James Madison Papers

From James Madison to Edmund Pendleton, 30 October 1781

To Edmund Pendleton

RC (LC: Madison Papers). On the cover is this note: “Colo. Pendleton will be so Obliging as to bring the form he promised to Church next Sunday T. Jones.” Pendleton and Thomas Jones (d. 1782), a planter, lived in St. Mary’s Parish, Caroline County, and were members of the same congregation of the Church of England. JM addressed the letter to “The Honble Edmund Pendleton Esqr Caroline County Virginia.”

Philada. Oct. 30th. 1781.

Dear Sir

I return you my fervent congratulations on the glorious success of the combined arms at York & Glocester. We have had from the Commander in chief an official report of the fact with a copy of the capitulation, and a general intimation that the no. of prisoners excluding seamen &c. would exceed 5000; but no detail of our gains.1 If these severe doses of ill fortune do not cool the phrenzy and relax the pride of Britain, it would seem as if Heaven had in reality abandoned her to her folly & her fate. This campaign was grounded on the most intense exertion of her pecuniary resources. Upwards of 20 Millions were voted by the Parliament. The King acknowledged that it was all he asked, and all that was necessary.2 A fair trial has then been made of her strength: and what is the result? They have lost another army, another colony, another island, and another fleet of her trade;3 their possessions in the E. Indies which were so rich a source of their commerce & credit, have been severed from them perhaps for ever;4 their naval armaments, the bulwarks of their safety & the idols of their vanity have in every contest felt the rising superiority of their Enemies. In no points have they succeeded except in the predatory conquest of Eustatia of which they have lost the greatest part of every thing except the infamy,5 and in the relief of Gibralter which was merely a negative advantage.6 With what hope or with what view can they try the fortune of another campaign? Unless they can draw succour from the compassion or jealousy of other powers of which it does not yet appear that they have any well founded expectation, it seems scarcely possible for them much longer to shut their ears against the voice of peace.

I am sorry to find that the practice of impressing is still kept up with you.7 It is partial & oppressive with respect to individuals & I wish it may not eventually prove so with respect to the State. The zeal & liberality of those State[s] which make undue advances may not find an equal disposition to reimbur[se] them in others which have had more caution or less occasion for such exertions.

You are not mistaken in your apprehensions for o[ur] Western Interests.8 An agrarian law is as much covete[d] by the little members of the Union, as ever it was by the indigent Citizens of Rome.9 The conditions annexed by Virginia to her territorial cession has furnished a Committee of Congres[s] a handle for taking up questions of right both with respect to the Ceding States, and the great land compan[ies] which they have not before ventured to touch. We ha[ve] made every opposition & remonstrance to the Conduct of the Co[mm]ittee which the forms of proceeding will admit. When a report is made we shall renew our efforts upon more eligible ground, but with little hope of arresti[ng] any aggression upon Virginia which depends solely on the inclination of Congress.10 Since the close of the Confederation however, it has been understood that seven votes are necessary to carry every question.11 This rule in proportion to the thinness of Congress opposes a difficulty to those who attack. It will therefore I believe be impossible for the Enemys of Virginia to obtain any positive injury to her rights.12 My greatest anxiety at present is lest the attempts for that purpose may exasperate the Assembly into measures which will furnish new hopes to the British Court to persevere in the war, and new baits for the credulity of the British nation. The good sense of the Assembly will however I flatter myself temper every expressi[on of] their displeasure with a due respect to thi[s con]sideration. It would be peculiarly unhappy if any symptoms of disunion among ourselves should blast the golden prospects which the events of the campaign have opened to us.13

We have nothing new from any quarter. The British fleet has not returned to N. York as was here reported & believed. It consists of 25 Sail of the line several 50s and frigates. The no. of Troops is varied by our intelligence from 4 to upwards of 6000.14

With sincere regard I Dr Sir Yr’s &c

J. Madison Junr.

P.S. A report came yesterday from Baltimore, that Rodney with several Ships of the line & 30 or 40 transports laden in part with the residue of Statia plunder has fallen into the hands of the combined fleets. This morning the same report coming from N. York gives some probability to the thing.15

2Lord North’s budget for the fiscal year 1781–1782 totaled nearly £21,500,000. On 18 July 1781, when King George III “put an end to the session” of Parliament, he remarked, “Gentlemen of the House of Commons, My particular thanks are due to you for the ample provision you have made for the service of the current year” (Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates description begins William Cobbett, ed., The Parliamentary History of England from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803 (36 vols.; London, 1806–20; continued as Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates). description ends , XXI, cols. 1327–28; XXII, cols. 632–33).

3Although the “army” was undoubtedly Cornwallis’; the “island,” Tobago; and the “fleet,” the ships laden with Rodney’s plunder from St. Eustatius; the identification of the “colony” is uncertain. JM likely meant West Florida (Pendleton to JM, 19 March, n. 11; Mathews to Greene, 4 June, n. 3; JM to Mazzei, 7 July, n. 21; JM to Pendleton, 14 August 1781, and n. 4).

4At this time the British hold on India was menaced in the Second Mysore War (1780–1784) by Haider (Hyder) Ali, ruler of Mysore, and other Indian princes. By the summer of 1781 the French were interrupting Britain’s line of communication with India by sea and dispatching a powerful fleet to the Indian Ocean (W. M. James, British Navy in Adversity, pp. 385–86). As early as August 1781 rumor was current in Philadelphia that the British would be driven out of India and East Indian waters (Burnett, Letters description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (8 vols.; Washington, 1921–36). description ends , VI, 200; Pennsylvania Packet, 25 and 28 August, and 1 and 23 September 1781). The issue of the Packet for 30 October contained a dispatch from London telling of Haider Ali’s severe defeat by the British early in the summer.

5Above, n. 3. JM’s mention of “infamy” applies particularly to the greed of Admiral Rodney in indiscriminately looting St. Eustatius for personal gain, an act which even his admirers could not excuse and which later would involve him in costly litigation. His “difficulties,” moralized a British contemporary, “were scarcely justifiable, or pitiable, yet those very distresses appear to have carried with them a sufficient punishment to render all posthumous censure unnecessary” (John Charnock, Biographia Navalis; or, Impartial Memoirs of the Lives and Characters of Officers of the Navy of Great Britain, from the Year 1660 to the Present Time [6 vols.; London, 1794–98], V, 228).

6David Hannay, Short History of the Royal Navy, II, 262–63; Mason to Virginia Delegates, 3 April, n. 9; JM to Pendleton, 18 September 1781.

7See Pendleton to JM, 8 October 1781, and nn. 2 and 3.

8Ibid.; Protest of Virginia Delegates, 10 October; Virginia Delegates to Nelson, 16 and 23 October; Motions of Virginia Delegates on Western Lands, 16 and 26 October 1781.

9JM probably refers to the “agrarian law” associated with the tribunate of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus in 133 B.C. Land held in excess of the maximum amount defined by law was taken back by the republic of Rome and distributed in lots, not subject to sale, to poor farmers and city dwellers. Gaius Gracchus, brother of Tiberius, revived this law when he was tribune in 123 and 122 B.C. Within fifteen years of Gaius’ death in 121 B.C., this agrarian legislation had been superseded by statutes which again favored the landed aristocracy.

10See n. 8, above.

12At the time of this letter, since there was only a bare quorum of nine states with delegates in Congress, the position of Virginia could not be threatened as long as South Carolina and Georgia continued to vote with her on issues affecting the western lands (Motions of Virginia Delegates on Western Lands, 16 October, n. 6, and 26 October 1781, n. 7).

13See Virginia Delegates to Nelson, 23 October 1781, and n. 4. Long after the present letter was written, JM or one of his family put a bracket at the end of this paragraph and another at the beginning of the first paragraph, thus designating the portion to be published. See Madison, Papers (Gilpin ed.) description begins Henry D. Gilpin, ed., The Papers of James Madison (3 vols.; Washington, 1840). description ends , I, 98–100.

14See Virginia Delegates to Nelson, 18 September, n. 5, and 16 October 1781, and n. 1. Aboard the warships of Admiral Graves, belatedly sent to help Cornwallis, were 7,149 soldiers, including officers (French Ensor Chadwick, ed., The Graves Papers and Other Documents relating to the Naval Operations of the Yorktown Campaign, July to October 1781 [New York, 1916], p. 131).

15JM evidently gleaned this report from the Pennsylvania Packet of 30 October 1781. This paper printed an extract from a letter, written in Rotterdam on 18 May, telling that Commodore La Motte-Picquet had brought to a French port some Dutch merchant ships, captured by Rodney at St. Eustatius and consigned by him to carry much of his plunder to Great Britain. JM evidently overlooked the fact that the letter had been written over five months before and merely reported what he had already told Pendleton in a letter of 14 August 1781 (q.v., and its n. 4). In ill health, Rodney relinquished his West Indies command to Admiral Hood and embarked on 1 August upon his safe passage homeward. Four months later the French recaptured St. Eustatius and, with it, the residue of Rodney’s booty (W. M. James, British Navy in Adversity, pp. 264, 266–67).

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