Thomas Jefferson Papers

Jefferson’s Opinion on Proposal for Manufacture of Woolen Textiles in Virginia, [3 December 1790]

Jefferson’s Opinion on Proposal for Manufacture of Woolen Textiles in Virginia

[3 Dec. 1790]

The house of delegates of Virginia seem disposed to adventure 2500.£ for the encouragement of this undertaking: but the Senate did not concur. By their returning to the subject however at a subsequent session, and wishing more specific propositions, it is probable they might be induced to concur if they saw a certain provision that their money would not be paid for nothing. Some unsuccessful experiments heretofore may have suggested this caution.

    Suppose the propositions brought into some such shape as this.
    The Undertaker is to contribute £1000, the State £2500. viz.
    The Undertaker having lain out his £1000. in the necessary
implements to be brought from Europe, and these being landed
in Virginia, as a security that he will proceed, let the state pay for
the first necessary purposes then to occur
    Let it pay him a stipend of £100. a year for the first
three years
    Let it give him a bounty (suppose 3d.) on every yard
of woollen cloth equal to good plains, which he shall weave
for 5. years not exceeding 250£ a year (20,000 vards)
the 4. first years, and 200£ the 5th

To every workman whom he shall import, let them give, after he shall have worked in the manufactory 5. years, warrants for acres of land and pay the expences of survey, patent, &c. [This last article is to meet the proposition of the Undertaker. I do not like it because it tends to draw off the manufacturer from his trade. I should better like a premium to him on his continuing in it. As for instance that he should be free from state taxes as long as he should carry on his trade.]1

The President’s intervention seems necessary till the contract shall be concluded. It is presumed he would not like to be embarrassed afterwards with the details of superintendance. Suppose in his answer to the Governor of Virginia he should say

That the Undertaker being in Europe, more specific propositions can not be obtained from him in time to be laid before this assembly:

That in order to secure to the state the benefit of the establishment, and yet guard them against an unproductive grant of money, he thinks some plan like the preceding one might be proposed to the Undertaker:

That, as it is not known whether he would accept it exactly in that form, it might disappoint the views of the state were they to prescribe that or any other form rigorously; consequently that a discretionary power must be given to a certain extent.

That he would willingly co-operate with their Executive in effecting the contract, and certainly would not conclude it on any terms worse for the state than those before explained. and that the contract being once concluded, his distance and other occupations would oblige him to leave the execution of it to the Executive of the state.

MS (DNA: RG 59, MLR); entirely in TJ’s hand; undated, but entry in SJPL under 3 Dec. 1790 reads: “Opinion Th: J. on establishment of a woollen manufactory in Virga.”; at head of text: “On the proposition for establishing a woollen manufactory in Virginia”; endorsed by Tobias Lear: “Report of the Secy of State. NB. After this report was given in the Secty of State thought upon further Considerations that the President had better not have any further agency in the business.”

This near approach to a government subsidy of the proposed textile mill could scarcely have been unrelated to the disappointment felt both by Washington and TJ at the frustrated overture made to the British ministry through Gouverneur Morris (see TJ’s report, 15 Dec. 1790). In the summer of 1789 one T. Howell wrote Washington: “I flatter myself you’ll readily excuse the Liberty I take in addressing you, when you understand that the following thoughts are the result of a strong attachment to the freedom of America, and a desire of transplanting a manufactory which in time will be found of the greatest consequence. Last year I visited the Continent of America, with a full determination to become a Settler, but finding the Government not in so settled a State as I expected obliged me to abandon the enterprize for that present and wait to see the result of the New Government that was then forming,with a full determination, when permanently fixed, to make an offer of my service to the State of Virginia, to introduce the Woolen Manufactory on the present most approved plans now working in England and in my own manufactory. The great objections made by some that Manufactorys can not at present be introduced with advantage into America, are the Country being thinly settled and labour at present too high. The great improvements which have been made in England in the Woolen and Cotton business by Water-Engines is an amazing saving in Labour as much as three fourths through the whole process and in some departments as much as nine tenths. But supposing the number of young white people that will be Requisite for a large Manufactory can not be easily obtain’d I would propose that those Gentlemen who are disposed to emancipate their Negroes would appoint some of their younger ones for that business and give them their freedom after a service of seven years as an Apprentice, then there will be little doubt but they will remain in the business and become useful Members of Society. This I only propose Sir if there should be a scarcity of hands, but from the population I observed when in America, there will be little to be fear’d from that. As this is a business that will require a large Capital to proceed on a scale that would be likely to turn out to profit, I shall propose to sink of my own real property one thousand pounds in the Trade and with me shall import Engines for cording and machines for slabing and spinning with every other apparatus necessary for the business, with a sufficient number of my best Workmen to take under their care those young people who might be willing to be instructed in the several departments of the business.—From the State I shall expect as a Reward for so great a Risk and to make good the Losses that will arise while the Manufactory is in its infant State, a certain Stipend for a given time and a right to a certain quantity of Land a part of which I shall give to my Men as an Encouragement for them to embark in the Undertaking, under certain restrictions that they shall remain in the Manufactory at least 7 years. A House and building […] for the work must be found. &c. &c.” If these plans thus outlined were not acceptable, he would be glad to know on what terms the state would give encouragement. Howell added: “My reasons for giving the preference to Virginia are the western part seems natural to grass and the wool which I have seen growing in that part was good and might be greatly improved, provided there was proper encouragement given to the Farm[ers] they might grow wool of the first quality and in a short time be able to furnish the other States with Woolens‥‥ As the nature of this business in its present stage will not suffer me to appear in publick in it so as to refer you to any House in America (tho’ known) to be inform’d who I am, but if I shall have any occasion to write on this subject again, shall take care to send such a proof that will remove every scruple respecting my abilities and such testimonies of my conduct that I flatter myself thro’ such a channel I can not fail in obtaining your patronage (which with God’s blessing) I doubt not of success” (T. Howell to Washington, Hay, Wales, 14 July 1789; DNA: RG 59, MLR).

Washington at once transmitted this letter to Gov. Beverley Randolph. He was uncertain whether such a plan was practicable for Virginia, but he was in no doubt at all about the importance of encouraging the production of wool. On his recent tour through New England he had been greatly impressed by the fact that, through legislative encouragement, the farmers of Connecticut had increased the numbers of sheep in two years by one hundred thousand. He said nothing about Howell’s suggestion of an apprenticeship to freedom that might appeal to “those Gentlemen … disposed to emancipate their Negroes,” but the advantages otherwise seemed to him promising: “If a greater quantity of Wool could be produced, and if the hands (which are often in a manner idle) could be employed in the manufacturing it; a spirit of industry might be promoted, a great diminution might be made in the annual expences of individual families, and the Public would eventually be exceedingly benefitted.” He added that, if Randolph should see fit to lay the subject before the legislature or if any private company engaged in the business, “the necessity of keeping the Manufacturer’s name concealed would undoubtedly occur: as a premature knowledge of it might not only frustrate the success of the Project, but also subject the Person principally concerned to the most distressing consequences” (Washington to Randolph, 22 Nov. 1789, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxx, 462–3).

The wish had the effect of a command. The matter was placed before the General Assembly and on 17 Dec. 1789 a committee headed by Edmund Randolph reported to the House of Delegates that the circumstances of the state forbade this opportunity to be neglected: “By these actual Circumstances your Committee mean an absolute necessity arising from the Nature of the Property in Virginia to endeavour to make the coarse cloathing at least; the intervals which the Hands employed in Agriculture occasionally find; and the Ability for the young and old who are disqualified for the severer Toils of the field to be useful in manufactures.” The arguments of efficiency so adaptable to “the Nature of the property in Virginia” were calculated to impress any planter, but the committee could not decide how far “Schemes of this Kind ought to be extended.” Virginia was not populous, there were not any proper ranges for large flocks, and the exhortation to farmers and planters to pay strict attention to the increase of sheep—an indispensable condition to such a plan-was the extent of legislative encouragement that could be offered. The committee thought that “machines which facilitate the manufacture of Woollens are probably obtainable.” They therefore “Resolved that it be recommended to the Good people of this Commonwealth, to attend to the raising of Wool by every possible means … that the Executive open a correspondence with the President of the United States on the foregoing Subject, and that it be lawful for them to bind this Commonwealth in the Sum of thousand pounds, and the further sum of five hundred pounds per Annum for three years for the prosecution of a Woollen Manufactory on such Terms as they shall approve.” The House of Delegates approved the report, but the Senate rejected it (Beverley Randolph to Washington, 11 Jan. 1790, enclosing copy of the resolutions of the Senate and House of Delegates of 17 and 19 Dec. 1789, DNA: RG 59, MLR).

On 8 Nov. 1790 Gov. Randolph wrote the President about the “proposal of a foreign gentleman to establish a Woolen Manufactory,” informed him that the legislature had again taken the matter up, and stated that he had been directed to open correspondence on the subject (RC in DNA: RG 59, MLR). It was this letter that Washington turned over to TJ for his opinion. The arguments and their applicability to the “Nature of the property in Virginia” were as clear to him as they had been to the President. He knew that the machines were available. One had actually appeared in the great Federal Procession in Philadelphia in July 1788 and, as the British intelligence agent George Beckwith reported in 1790, a model of Arkwright’s spinning machine was in the office of the Secretary of State, presumably having been submitted in an application for a patent. TJ could also appreciate the advantages for the commercial policy of the United States as well as for the plantation economy: he had already taken pains to let it be known to the British ministry by indirection that a remarkable spirit of invention had developed (TJ to Vaughan, 27 June 1790). A year later when Alexander Hamilton called a meeting of New York and Philadelphia entrepreneurs at New Brunswick to unfold to them his plan for the Society of Useful Manufactures, he displayed the same Arkwright model along with a number of others and rested his argument on the proposition that such a plan was essential in order to place the United States in a position of equality in negotiating with maritime powers on matters of commerce (Beckwith to Grenville, 10 Aug. 1791, PRO: FO 4/12, f. 164–8). This was the exact reversal of the position originally taken by Hamilton in the autumn of 1789, when, in order to promote a closer commercial connection with England, he had assured Beckwith that the American economy was agricultural and would long remain so as an outlet for British manufactures. If even Hamilton had come around to this position by the summer of 1791, it is not surprising that TJ late in 1790, when he was about to review Gouverneur Morris’ frustrated efforts to negotiate in London, should have looked with favor upon a scheme promising such dual advantages both to the Virginia economy and to the national commercial policy. Furthermore, it was clear from the correspondence between Washington and the governor of Virginia what the President’s inclinations were. There seemed no reason to oppose the plan.

Yet, as the endorsement given to the report by Lear indicates, TJ altered his opinion after handing in the report. Washington thereupon turned to Edmund Randolph for his opinion, as TJ may have suggested. Randolph thought the “plan for opening a contract with the woollen manufacturer … proper in itself, and likely to be approved by the legislature of Virginia.” But he then added: “I must confess, that I have paid more attention to the propriety of the President, undertaking a correspondence with the British Artist. I am told and believe, that it is felony to export the machines, which he probably contemplates to bring with him. Permit me therefore to submit to your consideration, whether the continuance of your agency in this affair may not be somewhat objectionable? The project has been announced to Virginia; and the executive of that state can easily transact this business for themselves” (Randolph to Washington, 10 Jan. 1791; DNA: RG 59, MLR). Washington thereupon declined to have any further agency in the matter as being improper for him while he remained in the presidency. “I am told,” he wrote Gov. Randolph, “that it is a felony to export the Machines which it is probable the Artist contemplates to bring with him, and it certainly would not carry an aspect very favorable to the dignity of the United States for the President in a clandestine manner to entice the subjects of another Nation to violate its Laws.” He added that he had laid the subject before the Secretary of State and the Attorney General and that they were “both of the same sentiment … and for the reason mentioned.” Nevertheless the President pointed out that his agency was not “absolutely necessary” to the success of such a plan, that the necessary facts had been communicated, and that this left it “with the State of Virginia to do whatever may be thought best in the affair.” Lest even this be thought too non-committal, Washington concluded: “Impressed as I am with the utility of such an establishment, I shall ever be ready to give it every aid that I can with propriety; and I am certain that your Excellency and the Legislature will impute my conduct on this occasion to its true motive” (Washington to Randolph, 13 Jan. 1791, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxxi, 193–4). The agency was closed, but the interest in keeping open a plan for such a useful establishment was manifest. The governor and legislature of Virginia were left to wrestle with the delicate problem of whether an act unsuited to the dignity of the head of a nation was compatible with that of the government of a state.

There can be no doubt that the Secretary of State was responsible for the closing of the door and on this ground of the national dignity. Four years earlier he had declined to give an official recommendation even to a French manufacturer of textiles when no question of enticement to a violation of laws was involved. On that occasion Washington had submitted the proposal to the governor of Virginia, an office then occupied by Edmund Randolph. But the temperamental and easily-affronted Frenchman had left the country in disgust. Both Washington and Randolph were obviously impressed by the more practical plan of the Welsh manufacturer, as the letters of the former and the report of the latter to the Virginia legislature prove. (See Gilles de Lavallée to TJ, 14 Aug. 1785; TJ to Lavallée, 11 Sep. 1785; Thomas Digges to TJ, 12 May 1788, note; Digges to TJ, 28 Apr. 1791; Washington to TJ, 12 July 1791.)

The matter was all the more trouble-some for Washington because the resolution of the Virginia House of Delegates declared that the proposed woolen manufactory was of such importance as to warrant “conclusive measures on the part of the General Assembly” and directed the governor to open correspondence with the President so as to bring the negotiations with the proposer “to some definite shape” (JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , Oct. 1790 session, 1828 edn., p. 6). The author of the resolution was Henry Lee, whose scheme for an industrial center at the Great Falls of the Potomac would meet with discouragement from Washington within a few weeks because of his decision to locate the Federal City on tidewater (see Editorial Note, documents on the Federal District, under 24 Jan. 1791). This may help to explain why, after TJ had registered his disapproval, Washington turned to the Attorney General for advice (Lear to Attorney General, 8 Jan. 1791, DNA: RG 59, MLR).

1Brackets in MS.

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