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To James Madison from John Dawson, [12 June] 1787

From John Dawson

[12 June 1787]

Dear sir

After an absence of near three weeks I have just return’d to this place1 and am favourd with your letter of the 27 of May.2 The prospect of a general convention of the States appears to me very faint, and I wish to be informd, whether the states assembled, or those that probably will meet, will proceed to any business. I apprehend that nothing decisive can be done, without the concurrence of the whole.

I have lately been on the south side of James River—the people, in general appear very much discontented, and I realy fear that a majority of that part of the state are in favour of paper money—neighbours to the Carolinians, (whose money had depreciated one hundred pr Cent—) they have contra[c]ted a similar way of thinking. And inattentive to the future honour and interest of the state they are friends to any measure, which will afford present relief. In Henry county the high Sheriff has not given security for the collection of the taxes, and I was told it wou’d be dangerous for any person to offer.3 Of course no collection goes on, and they4 people appear happy in this expedient of evading payment. In King William, the night before their May court, the court house with all the records of the county, was burnt down. Some circumstances prove that it was designedly done.5

You, I know, are oppos’d to the plan of incorporating towns, which in this state, has been so much in vogue, for some years past. The people in this county, convinc’d of the bad policy, intend to petition the next assembly for a repeal of the law incorporating this town.6 I have promisd to forward their wishes, and will thank you for any information you can give me on this subject, together with your reasons for being unfriendly to them. Are any towns in the Eastern states incorporated? Is Philadelphia? Was it before the war and how long?7

I had the pleasure of seeing your Father a few days since. He is very well.

RC (DLC). Addressed by Dawson. The lower portion of the last page is missing, which must have contained the signature and date. Docketed in an unknown hand: “Dawson Jno. June 12. 1787.”

1Fredericksburg.

2Letter not found.

3Abraham Penn had been appointed sheriff of Henry County in 1783, but he apparently resigned in the spring of 1787 to run for the House of Delegates. Penn’s successor, Henry Lyne, was issued a commission on 24 Dec. 1787 (JCSV description begins H. R. McIlwaine et al., eds., Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia (4 vols. to date; Richmond, 1931——). description ends , III, 313; IV, 154, 191; 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 1777–1790 are brought together in three volumes, with each journal published in Richmond in either 1827 or 1828 and often called the “Thomas W. White reprint.” description ends , Oct. 1787, pp. 15–16). Sheriffs were required to give security for the collection of taxes. If they refused, or were unable to do so, the county court was to appoint one or more collectors who would provide the required bond (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 , XI, 66). The perennial problem of tax collection in Virginia during the 1780s is covered in PJM description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (10 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , VI, 500, 501 n. 8; VII, 32–33; and Louis Maganzin, “Economic Depression in Maryland and Virginia, 1783–1787” (Ph. D. diss., Georgetown University, 1967), pp. 203–27.

4Dawson obviously meant “the.”

5The King William court met 28 May 1787, the fourth Monday of the month, as required by law (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, 407). Only the clerk’s office with the records was burned, for the King William courthouse, built in 1725, is still standing. As a result of the burning of court records during the spring and summer of 1787, the General Assembly passed “An act for the relief of persons who have been or may be injured by the destruction of the records of county courts” (ibid., XII, 497–99). To implement this act the Council of State appointed commissioners on 21 June 1788 to investigate the loss of court records in New Kent and King William counties (JCSV description begins H. R. McIlwaine et al., eds., Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia (4 vols. to date; Richmond, 1931——). description ends , IV, 253). See also McClurg to JM, 22 Aug. 1787, n. 4.

6Fredericksburg had been incorporated in 1781 (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 , X, 439–43). Before the Revolution Williamsburg and Norfolk were the only “boroughs,” or incorporated towns, in Virginia. Other towns that had been incorporated since the Revolution were Alexandria (1779), Winchester (1779), Richmond (1782), and Petersburg (1784), See Hornbook of Virginia History, pp. 31–38. The petition to repeal the Fredericksburg incorporation act, if submitted to the legislature at the October 1787 session, was unsuccessful.

7In 1775 there were some fifteen incorporated towns in the thirteen colonies. Boston retained the town meeting system of local government until it was incorporated in 1822. The corporation government of colonial Philadelphia came to an end in 1776. A new act of incorporation passed in March 1789 (Ernest S. Griffith, The Modern Development of City Government in the United Kingdom and the United States [2 vols.; London, 1927], I, 10–11; Gerard B. Warden, Boston, 1689–1776 [Boston, 1970], pp. 73–79, 108–9, 272–73, 336–37; Edward P. Allinson and Boies Penrose, “The City Government of Philadelphia,” Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, 5th ser., I–II [1887], 31–35).

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