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From James Madison to Joseph Jones, 12 December 1780

To Joseph Jones

RC (LC: Madison Papers). The cover sheet bears the penciled note, “returned by Mr. M.” JM probably added this many years later, after retrieving this letter, among others, from Jones’s nephew, James Monroe.

Philada. Decr. 12th. 1780

Dear Sir

Agreeably1 to your favor of the 2d. instt. which came to hand yesterday I shall send this to Fredericksbg. I am sorry that either your own health or that of your lady should oblige you to leave the legislature before the principal business of the Session is finished. I shall be still more sorry if either of these causes should disappoint my hopes of your return to Philada. at the promised time.2 I am the more anxious for your return because I suppose it will supersede the proposed measure of sending an envoy to Congress on the business you mention. If the facts are transmitted by the Speaker of the Assembly or the Executive, may they not be laid before Congress with as much efficacy by the established representatives of the State as by a special messenger? and will not the latter mode in some measure imply a distrust in the former one, and lower us in the eyes of Congress & the public?3 The application to the Ct. of France has been anticipated. Congress have even gone so far as to appoint an Envoy Extraordinary to solicit the necessary aids. Col. Laurens was invested yesterday with that office. I leave the measure to your own reflection.4 How far it may be expedient to urge Spain to assist us before she is convinced of the reasonableness of our pretensions, ought to be well weighed before it be tried. The liberty we took in drawing on her for money excited no small astonishment, and probably gave an idea of our distress, which confirmed her hopes of concession on our part. Accts. rcd. since my last repeat her inflexibility with regd. to the object in question between us. It is indispensable that we should in some way or other know the Ultimate sense of our Constituents on this important matter.5

Mr. Laurens is certainly in captivity. An Irish paper tells us he was committed to the tower on the sixth of Octr. under a warrant from the three Secretaries of State.6 Portugal has acceded to the neutral league so far as to exclude the English from the privileges her armed vessels have heretofore enjoyed in her ports. The Ariel with P. Jones & the cloathing &c. on board was dismasted a day or two after she sail’d & obliged to put back into port.7 If G. Washington detaches no further aid to the Southwd. it will be owing to the reduction of his force by the expiration of enlistments. The Pennsylvania line is mostly engaged for the war and will soon form almost the whole of the army under his immediate command.8

Mr. Sartine, it seems has been lately removed from the administration of the naval department, in consequence of his disappointing the general hopes formed from the great means put into his hands. When it was mentioned to me by Mr. M——s.9 I took occasion to ask whether the deception with regard to the 2d. division ought to be ultimately charged upon him, observing to him the use the Enemies of the Alliance had made of that circumstance. From the explanation that was given I believe the blame rests upon his head, and that his removal was the effect of it in a great measure; though it is possible he may like many others have been sacrificed to ideas of policy, and particularly in order to cancel the unfavorable impression which the disappointment left on America. A high character is given as might be expected of his successor the Marquis de Caster, particularly with respect to those qualities in which Mr. Sartine is charged with having been most deficient.10

I am yrs. sincerely

J. Madison Jnr.

1The brackets which inclose the entire text of this letter signify that JM, in his old age, or a member of his family selected the letter for publication.

2See Jones to JM, 8 December 1780. What “the promised time” was is unknown, but probably it was after the legislature of Virginia adjourned, or early in the new year.

4The appointment of Colonel John Laurens as “minister … to the Court of Versailles for the special purpose of soliciting aids … and forwarding them to America without loss of time” (Journals of the Continental Congress, XVIII, 1130, 1141) was, from one standpoint, an episode in the long struggle in Congress between the partisans of Arthur Lee and Ralph Izard on the one side and those of Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin on the other (Jones to JM, 2 October 1780, n. 10; JM to Pendleton, 7 November 1780, n. 4; Mathews to Greene, 27 November 1780, n. 2; and Report on Letter of Arthur Lee, 1 December 1780, n. 2). On the day before he wrote Jones, JM was named to a committee to “prepare a draught of a commission and instructions to” Laurens. For its report, see under date of 23 December 1780.

5“Our pretensions,” of course, refers chiefly to the freedom to use the Mississippi (JM to Jones, 5 December 1780, and nn. 2 and 4; Virginia Delegates to Jefferson, 13 December 1780). On 9 December, when William Carmichael’s letter of 25 September from San Ildefonso was read in Congress, its members learned that the king of Spain “would never relinquish the navigation of the Mississippi, and that the ministry regarded the exclusive right to it as the principal advantage which Spain would obtain by the war” (Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, D.C., 1889). description ends , IV, 70).

7Shortly after sailing for the United States, Captain John Paul Jones, commanding the sloop of war “Ariel,” encountered a severe gale near the French coast on 8–11 October. With much difficulty he succeeded in bringing the greatly damaged ship back to Lorient. Repairs to the vessel delayed his departure for America until 18 December 1780 (Samuel E. Morison, John Paul Jones, pp. 304–7).

8See Jones to JM, 2 December, n. 10. On 9 December Washington wrote Jefferson: “It is happy for us, that the season will probably compel both Armies to continue in a state of inactivity; since ours is so much reduced by discharging the Levies, which composed a considerable part of it, even before their time of service expired; this expedient we were forced to adopt from the present total want of flour” (Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, D.C., 1931–44). description ends , XX, 447).

9Probably François de Barbé-Marbois.

10Charles Eugène Gabriel de la Croix, Marquis de Castries (1727–1801), replaced Antoine R. J. G. G. de Sartine (1729–1801) as the French Minister of Marine on 14 October 1780. In a letter of 3 December to the president of Congress, Franklin merely stated that Sartine’s removal “does not affect the general system of the court, which continues favorable to us” (Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, D.C., 1889). description ends , IV, 179). By “2d. division,” JM meant the long-hoped-for second fleet, in addition to that of de Ternay, still blockaded at Newport, R.I.

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