James Madison Papers

Virginia Delegates in Congress to Thomas Jefferson, [20?] February 1781

Virginia Delegates in Congress
to Thomas Jefferson

RC (Virginia State Library). Written by Theodorick Bland but signed only by JM and Joseph Jones. Docketed by a clerk, “Virga. Delegates Lr. Feby 81.”

Philadelphia Feby. [20?],1 1781


Since our last in which we informd Yr. Excy of the Arrival of Col. Harrison in this City,2 his Applications to Congress have been referd to a Special Committee—and the necessary Steps are taking to Answer the wishes and wants of the Southern States, and of our State in particular as far [as] is practicable in the present Situation of affairs.3 we doubt not but that Gentn. will give you full Information of the Progress he has made in the Special Business for which he has been Sent.4

We are happy to Inform you of the Arrival of Capt. Paul Jones in the Ariel from France. This event would have been a much more pleasing one had he brought the cloathing so long and anxiously expected—his Cargo is however by no means useless as it Consists of about thirty Ton of Powder.5 It is Conjectured that by this time Count D’Estaing is arrived in the West Indies with twenty two sail of the Line6—and we are in great Hopes before this reaches you that a Ship of the Line from the fleet of our Allies in Rhode Island and three frigates will be in our Bay in order to cooperate with our Troops, in taking Ample Vengeance on Mr. Arnold, for his treasons, perjuries Robberies and depradations. accounts being received in this Town that they saild from Rhode Island immediately after the Storm & that Monsr. Destouches had taken effectual measures to Block up the Remaining Vessels of the Enemy in Gardners Bay. we have sanguine hopes that this Expedition will not be fruitless, and that our Allies will find us in a Condition effectually to cooperate with them, as their aid will enable us to draw our whole force to a point.7 One of the frigates above mentiond will bring the Arms and Stores which were retaken in the Comite;8 which will perhaps not be an unseasonable aid. we have enclosed Yr. Excellency two New York Papers for your perusal containing Arnolds account of his Victories and Captures9

Mr. Hays informed us this morning he should be ready to set out for Virginia with the printing materials in abt. a week.10 We are with great respect

Yr. Excelcys obed Servts.

Jos: Jones.
James Madison Junr.

P.S. since writing the above we have authentic information that one seventy four with two Frigates & a Cutter sailed from Rhode Island on the eigth for Chesapeak Bay11

1Dating this letter the 20th seems to be warranted because (a) the 20th was Tuesday, and the delegates usually wrote to the governor on that day of the week; (b) they knew of the recommendations of the committee appointed to confer with Benjamin Harrison, and its report was submitted to Congress on the 19th; and (c) John Paul Jones reached Philadelphia on the 18th. On the other hand, comments in n. 6, below, will indicate why the letter possibly was written a few days after the 20th.

3On 13 February, Congress appointed a committee of six men, with Samuel Adams as chairman and JM as one of the members, to confer with Harrison. The committee’s report, debated and largely agreed to by Congress on 20 February, recommended “as absolutely necessary” an increase of the army in the south to ten thousand men, with adequate transportation, arms, clothing, and other equipment, and a levy upon almost all of the qualified manpower and matériel from Pennsylvania south to Georgia in order to achieve this purpose. On 24 February, Congress adopted the remaining recommendation of the committee, that the British prisoners should be moved at once from Virginia to a more northern state (Journals of the Continental Congress, XIX, 142, 160, 176–78, 193).

4In his letter of 19 February to Jefferson, Harrison qualified his report of success by adding, “I foresee very great difficulty in their [Congress] carrying their resolutions into effect, they being extremely poor and their credit but low.” He also stated that the Virginia delegates, or at least some of them, were opposing his efforts to have Congress remove the British prisoners from Virginia (Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (16 vols. to date; Princeton, N.J., 1950——). description ends , IV, 655–57).

5See Jameson to JM, 16 August, n. 7, and 13 September 1780, n. 4. In a close vote in Congress on 19 February, JM joined with other delegates to defeat a motion to have Jones examined at a public session of Congress to ascertain why “cloathing and arms belonging to these United States” were detained in France. Jones convinced the Navy Board that he was not responsible for the detention and that a brigantine carrying clothing as part of its cargo had been captured by the British because, contrary to his orders, it had sailed from France in advance of the “Ariel.” On 27 February, having complimented Jones upon “his distinguished bravery and military conduct” and his brilliant victory over the British ship of war “Serapis,” Congress resolved that Franklin should inform Louis XVI of its willingness to have him award the cross of military merit to Jones (Journals of the Continental Congress, XIX, 175–76, 200, 319). Probably it was at this time that JM gained his “slight and transient” acquaintance with Jones and became convinced that Jones’s “heroism will fill a very brilliant page” in the history of the American Revolution (JM to John H. Sherburne, 28 April 1825, in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis).

6The conjecture was in error. Comte d’Estaing (1729–1794) was still in command of the French fleet besieging Gibraltar. Although a report, dated 18 January 1781, in Martinique did not appear in print until the 27 February issue of the Pennsylvania Packet, it could have been known in Philadelphia as early as the 20th. This report told of a victory won by Estaing’s fleet over that of Rear Admiral Samuel Hood. By not specifying where this engagement had taken place and by adding that the remnants of Hood’s command had reached St. Lucia, this report conveyed the mistaken impression that Estaing was in the West Indies area.

7Gardiner’s Bay, an arm of Long Island Sound at the eastern end of Long Island, was the base of the British fleet blockading the French men-of-war in Rhode Island ports. For “the Storm,” see Virginia Delegates to Jefferson, 13 February 1781, n. 1. Thanks to its crippling effect upon the enemy, Destouches felt able to weaken his naval force by sending the sixty-four gun “L’Eveillé” and two frigates under the command of Captain Arnaud Le Gardeur de Tilly to Chesapeake Bay. When Tilly reached there on 11 February and found that Arnold’s vessels had withdrawn into water too shoal for him to follow, he soon sailed back to Rhode Island. On his return voyage, however, Tilly captured the forty-four gun “Romulus” as well as several British privateers and provision ships (Providence Gazette; and Country Journal, 3 March 1781; 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, 267). Washington was greatly disappointed because of the small size of the French squadron and its failure to take French troops to Virginia (Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, D.C., 1931–44). description ends , XXI, 372–73).

8See Nightingale to Virginia Delegates, 15 February 1781. The frigate bearing the cargo from “Le Comité” did not sail with this squadron. In his letter of 19 February to Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison stated that he would leave money with the Virginia delegates to cover the cost of freighting this cargo from New Castle, Del., to Fredericksburg, if the French frigate could not land it at Yorktown (Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (16 vols. to date; Princeton, N.J., 1950——). description ends , IV, 656).

9Inclosures not found. One of them was probably the extra edition of Rivington’s Royal Gazette of 3 February.

10See Jefferson to Virginia Delegates, 31 August 1780 and n. 3. After the first shipment of printing equipment to Virginia by John Dunlap and his partner, James Hayes, Jr. (1760–1804), had been captured by the British in October 1780, the General Assembly encouraged the printers to try again. Hayes arrived in Richmond with his press in March 1781 (Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (16 vols. to date; Princeton, N.J., 1950——). description ends , V, 193, 386).

11As stated in n. 7, above, “L’Eveillé” was of sixty-four rather than seventy-four guns. This vessel, together with the two frigates and cutter, was back in a Rhode Island port by 25 February (Pennsylvania Packet [Philadelphia], 6 March 1781).

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