James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Edmund Randolph, 9 May 1783

From Edmund Randolph

RC (LC: Madison Papers). Unsigned but in Randolph’s hand. Docketed by JM, “May 9th. 1783.” Cover addressed by Randolph to “The honble James Madison jr. esq of congress Philadelphia.” The right margin of the second of the three folios comprising the letter was trimmed so carelessly as to excise portions of the text.

Richmond May 9. 1783.

My dear sir

The due arrival of your friendly attention by every post1 has not been requited, in the manner most agreeable to my own feelings. My engagements in the forum from the 1st. Ulto. to this day,2 and the barrenness of intelligence must serve as my apology.

Monday last was the day appointed for the meeting of the assembly: and a larger number of members appeared, than has been seen for some years on the first day of the session.3 Among them was Mr. Henry. He is earnest in the reduction of the taxes; alledging the inability of the people, and scarcity of cash.4 These facts have received strong support from the motions, made at the last general court, against delinquent sheriffs to the amount of about £50,000. Their excuses in general consisted of the impracticability to find purchasers for the property seized.5

Whether this temper predicts much in favor of the recommendations of congress, now on the road, I have not yet determined. It does not of necessity become an Obstacle to them, as the impost in most parts is supposed to fall heaviest upon men of opulence, for whose sakes the diminution of the taxes is by no means intended.6

Some of those, with whom I have conversed, argue thus: “Our consumption exceeds our ability [in?] annual income: that of the other states does not: these therefore will by the impost pay according to their wealth, while we thereby render the yearly excess of our yearly revenue still more ruinous.” This objection shall not long keep its ground.7

The cession of our western country, as recommended, beyond the assignment already made to the U. S, when connected with the delivery of a capital fund into the hands of congress, gives birth to difficulties of every complexion. It revives in the minds of some the ardor of congress to grasp that territory, and the possibility of this fund being diverted to offensive measures again [st] it. It is supposed to diminish our power, wealth and importan[ce] at the same time, that the impost itself will daily lessen our pecu[niary] talents.8 The labour will be severe indeed, which shall ex[pel?] the conviction of some individuals: for with them argument derived from the posture of our affairs, and the necessity of yielding something, altho’ to our disadvantage, to the cause [of] peace and the harmony of the union, pass under the appe[lla]tion of misdirected zeal, or ill-founded fears.

Mr. R. H. Lee arrived yesterday without his brother the Dr.9 My business has prevented me from conversing with him at all, and indeed with a[ny] other member, as fully as I wish.

We are much alarmed at the purpose of sending the definitive treaty to the imperia[l] courts before its completion.10 We have been too muc[h] injured by the war, not to dread its return. Perhaps i[t] would not be easy to find precedents of the abortion o[f] a treaty of peace, which has been carried as far as the ra[ti]fication of preliminaries:11 but a fresh opposition may b[e] artfully excited in these courts by G. B, who is now per[haps] led to hope something from Morris’s letter12 and the spir[ited] movements of the army.13

Several british vessels have a[rri]ved in our rivers: some of which affect to intitle themsel[ves] to an entry by distress, and others in right of commerce upon t[he] cessation of hostilities. The executive have adjourned thei[r] cases to the assembly; before whom several zealous Scotch will appear, as I am told, urging the indulgence.14 An indulg[ence] it must be called; for a final consummation of the war dep[ends] as it would seem to me, upon the definitive treaty alone. I [am] somewhat surprized at the difficulties, which you sugges[t] in the construction of the phrase “during the war.” Howsoever active enmity may have been suspended by the preliminaries, the state of war appears still to exist.15

1Except for his letter of 26 April, Randolph had not written to JM since 29 March. During the same period, JM had written to him on 1, 8, 10, 15, 22, and 29 April 1783 (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (7 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , VI, 429–30; 439–40; 449–50; 465; 483; 503–4). By 9 May Randolph obviously could not have received JM’s letter dated three days earlier (q.v.).

2As attorney general of Virginia, Randolph was obliged to attend sessions of the General Court, which convened its spring term on 1 April; of the Court of Admiralty, “so often as there shall be occasion” for that tribunal to “sit”; and of the High Court of Chancery and the Court of Appeals (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 , X, 99, 455; Pendleton to JM, 4 May 1783). He also was expected to be available during each session of the General Assembly for consultation on constitutional and other legal matters. See JHDV description begins (1828 ed.). Journal of the House of Delegates of Virginia, Anno Domini, 1776 (Richmond, 1828). description ends , May 1783, p. 36.

4Jefferson in his letter of 7 May to JM (q.v., and n. 10) had been less certain of the course Patrick Henry would pursue. Although Henry returned to his home two weeks before the adjournment of the Virginia General Assembly on 28 June, he shared prominently in the proceedings of the House of Delegates during the month beginning on 12 May (JHDV description begins (1828 ed.). Journal of the House of Delegates of Virginia, Anno Domini, 1776 (Richmond, 1828). description ends , May 1783, pp. 4–53; Randolph to JM, 21 June 1783).

The most important of the several measures reflecting “the present distressed state” of many Virginians was an act of 28 June entitled “An act to suspend the operation of the act, intituled, An act to amend and reduce the several acts of assembly for ascertaining certain taxes and duties, and for establishing a permanent revenue, into one act.” Besides postponing “to a future day” the enforcement of the “act to amend and reduce …,” this stay law stipulated “That no distress for any tax imposed by the said act shall be made before the twentieth day of November next” (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (7 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , V, 454, n. 2; JHDV description begins (1828 ed.). Journal of the House of Delegates of Virginia, Anno Domini, 1776 (Richmond, 1828). description ends , May 1783, p. 99; 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, 194). The House of Delegates on 13 May, having been informed by “a committee of the whole House” of the need for this relief, appointed a committee, including Henry among its twelve members, to draft an appropriate bill. He continued to support the measure as long as he attended the session (JHDV description begins (1828 ed.). Journal of the House of Delegates of Virginia, Anno Domini, 1776 (Richmond, 1828). description ends , May 1783, pp. 6, 9, 21; Randolph to JM, 24 May 1783).

5Sheriffs, as tax collectors, were subject to heavy penalties upon conviction by the General Court of failing to collect taxes in money or “commutables” when due or neglecting to render an accounting of them to the tax commissioners or auditors of public accounts, or transmitting the tax money to the treasury (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 , X, 172, 199–202, 252–53, 255–56, 507–8). Inability to convert into cash the “commutables” acceptable as taxes or, more usually, the private property seized for nonpayment of taxes also was penalized. See Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (7 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , VI, 379. For the law of 28 June 1783 “for the relief of sheriffs,” see ibid., VI, 500; 501, n. 8.

6Included in the plan for restoring public credit, adopted by Congress on 18 April, were recommendations that each state levy import duties for the support of the government of the Confederation. Upon receiving a copy of “the plan,” Governor Harrison submitted it immediately to the General Assembly (Papers of Madison, VI, 312; 322; 350; 471; Jefferson to JM, 7 May, and n. 13; Instruction to President, 9 May 1783, n. 2).

7In summarizing the argument which Randolph did not find persuasive, he probably would have added clarity by inserting “our spending over” between “excess of” and “our.” Randolph soon expressed concern lest a majority of the members of the House of Delegates reject the recommended imposts (Randolph to JM, 24 May and n. 6). See also Pendleton to JM, 4 May 1783, and n. 8.

8Harrison to Delegates, 3 May, and n. 4; Jefferson to JM, 7 May, and n. 3; JM Notes, 9 May 1783, and n. 2. For the long background of the “cession” problem, see the indexes of Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (7 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , Vols. II–VII, under Western lands.

9For Arthur Lee’s arrival in Richmond, see Ambler to JM, 3 May, n. 4; JM to Jefferson, 6 May 1783, n. 4.

10Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (7 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , VI, 504, and n. 2.

12Randolph probably referred to the published letter of 24 January from Robert Morris informing Congress of the desperate state of the Confederation treasury and of his intention to resign as superintendent of finance on 31 May (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (7 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , VI, 439; 440, n. 3).

13Ibid., VI, 286; 348; 349, nn. 1, 2; 355–56; 375; 377, n. 2; 392, and n. 6; 440; 486, n. 2; 499, 500, n. 4.

14Delegates to Harrison, 6 May 1783 and citations in n. 2. In his message of 5 May to the Virginia House of Delegates, Governor Harrison mentioned the arrival of several British merchant vessels and requested an early “Determination” whether they should be permitted to discharge or load cargoes (Executive Letter Book, 1783–1786, pp. 115–16, MS in Va. State Library). On 12 May, even before this message was “laid before the House,” it appointed a committee, Patrick Henry chairman, to prepare a bill “to repeal the several acts of Assembly, for seizure and condemnation of British goods, found on land.” The House, having received the committee’s proposal on 13 May, amended and adopted the measure on that day. Tardiness in assembling and insistence by the Senate upon amendment explain why the bill was not enacted into law until 24 May (JHDV description begins (1828 ed.). Journal of the House of Delegates of Virginia, Anno Domini, 1776 (Richmond, 1828). description ends , May 1783, pp. 4, 5, 6, 14, 20). This brief statute closes by making its effective date 13 May, thus exonerating the governor and the naval officers for sanctioning trade with the British before the repeal of the several prohibitory laws (Ambler to JM, 3 May 1783, n. 5; JM to Jefferson, 13 May, and n. 9; Va. Gazette, and Weekly Advertiser, 9 May 1783; 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, 195).

15Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (7 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , VI, 449–50; 465; and esp. 483. See also ibid., VI, 450, and n. 3; 456; 458, n. 3.

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