress, be instructed in the most decided terms, to oppose any Attempt that may be made in Congress to barter or surrender to any Nation whatever the right of the United States to the free and common use of the River Missisippi; and to protest against the same as a dishonorable departure from that comprehensive and benevolent policy which constitutes the vital principle of the Confederacy; as provoking the just resentments and reproaches of our Western Brethren, whose essential rights and interests would be thereby sacraficed and sold; as destroying that confidence in the Wisdom, Justice and liberality of the foederal Councils which is so necessary at this Crisis, to a proper enlargement of their authority; and finally, as tending to undermine our repose, our prosperity, and our Union itself; and that the said Delegates be further instructed to urge the proper Negotiations with Spain, for obtaining her concurrence in such regulations touching the natural9 and common use of the said,10 as may secure the permanent harmony and affection of the two nations, and such as the wise and generous policy of his Catholic Majesty will perceive to be no less due to the interests of his own Subjects, than to the just and friendly views of the United States.11

Ms (PCC). In a clerk’s hand, endorsed by Beckley and Brooke, clerks of the House of Delegates and of the Senate respectively. Another Ms copy (PCC), preceding the one here printed and varying somewhat in wording, is probably a copy of the resolutions as passed by the House before being passed by the Senate and transcribed as official instructions to the delegates. It includes the first resolution here omitted (see n. 1) and bears the correct date of 29 Nov. 1786.

1Mathews reported four resolutions out of a Committee of the Whole on 29 Nov. 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. 1786, pp. 66–67). A clerk must have misdated this copy in the process of transcription. The first resolution, “Resolved unanimously that a copy of the Memorial of sundry inhabitants of the western Country be transmitted to the Delegates representing this State in Congress,” was omitted from the “official” Ms copy sent to Congress here printed. A copy of the petition was forwarded with the resolutions (PCC). The House agreed unanimously to the resolutions, and Mathews was ordered to carry them to the Senate, which passed them on 7 Dec. (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. 1786, p. 93).

On 17 Nov. the “Memorial of the Delegates representing in General Assembly the Counties of this Commonwealth upon the Western Waters and of sundry officers of the late army for themselves & soldiers owners of lands in the said Waters” had been presented to the House and referred to a Committee of the Whole, which proceeded to take the action resulting in these resolutions (Ms [Vi]; 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. 1786, p. 46). The petition from the Kentucky delegates went on to say “that they are greatly alarmed at a report which prevails, that a project is on foot, which has in contemplation the surrender of the navigation of the Missisippi for 25 or 30 Years to the Crown of Spain in consideration of some advantages, either real, or supposed, to some part of the Confederacy.… They consider it their duty … to make known to the Legislature; their apprehensions of the evils [whi]ch must necessarily result from so unconstitutional, and dangerous a measure, should it take effect, that they may in their wisdom take such steps as shall be best calculated to prevent it, and obtain at the same time the important object they have in view, the free navigation of the River.… No considerations of advantage however great they might be, could justify the U: S for the violation of the foederal compact which this unquestionably would be. The Citizens of these Counties have the same right to the navigation of this river, which they have to that of the James or Potowmk [sic]; they derive it from nature, from the principles of the revolution, and from the treaty with Great Britain.… Never have they before heard of a project being proposed, much less a treaty formed, which shut the Doors of commerce to one part of a Community and deprived it of its natural rights for the benefit of the other.… If it should be adopted, it will produce the most […] and distructive consequences, not only to them and their constituents, but to the general interest of the foederal Government” (Ms [Vi]). JM had expected this reaction against the federal government. His fear was that the overall reaction would also undermine support for the projected convention to reform the Articles. Two weeks before the memorial was presented in the House, he had written, “I find that its [the affair of the Mississippi] influence on the federal spirit will not be less than was apprehended. The Western members will not be long silent on the subject. I inculcate a hope that the views of Congress may yet be changed, and that it would be rash to suffer the alarm to interfere with the policy of amending the Confederacy” (JM to Washington, 1 Nov. 1786). But the enabling legislation for sending commissioners to Philadelphia to attend the Federal Convention safely passed through the House before the issue of the Mississippi was brought forward by the Kentucky delegates (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. 1786, p. 28). JM reported afterwards that “the affair of the Mississippi which was brought before the Assembly in a long Memorial from the Western Members & some of the Officers, has undergone a full consideration of both houses. The Resolutions … were agreed to unanimously in the H. of Delegates” (JM to Washington, 7 Dec. 1786).

2“Unanimously” inserted here in the other Ms copy (PCC).

3The clause beginning at this point was omitted in the other Ms copy, but was retained in the printed copy (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. 1786, p. 66).

4The treaty of peace between the U.S. and Great Britain stipulated the free navigation of the Mississippi, but the treaty between Great Britain and Spain, made at the same time, did not mention the Mississippi. Thus, in effect, the question was left unsettled (Bemis, Pinckney’s Treaty, p. 42).

5See n. 2 above.

6The two other copies read “in,” rather than “of,” which is probably due to a clerk’s error.

7JM cast this problem of the Confederation in a more theoretical light in a letter to Monroe, in which he attacked the “current” maxim that “the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong” (5 Oct. 1786).

8Therefore unanimously” inserted here in the other Ms copy.

9The other Ms copy and the printed copy (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. 1786, p. 67) read “mutual” in the place of “natural.” The clerk must have misread “mutual” to be “natural.”

10“River” inserted here in two other copies. The omission was probably an error in transcription.

11JM wrote to Washington on 7 Dec., after the Senate had agreed to the resolutions, “I am entirely convinced from what I observe here, that unless the project of Congs. can be reversed, the hopes of carrying this State into a proper federal Sytem [sic] will be demolished. Many of our most federal leading men are extremely soured with what has already passed. Mr. Henry, who has been hitherto the Champion of the federal cause, has become a cold advocate, and in the event of an actual sacrifice of the Misspi. by Congress, will unquestionably go over to the opposite side.”

The resolutions were forwarded to the Virginia delegates and laid before Congress on 19 Apr. 1787, along with the memorial from the Kentucky delegates and officers (PCC; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXXII, 216 n.). In his Notes on Debates, 19 Apr. 1787, JM recorded that the instructions of Virginia against relinquishing the Mississippi had been presented, “with a motion that they should be referred to the department for F[oreign] A[ffairs] by way of information.” The instructions were meant to impress upon Jay the intransigent opposition of Virginia to any treaty which would sacrifice the Mississippi and to caution Jay of the far-reaching effects, adverse to the welfare of the Confederacy, which his negotiations were creating.

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