Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from James Madison, 27–28 March 1780

From James Madison

Philadelphia March 27th. 1780

Dear Sir

Nothing under the title of news has occurred since I wrote last week by express except that the Enemy on the 1st. of March remained in the neighbourhood of Charlestown in the same posture as when the preceding account came away. From the best intelligence from that quarter there seems to be great encouragement to hope that Clinton’s operations will be again frustrated. Our great apprehensions at present flow from a very different quarter. Among the various conjunctures of alarm and distress which have arisen in the course of the revolution, it is with pain I affirm to you Sir, that no one can be singled out more truly critical than the present. Our army threatened with an immediate alternative of disbanding or living on free quarter; the public Treasury empty; public credit exhausted, nay the private credit of purchasing Agents employed, I am told, as far as it will bear, Congress complaining of the extortion of the people; the people of the improvidence of Congress, and the army of both; our affairs requiring the most mature and systematic measures, and the urgency of occasions admitting only of temporizing expedients and those expedients generating new difficulties. Congress from a defect of adequate Statesmen more likely to fall into wrong measures and of less weight to enforce right ones,1 recommending plans to the several states for execution and the states separately rejudging the expediency of such plans, whereby the same distrust of concurrent exertions that has damped the ardor of patriotic individuals, must produce the same effect among the States themselves. An old system of finance discarded as incompetent to our necessities, an untried and precarious one substituted and a total stagnation in prospect between the end of the former and the operation of the latter: These are the outlines of the true picture of our public situation. I leave it to your own imagination to fill them up. Believe me Sir as things now stand, if the States do not vigorously proceed in collecting the old money and establishing funds for the credit of the new, that we are undone; and let them be ever so expeditious in doing this, still the intermediate distress to our army and hindrance to public affairs are a subject of melancholy reflection. Gen. Washington writes that a failure of bread has already commenced in the army, and that for any thing he sees, it must unavoidably increase. Meat they have only for a short season and as the whole dependance is on provisions now to be procured, without a shilling for the purpose, and without credit for a shilling, I look forward with the most pungent apprehensions. It will be attempted I believe to purchase a few supplies with loan office certificates; but whether they will be received is perhaps far from being certain; and if received will certainly be a most expensive and ruinous expedient. It is not without some reluctance I trust this information to a conveyance by post, but I know of no better at present, and I conceive it to be absolutely necessary to be known to those who are most able and zealous to contribute to the public relief.

March 28.

Authentic information is now received that the Enemy on their passage to Georgia lost all their Horse, the Defiance of 64 guns which foundered at sea, three transports with troops, although it is pretended these troops and the men of the Defiance were saved, and 1 transport with Hessians of which nothing has been heard. By a letter from Mr. Adams dated Corunna 16 December there seems little probability that Britain is yet in a humour for peace. The Russian ambassador at that Court has been lately changed, and the new one on his way to London made some stop at Paris whence a rumor has spread in Europe that Russia was about to employ her mediation for peace. Should there be any reality in it, Mr. Adams says it is the opinion of the most intelligent he had conversed with that the independance of the United2 would be insisted on as a preliminary: to which G. B. would accede with much greater repugnance than the cession of Gibraltar which Spain was determined to make a sine qua non. With respect and regard I am Dr Sir. Yrs sincerely,

James Madison Jr

RC (DLC: Madison Papers). Endorsed by TJ: “Madison Jas. Mar. 27. 1780.” The word “Extract” appears at head of text, and square brackets and quotation marks have been placed around the main body of the letter, excluding the part added by Madison 28 Mch. These markings are the work of Henry D. Gilpin, who edited The Papers of James Madison, 1840, and who took other liberties beyond selecting extracts from the originals, for he occasionally silently suppressed words and phrases within the extracts he selected; an instance in the present letter is pointed out in note 1, below. Unfortunately, Gaillard Hunt, whose edition of The Writings of James Madison appeared in 1900–1910, followed Gilpin’s printed texts rather than the MS originals, for the collection of Madison Papers listed as Accession 1081 did not come to the Library of Congress until 1910. Burnett, who points out the facts here restated (Letters of Members, v, No. 118), prints much more faithful texts of Madison’s letters than Gilpin or Hunt, but he in turn, for legitimate and stated reasons, omits matter found in the originals. Hence some matter in Madison’s letters to TJ, nearly all of which were returned to Madison after TJ’s death (see Madison to Nicholas Trist, 26 Jan. 1828; Madison, Writings, ed. Hunt, ix, 301) has never hitherto been printed.

This is the earliest letter so far found in a correspondence that was to continue uninterruptedly for forty-six years and that documents the most important collaboration between two great statesmen in American history. See Adrienne Koch, Jefferson and Madison: The Great Collaboration, N.Y., 1950.

1The phrase from “from a defect of adequate Statesmen” through “right ones” was omitted by Gilpin (and by Hunt following Gilpin).

2Thus in MS.

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