James Madison Papers

Virginia Delegates in Congress to William Livingston, 21 December 1780

Virginia Delegates in Congress
to William Livingston

RC (New York Public Library). The text of this letter is in Madison’s hand. The letter and its address sheet have become separated—the former is in the Emmet Collection and the latter among the papers of William Livingston.

Philada. Decr. 21st. 1780


We received this morning a letter2 subscribed by Peter Thornton informing us that he is the son of a gentleman in Virginia, that he lately made his escape from N. York and is now detained by your Excellency till some testimony shall be given by the Delegates from Virga. in his favor. Although we are total strangers to the youth, and are very imperfectly informed of his case, yet as we have no reason to doubt his being the son of the gentleman he calls his Father, whom we know to be of respectable character & family and firmly attached to the independance of this Country, we venture to request your Excellency to permit him to proceed on his journey to Virginia[.]3 If on his arrival here we shall have reason to suspect the reality of his professions, we shall take the necessary steps to frustrate the views of Impostors.

We have the honor to be with the highest respect & esteem Yr. Excelly’s. Most Obt. & humb Servts.

James Madison Junr:
Theok: Bland

1William Livingston, a member of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1776 and of the Constitutional Convention of 1787; governor of New Jersey from 1776 until his death in 1790.

2Not found.

3Jones to JM, 17 January 1781. Almost nothing is known about Peter Thornton except that he was a son of Anthony Thornton, Jr. (1726–1782), of Caroline County. Anthony had served as sheriff of Caroline County, a judge of its court, and a member of its Committee of Safety. Peter appears to have been about twenty-two years of age. Why he had been in New York and how he escaped are questions as unanswerable as what became of him later (Caroline County Court Records, Order Book, 1785–1787, I, 85, photostats in Virginia State Library; T[homas] E. Campbell, Colonial Caroline: A History of Caroline County, Virginia [Richmond, 1954], pp. 264, 266, 269). A letter of 18 December 1780 from the chief justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, David Brearley, to Governor Livingston stated that Brearley had furnished Thornton with a pass to proceed from Freehold to Trenton, N.J. Once Thornton arrives at Trenton, Brearley continued, the governor might decide to enable him to reach the delegates of Virginia in Congress, but he “ought by no means to be permitted” to go to that state without the sanction of its “proper authority” (MS in Papers of William Livingston, New York Public Library). The governor evidently counseled Thornton to seek from Madison and Bland a note directed to Livingston, expressing their readiness to receive Thornton in Philadelphia. Livingston received the note, but what happened to Thornton thereafter is unknown.

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