Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Huntington, 17 January 1781, enclosing Resolution of Assembly concerning the Cession of Lands, 2 January 1781

To Samuel Huntington

Richmond Jany. 17th. 1781.


I do myself the honor of transmitting to your Excellency a resolution of the General assembly of this Commonwealth entered into in consequence of the resolution of Congress of September 6th. 1780.1 on the subject of the confederation. I shall be rendered very happy if the other States of the Union, equally impressed with the necessity of that important convention, shall be willing to sacrifice equally2 to it’s completion. This single event, could it take place shortly, would overweigh every success which the enemy have hitherto obtained and render desperate the hopes to which those successes have given birth.

I have the honor to be with the most real esteem & respect your Excellency’s Mo. ob. & mo. hble Servt.,

Th: Jefferson

In the House of Delegates
Tuesday the
2d of January 1781

The General Assembly of Virginia being well satisfied that the Happiness, Strength and safety of the United States depend under providence upon the ratification of the Articles for a federal Union between the United States heretofore proposed by Congress for the Consideration of the said States,3 and preferring the Good of their Country to every Object of smaller Importance do Resolve that this Commonwealth will yeild to the Congress of the United States for the Benefit of the said United States All Right Title and Claim that the said Commonwealth hath to the Lands North West of the River Ohio, upon the following Conditions to wit That the Territory so ceded shall be laid out and formed into States containing a suitable Extent of Territory and shall not be less than One hundred nor more than one hundred and fifty Miles Square, or as near thereto as Circumstances will admit.

That the States so formed shall be distinct Republican States and be admitted Members of the Federal Union having the same Rights of Sovereignty Freedom and Independence as the other States.

That Virginia shall be allowed and fully reimbursed by the United States her actual Expences in reducing the British Posts at the Kaskaskies and St. Vincents the Expence of maintaining Garrisons and supporting Civil Government there since the Reduction of the said Posts and in general all the Charges she has incurred on account of the Country on the North West Side of the Ohio River since the Commencement of the present War.

That the French and Canadian Inhabitants and other Settlers at the Kaskaskies St. Vincents and the Neighbouring Villages Who have professed themselves Citizens of Virginia shall have their Possessions and Titles confirmed to them and shall be protected in the Enjoyment of their Rights and Liberty for which purpose Troops shall be stationed there at the Charge of the United States to protect them from the Encroachments of the British Forces at Detroit or elsewhere unless the Events of War shall render it impracticable.

As Colo. George Rogers Clarke planned and executed the secret expedition by which the British posts were reduced and was promised if the Enterprize succeeded a liberal Gratuity in Lands in that Country for the Officers and Soldiers who first marched thither with him, That a Quantity of Land not exceeding one hundred and fifty thousand Acres be allowed and granted to the said Officers and Soldiers and the other Officers and Soldiers that have been since incorporated into the said Regiment to be laid off in one Tract the Length of which not to exceed double the Breadth in such place on the North West Side of the Ohio as the majority of the Officers shall choose and to be afterwards divided among the said Officers and Soldiers in due proportion according to the Laws of Virginia.

That in Case the Quantity of good Lands of the South East Side of the Ohio upon the Waters of Cumberland River and between the Green River and the Tenessee River which have been reserved by Law for the Virginia Troops upon Continental Establishment4 should from the North Carolina Line bearing in further upon the Cumberland Lands than was expected prove insufficient for their legal Bounties the Deficiency shall be made up to the said Troops in Good Lands to be laid off between the Rivers Scioto and Little Miamis on the North West Side of the River Ohio in such proportions as have been engaged to them by the Laws of Virginia.

That all the Lands within the Territory so ceded to the United States and not reserved for or appropriated to any of the herein before mentioned purposes or disposed of in Bounties to the Officers and Soldiers of the American Army shall be considered as a common Fund for the use and benefit of such of the United American States as have become or shall become Members of the Confederation or Federal Alliance of the said States (Virginia inclusive) according to their usual respective proportions in the general Charge and Expenditure and shall be faithfully and bona fide disposed of for that purpose and for no other use or purpose whatsoever. And therefore that all purchases and Deeds from any Indian or Indians or from any Indian Nation or Nations for any Lands within any part of the said Territory which have been or shall be made for the Use and Benefit of any private Person or persons whatsoever, And Royal Grants within the ceded Territory inconsistent with the Chartered Rights Laws and Customs of Virginia, shall be deemed and declared absolutely void and of no Effect in the same Manner as if the said Territory had still remained subject to and part of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

That all the remaining Territory of Virginia included between the Atlantic Ocean and the South East Side of the River Ohio and the Maryland Pensylvania and North Carolina Boundaries shall be guaranteed to the Commonwealth of Virginia by the said United States.

That the above Cession of Territory by Virginia to the United States shall be void and of none effect unless all the States in the American Union shall ratify the Articles of Confederation heretofore transmitted by Congress for the Consideration of the said States.

Virginia having thus for the Sake of the general Good proposed to cede a great Extent of valuable Territory to the Continent it is expected in Return that every other State in the Union under similar Circumstances as to vacant Territory will make similar Cessions of the same to the United States for the General Emolument.


1781. January 2d. John Beckley  C.H.D.
Agreed to by the Senate
 Will: Drew C.S.

A Copy Teste John Beckley C.H.D.

RC (DLC: PCC, No. 71, ii, 13–16); endorsed: “Richmond January 17th 1781. Letter from Govr. Jefferson of Virginia enclosing a resolution of the Genl. Assembly of that State passed in consequence of resolution of Congress of Septr. 6th. 1780 on the subject of the confederation. Read Jany. 29th. 1781”; in a clerk’s hand, signed by TJ. Tr (DLC); signed by TJ. FC (Vi). Enclosure: Resolution of the General Assembly of 2 Jan. as printed above. There are two copies of this resolution which are here, for the sake of clarity, referred to as Tr (1) and Tr (2). Tr (1) is in PCC, No. 71, ii, 17–20. It is endorsed: “A Copy of the Resolutions for a cession of the Lands on the No. West Side of the Ohio River to the United States. Virginia—January 2d 1781”; in an unidentified clerk’s hand; being an attested copy of an attested copy, only the second of the signatures of John Beckley is in his hand. Tr (2) is in PCC, No. 75, 355–8. It is endorsed: “Copy. Resolution of the Genl. Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia for a Cession of Western Territory 2d. Jany. 1781”; in the hand of Charles Morse, who transcribed all of the signatures. For reasons indicated below in note 4 concerning the error in transcription of Tr (1), it is clear that Tr (1) was the copy enclosed in TJ’s letter. Tr (2) was probably made in 1781 when Morse was employed as a clerk in Congress. He may have copied it from a copy that was sent to one of the Virginia delegates in Congress. It could have been copied from Tr (1), but only if the error in that copy described in note 4 below had been called to the attention of the copying clerk by someone in Congress. The Resolution of 2 Jan. 1781 is printed in JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , Oct. 1780, 1827 edn., p. 80.

It seems ironic that the transmittal of the General Assembly’s resolution upon which the “Happiness, Strength and safety of the United States” depended should have been delayed a fortnight because the enemy had entered the capital of Virginia and had put the government to flight. Indeed, it appeared to be almost by chance that this crucial resolution was drafted and adopted before Arnold’s dragoons arrived in Richmond. The resolution of Congress of 6 Sep., transmitted to TJ by Samuel Huntington in his letter of 10 Sep. (q.v., with references and notes there), was presumably included in the letters and documents sent by TJ to Benjamin Harrison, speaker of the House of Delegates, early in November (see TJ to Harrison under date of 7 Nov. 1780). Not much legislation engaged the attention of that body during November and December, some of it of great importance and some fairly trivial. The House had been delayed several days at the opening of the session because of lack of a quorum, and toward the end of December absences threatened to disrupt legislative business. On Saturday, 23 Dec., the sergeant-at-arms was ordered to take into custody no fewer than forty-five members and at the same time the House resolved that it would “with all the severity of censure, publish the names of members who shall absent themselves in future, from their duty in the House at this critical juncture, without leave; that the calamities which will probably ensue upon leaving our affairs deranged, may be attributed to the authors of them.” However, it was not until 1 Jan. that the House finally resolved itself into a committee of the whole to discuss the subject brought up in Congress’ resolution. The next day, in the midst of alarms about the approach of an enemy fleet in Virginia waters, the resolution printed above was hastily approved. The Senate concurred immediately and both houses adjourned forthwith (JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , Oct. 1780, 1827 edn., p. 10, 67, 79, 80, 81). Since, from this brief outline, it appears that no special committee was directed to draft the resolution, some member must have had a draft ready to present in the closing hours of the session. TJ had been much concerned with the northwest in the preceding days (see his letter to George Rogers Clark of 25 Dec. 1780). These facts, together with TJ’s work in Congress in 1783–1784 on the same subject, seem to reinforce the conjecture stated below that TJ may have had a hand in drafting the resolution.

While the conditions stated in the resolution were, as the Virginia delegates affirmed, “not precisely conformable to the recommendations of Congress on the subject” (see their letter to TJ, 30 Jan. 1781), Congress did not hesitate to put the Articles of Confederation into force early in 1781. Virginia had already ratified the Articles in 1777 and her delegates had subscribed their names to the engrossed parchment (see above, Vol. 1: 111–12; JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , Oct. 1777, 1827 edn., p. 80–1; JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, ed. W. C. Ford and others, Washington, 1904–1937 description ends , xix, 223). Maryland on 2 Feb. 1781 authorized her delegates to sign. The Act of authorization was read in Congress 12 Feb. On 1 Mch., when John Hanson and Daniel Carroll signed for Maryland, this was regarded by Congress as the act “by which … the Confederation of the United States of America was completed” (JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, ed. W. C. Ford and others, Washington, 1904–1937 description ends , xix, p. 96, 186, 138, 191, 214). Yet, three years later, there was doubt as to whether Congress would accept the terms on which Virginia had predicated her cession of lands northwest of the Ohio. On 13 Sep. 1783 Congress stipulated the terms on which Virginia’s conditional cession of 2 Jan. 1781 would be accepted; the General Assembly at its session of Oct. 1783 authorized the Virginia delegates in Congress to execute a deed of cession accordingly; TJ himself, as a member of Congress, drafted the deed of cession of 1 Mch. 1784. TJ’s letter of 3 Mch. 1784 to Benjamin Harrison is a cogent analysis of the tactics required of the Virginia delegates even at that date to obtain acceptance by Congress (see Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends xi, 326–8; 567–70; Virginia Delegates to Benjamin Harrison, 22 Mch. 1784, covering the deed of cession executed 1 Mch.; both are printed in Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends xi, 571–5).

The states shall be distinct Republican States: This significant condition guaranteeing admission of new states on a basis of full equality, points both to the Northwest Ordinance of 1784 and to TJ’s draft of a Constitution for Virginia in 1776. The latter, however, had in view the establishment of new governments “free and independent of this colony and of all the world” (see above, Vol. 1: 385, note 19), whereas the former sought to guarantee equality of sovereignty, freedom, and independence within the “Federal Alliance.” Whether or not this indicates that TJ had any influence in drafting the resolution, there are the following facts to be noted. First, in respect to the requirement that Virginia should be reimbursed for expences in reducing the British posts, there is a document in DLC: TJ Papers in TJ’s hand that may possibly relate to, or have been drawn up to be inserted in, some document concerning Virginia’s claim to western lands, possibly even the present resolution. It reads as follows: “’A judicious state of our right to the lands we claim, comprehending the progression of grants and settlements under the government of Virginia from at least the period or some time before the Lancaster treaty [1744] shewing the expence we have been at from time to time in treaties with the Indians and protecting the Frontier and the extent of our exercising jurisdiction in that country down to the time of the revolution when Independance was declared, will serve’ &ca.” Since this fragment is embraced by quotation marks, TJ may, of course, have copied it from some other document. Second, the requirement that the French and Canadian settlers of the Northwest should be confirmed in their possessions and title and “protected in the Enjoyment of their Rights and Liberty” closely parallels the final part of the instructions given by TJ to George Rogers Clark (see TJ to Clark, 25 Dec. 1780).

1The full date is in TJ’s hand.

2The word “equally” does not appear in FC (Vi).

3The resolution as printed in JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends adds the word “respectively.”

4At this point Tr (2) adds the following: “and upon their own State Establishment”; so does the text in JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , Oct. 1780, 1827 edn., p. 80. Hening notes this omission in one of the texts subsequently derived from Tr (1) and, in printing the text of the resolution described as “Copy sent the Governor 15th January,” makes the following comment: “It is most obvious that, in transcribing the resolution, or in some copy of the subsequent proceedings founded on it, the words ‘and upon their own state establishment,’ were inadvertently omitted by the clerk. For it cannot be presumed that the state of Virginia, who had by several solemn acts of the legislature, declared that the bounties in land given to the officers and soldiers of the Virginia line on continental establishment, should be extended to those on state establishment, would make provision for the one class, in ceded territory, and omit the other. Nor is it within the bounds of probability that, while Virginia was giving away such an extensive territory to the United States she should not so have disposed of the gift, as to do complete justice to her own citizens” (x, 565). In his next volume, Hening modified this opinion. From a line by line printing of the pertinent passage in the “original manuscript” (presumably the engrossed copy), he proved that the omission was made in the “first copy” sent to the governor and not in some “subsequent proceedings founded on it” (same, xi, 566–7). This, of course, is correct, but it is an explanation that invites comment. For the text that TJ transmitted to Congress set in motion an error that could not be reversed. When, a year and a half later, Congress adopted its resolve of 13 Sep. 1783 and embodied in it the text of the resolution of 2 Jan. 1781, that body was legally bound to employ the officially attested text that TJ had sent, not the correct text that, for some reason or other, was at that time in Congress’ records. Similarly, when Congress’ resolve of 13 Sep. 1783 was laid before the Virginia General Assembly, the Assembly in turn was legally obligated to recite, in its Act passed at the Oct. 1783 session, the inaccurate version that Congress had employed. But this was not the completion of the circle. When TJ, then a member of Congress, received Virginia’s Act of 1783 authorizing the delegates in Congress to execute a deed of cession, the two drafts of a form of deed that he drew up specified that the Virginia Act should be copied verbatim—as, indeed, he was bound to do. Once TJ had transmitted the erroneous but officially attested copy to Huntington on 17 Jan. 1781, the error could not be overtaken even if noticed. On Monday, 1 Mch. 1784, the Virginia delegates signed, sealed, and delivered the deed of cession in which was imbedded the defective text and Congress directed that “the same be recorded and enrolled among the acts of the United States.” Thus John Beckley’s error was made perpetual. It still stands, protected in its unassailable legal position and enshrined in one of the most important series of Acts that the Virginia General Assembly or the Continental Congress adopted at that period (Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends x, 565; xi, 326, 568, 573; JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, ed. W. C. Ford and others, Washington, 1904–1937 description ends , xxvi, 115, 117; Virginia Delegates to Benjamin Harrison, 22 Mch. 1784, enclosing an exemplification of the deed of cession as executed).

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