James Madison Papers

Motion of Virginia Delegates on Western Lands, [14 November] 1781

Motion of Virginia Delegates on Western Lands

Printed text (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 1113).

[14 November 1781]

A motion was made by the delegates of Virginia,

That the first Tuesday of December next, be assigned for the consideration of the report of the committee,1 to whom were referred the cessions of New York, Virginia, Connecticut, and the petitions of the Indiana, Vandalia, Illionois, and Wabash companies.2

1Eleven days had passed without action by Congress upon the committee’s report, submitted on 3 November, and known by the Virginia delegation to be altogether adverse to the interests of their state. The present motion reflects the remark of JM in his letter of 13 November to Pendleton, “We are very anxious to bring the matter to issue that the State may know what course their honor and security require them to take.” The report principally recommended: (1) the acceptance of New York’s offer of cession; (2) the speedy cession by Massachusetts and Connecticut of their western lands; (3) the rejection of Virginia’s offer of cession; (4) a call upon Virginia to make a new offer, renouncing “all Claims & pretensions of Claim to the Lands & Country beyond a reasonable western Boundary,” and “that free from any Conditions & restrictions whatever”; (5) the acknowledgment of the validity of the land grants to the Indiana and Vandalia companies and a reimbursement of the Americans among the patentees, provided that they deeded the areas to the United States; (6) the rejection of the claims of the Illinois and Wabash companies; (7) the payment of reasonable sums to states which at their own expense had defended the western territory against the British; (8) the survey of the ceded area into townships about 6 miles square; (9) the creation of states there, not larger than 130 miles square; (10) the use of the western lands to fulfill the bounty land pledges to soldiers; and (11) the assumption by Congress of the sole right to grant land in the ceded area and to exercise jurisdiction over the Indians living therein.

These recommendations were the more offensive to the Virginia delegation because they declared that: (1) the cession by New York, whose claim rested upon her suzerainty over the Six Nations and hence over their many tributary Indians in the West, vested Congress with a valid title to much of the area alleged by Virginia to be her own soil; (2) in view of New York’s action, the legitimate titles of the Indiana and Vandalia companies, and the Quebec Act of 1774 annexing the territory north of the Ohio River to the Province of Quebec, Virginia had very little, if any, land to cede; and (3) Virginia’s offer of cession was “altogether unadmissible,” being “incompatible with the Honor, Interests & Peace of the united States” (NA: PCC, No. 30, fols. 1–13).

Copies of the above report, of the Virginia delegates’ protest of 10 October, their motions in Congress of 16 and 26 October, the letter of 16 November 1781 from Richard Peters (q.v.), and an extract of an Indian treaty of 10 May 1779 are in the Virginia State Library. Probably all of them, and possibly JM’s list of the Vandalia Company proprietors mentioned in n. 7 of Motion of Virginia Delegates, 26 October 1781, were enclosed by the delegates in their missing dispatch of 17 November to Governor Nelson. Benjamin Harrison, who had succeeded Nelson as governor on 30 November, finally received this dispatch and the enclosures of 5 January 1782, but too late to have them considered by the General Assembly, which ended its session on that day (McIlwaine, Official Letters description begins H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Official Letters of the Governors of the State of Virginia (3 vols.; Richmond, 1926–29). description ends , III, 121). For this reason, it was May 1782 before Harrison was able to lay before the Assembly the “Letter from our Delegates in Congress inclosing the proceedings of a Committee of that Honorable Body on the subject of our back lands” (ibid., III, 213; Randolph to JM, 16–17 May 1782, LC: Madison Papers).

2Immediately following the introduction of this motion, Thomas Smith moved an amendment, seconded by James M. Varnum, to add “provided that eleven states shall be then represented.” After this amendment had been defeated by a vote of three states to two, the motion of the Virginia delegation was also lost by a vote of five states to one. In the first of these tallies the delegates from each of two states deadlocked, and each of two states had only a single delegate present. In the second of these tallies, the delegates of one state deadlocked, and each of two states had only one delegate present (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 1113–14). Because a rule of procedure required at least two delegates to be present from each of seven states to make a quorum, the support of every one of the states with that number of representatives in Congress on 14 November was essential if the motion was to pass. The delegates of Maryland, evidently as eager to have the committee’s report quickly accepted as the Virginia delegates were to have it quickly rejected, supported the motion. Thereafter, debate on the committee report was delayed until 18 April 1782 (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXII, 191), and, as already mentioned, New York’s offer of cession was not accepted until 29 October of that year (JM to Pendleton, 13 November 1781, n. 4).

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