Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Joseph Jones, 29 December 1783

From Joseph Jones

Fredericksburg 29th. Decr. 1783

Dr. Sr

I have the satisfaction to inform you the Senate contrary to my expectation passed the act authorising the Delegates in Congress to convey the claim of Virginia to the territory northwestward of the ohio to the united States without amendment and it will be transmitted you without the instruction heretofore intimated. The mode adopted for transfering our right was in pursuance and in conformity to the precedent established by N. York on her cession. Perhaps an act vesting the claim of this State in the united states might have been more proper and less troublesome but as there was a precedent it was thought better to [pursue] that than adopt a contrary method. Some of the learned Judges not of the Chancery doubted the efficacy of such Deed of conveyance as the Congress not being a corporate Body could not take a title by conveyance. I am so little used to law proceedings of late and so incompetent a judge of difficult cases without recuring to books, that the objection had not struck me and I do not now feel, so strongly as they appeared to do, the force of the objection; conceiving as I do the cession to be a conventional act between sovereign and independent States and not to be scanned by the rules of municipal law. I mention this circumstance that if you think there is weight in it the necessary precaution may be observed. I think I before informed you we had granted the impost duties with some conditions similar to those of Massachusetts. Another perhaps would have been proper and had it occurred in time would probably have been inserted in the act for determining questions of seizures for small value in the County Courts rather then compelling persons in all cases to defend themselves in the Court of Admiralty in Williamsburg. Should this in practice be found oppressive as it reaches not the substance I presume it may be redressed. The compleating the cession and granting the impost may not improperly be called sacrifices by this State to the common good of the union and will it is to be hoped lessen, if not wholely suspend those illiberal censures heretofore cast upon us. Add to these the unanimity and spirit [with] which the legislature passed an Act to empower Congress to concert measures to counteract the designs of Great Britain on our commerce—all of them calculated to produce harmony and strengthen the hands of the federal Government. The impost I assure you was with some a bitter pill, but finding it must be swallowed, they ceased at length to make opposition. Altho’ we could not doubt the signing of the definitive treaty in terms almost the same as the provisional articles, yet as the same was not ratified and regularly communicated, it w[as] thought proper to continue the lien law as it is called for four months and from thence to the end of the next session of assembly. It was strongly contended this would be deemed an infraction of the Treaty, but a great majority appeared in favor of continuing the law, from an opinion we were under no obligation to put into a train of execution what was not properly before us. Pray inform me at your leisure whether any thing and what has been done respecting the Negros carryed away from New York by the British? What about the British debts or the interest of them as I think some instructions were given our Commissioners on the subject particularly the interest. Have any steps been taken or proposed to be taken to obtain information of the amount of the claim of the British Creditors on these States or will it be left to the respective States to pursue their own measures. If it be true that three millions of pounds sterl. the lowest calculation I have heard of, be due from the Citizens of America to the subjects of Great Britain, and probably a much larger sum; is it within their ability encumbered as they are with other demands, equally just and pressing, to make prompt payment. If not, should not some negociation be opened under the authority of Congress, or the respective States to gain knowledge of the amount of the debt, and at what periods by installment the Creditors are content to receive payment. This will be an embarrassing business the next Session of Assembly and is rendered the more so as it involves the payments under the law made into the Treasury during the continuance of the act and draws into consequence all transactions under the tender laws. Were you in the Assembly when the confiscation act passed (I am told you were the draftsman) by which it appears to me the property meant to be confiscated was by the law vested in the Commonwealth and altho not yet sold may still be so without infringing the Treaty as I conceive the proceeding to compleat or take inquisitions for the purpose of designating the property cannot be deemed such in any future confiscations, and I learn there is much property at this time in the predicament I mention. In short I foresee we shall have great and perplexing questions agitated the next Session of Assembly, such as call for moderation and wisdom to discuss and settle, and the prospect of the Bodys possessing abilities equal to the Trust not so promising as [I could] wish. Madisons aid I think we may depend on [and] perhaps old Mr. G. Mason’s as the Business of the land Office requires [revision] and his apprehensions on that subject, [if nothing else, may draw] him from his retirement. Upon these or any other subjects that may fall under our [consideration] I shall thank you for your sentiments so far as you think it either proper or prudent to convey them. Very respectfully I am Dr Sr yr aff hum Servt,

Jos: Jones

RC (DLC). The text being faded and in some places illegible, the editors have taken some readings (enclosed in square brackets) from W. C. Ford’s text in Letters of Joseph Jones, Washington, 1889, p. 135–8.

On the precedent established by N. York: New York’s claim was not based on royal grant or charter, but on extremely insubstantial titles derived from the Six Nations of Indians. For whatever it amounted to, the New York claim was ceded to the United States by an Act of 1780, and a deed of cession was executed by the delegates of that state on 1 Mch. 1781 (Clarence E. Carter, The Territorial Papers of the United States, II, 3–5). The lien law (or stay law) as it is called: This was the Act of Oct. 1782 prohibiting the recovery of British debts. It expired on 1 Dec. 1783 and the Act “to revive and continue the several acts of Assembly for suspending the issuing of executions on certain judgments” extended it for “four months and from thence to the end of next session of assembly” (Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends xi, 349; Harrell, Loyalism in Virginia, p. 144). The text of the Treaty, the fourth article of which provided that there should be no impediment to the recovery of British debts, was known to the Virginia legislators in provisional form at least; Gov. Harrison had also on 13 Dec. written to the Speaker of the House: “The enclosed notification of the definitive treaty came to my hands last night which I beg the favor of you to lay before the assembly. I with pleasure embrace the opportunity of congratulating both you and the assembly on this great and glorious event” (Executive Letter Book, Vi). On the confiscation act, which Jones had been properly informed was drawn by TJ, see Vol. 1: 170, and on the question of interest on debts during the war, see the report on letters from American ministers in Europe, 20 Dec. 1783; also Vol. 1: 171–2.

What has been done respecting the negros carryed away from New York by the British?: This was a question dominant in the minds of many Virginians at the time. A part of the answer is to be found in TJ’s additions to the report on letters from the American ministers in Europe, paragraph 9 (see above under 20 Dec. 1783). A part also is to be found in a letter from Gov. Harrison to Gov. Clinton of New York, which reads in part as follows: “The predatory war carried on by the British has fallen very heavily on many of our most valuable citizens. Some indeed it has brought to the brink of ruin. Tho’ the treaty stipulates that the negroes carried away shall be returned, yet I well know it is intended by General Carleton to evade this part of it if he can and that for this purpose he has sent to the frozen regions of Nova Scotia as many of the poor wretches as could be induced to go there. Such as are left behind and I hear they are not a few are certainly the property of their owners, and I request the favor of you to give your kind assistance for the recovery of them …” (Harrison to George Clinton, 19 Dec. 1783, Executive Letter Book, Vi). This situation provides background for another measure proposed by the forthright governor. Three months earlier Harrison had written to Col. Charles Dabney saying he had received information that there had been in Dabney’s legion “several negroes who were placed in it by their masters as substitutes and that since it has been disbanded they have in several instances been claimed by them and forced again into slavery; this appears so contrary to the common principles of justice and humanity that I am determined to lay the matter before the Assembly, not doubting but they will pass an act giving to those unhappy creatures that liberty which they have been in some measure instrumental in securing to us, and that I may have it in my power to point them out, I beg the favor of you to transmit to me their names and those of their masters by the first opportunity.” Harrison was so outraged over this matter that he did not wait for Dabney to furnish the names of the planters involved, but laid the subject before the Assembly on the first day of its session (Harrison to Dabney, 7 Oct. 1783; Harrison to Speaker of the House, 20 Oct. 1783; both in Executive Letter Book, Vi). The General Assembly responded by passing an Act “directing the emancipation of certain slaves who have served as soldiers in this state,” by which it was provided that those Negroes who had served in the Virginia forces and had “thereby of course contributed towards the establishment of American liberty and independence, should enjoy the blessings of freedom as a reward for their toils and labours” (Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends xi, 308–9). The motives that led Harrison to propose and the legislators to adopt this just Act gain lustre from the fact that he himself, as he informed Governor Clinton, had been “one of the greatest sufferers, having lost thirty of my finest slaves” and that they included among their number and their connections many who had also had slaves carried away by the British.

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