Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from James Monroe, 12 July 1788

From James Monroe

Fredricksburg July 12. 1788

Dear Madam

Altho I am persuaded you will have received the proceedings of our convention upon the plan of government submitted from Phila. yet as it is possible this may reach you sooner than other communications I herewith enclose a copy to you. These terminated as you will find in a ratification which must be consider’d; so far as a reservation of certain rights go, as conditional, with the recommendation of subsequent amendments. The copy will designate to you the part which different gentlemen took upon this very interesting and important subject. The detail in the management of the business, from your intimate knowledge of characters, you perhaps possess with great accuracy, without a formal narration of it. Pendleton1 tho much impaired in health and in every respect in the decline of life shewed as much zeal to carry it, as if he had been a young man. Perhaps more than he discover’d in the commencement of the late revolution in his opposition to G. Britain. Wythe acted as chairman to the committee of the whole and of course took but little part in the debate, but was for the adoption relying on subsequent amendments. Blair said nothing, but was for it. The Governor exhibited a curious spectacle to view: having refused to sign the paper every body supposed him against it. But he afterwards had written a letter and having taken a part which might be called rather vehement than active he was constantly labouring to shew that his present conduct [was]2 consistent with that letter and the letter with his refusal to sign: Madison took the principal share in the debate for it. In which together with the aid I have already mention’d he was somewhat assisted by Innes, H. Lee, Marshall, Corbin, and G. Nicholas as Mason, Henry and Grayson were the principal Supporters of the opposition. The discussion as might have been expected where the parties were so nearly on a balance, was conducted generally with great order, propriety and respect of either party to the other, and its event was accompanied with no circumstance on the part of the victorious that mar[ked] extraordinary exultation, nor of depression on the part of the unfortunate. There was no bonfire illumination &c. and had there been I am inclin’d to believe, the opposition would have not only express’d no dissatisfaction, but have scarcely felt any at it, for they seemed to be governed by principles elevated highly above circumstances so trivial and transitory in their nature.

The conduct of Genl. Washington upon this occasion has no doubt been right and meritorious. All parties had acknowledged defects in the federal system, and been sensible of the propriety of some material change. To forsake the honourable retreat to which he had retired and risque the reputation he had so deservedly acquir’d, manifested a zeal for the publick interest, that could after so many and illustrious services, and at this stage of his life, scarcely have been expected from him. Having however commenc’d again on the publick theatre the course which he takes becomes3 not only highly interesting to him but likewise so to us: the human character is not perfect; [and]4 if he partakes of those qualities which we have too much reason to believe are almost inseparable from the frail nature of our being the people of America will perhaps be lost: be assured his influence carried this government; for my own part I have a boundless confidence in him nor have I any reason to beleive he will ever furnish occasion for withdrawing it. More is to be apprehended if he takes a part in the public councils again as he advances in age from the designs of those around him than from any dispositions of his own.

In the discussion of the subject an allusion was made I believe in the first instance, by Mr. Henry to an opinion you had given on this subject, in a letter to Mr. Donald. This afterwards became the subject of much inquiry and debate in the house, as to the construction of the contents of such letter and I was happy to find the great attention and universal respect with which the opinion was treated; as well as the great regard and high estimation in which the author of it was h[eld]. It must be painful to have been thus made a party in this transaction but this must have been alleviated by a consideration of the circumstances I have mention’d.

From the first view I had of the report from Phila. I had some strong objections to it and as I had no inclination to inlist myself on either side, made no communication or positive declaration of my sentiments untill after the Convention met. Being however desirous to communicate them to my constituents I address’d the enclos’d letter to them, with intention of giving them a view thereof eight or ten days before it met, but the impression was delayed so long, and so incorrectly made, and the whole performance upon reexamination so loosely drawn that I thought it best to suppress it. There appear’d likewise to be an impropriety in interfering with the subject in that manner in that late stage of the business. I inclose it you for your perusal and comment on it.

You have no doubt been apprized of the remonstrance of the Judges to the proceedings of the Legislature in the passage particularly of the district court law, as likewise of its contents. The subject will be taken up in the fall. The legislature altho assembled for the purpose declin’d entering into it, because of the season of the year being anxious to get home about their harvest. For this purpose they passd an act suspending the operation of the district court law untill sometime in Decr. or Jany. next. Altho different modifications may be made of it yet I think the bill will be retained in its principal features. I still reside here and perhaps shall continue to do so whilst I remain at the bar, especially if the district court law holds its ground. I hold a seat in the legislature and believe I shall do it for some time. The absence from my family is painful but I must endeavor to have them with me as much as possible. I hope you enjoy your health well. I have heard nothing to the contrary. I hope also that Miss Patsy and Molly are well. Short I likewise hope is in health. Remember me to them and believe me most affectionately your friend & servant,

Jas. Monroe

RC (DLC); partly in code. En- closures: Probably a copy of journal of the Convention of Virginia. Held in the Journal of City of Richmond, on the First Monday in June, in the Year of our Lord, One Thousand Seven Hundred and Eighty Eight (Richmond, Augustine Davis, [1788]), of which two hundred copies were issued at the close of the Convention (Swem, “Va. Bibliog.,” description begins Earl G. Swem, “A Bibliography of Virginia,” Virginia State Library, Bulletin, VIII, X, XII (1915–1919) description ends No. 7586). A copy of this is in DLC: TJ Papers, 40: 6901, bearing many notations by James Madison, but, as these were added later, it is possible that this actually was the copy sent by Monroe and that Madison employed it at a later date. (2) James Monroe’s Some Observations on the Constitution, & c., a pamphlet that exists apparently in the one copy that is preserved in TJ’s library (Sowerby, description begins Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, compiled with annotations by E. Millicent Sowerby, Washington, 1952–55 description ends No. 3018) and on p. 3 of which TJ wrote “by Colo. James Monroe.” This copy probably had a title-page originally; it has an errata list on p. 24; and it also contains a number of alterations in Monroe’s hand. It is printed in Monroe, Writings, ed. Hamilton, i, 307–43, but Monroe’s deletions, corrections, &c. are sometimes followed and sometimes disregarded, without indication in either case. These are not numerous, and for the most part are matters of phraseology.

It was on Monday, 9 June 1788, that Patrick Henry made his allusion to TJ’s Letter to Mr. Donald of 7 Feb. 1788: “We are threatened with danger for the non-payment of our debt due to France. We have information come from an illustrious citizen of Virginia, who is now in Paris, which disproves the suggestions of such danger. This citizen has not been in the airy regions of theoretic speculation: our ambassador is this worthy citizen. The ambassador of the United States of America is not so despised as the honorable gentleman would make us believe. A servant of a republic is as much respected as that of a monarch. The honorable gentleman tells us that hostile fleets are to be sent to make reprisals upon us: our ambassador tells you that the king of France has taken into consideration to enter into commercial regulations, on reciprocal terms, with us, which will be of peculiar advantage to us. Does this look like hostility? I might go farther; I might say, not from public authority, but good information, that his opinion is, that you reject this government. His character and abilities are in the highest estimation; he is well acquainted, in every respect, with this country; equally so with the policy of the European nations. This illustrious citizen advises you to reject this government till it be amended. His sentiments coincide entirely with ours. His attachment to, and services done for, this country are well known. At a great distance from us, he remembers and studies our happiness. Living in splendor and dissipation, he thinks yet of bills of rights—thinks of those little, despised things called maxims. Let us follow the sage advice of this common friend of our happiness.” This view of TJ’s position takes on added interest in light of the fact that Henry was TJ’s inveterate opponent. Edmund Randolph, the next day, replied to Henry: “In that list of facts with which he would touch our affections, he has produced a name (Mr. Jefferson) which will ever be remembered with gratitude by this commonwealth. I hope that his life will be continued, to add, by his future actions, to the brilliancy of his character. Yet I trust that his name was not mentioned to influence any member of this house. Notwithstanding the celebrity of his character, his name cannot be used as authority against the Constitution…. As far as my information goes, it is only a report circulated through the town, that he wished nine states to adopt, and the others to reject it, in order to get amendments…. That illustrious citizen tells you, that he wishes the government to be adopted by nine states, to prevent a schism in the Union. This, sir, is my wish. I will go heart and hand to obtain amendments, but I will never agree to the dissolution of the Union.” But Henry, being well aware of the letter to Donald and of the fact that TJ had actually expressed the “wish with all my soul that the nine first Conventions” would adopt and equally so that the last four would “refuse to accede to it till a declaration of rights be annexed,” refused to construe “the opinion of Mr. Jefferson, our common friend, into an advice to adopt this new government.” Eight states had’ already ratified, and Henry’s opponents had asserted that New Hampshire would certainly do so—as New Hampshire did while Virginia debated. “Where, then,” Henry asked bluntly, “will four states be found to reject, if we adopt it? If we do, the counsel of this enlightened and worthy countryman of ours will be thrown away; and for what? He wishes to secure amendments and a bill of rights, if I am not mistaken…. His amendments go to that despised thing, called a bill of rights, and all the rights which are dear to human nature—trial by jury, the liberty of religion and the press, &c. Do not gentlemen see that, if we adopt, under the idea of following Mr. Jefferson’s opinion, we amuse ourselves with the shadow, while the substance is given away? If Virginia be for adoption, what states will be left, of sufficient respectability and importance to secure amendments by their rejection? … Where will you find attachment to the rights of mankind, when Massachusetts, the great northern state, Pennsylvania, the great middle state, and Virginia, the great southern state, shall have adopted this government? Where will you find magnanimity enough to reject it?” The argument was telling, if disingenuous, and Madison, lacking the letters that TJ had already written which proved he had given up the idea expressed to Donald in favor of the Massachusetts plan for obtaining amendments, could only regret that Henry had “mentioned the opinion of a citizen who is an ornament to this state‥‥ Is it come to this, then, that we are not to follow our own reason? Is it proper to introduce the opinions of respectable men not within these walls? … I believe that, were that gentleman now on this floor, he would be for the adoption of this Constitution. I wish his name had never been mentioned. I … know that the delicacy of his feelings will be wounded, when he will see in print what has and may be said concerning him on this occasion. I am, in some measure, acquainted with his sentiments on this subject. It is not right for me to unfold what he has informed me; but … he admires several parts of it, which have been reprobated with vehemence in this house. He is captivated with the equality of suffrage in the Senate, which the honorable gentleman (Mr. Henry) calls the rotten part of this Constitution. But, whatever be the opinion of that illustrious citizen, considerations of personal delicacy should dissuade us from introducing it here” (Elliot, Debates, Philadelphia, 1901, iii, 152–3, 199–200, 314–5, 329–30). See also Madison to TJ, 24 July 1788.

1This and subsequent words in italics are written in code and were decoded interlineally by TJ; his decoding has been verified by the Editors, employing Code No. 9; two or three errors in encoding or decoding have been conjecturally corrected.

2This word supplied; Monroe not only omitted the verb but also erred in encoding conduct and consistent.

3Monroe encoded fe (887) for come (884).

4Monroe encoded Massachusetts (67) for and (673), and TJ so decoded it.

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