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Virginia Delegates to Thomas Nelson, 9 October 1781

Virginia Delegates to Thomas Nelson

RC (Virginia State Library). Written by Edmund Randolph and signed by him and JM. Docketed: “From the Delegates. Octr. 9. ‘81[.] Letter from Mess. Madison & Randolph: asking Weekly information of the progress of our Army and detailing the effort in Congress to enquire into the title of Virginia New York & Connecticut to the lands respectively ceded by these States.”

Philadelphia October. 9. 1781.


When your excellency assented to a weekly correspondence with us, we flattered ourselves with the prospect of being able to gratify those inquirers after southern intelligence, to whom our situation would incline us to be communicative. We undergo a sensible mortification in being left dependent on uncertain reports for information of General Washington’s progress. This mortification proceeds not from a wish to soothe our private curiosity, but from a conviction, that the objects of our mission will be better answered, and injurious reports counteracted with effect, by the possession of authentic accounts. We therefore intreat your excellency to give us a weekly intimation of military affairs in Virginia, altho’ they should remain as they were at the date of the next preceding letter; assuring you, that we shall continue to be punctual on our part.1

The decided measures, which Holland has taken against Great-Britain, drew from Mr. Adams the inclosed memorial. There does not seem, however, any ground to believe, that his success will be immediate.2

It is impossible to expect, that France, engaged as she is in expence, should maintain the American war out of her own treasury. Her advances for America have been generous, but not sufficient to overcome the necessity of the exertions of the different states.3 Every state has the same plea with Virginia of being a creditor of the united states. Our hope therefore is, that, whilst Virginia labours to furnish new supplies, she will not forget the importance of forwarding to us as accurate an account, as possible, of her disbursements for the union.4

The report of a committee of congress, appointed to consider the cessions of western territory, made by Virginia, New York and Connecticut, has been brought into discussion at our instance. It declared in general terms the inadmissibility of those cessions upon the conditions [p. 282] specified, fixed a day for ascertaining the boundaries, beyond which congress would not guarantee, and concluded with a recommendation to lay out separate states in the ceded lands.5 After some debate it was recommitted. The advocates for recommitment acted upon different motives; some intending thereby to open a door for a full and minute question[ing] of the territorial rights of those three states; whilst others, among whom we were, proposed that the subject should be handled merely upon the basis of several resolutions of congress, passed with the express view of stifling all inquiries of right.6 We have attended the committee for a great part of the three last days, which have been occupied by New York in the development of her title. Her delegates will probably finish their pretensions to day. Connecticut will be concise.7 We shall deliver to the committee written reasons for declining to enter into discussions of right. Your excellency need not apprehend, that we shall weaken our title by the discovery of any ill-founded distrusts, or expose our candor to suspicion. We forewarned the delegates of New York and Connecticut of our scruples as to our authority to submit to an investigation of the right, and the committee were reminded, that their present procedure violated the assurances of congress, contained in the resolutions above-mentioned. By the next post we shall transmit a farther history of this transaction together with a copy of our reasons.8

We have the honor to be Sir your excellency’s mo. ob. servts.

James Madison Junr

Edmund Randolph.

2See Notes from Secret Journal, 21 September 1781, n. 2. John Adams’ memorials of 19 April 1781 to the States-General of the United Provinces and to the Prince of Orange and Nassau are in Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, 1889). description ends , IV, 370–77. He urged the Dutch, who had been at war with Great Britain since December 1780, to recognize American independence and to receive him as minister from the United States. Copies of the memorials were sent to Congress in Adams’ letter of 16 May 1781 and read there on 3 October (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 1032). Adams was received by the States-General on 22 April 1782 (Samuel F. Bemis, Diplomacy of the American Revolution, p. 169).

4Robert Morris had written to Governor Nelson on this subject on 16 and 25 July, and 23 August 1781. In acknowledging these letters on 5 September, Nelson said that although he could not turn his attention “at present” to the accounts, and although the General Assembly would not convene until 1 October, two persons in Virginia were working on them (McIlwaine, Official Letters description begins H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Official Letters of the Governors of the State of Virginia (3 vols.; Richmond, 1926–29). description ends , III, 36). A decade would go by before the United States and Virginia reached a settlement.

[p. 283]

5The report of the committee, under John Witherspoon’s chairmanship, is summarized in Nelson to Virginia Delegates, 3 August 1781, n. 4. For the background of the western lands issues and JM’s connection with them, prior to the summer of 1781, see Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (2 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , II, 72–78, 81–82, 89–90, 136–37, 176–77, 188, 300–301; the Reverend James Madison to JM, 9 March 1781, n. 17; and Motion on Treaty of Commerce, 29 June 1781, editorial note.

6Following the debate of 2 October on the Witherspoon report, Congress referred the recommendation to a new committee, consisting of Elias Boudinot, James Mitchell Varnum, Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, Thomas Smith, and Samuel Livermore (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 1032). Among the “several resolutions of congress,” the Virginia delegates probably had in mind, above all, the ones of 23 May and 6 September 1780. In the latter of these, after mentioning the counterclaims of Virginia and Maryland, Congress declared that “they involve questions, a discussion of which was declined on mature consideration, when the articles of confederation were debated; nor … can such questions be now revived with any prospect of conciliation” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XVII, 452, 806).

On constitutional and legal grounds the position of the Virginia delegates was strong. Besides the fact that a sovereign commonwealth should not compromise its dignity by appearing before an investigating committee or tribunal on equal terms with a private land company, such as the Vandalia, Illinois, Indiana, or Wabash Company, the Articles of Confederation conferred no power upon Congress to authorize a committee to settle boundary disputes between two or more states.

In view of Article IX of the Articles of Confederation (see Protest of Virginia Delegates, 10 October 1781, n. 5), the position of the Virginia delegates in the present letter would not be given up in their dispatch of 16 October (q.v.), asking Nelson to supply them “in the most authentic, formal and official manner” with copies of Virginia’s “title-papers” to the Old Northwest. If “commissioners or judges” were chosen, in accord with the procedure stipulated in Article IX, Virginia could not refuse, unless she decided to nullify what she had formally ratified, to present her case for “final and decisive” judgment by those commissioners.

7That is, the new committee mentioned in n. 6. In a letter of 7 November 1781 to Governor Nelson, Edmund Randolph commented at considerable length upon the meeting of the Virginia delegates with the committee and the “voluminous detail” in which New York’s claim was presented (Burnett, Letters description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (8 vols.; Washington, 1921–36). description ends , VI, 259). For the grounds upon which New York and Connecticut based their titles to western lands, see Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (2 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , II, 73–74.

8See Virginia Delegates to Nelson, 16 and 23 October; Protest of Virginia Delegates, 10 October; and Motions of Virginia Delegates on Western Lands, 26 October and 14 November 1781.

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