Virginia Delegates to Benjamin Harrison
RC (University of North Carolina Library: Southern Historical Collection). The letter was written by Edmund Randolph. It is docketed: “Lre from our Delegates in Congress Janry 24. 1782. Reced Febry 7th:”
Philadelphia Jany. 24. 1782.
The minister plenipotentiary of France communicated to us this afternoon the inclosed extract from a letter of Count de Vergennes. We are happy to find, that the supplies, which your excellency negotiated with the minister, are ready for transportation to our country.1 Being informed, that the last letter, which you received from Mr. Luzerne on this subject, threw a damp on the prospect of obtaining them, we conceive that no particular steps have been taken for the forwarding of them.2 Fearing too, lest a delay in sending them on might prove injurious, if not fatal, to Virginia, we answered the communication by the inclosed letter.3 We trust, that, howsoever we may have passed beyond the bounds of our authority in this matter, it is justified by the present situation of things: since it is probable, that, unless the Hermione, which is now ready to sail from Virginia, should be the bearer of some direction for the conveyance of these stores, they may be witholden from us for a twelvemonth, and the express cannot wait, or indeed call at Richmond for an answer from the executive.4
If, however, we have counteracted any scheme, which your board may have adopted in this business, it is possible, that the mischief may be corrected, by contradicting our dispatches, in a letter, addressed to count de Vergennes and sent by the Hermione.5
We have the honor, sir, to be with great respect your excellency’s mo. ob. servts.
J Madison Jr.
1. When Benjamin Harrison had reached Philadelphia in February 1781 as special envoy from the General Assembly of Virginia, he found La Luzerne ready to help that Commonwealth procure military stores from France, to be paid for by Virginia after the war (Journal of the House of Delegates description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia; Begun and Held at the Capitol, in the City of Williamsburg. Beginning in 1780, the portion after the semicolon reads, Begun and Held in the Town of Richmond. In the County of Henrico. The journal for each session has its own title page and is individually paginated. The edition used, unless otherwise noted, is the one in which the journals for 1777–1786 are brought together in two volumes, with each journal published in Richmond in 1827 or 1828, and often called the “Thomas W. White reprint.” description ends , October 1780, pp. 76, 77; Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (4 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , II, 269, n. 5; 299, n. 4). On 23 November 1781 Congress was informed that France had responded favorably to applications by Virginia and Maryland for arms and other military supplies, “subject however to the order of Congress” and at congressional expense (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 1139–40). Thereupon, Robert Morris refused to let the cash resources of the Confederation in Europe be drawn upon for debts incurred by a state (William E. O’Donnell, Chevalier de La Luzerne, pp. 187–89). “The idea of making advances for any individual State from the funds of the United States,” he declared in a letter to Franklin on 27 November 1781, “must never be admitted by any servant of Congress” (Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, 1889). description ends , V, 25). If the delegates knew of Morris’ stand, they did not mention it in the present letter; nor did La Luzerne in his dispatch of 25 January 1782 to Governor Harrison. When Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes (1717–1787), the French minister of foreign affairs, learned of the position of the superintendent of finance, he informed La Luzerne in a letter of instructions dated 23 March 1782 that the goods would not be sent to either Virginia or Maryland (n. 2, below; William E. O’Donnell, Chevalier de La Luzerne, pp. 188–89, and 189, n. 19).
The brief extract from Vergennes’ instructions of 8 October 1781 to La Luzerne, which accompanied the present dispatch, is in the Virginia State Library. The excerpt includes nothing about the mode of payment and states merely that, because the supplies would be ready for shipment on or about 1 April at the latest, the Comte should be informed before that date whether the consignee would send vessels or expected French men-of-war to transport the cargo. See Calendar of Virginia State Papers description begins William P. Palmer et al., eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts (11 vols.; Richmond, 1875–93). description ends , III, 47.
2. How the delegates had been “informed,” and when La Luzerne wrote his “last letter” to Harrison, are unknown to the editors, although Harrison’s dispatch of 29 December 1781 to La Luzerne makes clear that he was addressing the French minister for the first time since assuming the governorship and possibly for the first time since 29 May 1781 (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, 117–18). La Luzerne’s reply of 25 January 1782 to Harrison is in French (Virginia State Library). The English equivalent of the text is written in the left-hand margin of each of the three pages of this letter. The first three and one-half sentences of the translation are in a hand which closely resembles JM’s; but if he wrote them, he departed from his usual style—perhaps because he was cramped for space—by designating each “the” with a thorn. Most of the translation is by someone whose penmanship contrasts markedly with that of JM. Obviously, if JM shared in making the English version, he must have been asked to do so by La Luzerne before the letter was forwarded. In this dispatch, after acknowledging receipt of Harrison’s letter of 29 December 1781, which stressed Virginia’s pressing need for the supplies, La Luzerne reported that the delegates, hoping to expedite the delivery of the goods, had asked that the cargo be brought across the Atlantic in French warships. La Luzerne cautioned Harrison to empower an agent in France as soon as possible to acknowledge the debt and agree with the “company,” which apparently was willing to advance the purchase price of the supplies, about the terms of repaying principal and interest after the war. La Luzerne closed by assuring Harrison of Louis XVI’s great satisfaction, because Virginia was determined to make a vigorous military effort to prevent the British from again ravaging the state as they had done in 1781.
4. Judging from the tenor of Vergennes’ letter of 23 March 1782 to La Luzerne, mentioned in n. 1, above, the latter’s dispatch to Vergennes, no doubt including a report of the mode of conveyance selected by the Virginia delegates, was borne across the Atlantic by “L’Hermione,” which sailed from Yorktown on 2 February and reached her destination early the next month (Acomb, Journal of Closen description begins Evelyn M. Acomb, trans. and ed., The Revolutionary Journal of Baron Ludwig von Closen, 1780–1783 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1958). description ends , p. 173; Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, VIII [1900–1901], 24). After Cornwallis’ surrender, Grasse had ordered this warship, together with the “Romulus” and “Diligente,” to remain in Chesapeake Bay (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 , VI, 236 n.).
5. The meaning of this paragraph and of the last sentence of the preceding paragraph can be harmonized only by concluding that La Luzerne’s dispatch for transmittal on “L’Hermione” to Vergennes and the delegates’ letter to Harrison were taken to Virginia by different couriers. Randolph evidently assumed that the governor, if he disagreed with what the delegates had told La Luzerne, would still have time to send Vergennes an amendatory message aboard the vessel, even though she was “now ready to sail from Virginia.” See n. 4, above.
On 8 February 1782, after listening to the present letter, the Virginia Council of State expressed its disagreement with the delegates by resolving that the Commonwealth vessels “Cormorant” and “Oliver Cromwell” should proceed to France as soon as possible to bring back the goods (Journals of the Council of State description begins H. R. McIlwaine et al., eds., Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia (3 vols. to date; Richmond, 1931——). description ends , III, 41–42). By the next day, when Harrison wrote La Luzerne, this decision had been reconsidered, perhaps because the executive had been informed either that the two vessels were weakly armed or that an insufficient amount of tobacco was available for them to carry overseas. “I … intreat your Excellency,” the governor wrote, “to have the Loan brought over in one of the Kings Ships.… We could send Merchants Ships for them but the Stake is too great and we have too much Dependency on their safe Arrival to risk them in such Vessels” (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, 148–49). See also Harrison to Virginia Delegates, 9 February 1782.
On 21 May, when the “Cormorant” and “Oliver Cromwell” were “about to sail for france,” Harrison apprised the House of Delegates of the fact and laid before that body his letter of 25 January 1782 from La Luzerne (Journals of the Council of State description begins H. R. McIlwaine et al., eds., Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia (3 vols. to date; Richmond, 1931——). description ends , III, 94; 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, 229). Thereupon, the General Assembly prevented the departure of the ships by resolving that they “should not be sent on trading voyages but that they be manned and fitted with all possible expedition to cruise in” Chesapeake Bay and the rivers “for the protection of commerce and security of the Inhabitants,” and “that the Governor be desired to inform the Minister of France at Philadelphia, that this Assembly rely on the goodness of his most Christian Majesty for the supplies … as well as for their being transmitted in ships of France, as … communicated to the delegates in Congress from this State by the Minister of France on the 24th of January 1782” (see first sentence of present letter; also Minute Book, House of Delegates, May 1782 description begins Minute Book, House of Delegates, May 1782, MS in Virginia State Library. description ends , p. 44; and Hening, Statutes description begins William Waller Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619 (13 vols.; Richmond and Philadelphia, 1819–23). description ends , XI, 42–44). The journals of the General Assembly for this session being apparently destroyed and the minute book being merely a sketch of procedures, these resolutions seem to exist only in the copy filed in the Virginia State Library with La Luzerne’s letter to Harrison, mentioned above. The copy of the resolutions was made by the unidentified person, referred to in n. 2, above, who had translated most of that dispatch into English. On 31 May 1782 Harrison sent a copy of the resolutions to La Luzerne (Journals of the Council of State description begins H. R. McIlwaine et al., eds., Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia (3 vols. to date; Richmond, 1931——). description ends , III, 100; 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, 238–39). See also JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXII, 357; Randolph to JM, 10 May, and n. 21; Harrison to Virginia Delegates, 11 May, and n. 1; Virginia Delegates to Harrison, 4 June 1782.