James Madison Papers

From James Madison to Edmund Pendleton, 2 October 1781

To Edmund Pendleton

RC (LC: Madison Papers). Only a fragment of the cover remains. It reads, “Pendleton Esqr. Caroline County Virginia.”

Philada. Ocr. 2d. 1781

Dear Sir

Yours of 24th. ulto.1 came safe by yesterdays post. In addition to the paper of this day I enclose you two of the preceding week in one of which you will find a very entertaining & interesting speech by Mr. Fox, and in the other a handsome forensic discussion of a case important in itself and which has some relation to the State of Virginia.2

Our intelligence from N. Y. through several channels confirms the sufferings of the B. fleet from their rash visit to the Capes of Chesapeak. The troops which were kept in Transports to await that event have since the return of the fleet been put on shore on Staten Island. This circumstance has been construed into a preliminary to an expedition to this City, which had revived, till within a few days the preparations for a Militia opposition, but is better explained by the raging of a malignant fever in the City of N Y. Digby we hear is now certainly arrived but with three ships of the line only.3 It is given out that three more with a large number of Transports came with him and that they only lay back till it was known whether they could proceed to N. Y. with safety: This is not improbably suspected to be a trick to palliate the disappointment and to buoy up the sinking hopes of their adherents, the most staunch of whom give up Lord Cornwallis as irretreivably lost.4

We have received some communications from Europe relative to the general State of its affairs.5 They all center in three important points; the first is the obstinacy of G. B, the second the fidelity of our Ally, and the third the absolute necessity of vigorous & systematic preparations for war on our part in order to ensure a speedy as well as favorable peace. The Wisdom of the Legislature of Virginia6 will I flatter myself, not only prevent an illusion from the present brilliant prospects, but take advantage of the military ardor and sanguine hopes of the people to recruit their line for the war. The introduction of specie will also I hope be made subservient to some salutary operations in their finances.7 Another great object which in my opinion claims an immediate attenti[on] from them, is some liberal provision for extending the benefits of Government to the distant parts of the State. I am not able to see why this cannot be done, so as fully to satisfy the exigences of the people and at the same time preserve the idea of Unity in the State. Any plan which divides in any manner the Sovereignty may be dangerous & precipitate an evil which ought & may at least be long procrastinated. The Administration of Justice which is the capital branch may certainly be diffused sufficiently and kept in due subordination in every part to one supreme tribunal. Separate boards for auditing accounts may also be admitted with safety & propriety. The same as to a separate depository for the taxes &c. and as to a land office. The military powers of the Executive, may well be entrusted to Militia officers of Rank, as far as the Defence of the Country & the Custody of Military Stores make it necessary. A complete organization of the Militia in which Genl Offices would be created would greatly facilitate this part of the plan. Such an one with a Council of Field Officers, might exercise without encroaching on the Constitutional powers of the Supreme Executive, all the powers over the Militia which any emergency could demand.8

I am Dr. Sir Yrs. Sincerely

J. Madison Jr.

1Not found.

2Probably the Pennsylvania Packet of 29 September and 2 October and the Freeman’s Journal: or, North-American Intelligencer (Philadelphia) of 26 September 1781. The Packet of 29 September devoted nearly two pages to the speech of 30 May 1781 in Parliament on the American war by Charles James Fox (1749–1806), a leader of the Whig opposition to the government of Frederick North, Lord North and Earl of Guilford. The Freeman’s Journal contained a narrative of Simon Nathan’s court action against the state of Virginia. For Nathan’s claim, see Jefferson to Virginia Delegates, 15 March, and nn. 1, 3, 4; Virginia Delegates to Executive Council of Pennsylvania, 9 July, and n. 9; Joseph Reed to Virginia Delegates, 10 July, and n. 2; 12 July, and n. 4; JM to Pendleton, 9 October 1781, n. 2.

3JM’s principal source of information was General William Heath’s letter of 25 September 1781, read in Congress four days later. Heath reported yellow fever raging among the troops assembled for the reinforcement of Cornwallis (NA: PCC, No. 157, fols., 302–3; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 1024). See also JM to Pendleton, 3 September, n. 3, and 18 September, nn. 2, 3; Virginia Delegates to Nelson, 11 September, and n. 2, and 25 September 1781, and n. 5.

4Several of General Heath’s letters refer to the admission by the British in New York City that Cornwallis was lost (NA: PCC, No. 157, fols. 302–11). On the other hand, in a letter of 3 October to Clinton, Cornwallis stated that, because the enemy’s advance against his fortifications had been so slow, they were “in a better state of defence than we had reason to hope” (Benjamin F. Stevens, ed., Campaign in Virginia, II, 174–75). For the remainder of Digby’s fleet, see Virginia Delegates to Nelson, 16 October 1781, and n. 3.

5The main source of JM’s information was the communications received from La Luzerne (Notes from Secret Journal, 21 September 1781, n. 2). He may also have had an advance look at the dispatches from John Adams confirming the information from La Luzerne and read in Congress on 3 October (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 1032; Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, 1889). description ends , IV, 419, 560–61, 574, 575–76, 619–21).

8By “distant parts of the State,” JM probably meant the Kentucky region, comprising Fayette, Jefferson, and Lincoln counties. As already mentioned, nearly a thousand of its settlers had petitioned Congress in the summer of 1780, recounting their grievances and asking in vain for self-government and separation from Virginia (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, 65). Thereafter for two years the Kentuckians refrained from memorializing Congress to this end, but their discontent was well known in Philadelphia. In that city speculators were investing in Virginia land warrants for acreage in Kentucky. Philadelphia was also the headquarters of the Vandalia Company, which claimed a large area in Kentucky included in patents issued to absentee owners living in eastern Virginia (Thomas P. Abernethy, Western Lands and the American Revolution, pp. 249–51).

Very likely JM also reflected in his comment the discussion in Congress, on the date of the present letter, occasioned by the “report of the committee to whom were referred the cessions of lands by the States of Virginia, New York and Connecticut and the memorial of the Ilionois and Wabash Companies” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 1032). See also Virginia Delegates to Nelson, 9 October 1781, and nn. JM’s recently expressed scruple against statehood for Vermont, lest the small states support the same goal for Virginia’s southwestern counties, may help to account for his advocacy of more self-government for them in order to give them no cause to strengthen the hands of the “enemies” of Virginia in Congress through memorials reciting their grievances or asking for statehood (JM to Pendleton, 14 August 1781).

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