Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from James Madison, 20 August 1784

From James Madison

Orange Aug: 20. 1784.

Dear Sir

Your favor of the 1st. July written on the eve of your embarkation from Boston was safely delivered by your Servant Bob about the 20th. of the same month. Along with it I received the pamphlet on the W. India trade, and a copy of Deane’s letters. My last was written from Richmond on the adjournment of the General Assembly and put into the hands of Mr. Short. It contained a cursory view of legislative proceedings, referring to the bearer for a more circumstancial one. Since the adjournment I have been so little abroad that I am unable to say with certainty how far those proceedings harmonize with the vox populi. The opinion of some who have better means of information is that a large majority of the people either from a sense of private justice or of national faith, dislike the footing on which British debts are placed. The proceedings relative to an amendment of the State Constitution seem to interest the public much less than a friend to the scheme would wish. The act which produces most agitation and discussion is that which restrains foreign trade to enumerated ports. Those who meditate a revival of it on the old plan of British monopoly and diffusive credit, or whose mercantile arrangements might be disturbed by the innovation,1 with those whose local situations give them, or are thought to give them an advantage in large vessels coming up the rivers to their usual stations, are busy in decoying the people into a belief that trade ought in all cases to be left to regulate itself, that to confine it to particular ports is to renounce the boon with which Nature has favoured our country, and that if one sett of men are to be importers and exporters, another set to be carryers between the mouths and heads of the rivers and a third retailers, trade, as it must pass through so many hands all taking a profit, must in the end come dearer to the people than if the simple plan should be continued which unites these several branches in the same hands. These and other objections, tho’ unsound, are not altogether unplausible, and being propagated with more zeal and pains by those who have a particular interest to serve than proper answers are by those who regard the general interest only, make it very possible that the measure may be rescinded before it is to take effect. Should it escape such a fate, it will be owing to a few striking and undeniable facts, namely, that goods are much dearer in Virginia, than in the States where trade is drawn to a general mart, that even goods brought from Philada. and Baltimore to Winchester and other W. and S. W. parts of Virginia are retailed cheaper, than those imported directly from Europe are sold on tide water, that generous as the present price of our Tobacco appears, the same article has currently sold 15 or 20 per Ct. at least higher in Philada. where being as far from the ultimate market it cannot be intrinsically worth more; that scarce a single vessel from any part of Europe, other than the British Dominions, comes into our ports, whilst vessels from so many other parts of Europe, resort to other ports of America, almost all of them too in pursuit of the Staple of Virginia. The exemption of our own citizens from the restriction is another circumstance that helps to parry attacks on the policy of it. The warmest friends to the law were averse to this discrimination which not only departs from its principle, but gives it an illiberal aspect to foreigners, but it was a necessary concession to prevailing sentiments.2The like discrimination between our own citizens and those of other States contrary to the fœderal articles3 is an erratum which was omitted to be rectified, but will no doubt be so. Notwithstanding the languor of our direct trade with Europe, this Country has indirectly tasted some of the fruits of Independence. The price of our last crop of Tobacco has been on James River from 36/ to 42/6 per Ct. and has brought more specie into the Country than it ever before contained at one time.4The price of hemp however has been reduced as much by the peace as that of Tobacco has been raised, being sold I am told as low as 20/. per Ct. beyond the mountains.5 Our crops of wheat have been rather scanty, owing partly to the rigors of the winter, partly to an insect6 which in many places7 has destroyed whole fields of that grain. The same insect has since the harvest fallen upon the Corn with considerable damage; but without some very unusual disastre to that article the crop will be exuberent, and will afford plentiful supplies for the W. India Islands if their European Masters will no longer deny themselves the benefit of such a trade with us. The crop of the Tobacco now on the ground will if the weather continues favorable be tolerably good, though much shortened on the whole by the want of early seasons for transplanting and an uncommon number of the insects which prey upon it in its different stages.8 It will be politic I think for the people here to push the culture of this article whilst the price keeps up, it becoming more apparent every day that the richness of soil and fitness of climate on the western waters will in a few years, both reduce the price and engross the culture of it. This event begins to be generally foreseen and increases the demand greatly for land on the Ohio. What think you of a guinea an acre being already the price for choice tracts with sure titles? Nothing can delay such a revolution with regard to our staple, but an impolitic and perverse attempt in Spain to shut the mouth of the Mississippi against the inhabitants above. I say delay9 because she can no more finally stop the current of trade down the river than she can that of the river itself. The importance of this matter is in almost every mouth.10 I am frequently asked what progress has been made towards a treaty with Spain and what may be expected from her liberality on this point, the querists11 all counting on an early ability in the western settlements to apply to other motives if necessary.12 My answers have both from ignorance and prudence been evasive. I have not thought fit however to cherish unfavorable impressions,13 being more and more led by revolving the subject, to conclude that Spain will never be so mad as to persist in her present ideas.14 For want of better matter for correspondence, I will state the grounds on which I build my expectations.

First. Apt as the policy of nations is to disregard justice and the general rights of mankind15 I deem it no small advantage that these considerations are in our favour. They must be felt in some degree by the most corrupt councils on a question whether the interest of millions shall be sacrificed to views concerning a distant and paltry settlement. They are every day acquiring weight from the progress of philosophy and civilization and they must operate on those nations of Europe who have given us a title to their friendly offices or who may wish to gain a title to ours.

Secondly. May not something be hoped from the respect which Spain may feel for consistency of character on an appeal to the doctrine maintained by herself in the year 1609,16 touching the Scheld or at least from the use which may be made of that fact by the powers disposed to favor our views.

Thirdly. The interest of Spain at least ought to claim her attention. (1) A free trade down the Mississippi would make new Orleans one of the most flourishing emporiums in the world and deriving its happiness from the benevolence of Spain would feel a firm loyalty to her government. At present it is an expensive establishment settled chiefly by French, who hate the government which oppresses them, who already covet a trade with the upper country,17 will become every day more sensible of the rigor which denies it to them and will join in any attempt which may be made against their masters.18 (2) A generous policy on the part of Spain toward the U.S. will be the cement of friendship and lasting peace with them. A contrary one will produce immediate heart burnings and sow the seeds of inevitable hostility. The U.S. are already a power not to be despised by Spain. The time cannot be distant when, in spite of all precautions the safety of her possessions in this quarter of the globe must depend more on our peaceableness than her own power. (3) In another view it is against the interest of Spain to throw obstacles in the way of our Western settlements. The part she took during the late war shews that she apprehended less from the power growing up in her neighborhood in a state of independance than as an instrument in the hands of Great Britain. If in this she calculated on the impotence of the U.S. when dismembered from the British empire she saw but little way into futurity: if on the pacific temper of republics unjust irritations on her part will soon prove to her that19 these have like passions with other governments. Her permanent20 security seems to lie in the complexity of our federal government and the diversity of interests among the members of it which render offensive measures improbable in council and difficult in execution. If such be the case when thirteen States compose the system ought she not to wish to see the number enlarged to three and twenty? A source of temporary21 security to her is our want of naval strength. Ought she not then to favor those emigrations to the western land which as long as they continue will leave no supernumerary hands for the sea.22

Fourthly. Should none of these circumstances affect her councils she can not surely so far disregard the usage of nations as to contend that her possessions at the mouth of the Mississippi justify a total denial of the use of it to the inhabitants above when possessions much less dis proportionate at the mouth of other rivers have been admitted only as a title to a moderate toll.23 The case of the Rhine the Maese and the Scheld as well as of the Elbe and Oder are if I mistake not in point here. How far other rivers may afford parralel cases I cannot say.24 That of the Mississipi is probably the strongest in the world.

Fifthly. Must not the general interest of Europe in all cases influence the determinations of any particular nation in Europe and does not that interest in the present case clearly lie on our side. (1) All the principal powers have in a general view more to gain than to lose by denying a right of those who hold the mouths of rivers to intercept a communication with those above. France Gr. Brit.25 and Sweden have no opportunity of exerting such a right and must wish a free passage for their merchandize in every country. Spain herself had no such opportunity and has besides three of her principal rivers one of them the seat of her metropolis runing thro’ Portugal. Russia can have nothing to lose by denying this pretension and is bound to do so in favor of her great rivers the Neiper the Niester and the Don which mouth in the black sea and of the passage thro’ the Dardanelles which she extorted from the Turks. The Emperor in common with the inland states of Germany and moreover by his possessions on the Maese and the Scheld has a similar interest. The possessions of the King of Prussia on the Rhine the Elbe and the Oder are pledges for his orthodoxy. The U. Prs. hold it is true the mouths of the Maese the Rhine and the Scheld26 but a general freedom of trade is so much their policy and they now carry on so much of it through the channel of rivers flowing through different dominions that their weight can hardly be thrown into the wrong scale. The only powers that can have an interest in opposing the American doctrine are the Ottoman which has already given up the point to Russia, Denmark which is suffered to retain the entrance of the Baltic, Portugal whose principal rivers head in Spain, Venice which holds the mouth of the Po and Dantzick which commands that of the Vistula if it is yet to be considered as a sovereign city.27 The prevailing disposition of Europe on this point once frustrated an attempt of Denmark to exact a toll at the mouth of the Elbe by means of a fort on the holstein side, which commands it. The fact is mentioned in Salmon’s gazeteer, under the head of Gluckstadt. I have no opportunity of ascertaining the circumstances of the case or discovering like cases. (2) In a more important view the settlement of the Western country which will much depend on the free use of the Missisipi will be beneficial to all nations who either directly or indirectly trade with the U.S. By a free expansion of our people the establishment of internal manufactures will not only be long delayed:28 but the consumption of foreign manufactures long continued increasing: and at the same time all the productions of the American soil required by Europe in return for her manufactures, will proportionably increase. The vacant land of the United States lying on the waters of the Missisipi is perhaps equal in extent to the land actually settled. If no check be given to emigrations from the latter to the former they will probably keep pace at least with the increase of our people, till the population of both becomes nearly equal. For twenty or twenty five years we shall consequently have as few internal manufactures in proportion to our numbers as at present and at the end of that period our imported manufactures will be doubled. It may be observed too, that as the market for these manufactures will first increase and the provision for supplying it will follow the price of supplies will naturally rise in favor of those who manufacture them. On the other hand as the demand for the tobacco indigo rice corn &c.29 produced by America for exportation will neither precede nor keep pace with their increase, the price must naturally sink in favor also of those who consume them. Reverse the case by supposing the use of the Missisipi denied to us and the consequence is that many of our supernumerary hands who in the former case would be husbandmen on the waters of the Missisipi will on the latter supposition be manufacturers on those of the Atlantic and even those who may not be discouraged from seating the vacant lands will be obliged by the want of vent for the produce of the soil and of the means of purchasing foreign manufactures to manufacturing in great measure for themselves.30

Should Spain yield the point of the navigation of the Mississippi, but at the same time refuse us the use of her shores the benefit will be ideal only. I have conversed with several persons who have a practical knowlege of the subject, all of whom assure me that not only the right of fastening to the Spanish shore but that of holding an entrepot of our own or of using New Orleans as a free port is essential to a trade thro’ that channel. It has been said that sea vessels can get up as high as latitude thirty two to meet the river craft but it will be with so much difficulty and disadvantage as to amount to a prohibition. The idea has also been suggested31 of large magazines constructed for floating but if this expedient were otherwise admissible the hurricanes which in that quarter frequently demolish edifices on land forbid the least confidence in those which would have no foundation but water. Some territorial privileges therefore seem to be as indispensable to the use of the river as this is to the prosperity of the western country. A place called “The Englishman’s turn” on the island of32 about six leagues below the town of New O. is I am told the fittest for our purpose and that the lower side of the peninsula is the best. Batton rouge is also mentioned as a convenient station, and point coupè as the highest to which vessels can ascend with tolerable ease. Information however of this33 from men who judge from a general and superficial view only can never be received as accurate. If Spain be sincerely disposed to gratify us I hope she will be sensible it can not be done effectually without allowing a previous survey and deliberate choice. Should it be impossible to obtain from her a portion of ground by other means, would it be unadvisable to attempt it by purchase. The price demanded could not well exceed the benefit to be obtained; and a reimbursement of the public advance might easily be provided for by the sale to individuals and the conditions which might be annexed to their tenures. Such a spot could not fail in a little time to equal in value the same extent in London or Amsterdam. The most intelligent of those with whom I have conversed think34 that on whatever footing our trade may be allowed very judicious provision will be necessary for a fair adjustment of disputes between the Spaniards and the Americans, disputes which must be35 not only noxious to trade but tend to embroil the two nations. Perhaps a joint tribunal under some modification or other might answer the purpose. There is a precedent I see for such an establishment in the twenty first article of the treaty of Munster in 1648 between Spain and the United Provinces. I am informed that sometime after New O. passed into the hands of Spain her Governor forbid all British vessels navigating under the treaty of Paris to fasten to the shore and caused such as did so to be cut loose. In consequence of this practice a British frigate went up near the town, fastened to the shore, and set out guards to fire on any who might attempt to cut her loose. The Governor after trying in vain to remove the frigate by menaces acquiesed, after which British vessels indiscriminately used the shore and even the residence of British merchants in the town of New O., trading clandestinely with the Spaniards as well as openly with their own people winked at. The treaty of 1763 stipulated to British subjects, as well as I recollect, no more than the right of navigating the river and if that of using was admitted under that stipulation the latter right must have been admitted to be included36 in the former.

When you were about leaving America as a Commissioner for peace you intimated to me that a report was in circulation of your being a party to jobbing for Kentucky lands and authorized me to contradict the report.37 I have some reason to believe that the credit of your name has been made use of by some38 who are making purchases or locations in that quarter. If they have done it without sanction it may not be amiss to renew my authority.39

In consequence of my letter to Mrs. Carr I have been called on by your elder Nephew, who is well satisfied with the choice made of Williamsbg. for his future studies. I have furnished him with letters to my acquaintance there and with a draught on your steward for £12.40 He will be down by the opening of Mr. Maury’s school at the close of the vacation which lasts from the begining of August to the end of Sepr. I have the greater hopes that the preference of this School will turn out a proper one, as it has received the approbation of the literary gentlemen of Williamsbg. and will be periodically examined by Mr. Wythe and others. Your younger Nephew is with Majr. Callis, who will keep some time longer. I am at a loss as yet where to fix him, but will guard as much as possible against any idle interval. I am very affectly, Dear Sir, Yr friend & servt.,

J. Madison Jr.

RC (DLC: Madison Papers); at head of text: “No. 1”; partly in code. Recorded in SJL as received 24 Oct. 1784. Dft (DLC: Madison Papers); with numerous deletions and interlineations. The phraseology of Dft differs at many places from that of RC. Some of these differences may be attributed to the tedium of encoding, since Madison occasionally shortened a phrase with no appreciable alteration of substance, such as substituting “the price demanded” for “the price which might be demanded” or “set out guards to fire” for “set out guards with orders to fire.” But many of these variations are revealing and one (note 30), never published heretofore, is an argument whose obvious importance is increased by the fact that Madison saw fit to strike it out. All of the more significant variations between Dft and RC are indicated in notes below.

This remarkable letter represents a clear intent on Madison’s part to persuade TJ of the importance of opening the Mississippi to navigation, closed by proclamation on 26 June 1784 and actually put into force at New Orleans on 22 July. Madison had reason to believe that TJ “and doubtless a majority of eastern Virginians, agreed with Washington in his indifference to the navigation of the Mississippi” (Abernethy, Western Lands, p. 295). For TJ had for some months been concentrating attention primarily on developing the Potomac route to tap northwestern trade and bring it to Virginia ports; he had been a primary if not the determining influence in persuading Washington to sponsor that cause; and Washington was in fact at this moment about to set out on his famous tour of the western country (TJ to Madison, 20 Feb. 1784; TJ to Washington, 15 Mch. 1784; Washington to TJ, 29 Mch. 1784; TJ to Madison, 25 May 1784—;the last indicating that Washington, perhaps on his stop in Annapolis in April, had informed TJ he would accept the superintendency of the Potomac enterprise if put on a proper footing; and Washington’s report of his journey to Gov. Harrison, 10 Oct. 1784, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxvii, 471–80). In view of this, Madison’s extraordinary care in composing the letter takes on greater significance, and so, too, do the nature of the deletions. It may not be amiss to renew my authority: On 11 Nov. 1784 TJ wrote Madison: “I can with truth therefore declare to you, and wish you to repeat it on every proper occasion, that no person on earth is authorized to place my name in any adventure for lands on the Western waters.” Mr. Maury’s School: In Jan. 1784 Walker Maury announced the opening of a grammar school in Williamsburg (Va. Gaz. & Weekly Advertiser, 24 Jan. 1784).

1Preceding ten words are not in Dft; they were a substitute for and a softer phrasing than the words that originally appeared at the beginning of the sentence in the Dft, as follows: “Those who are devoted from either interest or prejudice to the British trade and meditate a revival,” &c.

2At this point the following sentence in Dft is deleted: “I still fear that many of them may mistake the object of the law to be a sacrifice of their conveniency to the encouragement of our mercantile citizens, whereas in reality it was as far as foreign trade came in question only meant to reduce the trade of G.B. to an equality to that of other nations.”

3Dft reads: “to the Confederation,” &c.

4The following is deleted in Dft at this point: “Much of it however which has been drained from the Northern States will return in payment for goods which continue to be imported in considerable quantities thro’ that channel.”

5Dft differs from RC in the following respect: “… being sold in the back country as low as 18/ per Ct.”

6Dft has an asterisk at this point and, at foot of text, “the chinch bug”; RC has an asterisk and, in margin: “Chinch” (Blissus leucopteros).

7Dft reads as follows: “… in the S. side of J[ame]s river‥‥ They have in a few instances only appeared on this [side] of the river.”

8Dft gives a somewhat different version: “The Crops of Tobo. will be much shortened by the want of early rains in many places, and the excessive rains of late in others; and more than either by a devouring multitude of ground worms and grasshoppers everywhere […]. All these enemies however will not prevent a tolerable crop if the seasonable weather which has latterly prevailed in most places, and produced the present prospects should continue.”

9Underscored in MS.

10Dft reads: “The importance of this matter begins to awaken much curiosity and enquiry among those who have shifted or mean to shift their fortunes into the Western country.”

11This and subsequent words in italics were written in code in RC (but not in Dft), and were decoded interlineally by TJ; TJ’s decoding has been verified (and corrected in one or two clerical errors) by the editors, employing Code No. 3.

12Dft reads: “… the querists generally counting on an early ability to apply to less honorable motives if that should be found inadequate.”

13Dft has the following deleted at this point: “… [lest?] I should in future contradict all my [opinions?] on the subject.”

14Dft reads: “… to suppose that Spain will never be so mad as to persist in the doctrine she seems hitherto to have set up.”

15RC substitutes “rights of humanity” for “interest of mankind,” deleted in Dft.

16Dft adds at this point: “against the U. Provinces.”

17Dft reads “Western States.” In Dft the paragraphs beginning “Thirdly” and “Fourthly” are in reverse order but the initial word was changed to agree with sequence in RC.

18Dft reads: “… and will no doubt join the Americans in the first probable attempt against the authority of their masters.”

19Dft reads: “… on her part <may> will soon teach her that,” &c.

20This word underscored both in Dft and in code symbol of RC.

21This word underscored in Dft but not in RC.

22Dft deletes the following at this point: “Other nations as well as Spain may think themselves concerned in these considerations.”

23Dft reads: “… when much more important possessions on the lower parts of much smaller rivers have been no farther urged or admitted than as a ground of right to a moderate toll.”

24Dft deletes the following at this point: “The Po runs thro the Milanese and other states of Italy and terminates within the jurisdiction of Venice, but whether it is navigable above her jurisdiction or whether the upper States have even had an interest in claiming the use of the river below‥‥” The sentence was left unfinished in Dft.

25Dft adds following at this point: “(unless except as to Canada).”

26Dft reads: “The U. Provinces indeed hold the mouths of the Rhine, the Maese and in part of the Scheld,” &c.

27Dft reads: “… if since the partition of Poland it has not ceased to be a free city.”

28Dft reads: “… will not only be for many years delayed, but the consumption of foreign manufactures will be continually increasing with the increase of our numbers.”

29Dft reads: “Tobo. indigo, rice, hemp, Indian corn, lumber, &c.”

30Dft contains the following important passage not in RC: “The only point of view in which it can appear impolitic in the nations of Europe to open the channel of the Missi. to our Western settlements is that the prospect may the more entice the emigration of their subjects. But this objection will never be listened to by those who consult experience, instead of ancient prejudice. The example of Engld. proves beyond a possibility of doubt that vacancies produced by this cause in an industrious country are not only speedily filled [up bu]t that population is ever increased by the demand of the emigrants and their descendants, on the industry of those left behind. America does not contain at this moment perhaps less than 2 millions of inhabitants who have sprung from the loins of Englishmen: does England contain the fewer on this account? Is she not on the contrary more populous than she was before a single Englishman had set his foot on American ground, more populous upon this very account? This fact claims the particular attention of France. Her productions and manufactures are well suited to the climate of the U.S. and our ports are as open to them as to those of G.B. Yet we find that the predilections and habits of our people have given to the latter a preference, amounting [whol]ly to a monopoly. 10,000 French emigrants diffusing throughout the U.S. and diffusing a taste for French fashions and productions, would probably create employment for 20,000 hands in France, in other words would create 10,000 more than would fill the void left by them. It would be the letting out money for an interest greater than the principal itself. In every [20] or 25 years these emigrants would double their number and far more than double their influence; and proportionably enhance their benefits to France. The only sufferers by the encouragement of the Western settlements will be those [who] remain in the Atlantic states. They may it’s true be relieved from taxes in proportion to the price added to the vacant land by the freedom of the Missi. but this danger will be greatly outweighed by the danger to the Confederacy from multiplying the parts of the machine, by the depopulation of the country, by the depreciation of their lands, and by the delay of that marine strength which must be their only safety in case of war. N.Y. Pa. and Va. will also lose the advantage of being Merchants for the Western States in proportion their trade has a ready passage thro’ the Missi. Va. will moreover suffer a loss of her staple <Tobo.> tho’ she may be thought to have an equivalent for this in being disburdened of the slaves who will follow the culture of that plant.”

31Dft reads: “I have heard the idea suggested also,” &c.

32Dft reads: “… on the Island of N.O. about six leagues below the town, would be,” &c.

33Madison failed to encode the word “sort,” which is present in Dft but has no corresponding symbol in RC.

34Dft indicates that Madison had in mind a single person, for it reads: “The most intelligent among those I have conversed with thinks,” &c.

35Dft reads: “… which disputes will be frequent and will not only,” &c.

36Dft reads “involved.”

37Dft adds at this point: “… as absolutely groundless and false.” This paragraph and that which follows are reversed in order in Dft.

38At this point in Dft Madison may have identified those who were making use of TJs name, for almost a whole line is heavily marked out. As nearly as it can be deciphered, this part reads: “… your name has been lately <invoked> made use of by some persons who [… are received in … such information …] who are making purchases,” &c. Within the deleted portion there is what appears to be a proper name that possibly may be that of George Morgan, though Morgan does not appear to have been actively interested in Kentucky lands at this time. See TJ to Madison, 11 Nov. 1784.

39Dft reads: “… it may not be amiss to authorize me anew to correct misrepresentations.”

40Dft adds at this point: “… advance as requisite for the first quarter.”

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