Motion on Instructions on Treaty of Commerce
MS (NA: PCC, No. 36, IV, 359). Moved by JM and seconded by Meriwether Smith. Docketed, “Motion by Mr. Madison postpond, Additional instructions to the Minister plenipotentiary for negotiating a Treaty of Commerce with G Britain.”
The motion given below represents a further effort by JM and his Virginia colleagues to have Congress revert to its original instructions, stipulating that the United States would not agree to peace terms with Great Britain unless they defined “the middle of the River Mississippi” from its source to its junction with 31° north latitude as the western boundary of the United States. In these same instructions, Congress declared that any commercial treaty must include a guarantee to Americans by Great Britain of “their common right to fish on the Banks of Newfoundland, and the other fishing banks and seas of North America, preserving inviolate the Treaties between France and the Said States.” The tenth article of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce of 6 February 1778 with France pledged that neither the United States nor their people would ever disturb French subjects “in the enjoyment and exercise of the right of fishing on the banks of Newfoundland.” In spite of the adverse vote of the Virginia delegation, possibly because of the fisheries “ultimatum,” Congress had adopted these instruction on 14 (not 13, as below) August 1779 (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XI, 428; XIV, 955–62).
During the nine months before JM introduced the present motion, he had remarked the opposition of many New England delegates to Virginia’s land claims in the Old Northwest and their indifference, if not hostility, toward insisting upon the Mississippi River as the western boundary of the United States and toward sending adequate military aid to the southern states in their time of desperate need. Against his wishes, the Virginia General Assembly had instructed the Virginia delegation in Congress to yield the right of free navigation of the Mississippi River below 31° north latitude, if no treaty of alliance with Spain could be effected without that concession (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (2 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , II, 72–77, 195–97, 231, 302–3; above, Report on Instructions to Jay, 2 May 1781). In spite of the central government’s obvious lack of money for military use, Massachusetts and Rhode Island were opposing the attempt of Congress to gain authorization from the states to levy a 5 per cent import duty. Notwithstanding JM’s efforts, Congress on 15 June left the determination of the western and northwestern boundaries of the United States in the contemplated peace negotiations largely to the discretion of the ministers plenipotentiary of the United States, or to their French counterparts, but did not recede from the original instructions about the Newfoundland fisheries (Notes from Secret Journal, 6 June 1781, and n. 3; Motions on Boundaries, 8 June 1781, and nn.; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XX, 651–52). By the present motion JM was asserting, in effect, that, despite Virginia’s withdrawal of its previous sine qua non and, incidentally, despite his instructions, justice to the southern states obliged Congress to be as adamant about the western and northwestern limits of the United States as about the Newfoundland fisheries.
[29 June 1781]
Additional instruction to the Minister Plenipotentiary for negociating a Treaty of Commerce with G. Britain.1
That the Minister Plenipotentiary for negociating a Treaty of Commerce with Great Britain be & he hereby is instructed to enter into no such Treaty, unless in addition to the Stipulations relative to the fisheries required by Congress in their instructions to the sd. Minister of the 13th of Augst. 1779, All the objects included in their Ultimatum relative to a Treaty of peace as the Same stood prior to their instructions on that subject of the day of 2 be in such Treaty of Commerce explicitly acknowledged & stipulated to the U. States.3
1. John Adams had been commissioned for this purpose on 27 September 1779 (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XV, 1113).
2. The fifteenth day of June 1781.
3. This motion was defeated by a vote of six states to three. The delegates of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia were unanimously opposed, as were a majority of those from Pennsylvania. All the delegates of North Carolina were favorable, and so were a majority of those of Connecticut and Virginia (with Theodorick Bland in opposition). Rhode Island had only one delegate present; New Jersey was evenly divided; and New York was unrepresented.
The seemingly paradoxical opposition of South Carolina and Georgia to what JM conceived to be southern interests reflected the unfavorable military situation in those ravaged states. Their primary concern was survival, not the course of trade along the Mississippi at some future date. For this reason, they naturally opposed a dogmatic assertion of American claims which most probably would alienate Spain—a power which by this time had not only driven the British from West Florida and from Fort St. Joseph in the Northwest Territory but also held St. Louis and both banks of the Mississippi north to the mouth of the Arkansas River, 33° 41’ north latitude (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (2 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , I, 218, n. 6; II, 39, n. 1; Virginia Delegates to Jefferson, 24 April 1781, n. 5; Samuel Flagg Bemis, The Diplomacy of the American Revolution [New York, 1935], pp. 181–82, n. 27, and map facing p. 182).