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Notes on Debates, 18 February 1783

Notes on Debates

MS (LC: Madison Papers). For a description of the manuscript of Notes on Debates, see Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (6 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , V, 231–34.

Come. of the whole on the subject of genl. funds.1 Mr. Rutlidge & Mr. Mercer proposed that the Impost of 5 PerCt. as altered & to be recommended to the States,2 should be appropriated exclusively, first to the interest of the debt to the army & then in case of surplus to the principal. Mr. Rutlidge urged in support of this motion that it would be best to appropriate this fund to the army as the most likely to be obtained as their merits were superior to those of all other Creditors, and as it was the only thing that promised what policy absolutely required some satisfaction to them.3

Mr. Wilson replied that he was so sensible of the merits of the army that if any discrimination were to be made among the public creditors, he should not deny them perhaps a preference, but that no such discrimination was necessary, that the ability of the public was equal to its whole debt, and that before it be split into different descriptions, the most vigorous efforts ought to be made to provide for it entire. That we ought first at least to see what funds could be provided, to see how far they would be deficient, and then in the last necessity only to admit discriminations.4

Mr. Ghorum agreed with Mr. Wilson. He said an exclusive appropriation to the army would in some places be unpopular and would prevent [p. 250] a compliance of those States whose Citizens were the greatest Creditors of the United States; since without the influence of the public creditors the measure could never be carried through the States, and these if excluded from the appropriation would be even interested in frustrating the measure, & keeping by that means their cause a common one with the army.5

Mr. Mercer applauded the wisdom of the confederation in leaving the provision of money to the States,6 said that when this plan was deviated from by Congress, their objects should be such as were best known & most approved; that the States were jealous of one another, & wd. not comply unless they were fully acquainted with & approved the purpose to which their money was to be applied, that nothing less than such a preference of the army would conciliate them, that no Civil creditor would dare to put his claim on a levil with those of the army, and insinuated that the speculations which had taken place in loan office certificates might lead to a revision of that subject on principles of equity.7 that if too much were asked from the States they would grant nothing. He said that it had been alledged that the large public debt if funded under Congress would be a cement of the confederacy. He thought on the contrary it would hasten its dissolution;8 as the people would feel its weight in the most obnoxious of all forms that of taxation.

on the question the States were all no except. S. Carolina which was ay[x]9

A motion was made by Mr. Rutlidge 2ded. by Mr. Bland to change the plan of the impost in such a manner as that a tariff might be formed for all articles that would admit of it, and that a duty advalorem sd. be collected only on such articles as would not admit of it.10

In support of such an alteration it was urged that it would lessen the opportunity of collusion between collector & importer, & would be more equal among the States.11 on the other side it was alledged that the States had not objected to that part of the plan, and a change might produce objections that the nature & variety of imports would require necessarily the collection to be advalorem on the greater part of them, that the forming of a book of rates wd. be attended with great difficultes & delays,12 and that it would be in the power of Congress by raising the rate of the article to augment the duty beyond the limitation of 5 PerCt. and that this consideration would excite objections on the part of the States. The motion was negatived.13

[p. 251]

A motion was made by Mr. Hamilton 2ded. by Mr. Wilson; that whereas Congress were desirous that the motives & views of their measures sd. be known to their Constituents in all cases where the public safety wd. admit, that when the subject of finances was under debate the doors of Congs. sd. be open. Congs. adjourned it being the usual hour & the motion being generally disrelished.14 The Pa. delegates15 said privately that they had brought themselves into a critical situation by dissuading their Constituents from Separate provision for Creditors of U.S. within Pena. hoping that Congr. wd. adopt a general provision, and they wished their Constituents to see the prospect themselves & to witness the conduct of their Delegates.16 Perhaps the true reason was, that it was expected the presence of public creditors numerous & weighty in Philada.17 wd. have an influence & that it wd. be well for the public to come more fully to the knowledge of the public finances.

Letter red. from Wm. Lee at Ghent notifying the desire of the Emperor to form a commercial treaty with U. S. & to have a residt. from them.18 Comd. to Mr. Izard, Ghorum & Wilso[n.]19

1JM Notes, 10 Feb., and n. 15; 12 Feb. 1783, and n. 1.

2JM Notes, 12 Feb. 1783, and nn. 3, 5, 13, 14. For the manuscript of the proposal, see NA: PCC, No. 36, II, 21.

3For the long-overdue pay of the officers and rank and file of Washington’s main army as a principal cause of their discontent, see JM Notes, 13 Jan., and nn. 5, 17; 24 Jan., and n. 32; 28 Jan., and citations in n. 24; 4 Feb., and nn. 7, 10–15; 13 Feb.; JM to Randolph, 11 Feb., and n. 5; 13 Feb. 1783, and n. 6. For the unrest, especially in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, of civilians who were owed money by Congress, see Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (6 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , V, 321–22; 323, nn. 3, 5, 7, 8; 356–57; JM Notes, 24 Jan., and nn. 17, 20; 28 Jan., and nn. 9, 23; 30 Jan. 1783, and nn. 1, 6.

4James Wilson’s remarks were consistent with those made earlier by him about the necessity of providing Congress with adequate general funds. See JM Notes, 14 Jan., n. 4; 25 Jan., and n. 13; 27 Jan., and nn. 12, 16; 28 Jan., n. 3; 29 Jan.; 31 Jan., n. 11; 12 Feb. 1783, and n. 1.

5Nathaniel Gorham’s stand reflected both the demands of the many civilian creditors of Congress in Massachusetts and the continuing opposition of that state to the half-pay-for-life guarantee to officers retiring from the continental army upon becoming supernumerary or after serving for the duration of the war. See n. 3, above; JM Notes, 25 Jan.; 4 Feb., and nn. 7, 11, 13, 15. See also JM Notes, 19 Feb. 1783.

6That is, as stipulated by Article VIII of the Articles of Confederation (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XIX, 217).

7JM to Randolph, 15 Jan., n. 13; JM Notes, 29 Jan., n. 14; 30 Jan. 1783, and nn. 2, 4, 6. Compared with paper currency and other evidences of Congress’ debt, the loan-office certificates “were not the main object of large-scale speculation” (E. James Ferguson, Power of the Purse, p. 252). See JM Notes, 19 Feb. 1783, for further remarks by Mercer on this subject.

8James Wilson had been credited with stating that “a public debt resting on general funds would operate as a cement to the confederacy, and might contribute [p. 252] to prolong its existence, after the foreign danger ceased to counteract its tendency to dissolution” (JM Notes, 27 Jan. 1783). This view had been also expressed by Morris and Hamilton (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (6 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , V, 322; JM Notes, 28 Jan., and n. 9; 29 Jan. 1783, and n. 41).

9Having been introduced, debated, and rejected in the committee of the whole, the Rutledge-Mercer motion is not mentioned in the official journal of Congress for 18 February. At the bottom of the half-page on which Rutledge penned the motion, Daniel Carroll wrote, “negatived.”

10For the motion, see NA: PCC, No. 36, II, 25; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXIV, 140–41.

11That is, if Congress agreed upon the specific duty to be collected on a unit (yard, pound, or gallon, etc.) of each article customarily imported, the opportunities “of collusion” afforded by levying ad valorem duties would virtually disappear.

12The length of a compilation of all imported wares would be greatly extended by the need to subdivide most of the individual items into qualitative classifications with a differing ad valorem duty on each class. A British “book of rates” would assist in preparing a schedule of articles but would help little toward deciding what the amount of the duty in each instance in the ports of the United States should be. See Report on Books, 23 Jan. 1783, n. 192.

13For further discussion of the impost, see JM Notes, 19 Feb. 1783.

14The manuscript of the motion is endorsed, “Mr. Hamilton and Wilson’s motion negatived on motion to postpone to take it up, February 18, 1783” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXIV, 140, and n. 3). See also JM Notes, 19 Feb. 1783. The customary hour of convening the morning session of Congress continued to be ten o’clock, but the time of adjournment in the afternoon was more flexible, even though four o’clock appears to have been the latest hour (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , VIII, 756, 844, 846; IX, 1031; XXI, 893, 940, 1045; XXIV, 442). “It was necessary for the old Congress to sit with closed doors,” JM informed Jared Sparks in 1830, “because it was the executive as well as legislative body; names of persons and characters came perpetually before them; and much business was constantly on hand which would have been embarrassed if it had gone to the public before it was finished” (Herbert B. Adams, Life and Writings of Jared Sparks, I, 560).

15Thomas FitzSimons, Thomas Mifflin, Joseph Montgomery, and James Wilson.

16JM Notes, 24 Jan., and nn. 17, 20; 28 Jan., and nn. 2, 3; 30 Jan. 1783, and n. 1.

17JM Notes, 30 Jan. 1783, and n. 6.

18In his dispatch of 31 March 1782 from Brussels, Austrian Netherlands, to Robert R. Livingston, secretary for foreign affairs, William Lee, “formerly a commissioner of Congress at the court of Vienna,” stated that he had been unofficially informed that “his Imperial and Apostolic majesty, Joseph the Second, Emperor of Germany, King of the Romans, of Hungary, Bohemia, &c., &c., &c.,” was “disposed to enter into a commercial treaty with America, and afterwards that a minister or resident from Congress should reside at the court here [Brussels], this being the principal commercial country belonging to his majesty” (Wharton, Revol. Dipl. Corr description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, 1889). description ends ., V, 291–92). In referring to Congress so much of Lee’s letter as bore upon this subject, Livingston commented that Lee’s suggestion “merits attention, though in the present state of our affairs Congress may not think it advisable to pass any resolutions thereon, till they are more perfectly acquainted with the actual state of our affairs in Europe, and what alterations may be occasioned by a peace” (ibid., VI, 254).

19Charles Thomson’s entry in his “Dispatch Book” makes clear that Nathaniel Gorham rather than Ralph Izard was chairman of this committee (NA: PCC, No. 185, III, 54). On 23 July the committee was reconstituted with Ralph Izard as chairman, and Stephen Higginson of Massachusetts, and Richard Peters as the other members. The committee was discharged on 29 September 1783 without having submitted a report (NA: PCC, No. 186, fols. 84, 113).

Authorial notes

[The following note(s) appeared in the margins or otherwise outside the text flow in the original source, and have been moved here for purposes of the digital edition.]

[x] Virga. Mr. Jones, Mr. Madison. Mr. Bland no. Mr. Lee Mr. Mercer ay.

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