Thomas Jefferson Papers

VII. James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 13 July 1791

VII. James Madison to Thomas Jefferson

N. York July 13. 1791

Dear Sir

I received last evening your kind enquiries after my health. My last will have informed you of the state of it then. I continue to be incommoded by several different shapes taken by the bile; but not in a degree that can now be called serious. If the present excessive heat should not augment the energy of the cause, I consider myself as in a good way to get rid soon of its effects.

Beckley has just got back from his Eastern trip. He says that the partizans of Mr. Adam’s heresies in that quarter are perfectly insignificant in point of number—that particularly in Boston he is become distinguished for his unpopularity—that Publicola is probably the manufacture of his son out of materials furnished by himself—and that the publication is generally as obnoxious in New England as it appears to be in Pennsylvania. If Young Adams be capable of giving the dress in which publicola presents himself, it is very probable he may have been made the Editor of his Father’s doctrines. I hardly think the Printer would so directly disavow the fact if Mr. Adams was himself the writer. There is more of method also in the arguments, and much less of clumsiness and heaviness in the stile, than characterize his writings. I mentioned to you some time ago an extract from a piece in the Poughkepsie paper, as a sensible comment on Mr. Adams’ doctrines. The whole has since been republished here, and is evidently from a better pen than any of the anti-publicolas I have seen. In Greenleafs paper of today is a second letter from the same quarter, which confirms the character of I have given of the author.

We understand here that 800 shares in the Bank committed by this City to Mr. Constable, have been excluded by the manner in which the business was conducted—that a considerable number from Boston met with the same fate—and that Baltimore has been kept out in toto. It is all charged on the manœuvers of Philada. which is said to have secured a majority of the whole to herself. The disappointed individuals are clamorous of course, and the language of the place marks a general indignation on the subject. If it should turn out that the cards were packed, for the purpose of securing the game to Philada.—or even that more than half the Institution and of course the whole direction of it have fallen into the hands of that City, some who have been loudest in their plaudits whilst they expected to share in the plunder, will be equally so in sounding the injustice of the monopoly, and the danger of undue influence on the Government.

The packet is not yet arrived. By a vessel arived yesterday newspapers are received from London which are said to be later than any yet come to hand. I do not find that any particular facts of moment are handed out. The miscellaneous articles come to me thro’ Child’s paper, which you get sooner than I could rehearse to you. It has been said here by the Anglicans that the President’s Message to Congress on the subject of the commercial disposition of G.B. has been asserted openly by Mr. Pitt to be misrepresentation-and as it would naturally be traced to Govr. Morris it has been suggested that he fell into the hands of the Chevr. Luzerne who had the dexterity to play off his negociations for French purposes. I have reason to believe that B-ck-th has had a hand in throwing these things into circulation.—I wish you success with all my heart in your efforts for Payne. Besides the advantage to him which he deserves, an appointment for him, at this moment would do public good in various ways. Always & truly yours,

Js. Madison Jr.

RC (DLC: Madison Papers); addressed; franked “Free” and postmarked: “N YORK july 14”; endorsed by TJ as received 16 July 1791 and so recorded in SJL. The address sheet contains a column of brief pencilled notes by TJ, as follows:

“✓harvest ✓Prussia’s
 ✓price of tobo.   media[tio]n.
 ✓Freneau ✓Denm[ark]
 ✓T. P. [Thomas Paine] ✓Empress.
  St. Domingo Congress  France

This was a list of topics TJ made for his response. All, whether checked or not, are alluded to in TJ to Madison, 21 July 1791.

As indicated in the Editorial Note to the group of documents on the war crisis of 1790, at 12 July 1790, it was Hamilton who suggested to Beckwith that Gouverneur Morris had fallen under the influence of La Luzerne and thus contributed to the coolness of the British ministry. Washington’s message to Congress about the failure of Morris’ mission not only alarmed Hamilton and his supporters but also made it easier for Beckwith, almost a year after the event, to accept and repeat the account which placed the blame upon Morris rather than upon the real author (see Editorial Note and group of documents on commercial and diplomatic relations with Great Britain, at 15 Dec. 1790). By the time Madison heard the rumor, responsibility for its origin would seem to have been firmly fixed upon Beckwith.

The two letters from the Poughkeepsie Journal which impressed Madison so much were published in the issues of 21 May and 20 June. Although he and TJ passed through Poughkeepsie only two days after the first letter appeared, Madison—and of course TJ—only saw it and the later one when they were reprinted in the New-York Journal of 2 and 13 July 1791. The author concealed his identity under the fiction that the letters were written by a correspondent abroad who was supposed to be instructing an American youth in a course of political studies. The contributor, who affected to be merely the channel of communication but was the actual author, signed himself A Customer. He advised the student—that is, the public—to imbibe deeply the writings on the American constitutions and to form an abiding attachment to them. He recommended first The Federalist, which, though written in haste and on the spur of the occasion, he considered “full of correct method, sound sense, and luminous principles of liberty from beginning to end.” Then A Customer turned to his real object, the writings of John Adams, particularly his Defence and his Discourses on Davila.

Adams’ writings, he advised, “must be read with some grains of allowance. There is a great deal of learning, and a great number of useful and wise principles of government brought into view; but … he is attached to aristocratical and monarchical principles. My belief is founded on an attentive examination of his writings. This great master of politics is frequently, and pretty directly, inculcating a skepticism as to the goodness of republican governments, and a belief of the utility of hereditary monarchy, in terms which cannot but excite in the breast of those who are attached to the one, and who despise the other, a painful regret, and lively indignation. I wish to make a firm stand against such pernicious tenets. They are as directly in the face of our institutions and manners, as they are repugnant to our feelings and happiness.” The Discourses on Davila, like all of Adams’ other writing, revealed extensive learning and superior talents. They also pointed out one excellent truth that had long since been embodied in the American constitutions—the wisdom of dividing the executive, legislative, and judicial powers. But, A Customer added, “his writings have also inculcated, cherished, and propagated one abominable heresy that monarchy and aristocracy are compatible with permanent freedom, and probably essential to a wise, happy, and perfectly balanced constitution.” TJ, Rush, and others then and later would have agreed with the author’s observation that Adams had undergone, “since his residence in Europe, a very great change in his political principles.” A Customer also anticipated TJ’s later argument with Adams over the essential components of a natural aristocracy. Adams, in his Defence, had pointed out that the sources of inequality in every society—wealth, birth, and merit—constituted a natural aristocracy, a body of men containing the greatest collection of virtues and talents in a free government. “Fame and Fortune may be, and frequently are hereditary,” A Customer observed, “but this is the first time I have ever heard a grave philosopher pronounce virtue and abilities to be so.”

The first letter concluded by thanking Adams for his years of labor and warning against the evils to which free government was exposed. “But,” A Customer added, “I wish he would also warn us against the dangers of the opposite coast, to which he is steering our political vessel.… His writings have certainly the tendency (whatever may be his intention) to make people weary of republican government, and to sigh for the monarchy of England. To inculcate the doctrine, that men are not fit to choose their own rulers—that frequent elections are dangerous—that distinctions, not of virtue and talents, but of birth and fortune, are essential to the order of government—that riches and family should be the titles to preferment, and poverty the object of contempt. Such doctrines are deemed heresies in American politics.”

A Customer’s two letters, published before Publicola’s first number appeared, provided a carefully reasoned close to the first and less acrimonious phase of the contest of Burke and Paine in America. The second letter put the fictitious youth to whom it was supposedly addressed on guard, warning him that, while Adams as a patriot and philosopher stood high and illustrious because of his signal share in effecting the revolution and in concluding the Treaty of Peace, his opinions, like those of all others, were the proper object of criticism and inquiry. A Customer then proceeded to examine Adams’ writings, to challenge his doctrines by citing historical evidence including citations of Clarendon, Blackstone, Notes on Virginia, and other works—and contradicted Adams’ assertion (later repeated in his address as President to the young workingmen of Philadelphia, greatly to TJ’s indignation) that “The science of government has received very little improvement since the Greeks and Romans.” On the contrary, declared A Customer, this was an age of political experimentation. Out of their own experience—the record of Connecticut, for example, in choosing their governors for a century and a half “with perfect harmony and … with the most undeviating discretion”—Americans had a right to conclude that self-government was possible. “But,” he concluded, “admitting that it is still a matter of experiment, the cause of liberty, and of human happiness, requires that we should make the experiment with every possible advantage. It is not fair dealing for our most respectable writers to anticipate the decision, and give a wrong bias to the trial… . It would be deemed an odd way of encouraging a merchant to adventure his stock in foreign trade by recounting to him nothing but bankruptcies and shipwrecks; or to animate the soldier to war, by detailing only defeats, imprisonment and death.”

The identity of A Customer has not been discovered. He was obviously a man of learning, well versed in classical writings on government, and—as the internal evidence proves—in law and jurisprudence as well. His letters were judicious, cogent, and restrained but forceful. His argument that Adams’ writings tended to weaken the public confidence in government was one that Hamilton himself employed a few weeks later (see Editorial Note), but clearly the Secretary of the Treasury would not have penned many of A Customer’s passages. Since these two carefully reasoned, judicious critiques of Adams’ writings were first published in Poughkeepsie, and considering their substance and style, it is plausible to suppose that Chancellor Robert R. Livingston may have written them. This supposition is given some confirmation by the fact that, after the Publicola essays began to appear, Livingston did compose a lengthy manuscript condemning the “new order of advocates of monarchy.” The piece bears the title “Reflections on Monarchy” and was a direct outcome of the second phase of the controversy triggered by Publicola (MS in NHi: Robert R. Livingston Papers; cited by Alfred F. Young, The Democratic Republicans of New York [Chapel Hill, 1967], p. 208). The identity of A Customer, however, unfortunately remains in the realm of conjecture. His essays were deservedly reprinted in various newspapers, including the Virginia Gazette.

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