James Madison Papers

From James Madison to Joseph Jones, 25 November 1780

To Joseph Jones

RC (LC: Madison Papers). Probably at the time that JM recovered this letter from Jones’s nephew, James Monroe (JM to Jones, 19 September 1780, headnote), he wrote on the last page, parallel to its right hand margin, “Georgia & S. C.—uti possidetis.” On 8 January 1822 JM sent a copy of the letter, together with copies of other letters relating to the same issue, to Hezekiah Niles, who published them in the Niles Weekly Register (Baltimore), XXI, 347–49 (26 January 1822); hereafter cited as Niles Register.

Philada. Novr. 25th. 1780

Dear Sir

I informed you some time ago that the instructions to Mr. Jay had passed Congress in a form which was entirely to my mind. I since informed you that a Committee was preparing a letter to him explanatory of the principles & objects of the instructions. This letter also passed in a form equally satisfactory.1 I did not suppose that any thing further would be done on the subject, at least till further intelligence should arrive from Mr. Jay. It now appears that I was mistaken. The Delegates from Georgia & South Carolina, apprehensive that a Uti possidetis may be obtruded on the belligerent powers by the armed neutrality in Europe and hoping that the accession of Spain to the Alliance will give greater concert & success to the military operations that may be pursued for the recovery of these States, and likewise add weight to the means that may be used for obviating a Uti possidetis, have moved for a reconsideration of the Instructions in order to empower Mr. Jay in case of necessity to yield to the claims of Spain on condition of her guarantieng our independence and affording us a handsome subsidy. The expediency of such a motion is further urged from the dangerous negociations now on foot by British Emissaries for detaching Spain from the war.2 Wednesday last was assigned for the consideration of this motion and it has continued the order of the day ever since without being taken up. What the fate of it will be I do not predict; but whatever its own fate may [be] it must do mischief in its operation. It will not probably be concealed that such a motion has been made & supported, and the weight which our demands would derive from unanimity & decision must be lost. I flatter myself however that Congress will see the impropriety of sacrificing the acknowledged limits and claims of any State without the express concurrence of such State.3 Obsticles enough will be thrown in the way of peace, if [it] is to be bid for at the expence of particular members of the Union. The Eastern States must on the first suggestion take the alarm for their fisheries. If they will not support other States in their rights, they cannot expect to be supported themselves when4 theirs come into question.

In this important business, which so deeply affects the claims & interests of Virginia & which I know she has so much at heart, I have not the satisfaction to harmonise in Sentiment with my Colleague. He has embraced an opinion that we have no just claim to the subject in controversy between us & Spain, and that it is the interest of Virginia not to adhere to it. Under this impression he drew up a letter to the Executive to be communicated to the Legislature, stating in general the difficulty Congress might be under, & calling their attention to a revision of their instructions to their Delegates on the subject.5 I was obliged to object to such a step, and in order to prevent it observed that the instructions were given by the Legislature of Virga. on mature consideration of the case, & on a supposition that Spain would make the demands she has done, that n[o] other event has occurred to change the mind of our Constituents but the armed neutrality in Europe & the successes of the Enemy to the Southward which are as well known to them as to ourselves, that we might every moment expect a third delegate here,6 who would either adjust or decide the difference in opinion between us, and that whatever went from the Delegation would then go in its proper form & have its proper effect, that if the instructions from Virga.7 were to be revi[sed] and their ultimatum reduced, it could not be concealed in so populou[s] an Assembly, and every thing which our Minister should be authorised to yield would be insisted on, that Mr. Jay’s last despatches encouraged us to expect that Spain would not be inflexible if we wer[e] so, that [we] might every day expect to have more satisfactory information from him.8 that finally if it should be thought expedient to listen to the pretensions of Spain, it would be best before we took any decisive step in the matter to take the Counsel of those who best know the interests & have the greatest influence on the opinions of our Constituents, that as you were both a member of Congress & of the Legislature & were now with the latter, you would be an unexceptionable medium for effecting this, and that I would write to you for the purpose, by the first safe conveyance.

These objections had not the weight with my Colleague which they had with me. He adhered to his first determination & has I believe sent the letter above mentioned by Mr. Walker who will I suppose soon forward it to the Governour.9 You will readily conceive the embarrassments this affair must have cost me. All I have to ask of you is that if my refusing to concur with my Colleague in recommending to the legislature a revision of their instructions should be misconstrued by any,10 you will be so good as to place it in its true light, and if you agree with me as to11 the danger of giving express power to concede, or the inexpediency of conceding at all, that you will consult with gentlemen of the above description and acquaint me with the result.

I need not observe to you that the alarms with respect to the inflexibility of Spain in her demands, the progress of British intrigues at Madrid and the danger of a Uti possidetis, may with no small probability be regarded as artifices for securing her objects12 on the Mississippi. Mr. Adams in a late letter from Amsterdam, a copy of which has been enclosed to the Governor[,] supposes that the pretended success of the British emissaries at Madrid is nothing but a ministerial finesse to facilitate the loans and keep up the spirits of the people.13

This will be conveyed by Col. Grayson,14 who has promised to deliver it himself, or if any thing unforeseen should prevent his going to Richmond, to put it into such hands as will equally ensure its safe delivery.

I am Dr. Sr. Yrs. Sincerely

J. Madison Junr.15

1See Jones to JM, 2 October 1780, n. 9; JM to Jones, 10 October 1780, n. 1; Draft of Letter to John Jay, 17 October 1780; Bland to Jefferson, 22 November 1780, n. 4. Judging from the brackets which inclose the entire text, except for the place and date, the salutation, and the complimentary close, JM late in his life, or one of his family, selected this letter for publication.

2William Carmichael’s letter of 17 July 1780 from Madrid, telling of the efforts of a British agent at the Court of Spain, was read in Congress on 16 October (Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, D.C., 1889). description ends , III, 865–66; Journals of the Continental Congress, XVIII, 931). On 20 November, Congress listened to a letter of 23 August from John Adams, written in Amsterdam, making light of the danger that Britain could entice Spain to conclude a separate peace (ibid., XVIII, 1072; Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, D.C., 1889). description ends , IV, 41–42).

3JM moved that Congress await instructions of the Virginia legislature to its delegates before giving further consideration to the Georgia proposal that John Jay’s instructions, binding him to insist upon the free navigation of the Mississippi River in his negotiations for a treaty with Spain, be modified (below, 8 December 1780).

4Several heavily deleted words intervene between “themselves” and “when” in the manuscript. They seem to be “in their claims.” If JM did not make this and the other alterations noted below, before he mailed the letter to Jones, he inserted them at least prior to its appearance in the Niles Register in 1822.

6JM probably meant James Henry or Meriwether Smith, since he did not expect Jones to return until after the Assembly of Virginia had adjourned.

7Following “Virga.,” JM wrote and then crossed out “were too rigid.”

8Probably JM refers to the long dispatch of Jay on 26 May, read in part to Congress on 21 August and referred to a committee with Jones as its chairman until he left for Virginia about two weeks later (Journals of the Continental Congress, XVII, 754; Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, D.C., 1889). description ends , III, 707–34). In it, Jay commented that “if Congress remains firm, as I have no reason to doubt, respecting the Mississippi, I think Spain will finally be content with equitable regulations, and I wish to know whether Congress would consider any regulations necessary to prevent contraband as inconsistent with their ideas of free navigation” (ibid., III, 725).

9See Bland to Jefferson, 22 November 1780, n. 1. The governor transmitted this letter to the House of Delegates on 5 December (Journal of the House of Delegates description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia; Begun and Held At the Capitol, in the City of Williamsburg.Beginning in 1780, the portion after the semicolon reads, Begun and Held in the Town of Richmond. In the County of Henrico. The journal for each session has its own title page and is individually paginated. The edition used, unless otherwise noted, is the one in which the journals for 1777–1781 are brought together in one volume, with each journal published in Richmond in 1827 or 1828, and often called the “Thomas W. White reprint.” description ends , October 1780, p. 38; Virginia Delegates to Jefferson, 13 December 1780).

10The words after “concur” up to and including “any” are interline replacements by JM of a passage, about two lines long, which he crossed out so heavily that it cannot be read.

11Between “me” and “as to” are about eight illegibly deleted words.

12Following “her” and preceding “objects” in the original manuscript is an expunged passage which appears to have been “objects and aims against the United States.”

13This sentence closely follows the opening one of John Adams’ letter of 23 August, mentioned in n. 2, above.

14On 20 November, Congress granted William Grayson (ca. 1736–1790), then one of the commissioners of the Board of War in Philadelphia, a month’s leave of absence to enable him to visit his family in Virginia (Journals of the Continental Congress, XVIII, 1072). Grayson had been colonel of a continental line regiment. He became a delegate in Congress from Virginia, 1785–1787, and one of that state’s first United States senators, 1789–1790.

15For the rest of his life, JM continued to be sensitive about his participation, and that of his state, in the Mississippi-navigation issue in the 1780’s. In line with this concern, he took pains to set the record straight as often as he deemed that a historian or other commentator had distorted it. Thus, when his attention was called to David Ramsay’s assertion in his The History of the American Revolution (2 vols.; Philadelphia, 1789), II, 300–301, that the relinquishment by Congress in February 1781 of its demand that Spain acknowledge the United States’ right of free navigation had come as a result of Virginia’s recommendation, JM made copies of three of his letters written on the subject late in 1780 and sent them, as mentioned in the above headnote, to Hezekiah Niles. In his covering letter of 8 January 1822 (Niles Register, XXI, 347), he emphasized that the Georgia and South Carolina delegates had taken the initiative in pressing for a revision of John Jay’s instructions, that JM had opposed the demand, and that on 8 December 1780, when Congress was at the point of acceding to it, he effected a postponement of a vote upon it until the Virginia delegates could learn the will of their state legislature. Only after that body had decided to follow Georgia’s and South Carolina’s recommendations did JM reluctantly take the lead in Congress to amend Jay’s instructions on the navigation of the Mississippi (Instruction to Virginia Delegates, 2 January 1781; Journals of the Continental Congress, XX, 551–55; Burnett, Letters description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (8 vols.; Washington, D.C., 1921–36). description ends , V, 457, n. 3). In April 1827 JM went carefully over the matter again in a conversation with Jared Sparks at Montpelier (Herbert B. Adams, The Life and Writings of Jared Sparks [2 vols.; Boston, 1893], II, 34–35).

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