Thomas Jefferson Papers

Benjamin Harrison to the Virginia Delegates in Congress, 26 December 1783

Benjamin Harrison to the Virginia Delegates in Congress

Council Chamber Decr. 26th. 1783.


You have enclosed the copy of an act of the general assembly to authorise the united States in Congress to adopt certain regulations respecting the british trade, also the acts empowering Congress to levy an impost, and empowering the delegates to convey to Congress the claim of this State to the country north westward of the river Ohio, which several acts you will please to lay before Congress. I also send you ten copies of the act for admission of emigrants and declaring their rights to Citizenship which I beg the favor of you to forward by any vessel that may be going to France to Mr. Thomas Barclay at Nantz who acts as our agent. The Letter to him is open for your perusal, from which you will learn the intention of sending them, and which may perhaps suggest to you some more certain mode of having it promulgated in the several kingdoms and states in Europe in which case you will oblige me by altering the destination of one half of them.

If I can obtain a copy of the other act declaring who shall be deemed citizens I will send that also for your information and wish you may be able to reconcile the two acts to each other, which from the cursory view I have had of them I confess I am not able to do.

The assembly fled from this place on Monday last to their Christmas dinners with as much haste as they did when Arnold paid us a visit and of course have left much of the public business of consequence undone.

I am &c.

FC (Vi); caption reads: “The honorable Virginia delegates in Congress.” Enclosures missing; a copy of the Act authorizing cession of the northwestern territory is in DLC: PCC, No. 75; see under 1 Mch. 1784.

The act … respecting the British trade was adopted in retaliation for the British order in council of 2 July 1783 prohibiting the produce of the United States “from being carried to any of the British West India Islands, by any other than British subjects, in British built ships, owned by British subjects, and navigated according to the laws of that kingdom.” The General Assembly regarded this, though a temporary expedient, as “repugnant to the principles of reciprocal interest and convenience, which are found by experience to form the only permanent foundation of friendly intercourse between states,” and therefore authorized Congress to prohibit the importation of West Indian produce or to adopt any other method of counteracting this restrictive British policy so long as it continued (Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends xi, 313–14). The Act required that all other states would have to join in a similar authorization before it became effective. While the General Assembly did not direct Harrison to do so, he immediately wrote to the governors of other states enclosing copies of the Act and impressing upon them “the necessity of a vigorous opposition to the measures … to destroy the American trade” in order “to force that still haughty nation” to come to mutually advantageous commercial relations. “The proposed plan,” concluded the Governor, “… appears to me the only one that will prove efficaceous or blast the expectations of the British who build all their hopes of enforcing their regulations on the want of power in Congress to form one general system for the whole union and the aversion of the several states to invest them with such a power.” Harrison also enclosed in this letter “an interesting paragraph of a letter from our ambassadors to Congress this moment received which places our situation at present in such a light that I think it impossible for the states to hesitate a moment in investing Congress with sufficient powers to make effectual opposition not only to the plans of Great Britain but to all other European nations who may be inclined to follow their example”; the enclosure that Harrison sent with this letter was no doubt a part of the extract from the letter written by the American Commissioners on 10 Sep. 1783 that TJ enclosed in his to Harrison of 17 Dec. 1783, q.v. (Harrison to the “Governors of Several States,” 26 Dec. 1783, Executive Letter Book, Vi). On the same day that Harrison wrote the present letter and his urgent communication to the American governors, the British ministry in Whitehall brought together into a single order in council the various measures that had alarmed American commercial interests; the advocacy by David Hartley and others of principles of free trade between the two countries was smothered under the movement led by the Earl of Sheffield to defend the principle of the Navigation Acts. Sheffield’s Observations on the Commerce of the American States, which appeared in 1783, was the best-known exposition of the point of view of the British shipowners and shipbuilders that had led to the adoption of the restrictive orders in council. For an excellent summary of the political and economic background of British attitudes toward trade following the war, see Merrill Jensen, The New Nation: A History of the United States During the Confederation, 1781–1789, p. 157–66 and references cited there, particularly Gerald S. Graham, Sea Power and British North America, 1783–1802 (Harvard Historical Studies, xlvi); however, these share the common historical view that the major protests to British policy came from New England commercial interests and from West Indian planters and overlook such a vigorous example of protest originating in the Southern states as is provided by Harrison’s recommendation to the General Assembly and that body’s immediate compliance with his suggestion.

The Acts on the impost, the cession of northwestern territory, and the admission of immigrants are found in Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends XI, 322–4, 326–8, and 350–2. The letter to Mr. Thomas Barclay that Harrison enclosed related to claims arising out of the agency of Peter Penet, whose commission was issued by Patrick Henry on 22 May 1779 and confirmed by TJ on 15 July 1779 (see Vol. 3: 36); Harrison also enclosed to Barclay copies of the Act for encouraging immigration and requested him “to take measures for having it published in the several states and kingdoms of Europe from whence emigrants may be expected” (Harrison to Barclay, 26 Dec. 1783, Executive Letter Book, Vi). The other act declaring who shall be deemed citizens was the Act of May 1779 (Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends x, 129–30), which was repealed by the Act of Oct. 1783 “for the admission of emigrants and declaring their right to citizenship” (same, xi, 323).

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