James Madison Papers

Benjamin Lincoln[?] to Virginia Delegates, 14 December[?] 1781

Benjamin Lincoln[?] to Virginia Delegates

Extract (American Art Association Catalogue [21–22 January 1926], Charles A. Munn Collection, item 186). The description in the catalogue reads: “An interesting letter written while Secretary of War and addressed to the delegates in Congress from Virginia [a.l.s.]. The letter is written in the form of twelve questions, asked to ascertain the resources of Virginia, undoubtedly for the files of the War Department, but unfortunately the Delegates have not used this particular sheet to make reply as was intended by General Lincoln.”

Philadelphia, 14 Dec. 1781[?]

The Hon. Delegates in Congress from Virginia

What were the principal exports before the war from your State? How many pounds of cotton will the labor of one man produce in one year? Is your climate friendly to the groath of sheep, how much wool will each bear in a year & of what quality? What is the present appearance of your lead mine, will it probably produce a supply for the continent? Have you any copper mines? What quantity of saltpetre have you ever made & what quantity could probably [be] made in a year & have you any powder mills? Is your soil friendly to the groath of flax & hemp?1

1The editors are skeptical about the accuracy of the dating and authorship of this excerpt. The recipient’s copy has not been located, and apparently there is no file copy among the records of Secretary at War Benjamin Lincoln or the Board of War in the papers of the Continental Congress. Neither the delegates nor the executive of Virginia, to whom they probably would have referred the questionnaire, seem to have replied to it or even mentioned it in their correspondence. No evidence has been found to show that Lincoln sent a similar inquiry to the delegates from any other state in Congress, although presumably his search for data of value in preparing for the military campaign of 1782 would not have been confined to Virginia alone. His queries about Virginia’s prewar exports and production of cotton, wool, flax, and hemp seem at least somewhat irrelevant to his official concern. Finally, if he drafted but never dispatched the questionnaire, it is not properly a JM “paper.”

On the other hand, Lincoln’s signature is too bold and clear to be confused with that of another man. When the office of the secretary at war was created, Congress included among his “powers and duty” the formulation of “estimates of all such stores, equipments and supplies as may be requisite for the military service” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XIX, 126–27). The stringent need of clothing and cordage in the winter of 1781–1782 might warrant Lincoln’s interest in the fibers mentioned above. Even without the general directive under which he operated, Lincoln would certainly have realized the military pertinence of statistical information about all the items covered by the questionnaire. In a letter to him on 20 January 1782, Washington stressed, in preparing for the coming campaign, the “immense importance” of “a regular supply of Cloathing, and that too in due season,” along with “a prompt and faithful compliance” by every state with the requisitions of other supplies (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 , XXIII, 452–56).

When judging the authenticity of the present excerpt, consideration should be given to the possibility that, although Benjamin Lincoln’s signature is unmistakable because of the clarity of his penmanship, a reader who was unfamiliar with it might conclude from the contents of the document that an ambiguously written name at its close must be Lincoln’s. Obviously, unless the manuscript is found, the plausibility of this suggestion cannot be tested.

The questions in the excerpt faintly resemble those asked Joseph Jones by Barbé-Marbois over a year earlier. These questions stimulated Jefferson, upon receiving them from Jones, to begin arranging data for his Notes on the State of Virginia (Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (16 vols. to date; Princeton, N.J., 1950——). description ends , IV, 166–67; V, 58; Jefferson, Notes on Virginia [Peden ed.], pp. xii–xv). Neither the signature of Barbé-Marbois nor of his chief, La Luzerne, resembles that of Benjamin Lincoln.

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