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Notes on Debates, 20 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.

The motion for limiting the impost to 25 years having been yesterday lost, and some of the gentlemen who were in the negative desponding of an indefinite grant of it from the States the motion was reconsidered.1

Mr. Wolcot & Mr. Hamilton repeat the inadequacy of a definite term. Mr. Ramsay & Mr. Williamson repeat the improbability of an indefinite term being acceded to by the States, & the expediency of preferring a limited impost to a failure of it altogether.2

Mr. Mercer was against the impost altogether but would confine his opposition within Congress: He was in favor of the limitation as an alleviation of the evil.3

Mr. Fitzimmons animadverted on Mr. Mercers insinuation yesterday touching the loan-office Creditors, & the policy of dividing them from the military Creditors, reprobated every measure which contravened the principles of justice & public faith; and asked whether it were likely that Mas: & Pa. to whose Citizens 1/2 the loan office debt was owing would concur with Virga. whose Citizens had lent but little more than three hundred thousand dollars, in any plan that did not provide for that in common with other debts of the U. S.4 He was against a limitation to 25. years.5

Mr. Lee wished to know whether by Loan office Creditors were meant the original subscribers or the present holders of the certificates, as the force of their demands may be affected by this consideration.6

Mr. Fitzimmons saw the scope of the question, and said that if another scale of depreciation was seriously in view he wished it to come out, that every one might know the course proper to be taken.7

[p. 265]

Mr. Ghorum followed the Sentiments of the gentleman who last spoke, expressed his astonishment that a gentleman (Mr. Lee) who had enjoyed such opportunities of observing the nature of public credit, should advance such doctrines as were fatal to it.8 He said it was time that this point sd. be explained, that if the former scale for the loan office certificates was to be revised and reduced as one member from Virga. (Mr. Mercer) contended, or a further scale to be made out for subsequent depreciation of Certificates, as seemed to be the idea of the other member (Mr Lee), the restoration of public credit was not only visionary but the concurrence of the States in any arrangemts. whatever was not to be expected. He was in favor of the limitation as necessary to overcome the objections of the States.

Mr. Mercer professed his attachment to the principles of justice but declared that he thought the scale by which the loans had been valued unjust to the public & that it ought to be revised & reduced.

On the question for the period of 25 years it was decided in the affirmative seven States being in favor of it. N. Jersey & N. York only being no.9

Mr. Mercer called the attention of Congress to the case of the goods siezed under a law of Pena. on which the Come. had not yet reported, and wished that Congs. would come to some resolution declaratory of their rights & which would lead to an effectual interposition on the part of the Legislature of Pena.10 After much conversation on the subject in which the members were somewhat divided as to the degree of peremptoriness with which the State of Pa. should be called on, the Resolution on the Journal was finally adopted; having been drawn up by the Secy. & put into the hands of a member.x11

The Resolution passed without any dissent.12

[The evening of this day was spent at Mr. Fitzimmons by Mr. Ghorum, Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Peters, Mr. Carroll & Mr Madison.13 The conversation turned on the subject of revenue under the consideration of Congress, and on the situation of the army. The conversation on the first subject ended in a general concurrence (Mr. Hamilton excepted) in the impossibility of adding to the impost on trade any taxes that wd. operate equally throughout the States, or be adopted by them.14 On the [p. 266] second subject Mr. Hamilton & Mr. Peters who had the best knowledge of the temper, transactions & views of the army,15 informed the company that it was certain that the army had secretly determined not to lay down their arms until due provision & a satisfactory prospect should be afforded on the subject of their pay;16 that there was reason to expect that a public declaration to this effect would soon be made; that plans had been agitated if not formed for subsisting themselves after such declaration;17 that as a proof of their earnestness on this subject the Commander was already become extremely unpopular among almost all ranks from his known dislike to every unlawful proceeding, that this unpopularity was daily increasing & industriously promoted by many leading characters;18 that his choice of unfit & indiscreet persons into his family was the pretext and with some a real motive;19 but the substantial one a desire to displace him from the respect & confidence of the army in order to substitute Genl.   as the conductor of their efforts to obtain justice.20 Mr. Hamilton said that he knew Genl. Washington intimately & perfectly, that his extreme reserve, mixed sometimes with a degree of asperity of temper both of which were said to have increased of late, had contributed to the decline of his popularity; but that his virtue his patriotism & his firmness would it might be depended upon never yield to any dishonorable or disloyal plans into which he might be called; that he would sooner suffer himself to be cut into pieces; that he [Mr Hamilton] knowing this to be his true character wished him to be the conductor of the army in their plans for redress, in order that they might be moderated & directed to proper objects, & exclude some other leader who might foment & misguide their councils; that with this view he had taken the liberty to write to the Genl. on this subject and to recommend such a policy to him.]

1JM Notes, 19 Feb. 1783, and n. 8.

2Ibid., and n. 3.

4JM Notes, 27 Jan., and nn. 13, 16; 29 Jan., and n. 14; 30 Jan., and nn. 2, 6; 18 Feb., and n. 7; 19 Feb. 1783, and nn. 11–14. For the estimated specie value of the loan-office certificates originally purchased by citizens of each state, see JM Notes, 26 Feb. 1783, and n. 46.

5That is, of the duration of the proposed impost (JM Notes, 19 Feb. 1783, and n. 8).

6Opposing Thomas FitzSimons by using his own emphasis upon “principles of justice,” Arthur Lee queried whether they did not oblige a distinction to be made in redeeming loan-office certificates, or even in paying the overdue interest on them, between owners who had originally subscribed for those bonds and speculators who had bought them from the first purchasers at a discount. Lee thus raised questions which JM himself asked when Alexander Hamilton, as secretary of the [p. 267] treasury, sought to fund the federal debt in 1789–1790. The owners of the certificates always had been preferred creditors of Congress. These certificates, being kept wholly within the control of Congress, being unaffected by the forty-for-one ordinance of 18 March 1780, and being always regarded primarily as an investment rather than currency, had declined far less in real value than the paper money which most Americans had been obliged to take for their goods or services.

The 6 per cent interest on certificates purchased between the opening of the first loan offices in 1777 and 1 March 1778 was paid in specie or its equivalent, thus providing the owners, who had purchased the certificates with depreciated paper money, with a much larger real interest than Congress had guaranteed. Although the many certificates emitted between 1 March 1778 and 1781, when their issuance ceased, returned interest only in paper money, they were mostly taken by merchants in lieu of cash for goods sold to Congress (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 , II, 49, n. 2; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , V, 845–46; VII, 158; VIII, 730; XII, 1242–43; XVII, 547–48; XVIII, 1025–26; E. James Ferguson, Power of the Purse, pp. 35–40, and nn.).

7The depreciation scale for loan-office certificates, established by Congress on 28 June 1780 (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XVIII, 567–69), greatly favored their owners. That is, the scale enabled purchasers to buy bonds of a much larger face value than the market value of the depreciated paper currency used to pay for them. Furthermore, the interest was paid on the face value of the bond rather than on its lesser market value resulting from its depreciation in terms of specie. Perhaps partly to spur the wealthy owners of these bonds to bring pressure upon the legislatures of the northern states, and hence upon Congress, to provide the Confederation with a “permanent” source of “general revenue,” Robert Morris, superintendent of finance, had suspended the payment of interest on the bonds in October 1781.

In FitzSimons’ statement may be read the implication that, if Congress should modify the depreciation scale so as to cause financial loss to the certificate owners, the Pennsylvania General Assembly would assume the payment of interest and perhaps also of the principal of the certificates—an action which had been narrowly averted several times by Congress in the recent past (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 , IV, 388, n. 13; V, 293–94; 294, n. 1; JM Notes, 24 Jan., and n. 17 including citations, n. 20; 28 Jan., and n. 9; 30 Jan. 1783, and nn. 1, 2, 6; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXIII, 553–55; Clarence L. Ver Steeg, Robert Morris, pp. 44, 99).

8Nathaniel Gorham apparently reminded Lee of the importance of “public credit” in securing the loans and gifts of money from the treasury of King Louis XVI used by Congress to compensate Lee for his years of service in France as a commissioner of the United States (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, 300, n. 5).

9JM Notes, 19 Feb. 1783, and n. 22. The motion and tally were not recorded in the official journal (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXIV, 141). In LC: Madison Papers are two resolutions written by Theodorick Bland and docketed by Charles Thomson, “Motion of Mr. Bland Feby 20, 1783.” Bland wished Congress to accompany its future requisitions upon the states with a report of “the debt funded and unfunded” prior to March 1781, “reduced to Specie value as far as such debts are liquidated—together with the mode in which the monies have been supplied, and the Manner in which they have been appropriated.” He further proposed that the report show the “exact state of the debt” incurred from 1 March 1781 to 1 January 1783, noting “all Loans, donations and State Contributions, actually obtained by Congress,” how they had been spent, and how much of the debt “contracted within the said Period” remained unpaid. See Burnett, Letters description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (8 vols.; Washington, 1921–36). description ends , VII, 51; JM Notes, 21 Feb. 1783, and n. 14.

10JM Notes, 24 Jan., and nn. 1–6, 9, 12, 14–16; 13 Feb., and nn. 2–8. The “Come.” comprised John Rutledge, chairman, Nathaniel Gorham, Arthur Lee, James Wilson, and John F. Mercer (JM Notes, 13 Feb. 1783). Mercer’s request led to the submission of reports on the “Amazon” issue by the committee and William Jackson, assistant secretary at war (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXIV, 141).

[p. 268]

11The “Secy.” was Charles Thomson; the unidentified “member” probably was either JM or Rutledge. JM could not have written the footnote on 20 February, because it was on 21 February that the Pennsylvania General Assembly repealed, as violating the ninth article of the Articles of Confederation, the provision of the state law which the sheriff of Chester County had enforced by seizing a portion of the “Amazon’s” cargo (Pa. Archives description begins Samuel Hazard et al., eds., Pennsylvania Archives (9 ser., 138 vols.; Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1949). description ends , 1st ser., IX, 756–57; Colonial Records of Pa., XIII, 511–13; NA: PCC, No. 69, fols. 421–24; No. 186, III, 54). In his footnote JM is not clear whether the “conversation” was by members of Congress or of the Pennsylvania legislature, or between members of both. Although ambiguous, JM’s comment is of constitutional interest, both because the possibility of Congress voiding the Pennsylvania law was envisaged by some of the members and because the legislature of a sovereign state, on the recommendation of its executive and to avoid conflict, had repealed a statute which encroached upon a field of power granted exclusively to Congress by the Articles of Confederation.

The issue of the “Amazon’s” cargo troubled public officials of Pennsylvania for at least two more months. The ship itself, supplied with passports both by Congress and the executive of Pennsylvania, cleared early in March from Philadelphia for Charleston with “divers” refugees from South Carolina as her passengers (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 , IV, 315; 317, n. 35; V, 332, n. 7; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXIV, 144–45; Colonial Records of Pa., XIII, 521). Captain William Armstrong, a British quartermaster who had sailed on the “Amazon” from New York City to supervise the delivery of her cargo to the prisoners of war, remained in Philadelphia to press for the release of the goods seized by the sheriff of Chester County (NA: PCC, No. 78, I. 429; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXIV, 145, n. 1). The sheriff, under orders of President John Dickinson to assemble and deliver those articles to an agent of Benjamin Lincoln, secretary at war, discovered that a considerable part of them, valued at £5527 5s. 1d. Pennsylvania currency, had been “embezzled” and could not be found (Colonial Records of Pa., XIII, 525–26, 538–39). On 24 March Dickinson and the Supreme Executive Council directed the sheriff to search again for the lost goods and report within ten days (ibid., XIII, 540). The outcome is not mentioned in the Council’s printed records. They note only that on 19 April 1783 a statement of costs incurred by the Pennsylvania authorities in connection with the “Amazon” issue was approved (ibid., XIII, 563; Pa. Archives description begins Samuel Hazard et al., eds., Pennsylvania Archives (9 ser., 138 vols.; Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1949). description ends , 1st ser., X, 6–7, 12–13). The news of the signing of the preliminary treaty of peace, soon followed by negotiations for the release of all prisoners of war, may explain why the issue of the “embezzled” goods was not pressed (Pa. Packet, 18, 25, 27 Mar.; 10, 12, 15 Apr. 1783).

12The first paragraph of the “Resolution” declared that the cargo of the British flag-of-truce ship “Amazon” had not violated “the passport granted by” Washington, and the second stated that all of the cargo “ought to be sent” by the Pennsylvania authorities “with all expedition, and without any let or hindrance, to the prisoners for whose use” the “Cloathing and other necessaries” had been “designed” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXIV, 141–42).

13Probably to signify that the rest of his notes for 20 February were not on the proceedings of Congress, JM placed one bracket at the beginning and another at the close of this paragraph. FitzSimons’ residence was in the “North Part” of the Philadelphia Dock Ward, which bordered on the south line of the Middle Ward, where JM lived (Pa. Archives description begins Samuel Hazard et al., eds., Pennsylvania Archives (9 ser., 138 vols.; Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1949). description ends , 3d ser., XVI, 773, 803; John F. Watson, Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania in the Olden Time … revised by Willis P. Hazard [3 vols.; Philadelphia, 1927], III, 235; Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company, The Independence Square Neighborhood [Philadelphia, 1926], map opp. p. 15).

14Among the taxes suggested by one or another member of Congress to supplement the proposed impost had been a tax on buildings and improved land, adjusted to their value or quantity or a combination of both, a poll tax, salt tax, window [p. 269] tax, and excise taxes on various commodities. Although every one of these had been opposed because it would fall more heavily on one state or section than on the others, Hamilton contended that for this very reason, several varieties of taxes could be selected which would equitably counterbalance each other in their incidence upon the diverse economic pursuits within the United States (Syrett and Cooke, Papers of Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and Jacob E. Cooke, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (15 vols. to date; New York, 1961——). description ends , III, 269). No doubt he upheld this view the more insistently because of his tenacious advocacy of a permanent, general, and sufficient revenue for Congress’ use.

Gorham, on the other hand, had recommended that Congress concentrate solely upon having the states ratify a revised impost amendment to the Articles of Confederation. Thus, although he shared in the “general concurrence” mentioned by JM, Gorham must have recognized that his own state of Massachusetts, as well as Rhode Island, would be deprived of one of its main sources of public revenue if Congress should receive the proceeds from an impost. Hence, if additional taxes should be recommended, he probably would support only those which would bear less heavily upon New England than upon the South (JM Notes, 27 Jan.; 28 Jan.; 29 Jan.; 12 Feb.; 18 Feb.; 19 Feb., and n. 17; JM to Randolph, 4 Feb. 1783).

15Hamilton was a veteran of long service in the army and also a correspondent of Washington (JM Notes, 19 Feb. 1783, and n. 10). Richard Peters had been secretary of the Board of War from 13 June 1776 to 27 November 1777, and a member of the board thereafter until 29 November 1781 (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , V, 438; IX, 971; XXI, 1087, 1173).

16JM Notes, 19 Feb. 1783, and nn. 11, 12, 19.

17This expectation would be substantially fulfilled about three weeks later. See JM Notes, 17 Mar. 1783, and nn. 1, 2.

18In a letter probably written on 13 February, Hamilton hinted to Washington that he was losing “the confidence of the army” because he was not “espousing its interests with sufficient warmth” (Syrett and Cooke, Papers of Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and Jacob E. Cooke, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (15 vols. to date; New York, 1961——). description ends , III, 254). In a letter of 27 February, Joseph Jones, after warning Washington against officers who appeared to be “determined to blow the coals of discord,” continued, “I have lately heard there are those who are abandoned enough to use these arts to lessen your popularity in the army in hopes ultimately the weight of your opposition will prove no obstacle to their ambitious designs” (Worthington C. Ford, ed., Letters of Joseph Jones, pp. 99–100). See also JM Notes, 19 Feb. 1783, n. 12.

19At this time Washington’s aides-de-camp were Lieutenant Colonels David Cobb of Massachusetts, David Humphreys and Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., of Connecticut, Richard Varick and Benjamin Walker of New York, and Major Hodijah Baylies of Massachusetts (John C. Fitzpatrick, The Spirit of the Revolution [Boston, 1924], pp. 75–76). Of these Richard Varick, a friend of Hamilton and formerly an aide-de-camp of Benedict Arnold, was probably one of the members of Washington’s family who was rumored to be “unfit & indiscreet,” even though he had been exonerated of complicity in Arnold’s treason. As Washington’s “recording Secretary,” Varick transcribed all the headquarters’ papers. Washington had complete confidence in Varick’s discretion and loyalty (Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, 1931–44). description ends , XXII, 112, 113–15; XXIV, 40; XXVII, 289–90; Syrett and Cooke, Papers of Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and Jacob E. Cooke, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (15 vols. to date; New York, 1961——). description ends , III, 478–79, 594–95, 659).

20After “Genl,” JM heavily deleted several words. To suggest that they may have been “Gates’ expert hand” is to construct the first two words from only two or three still discernible letters. Certainly JM interlineated “the” above a canceled “hand.” If “Gates’ expert” is what he originally wrote, the “as” which is written close to the margin of the page must have been added by JM after he deleted the two dubious words.

Major General Horatio Gates, second in command of the main army, was a [p. 270] friend of Colonel Walter Stewart of Philadelphia. By 12 March 1783, if not before, Washington believed that Stewart served as a liaison between those men making the “plans” in Philadelphia and those circulating “anonymous papers” at Newburgh (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXVI, 214, n. 2; 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 , II, 279; 281, n. 4; Syrett and Cooke, Papers of Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and Jacob E. Cooke, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (15 vols. to date; New York, 1961——). description ends , III, 288, n. 1). For those “papers” and Major John Armstrong, Jr., aide-de-camp of Gates and a son of Major General John Armstrong of the Pennsylvania state line, see JM Notes, 17 Mar. 1783, and nn. 1, 2.

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 The result proved that mildness was the soundest policy. The Legislature in consequence having declared the law under which the goods were siezed to be void as contradictory to the federal constitution. Some of the members in Conversation sd. that if Congress had declared the law to be void, the displeasure of the legislature might possibly have produced a different issue.

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