James Madison Papers

Theodorick Bland, for Virginia Delegates in Congress[?], to Thomas Jefferson, 22 November 1780

Theodorick Bland, for Virginia Delegates in Congress[?],
to Thomas Jefferson

RC (Virginia State Library). This letter is signed only by Bland and is in his hand. In his first two paragraphs and part of the third, however, his “we,” “us,” and “our” show that he clearly writes for JM, his sole Virginia colleague in Congress, as well as for himself. Although the balance of the letter expresses a point of view at variance with JM’s, it is included here because JM’s later defense of his own position entitles Bland to be quoted exactly. Probably in answer to JM’s request, William Munford, keeper of the rolls for the Commonwealth of Virginia, sent JM on 30 September 1820 a certified copy of this letter and also of Jefferson’s note of 5 December 1780 transmitting it to Benjamin Harrison, the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. These transcripts are now among the Madison Papers in the Library of Congress.

Philadelphia Novr 22d 1780


Mr. Walker, who sets off to Virginia tomorrow, affords us this opportunity of Enclosing your Excellency a Copy of a letter Presented to us the 16th Inst. together with a Copy of our Answer, concerning the affair of the Indiana Compy1

It may not be improper to Inform Yr. Excellency and, (through yr. Excy.) the Legislature who we suppose may be now Siting—that every art has been and tis probable may be used, by that Company to extend their influence and Support their pretensions—and we are Sorry to say that we have Suspicions founded upon more than mere Conjecture, that the land Jobb[er]s, of this Compy., the Vandalia, and the Illinois Companies, have too great an influence in procrastinating that desireable and necessary event of compleating the Confederation, which we hope the Wisdom, firmness, candor and Moderation of our Legislature now in Session will remove every obstacle to2

We Could wish also and we think it a duty we owe to our Constituents to call their attention to a revision of our former instructions relative to the Navigation of the Missisipi—that, Should any overtures from Spain be offerd which are advantageous to the United States, and which might contribute not only to releive our present necessities, but promise us peace and a firm establishment of our Independance, it might not be considerd as an object that would counterbalance the distant prospect of a free Navigation of that River, with Stipulated ports—which may perhaps under another form or at some more convenient opportunity be obtaind from that Nation, in behalf of our Citizens Settled on its Banks and Water. Having shewn the above to my Colleague Mr. Madison—he has thought it unnecessary to Join in that Part of it relating to our Instructions on the subject of the Navigation of the Missisipi.3 I am Sorry to Say that notwithstanding the high Idea I entertain of that Gentlemans good Sense, Judgment and Candor, I feel myself, irresistably impelld by a Sense of my duty, to State a Matt[er] & to communicate it through the Proper Channel which may eventually effect so greatly the Prosperity and even existence of the United States at large—and feeling myself willing to receive the Censure of my Constituents if I have done wrong, or their applause if I have done Right in Suggesting to them so important a matter I am under the necessity (as to that matter) of standing alone in my opinion; which I wd. not wish, should in the Minutest degree, be interpreted, as obtruding or dictating a measure however necessary I as an individual Representative of the State may conceive a relaxation of our instructions on that head to be, nor do I conceive that any Member either of the Executive or Legislature of our State, who is acquainted with my wish to promote the Public good, and to conform to the Strict tenor of their instructions, can attribute my suggestion to any wish to swerve from them in my Vote in Congress, having pledged myself both in Principle and in promise Steadily to adhere to them on all occasions.4 I have the Honor to be

Yr. Excellys Most obedt. & very H: Svt.

Theok: Bland

1See Morgan to Virginia Delegates, 16 November 1780, and their reply to Morgan, [20 November 1780]. As mentioned earlier, John Walker had been a delegate from Virginia in Congress, and was returning home.

2Above, Motion regarding the Western Lands, 6 September 1780, editorial note. The Vandalia Company, variously known as the Walpole Company and Grand Ohio Company, originated in 1769. Made up of prominent Pennsylvanians and Englishmen, it claimed a vast area, mainly in eastern Kentucky and present-day West Virginia. Two years earlier, a similar group, including Benjamin Franklin, had launched the Illinois Company with the hope of securing a firm title to much of the area which later became the state of Illinois. These speculations, as well as others unmentioned by Bland, disputed the validity of Virginia’s title to land west and northwest of the Appalachians (Thomas P. Abernethy, Western Lands and the American Revolution, pp. 37–38, chaps. iii and viii).

3For JM’s observations on the final paragraph of this letter, see JM to Jones, 25 November 1780. Bland and JM frequently voted on opposite sides of issues before Congress. Probably Bland shared his wife’s dislike of JM. On 30 March 1781 she described him to Mrs. St. George Tucker as “a gloomy, stiff creature, they say he is clever in Congress, but out of it, he has nothing engaging or even bearable in his Manners—the most unsociable creature in Existance” (Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, XLIII [1935], 43). Bland, who had close family ties with the Lees, belonged to the Lee-Adams faction, with which JM often differed on matters of foreign and domestic policies (Charles Campbell, ed., Bland Papers, I, xiii-xiv, 149).

4In summary, Bland recommended that Jefferson ask the legislature of Virginia, then in session, to revise its instruction of 5 November 1779 which required the Virginia delegation in Congress to insist that Spain, in any treaty of alliance or commerce with the United States, acknowledge the right of Americans to a free use of the Mississippi (Jones to JM, 19 September, n. 4, and 2 October 1780, n. 9; Draft of Letter to Jay, 17 October 1780, nn. 11, 13, 14). The position of Bland, and of the many leaders in and outside of Congress who agreed with him, was a strong one. In view of the almost desperate economic and military outlook of the United States by November 1780, and especially of the states south of the Potomac River, the above stipulation of the Virginia legislature was not only unrealistic but worked to the injury of the common cause.

Many circumstances necessitated a change. (a) There was an alarming depreciation of currency and a scarcity of war materials. To replenish the latter and to bolster the former, aid in money and supplies from abroad, including Spain, was urgently needed. (b) There was the delay in the arrival from France of the “second division” of the French fleet and of increased financial subsidies or loans. (c) There was the widely held belief that France was laggard in these respects because the Americans, in spite of their plight, sought what Spain had no need to grant in exchange for a military alliance with the United States. (d) There was the success of the British army in the South, with the Georgia and South Carolina seaboards in its control, with North Carolina threatened, and with Virginia open to invasion from the sea. Military and naval aid from Spain, dispatched from Louisiana or the West Indies, might avert complete disaster in the South. (e) There was the strong rumor that the League of Armed Neutrality in Europe would seek to end the war on a basis of uti possidetis. If Great Britain should signify its willingness to accept this principle, and if Spain and perhaps even France were enticed by it, the patriot cause might collapse, and Georgia, South Carolina, and parts of the states to the north would again become English colonies. (f) Finally, since the free navigation of the Mississippi was of great interest mainly to the southern states, their sister states on the middle seaboard and New England might well be more active in dispatching military and other assistance against Cornwallis if the southern delegates in Congress would yield on the Mississippi issue and thereby remove what appeared to be a main impediment to help from Spain and additional help from France.

When Bland wrote, two recent occurrences in Congress had also strengthened his plea. On 18 November the Georgia delegation recommended an abandonment of the “ultimatum” of free navigation of the Mississippi, if Spain would sign a treaty of alliance granting the United States an annual financial subsidy or loan and guaranteeing not to make peace with Britain until the United States was ready to do so. Debate on these recommendations was delayed until 5 December 1780 (Journals of the Continental Congress, XVIII, 1070–72, 1121; for JM’s connection with them, see JM to Jones, 25 November 1780). On 22 November, Congress agreed to a letter to be sent to King Louis XVI of France, describing the critical situation, mentioning the certainty that “the four southern states will now become a principal object of their [Britain’s] hostilities,” and asking a further loan of at least twenty-five million livres as “indispensably necessary for a vigorous prosecution of the war.” Congress thereupon named James Duane, JM, and William C. Houston as a committee to draw up instructions to Franklin consonant with this letter to the king. The committee’s draft, in Duane’s hand and revealing no certain evidence that JM helped in its preparation, stressed the need for more warships and supplies, as well as more money, from France. Congress received the proposed instructions on 24 November and, after debating and amending them, agreed to them four days later. JM appears to have been absent from Congress at that time (Journals of the Continental Congress, XVIII, 1080–85, 1092, 1094, 1101–4; NA: PCC, No. 25, I, 371, 393, 395; below, Mathews to Greene, 27 November 1780, n. 2).

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