James Madison Papers

From James Madison to Philip Mazzei, 7 July 1781

To Philip Mazzei

Draft (LC: Madison Papers). Docketed by JM, “Mazzei, Philip July 7. 1780.” The year should have been 1781. Years later William C. Rives wrote below this note, “Description of military operations, & cruelties of the enemy.”

Philada. July 7th. 1781

My dear Friend

I have received 2 copies of your favor of the 7th. of Decr. last and 3 of that of the 30th. of Novr. preceding Having neglected to bring with me from Virginia the cypher concerted between you & the Executive, I still remain ignorant of the paragraph in your last which I suppose the best worth knowing.1

The State of our affairs has undergone so many vicisitudes since you embarked for Europe,2 and I can so little judge how far you may have had intelligence of them, that I am at a loss where I ought to begin my narrative. As the present posture of them is the most interesting I shall aim at nothing further at present than to give you some idea of that, referring to past events so far only as may be necessary to explain it.

The insuperable difficulties which opposed a general conquest of America seem as early as the year 1779 to have been felt by the enemy & to have led them into the scheme of directing their operations & views against the Southern States only. Clinton accordingly removed with the principal part of his force from N. York to S. Carolina & laid siege to Charlston which after an honorable resistance was compelled to surrender to the superiority of force. Our loss in men besides the inhabitants of the Town was not less than 2000. Clinton returned to N. York.3 Cor[n]wallis was left with about 5000. troops to pursue his conquests. Genl. Gates was appointed to the Command of the S. Department, in place of Lincoln who commanded in Charlston at the time of its capitulation. He met Cornwallis on the 16th. of August 1780 near Campden in the upper part of S. Carolina & on the border of N. Carolina. A general action ensued in which the American troops were defeated with considerable loss, though not without making the enemy pay a good price for their victory.4 Cornwallis continued his progress into N. Carolina, but afterwards retreated to Campden.5 The defeat of Gates [was] followed by so general a clamor agst. him that it was judged expedien[t] to recall him. Greene was sent to succeed in the command.6 About the time of his arrival at the army, Cornwallis having been reinforced from N. York resumed his enterprize into N Carolina. A detachment of his best troops was totally defeated by Morgan with an inferior number, & consisting of a major part of Militia detached from Green’s Army. 500 were made prisoners, between 2 or 300 killed & wounded, & abt. the like number escaped.7 This disaster instead of checking the ardor of Cornwallis, afforded a new incentive to a rapid advance in the hope of recovering his prisoners. The vigilance & activity however of Morgan secured them. Cornwallis continued his pursuit as far as the Dan River which divides N. Carolina from Virginia. Greene, whose inferior force obliged him to recede that far before the enemy, recd. such succors of Militia on his entering Virga. that the chase was reversed.8 Cornwallis in his turn retreated precipitately. Green overtook him on his way to Wilmington, and attacked him. Altho’ the ground was lost on our side the British army was so much weakened by the loss [of] 5 or 600 of their best troops9 that their Retreat towds. Wilmington suffered little interruption. Green pursued as long as any chance of reaching his prey remained & then leaving Cornwallis on his left took an oblique direction towards Campden which with all the other posts in S. Carolina except Charleston & Ninety six have in consequence fallen again into our possession. His army lay before the latter when we last heard from him. It contained 7 or 800 men & large quantities of Stores. It is nearly 200 miles [from] Charleston, & without some untoward accident can not fail of being taken.10 Green has detachments all over S. Carolina; Some of them within a little dista[nce] of Charleston, and the resentments of the people again[st] their late insolent masters ensure him all the aid they can give in restablishing the American Government there. Great progress is also making in the redem[p]tion of Georgia.11

As soon as Cornwallis had refreshed his troops at Wilmington, abandoning his Southern Conquests to their fate; he pushed forward into Virginia. The Parricide Arnold had a detachment at Portsmouth when he lay on the Dan, Philips had reinforced him so powerfully from New York that the junction of the tw[o] armies at Petersburg could not be prevented. The whole force amounted to about 6,000 men. The force under the Marquis de la fayette who commanded in Virginia, being greatly inferior, did not oppose them, but retreated into Orange & Culpeper in order to meet Genl Wayne who was on his way from Pennsylvania to join him.12 Cornwallis advanced Northward as far as Chesterfield in the County of Caroline, having parties at the same time at Pages Warehouse13 & other places in its vicinity. A party of Horse commanded by Tarlton was sent with all the secrecy & celerity possible to surprize & take the Genl Assembly & Executive who had retreated from Richmond to Charlottesville. The vigilance of a young Gentleman who discovered the design & rode express to Charlottesville prevented a complete surprise. As it was, several Delegates were caught, and the rest were within an hour of sharing the same fate.14 Among the captives was Col. Lyon of Hanover.15 Mr. Kinloch a Member of Congress from S. Carolina was also caught at Mr. John Walker’s whose daughter he had married some time before.16 Governor Jefferson had a very narrow escape. The Members of the Government rendevouzed at Staunton, where they soon made a House. Mr. Jefferson’s year having expired he declined a reelection & General Nelson has taken his place.17 Tarlton’s party retreated with as much celerity as it had advanced. on the junction of Wayne with the Marquis & the arrival of Militia the latter faced about and advanced rapidly on Cornwallis who retreated to Richmond & thence precipitately to Williamsburg where he lay on the 27th. Ultimo. The Marquis pursued & was at the same time with in 20 miles of that place. One of his advanced parties had had a successful skirmish within six miles of Williamsburg & Bellini has I understand abided patiently in the College the dangers & inconveniences of such a situation,18 I do not hear that the consequences have condemned the experiment. Such is the present State of the War in the Southern Department. In the Northern the operations have been for a considerable time in a manner suspended. At present a vigorous siege of New York by Gen Washingtons army aided by 5 or 6000 french troops under Ct. de Rochambeau is in contemplation and will soon commence. As the English have the command of the water, the result of such an enterprize must be very uncertain. It is supposed however that it will certainly oblige the Enemy to with draw their force from the S. States which may be a more convenient mode of relieving them than by marching the troops from N. York at this season of the year to the Southward.19 On the who[le] the probable conclusion of this campaign is at thi[s] juncture very flattering, the Enemy being on the defensive in every quarter.

The vicisitudes which our finances have undergone are as great as those of the War. The depreciation of the old continental bills having arrived at 40, 50, & 60 for 1, Congress on the 18th. of March 1780, resolved to disp[lace?] them entirely from circulation, and substitute another cur[rency] issued on better funds & redeemable at a shorter period. For this purpose they fixed the relative value of paper & Specie at 40 for 1 & directed the States to sink by taxes, the whole 200 Millions in one year, and to provide proper funds for sinking in Six years, a new currency which was not to exceed 10 Millions of Dollars, which was redeemable within that period & to bear an interest of 5 per Ct. payable in bills of exchange on Europe or hard money.* This scheme has not yet been carried into full execution.20 The old bills are still unredeemed in part, in some of the States where they have depreciated to 2, 3, & 400 for 1. The new bills, which were to be issued only as the old ones were taken in, are consequently in a great degree still unissued; and the depreciation which they have already suffered has determined Congress & the States to issue as few more of them as possible. We seem to have pursued our paper projects as far as prudence will warrant. Our medium in future will be principally Specie. The States are already levying taxes in it. As the paper disappears, the hard money comes further into circulation. This revolution will also be greatly facilitated by the influx of Spanish Dollars from the Havannah where the Spanish forces employed agst the Floridas consume immense quantities of our flour, and remit their dollars in payment.21 We also receive considerable assistance from the direct aids of our Ally & from the money expended among us by his auxiliary troops.22 These advantages as they have been & are likely to be improved by the skill of Mr. Robert Morris whom we have Constituted Minister of our Finances23 afford a more flattering prospect in this department of our affairs than has existed at any period of the War.

The great advantage the Enemy have over us lies in the superiority of their navy which enables them continually to shift the war into defenceless places and to weary out our troops by long marches. The squadron sent by our Ally to our support did not arrive till a reinforcement on the part of the Enemy had counteracted their views. They have been almost constantly blocked up at Rhode Island by the British fleet.24 The effects of a hurricane in the last Spring25 on the latter gave a temporary advantage to the former, but circumstances delayed the improvemen[t] of it, till the critical season was past. Mr. Destouches who commanded the french fleet nevertheless hazarded an expedition into Chesapeak bay. The object of it was to co-operate with the Marquis de la fayette in an attack agst. Arnold who lay at Portsmouth with about 1500 British Troops. Had he got into the Bay & taken a favorable station the event would certainly have been adequate to our hopes. Unfortunately the British fleet, which followed the french immediately from Rhode Island, reached the capes of Virginia first. on the arrival of the latter a regular[?] & fair combat took place. It lasted for several hours, and ended rather in favor of our Allies. As the Enemy however were nearest the capes, and one of the french ships had lost her rudder & was otherwise much damaged, the Commander thought it best to relinquish his object & return to his former Station. The damage sustained by the Enemy according to their own representation, exceeded that of the french & as their number of Ships & weight of metal were both superior, it does great honour to the gallantry & good conduct of Mr. Destouches. Congress & indeed the public at large were so sensible of this that their particular thanks were given him on the occasion.26

No description can give you an adequate idea of the barbarity with which the Enemy have conducted the war in the Southern States. Every outrage which humanity could suffer has been committed by them. Desolation rather than conquest seems to have been their object. They have acted more like desperate bands of Robbers or Buccaneers than like a nation making war for dominion. Negroes, Horses, Tobacco &c not the standards and arms of their antagonists are the trophies which display their success. Rapes, murders & the whole catalogue of individual cruelties, not protection & the distribution of justice are the acts which characterize the sp[h]ere of their usurped Jurisdiction.27 The advantage we derive from such proceedings would, if they were purchased in other terms than the distresses of our Citizens, fully compensate for the injury occurring to the public. They are a daily lesson to the people of the U. States of the necessity of perseverance in the contest, and where ever the pressure of their local tyranny is removed the subjects of it rise up as one man to avenge their wrongs and prevent a repetition of them. Those who have possessed a latent partiality for them[,] as their resentments are embittered by their disappointments[,] generally feel most sensibly their injuries & insults and are the foremost in retaliating them. It is much to be regretted that these things are so little known in Europe. Were they published to the World in their true colours, the British nation would be hated by all nations as much as they have heretofore been feared by any, and all nations would be sensible of the policy of abridging a power which nothing else can prevent the abuse of.28

1See 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, 211–16, and n. 10; 229–31. JM probably received Mazzei’s letter of 7 December 1780 about 1 May 1781, but the one of 30 November 1780 had not then arrived (JM to Jefferson, 1 May 1781, and n. 2).

2In June 1779 (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, 287, n. 3).

3Ibid., II, 7, n. 2; 41, n. 1. JM greatly understates the number of American soldiers captured at Charleston. His “not less than 2000” should have been “almost 5500” (Christopher Ward, War of the Revolution, II, 703).

4See 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, 60, n. 6; 67, n. 4; 82, n. 4.

5In view of JM’s generally optimistic review of the course of the war in the South, it is strange that he omitted mention of the American victory at King’s Mountain on 7 October 1780, which largely accounted for Cornwallis’ withdrawal from North Carolina into South Carolina (ibid., II, 149, n. 2; 156, n. 1).

6Ibid., II, 121, and n. 6.

7JM here refers to the Battle of the Cowpens, 17 January 1781 (ibid., II, 307, and nn. 1, 2).

9The Battle of Guilford Court House, 15 March 1781 (Pendleton to JM, 26 March 1781, and n. 8).

10See Greene to JM, 1 April 1781, n. 1; Pendleton to JM, 14 May 1781, n. 13; 21 May 1781, n. 10; 28 May 1781, and n. 11. The stockaded post of Ninety-Six, S.C., had been held by 550 British troops, all Tory. General Greene, with nearly one thousand troops, besieged it from 22 May to 20 June. Although reinforced, Greene was unable to carry the bastion by assault on 18 June. Two days later, knowing that a British relief party of two thousand men led by Lord Rawdon was close at hand, Greene lifted the siege and withdrew rapidly toward Charlotte, N.C. Although, unknown to JM, the British had evacuated Ninety-Six on 29 June, they were not to yield Charleston to the Americans until 14 December 1782 (Christopher Ward, War of the Revolution, II, 816–23, 842).

11In the three southern states after Augusta fell to the Americans on 5 June, Savannah and Charleston would be the only cities still controlled by the British (ibid., II, 815, 840).

12For the operations of Arnold, Phillips, Cornwallis, Lafayette, and Wayne in Virginia, see Pendleton to JM, 14 May, and nn. 3 and 15; 21 May, and n. 7; 28 May 1781, and nn. 6, 9, 10; Lee to Virginia Delegates, 12 June 1781.

13Early in June 1781 the British burned this warehouse at Hanover Town on the Pamunkey River (Virginia Historical Register, II [1849], 32). In JM’s day, Chesterfield was a small community about twenty-two miles north and a little east of Richmond.

14See Lee to Virginia Delegates, 12 June 1781, and nn. 5, 6, 8. Captain John Jouett, Jr. (1754–1822), a militia captain and son of the proprietor of the Swan Tavern in Charlottesville, was at the Cuckoo Tavern near Louisa when Tarleton’s cavalry passed. Surmising their destination, he rode across country and by back roads forty miles to Charlottesville at night, arriving there two hours before the British, thus giving Jefferson and most of the legislators time to escape (Virginius Dabney, “Jack Jouett’s Ride,” American Heritage, XIII, No. 1 [1961], 56–59). Although Jouett was rewarded by the Virginia General Assembly with “an elegant sword and pair of pistols” (Journal of the House of Delegates description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of Virginia, March 1781 Session in Bulletin of the Virginia State Library, XVII, No. 1 (January 1928). description ends , May 1781, p. 15), he did not receive the sword for more than twenty years. Moving to the Kentucky country after the Revolution, he served in the Virginia General Assembly in 1786–1788 and in 1790. He was influential in advancing Kentucky to statehood and was in its legislature in 1792 and 1795–1797 (James F. Hopkins, ed., The Papers of Henry Clay, I [Lexington, 1959], 791, n. 1).

15See Lee to Virginia Delegates, 12 June 1781, and n. 7. With what justification JM called Judge Peter Lyons “Col.” is not known. If the records of Hanover County for this period were complete, they might reveal that he had once held that rank in the militia.

16Francis Kinloch married Mildred Walker (1765–1784) on 22 February 1781 (Richard Channing Moore Page, Genealogy of the Page Family in Virginia [2d ed.; New York, 1893], p. 228).

18See Lee to Virginia Delegates, 12 June 1781, n. 5; Pendleton to JM, 6 July 1781, and nn. 13, 14. JM may have read about Mazzei’s friend Carlo Bellini in a now missing letter from the Reverend James Madison. When in September 1781 the allied armies entered Williamsburg, the Abbé Robin, a chaplain with Rochambeau’s troops, was to find Bellini still the “only Professor” in town; but, the cleric added, “his wit and his learning made us, after what he told us of his Colleagues, regret their absence” (Claude C. Robin, Nouveau Voyage dans l’Amérique Septentrionale en l’Année 1781; et Campagne de l’Armée de M. le Comte de Rochambeau [Paris, 1782], p. 108).

19When Washington conferred with Rochambeau at Wethersfield, Conn., on 22 May (Virginia Delegates to Jefferson, 22 May 1781, n. 4), he estimated that over ten thousand American troops would be on hand by early in July to join with nearly half as many French soldiers from Newport in a surprise assault upon the British in New York City. Execution of the complicated plan went awry almost from the start. Through intercepted letters and the reports of spies, General Clinton was kept fully informed; laggard recruitment left Washington with scarcely five thousand troops for the operation; except for a cavalry legion, the French were too late in reaching the place of rendezvous near Peekskill to share in the initial attack; and when that assault was made on the night of 2–3 July, the British had mostly withdrawn across the Harlem River from their outposts to positions at the north end of Manhattan Island. These were too strong to be assailed without a naval force comparable in strength to that of the British men-of-war (above, Mathews to Greene, 4 June 1781, and n. 4; Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, 1931–44). description ends , XXII, 102–3, 249, 302, 324–25, 330–31). Obviously JM did not know of this when he wrote Mazzei. Washington’s dispatch of 6 July, describing the failure, was read in Congress four days later (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XX, 737).

20JM was only approximately accurate in stating that the $200,000,000 of old continental currency were to be redeemed and destroyed within one year. The resolutions of 18 March 1780 (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XVI, 262–66; 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, 49, n. 2) provided that the states should “sink” a total of $15,000,000 of the old currency each month. If this schedule had been rigidly adhered to, all of the old currency would have been withdrawn from circulation by the close of April 1781. A variety of reasons explains why much of this money was still outstanding when JM wrote, and would remain outstanding for long thereafter. The states had been unable to accumulate the specie or its equivalent, stipulated by the act of 18 March 1780 as a prerequisite for issuing the new currency at an exchange rate of one Spanish milled dollar’s worth of it for $40.00 of the old. The state governments naturally hesitated to comply with this high ratio when the market value of the old currency had fallen as low as 400 for 1. War emergencies obliged some of the states, including Virginia, to issue large sums of paper money without waiting to call in forty times its nominal value in old continental currency. JM might have mentioned to Mazzei the monetary crisis of May and June 1781, which had made the old currency, or for that matter any paper currency, virtually worthless as a circulating medium (Virginia Delegates to Jefferson, 5 May, and nn. 2, 3, 4, 6; 8 May 1781, and n. 1; Motion on Currency, 30 May 1781, and nn. 1, 2, 4). On 28 June 1780 Congress had pledged to holders of continental loan-office certificates (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, 229, n. 2; 308–9) that they would be repaid in Spanish milled dollars or their equivalent, to the amount of “the full current value of the bills when loaned.” Thereupon, to make clear what this “current value” would be, Congress adopted a scale of depreciation rising from 1⅓ for 1 on 1 September 1777 to 40 for 1 by 18 March 1780 and thereafter (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XVII, 567–68; XVIII, 1025–26).

21Following the capitulation of Pensacola to Governor Gálvez on 9 May, the British surrendered all the province of West Florida to the Spaniards (Virginia Delegates to Jefferson, 24 April 1781, n. 5). The Pennsylvania Packet reported the fall of Pensacola on 12 June 1781.

24Papers 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, 35, n. 2.

25The storm was on 22 January 1781 (ibid., II, 310, n. 1).

27Papers 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, 144, n. 4; 156, n. 1; 157; 158, n. 3; 243–44; above, Mathews to Greene, 30 April 1781, and nn. 6, 8, 9; Pendleton to JM, 7 May 1781. In accusing British troops of atrocities, the Americans often made Cornwallis in the Carolinas and Arnold in Virginia their particular targets. On 10 July, nearly two months after Cornwallis had taken command in Virginia, the Pennsylvania Packet reported that Arnold had returned in June to New York because he had become disgusted by Cornwallis’ ruthless destruction of property in Virginia. In a dispatch to Clinton on 26 May 1781, Cornwallis justified his approval of Arnold’s request to leave Virginia by stating that “his present indisposition renders him unequal to the fatigue of service,” and added that Arnold would report on “the horrid enormities which are committed by our privateers in Chesapeak-bay.” Arnold’s “indisposition” may have been aggravated by a belief that Cornwallis was retaining as his own too large a share of the plunder, including “the negro and tobacco traffick” (Benjamin F. Stevens, ed., Campaign in Virginia, I, 487; Willard M. Wallace, Traitorous Hero: The Life and Fortunes of Benedict Arnold [New York, 1954], pp. 277–78).

28This letter well illustrates the facet of JM’s character which restrained him from mentioning interesting personal matters, even when writing to a friend. Otherwise, he would hardly have omitted a reference to an occurrence affecting his boarding house at a time when he was probably in his room. The Pennsylvania Packet of 5 July 1781 reported: “In the night of the 26th ult. several houses in the city, and a vessel in the harbour, were damaged by lightning. The building which suffered most is that in which Mrs. House lives, at the corner of Market and Fifth-streets. The lightning entered near the chimney, and passed through several rooms, but no person was injured by it, nor was the house as much damaged as might have been expected, the lightning having been conducted by a bell wire, which it melted. This incident affords an additional proof of the utility of the electrical rods invented by the ingenious Dr. Franklin.”

Authorial notes

[The following note(s) appeared in the margins or otherwise outside the text flow in the original source, and have been moved here for purposes of the digital edition.]

* The loan office-certificates granted by Congress are to be discharged at the values of the money at the time of the loan; a scale of Depreciation being fixed by Congress for that purpose.

 They have lately taken West Florida with a garrison of 1500 Troops

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