James Madison Papers

From James Madison to Edmund Randolph, [20] May 1783

To Edmund Randolph

RC (LC: Madison Papers). Unsigned but in JM’s hand. Docketed by Randolph, “Js. Madison, Jr. May 1783.” Many years later, after the letter was returned to JM, he wrote below the date line, “Randolph, Edm.” In another hand “[20?]” was inserted between “May” and “1783.” Apparently the same person wrote “96 Vol. I” at the top of the right margin of the first page of the letter. The reference beyond doubt is to JM’s letter of 20 August 1784 on American commerce as printed in Madison, Letters (Cong. ed.) description begins [William C. Rives and Philip R. Fendall, eds.], Letters and Other Writings of James Madison (published by order of Congress; 4 vols.; Philadelphia, 1865). description ends , 1, 90–99. Bracketed letters and words denote blurring in the manuscript to the point of illegibility.

Philada. [20] May 1783

My dear Sir

Your favor of the 9th. inst:1 was duly brought by yesterday’s Mail. My impatience is great to know the reception given to the propositions of Congress,2 by the Assembly. I foresaw some of the topics which are employed against them, & I dread their effect from the eloquent mouths which will probably enforce them; but I do not despair. Unless those who oppose the plan, can substitute some other equally consistent with public justice & honor, and more conformable to the doctrines of the Confederation, all those who love justice and aim at the public good will be ad[v]ocates for the plan. The greatest danger is to be apprehended from the difficulty of making the latter class sensible of the impracticability or incompetency of any plan short of the one recommended; the arguments necessary for that purpose being drawn from a general survey of the fœderal system, and not from the interior polity of the States singly.3

The letter from the Delegation by the last post to the Govr. apprised the legislature thro’ him that negociations for a Treaty of Commerce with G. B. might be expected soon to take place and that if any instructions should be deemed proper no time ought to be lost in giving the subject a legislative discussion. For my own part I wish sincerely that the commercial interests of Virginia were thoroughly investigated & the final sense of the State expressed to its representatives in Congress.4

The power of forming Treaties of Commerce with foreign nations is among the most delicate with which Congs. are intrusted, and ought to be exercised with all possible circumspection. Whilst an influence might be expected from them on the event or duration of the war, the public interest required that they should be invited with all the respectable nations of Europe, and that nice calculations of their tendency should be dismissed. The attainment of the object of the war has happily reversed our situation and we ought no longer to enslave ourselves to the policy of the moment. The State of this Country in relation to the Countries of Europe it ought to be observed, will be continually changing, and regulations adapted to its commercial & general interests at present, may hereafter be directly opposed to them. The general policy of America is at present pointed at the encouragement of Agriculture, and the importation of the objects of consumption. The wid[er] therefore our ports be opened and the more extensive the privileges of all competitors in our Commerce, the more likely we shall be to buy at cheap & sell at profitable rat[es.] But in proportion as our lands become settled, and spare hands for manufactures & navigation multiply, it may become our policy to favor those objects by peculiar privileges, bestowed on our own Citizens; or at least to introduce regulations inconsistent with foreign engagements suited to the present state of things.5

The relative situation of the different States in this respect is another motive to circumspection. The variance of their policy & interests in the article of commerce strikes the first view, and it may with great truth be noted that as far as any concessions may be stipulated in favor of foreign nations they will cheifly be at the expence of those States which will share least in the compensations obtained for them. If for example, restrictions be laid on the Legislative rights of the States to prohibit, to regulate or to tax as they please their imports & exports, & to give such preferences as they please to the persons or vessels employed in them, it is evident that such restrictions will be most felt by those States whi[ch] have the greatest interest in exports & imports. If on the other side the Citizens of the U.S. should in return for such a stipulation be [ob]l[ig]ed to navigate & carry, in forbidden channels, is it not equally evident [that] the benefit must fall to the share of those States which export & consume least, and abound most in resources of ships & seamen.6

Nor should it be overlooked that as uniform regulations of the Commerce of the different States, will so differently affect their different interests, such regulations must be a strong temptation to measures in the aggrieved States which may first involve the whole confederacy in controversies with foreign nations, and then in contests with one another. I may safely suggest also to your ear, that a variety of circumstances make it proper to recollect that permanent engagements entered into by the Confederacy with foreign powers, may survive the Confederacy itself;7 that a question must then arise how far such engagements formed by the States in their fœderal character are binding on each of them separately, and that they may become pretexts for quarrels with particular States, very inconvenient for the latter, or for a general intrusion into American disputes. On the other hand candor suggests that foreign connections, if founded on principles equally corresponding with the policy & interests of the several States might be a new bond to the fœderal compact.

Upon these considerations I think it would be advisable to form all our commercial Treaties in future with great deliberation, to limit their duration to moderate periods, & to restrain our Ministers from acceding finally to them till they shall have previously transmitted them in the terms adjusted, for the revision & express sanction of Congress. In a Treaty of Commerce with G. B. it may be the policy of Virga. in particular to reserve her right as unfettered as possible over her own commerce. The monopoly which formerly tyrannized over it,8 has left wounds which are not yet healed, & the numerous d[eb]ts due from the people, & which by the provisional articles they are immediately liable for, may possibly be made instruments for reestablishing their dependence.9 It cannot therefore be for the interest of the State to preclude it from any regulations which experience may recommend for its thorough emancipation. It is possible that experience may never recommend an exercise of this right, nor do my own sentiments favor in general, any restrictions or preferences in matters of commerce, but those who succeed us will have an equal claim to judge for themselves and will have further lights to direct their judgments. Nor ought the example of old & intelligent nations to be too far or too hastily condemned by an infant & inexperienced one. That of G. B. is in the science of commerce particularly worthy of our attention: And did she not originally redeem the management of her Commerce from the monopoly of the Hanse towns by peculiar exemptions to her own subjects? did she not dispossess the Dutch by a like policy? and does she not still make a preference of her own Vessels & her own mariners the basis of her maritime power?10 If Holland has followed a different system the reason is plain. Her object is not to exclude rivals from her own navigation but to insinuate herself into that of other nations.11

The leading objects in the proposed Treaty with G. B. are 1. a direct commerce with the W. Indies. 2. the carrying trade between the different parts of her dominions. 3. a like trade between these & other parts of the world. In return for these objects we have nothing to offer of which we could well deprive her, but to secure to her subjects an entire equality of privileges with our own Citizens.12 With regard to the 1. object it may be observed, that both the temper & the interest of the nation leave us little ground to apprehend an exclusion from it. The French have so much the advantage of them from the facility of raising food as well as the other produce of their Islands, that the English will be under the necessity of admitting supplies from the U.S. into their Islands, and they surely will prefer paying for them in commodities to paying for them in cash.13 With regard to the 2 & 3 objects it may be observed that altho’ they present great advantages, they present them only to those States which abound in maritime resources. Lastly with regard to the concession to be made on the part of the U.S. [it] may be observed that it will affect cheifly, if not solely, those States which will share least in the advantages purchased by it. So striking indeed does this contrast appear that it may with certainty be inferred that If G. B. were negociating a Treaty with the former States only, she would reject a mutual communication of the privileges of natives, nor is it clear that her apprehensions on this side, will not yet lead her to reject such a stipulation with the whole.14

If this subject should be taken up by the Legislature, I hope that altho’ not a member, your attention & aid will be given to it. If it sh. not be taken up publickly, I wish for your own private sentiments & those of the most intelligent members which you may be able to collect.15

We have no European intelligence. Sr. G. Carlton in a letter to [Gel.] W. avows the same sentiments as were expressed in the conference relative [to the] negroes, but repeats his caution agst. their being understood as the national construction of the Treaty.16

I send you herewith three more copies of the pamphlet of Congress which I have procured since my last.17 If Majr. Moore18 & Mr. F. Strother19 sd. be in the Assembly, I beg the favor of you to present one with my compliments to each of them. The third you will dispose of as you may think best.

In reviewing the freedom of some of the remarks which I have hazarded above, I am almost induced to recall them till I can cover them with [cyph]er.20 As there is little danger attending the mail at present, and your own [discretion?] will take care of such as may be improper to be reverberated to this place, I shall upon the whole let them stand.


3Randolph to JM, 24 May; 14, 21, and 28 June; Jones to JM, 25 and 31 May; 8, 14, 21, and 28 June; Pendleton to JM, 2 June 1783; James Mercer to John Francis Mercer, 6, 21 May, 4 June 1783, Va. Mag. Hist. and Biog., LIX (1951), 97–99, 100–102, 185–86.

4Delegates to Harrison, 13 May, ed. n.; Instruction to Delegates, 23–24 May 1783. JM’s comments in the present letter reflect the prominence of commercial treaties in the proceedings of Congress for over a month. On 12 April JM became chairman of a committee instructed to report on the general problem of commercial treaties and on the particular issue of negotiating one of them with Russia. The report on Russia drafted by FitzSimons, a member of the committee, was submitted on 22 April, debated on 21 May, and superseded the next day by proposals made during the debate (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXIV, 267, and n. 11; 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, 453, nn. 3, 7; JM Notes, 21–22 May; Instruction to Dana, 22 May 1783). On 6 May Congress transferred the other assignment of this committee to a new committee which also was to submit a plan of a treaty with Great Britain and “instructions to the minister for negotiating it” (JM Notes, 6 May, and n. 3; JM to Jefferson 6 May 1783, and n. 7). For JM’s earlier views of commercial treaties, 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 , V, 476; VI, 452.

5JM underlined “may.” Article IX of the Articles of Confederation conferred upon Congress “the sole and exclusive right and power” to enter into treaties, “provided that no treaty of commerce shall be made whereby the legislative power of the respective states shall be restrained from imposing such imposts and duties on foreigners, as their own people are subjected to, or from prohibiting the exportation or importation of any species of goods or commodities whatsoever.” Article VI forbade the states to lay any imposts or duties which traversed the stipulations of a commercial treaty with France or those of a proposed treaty with Spain (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XIX, 216, 217).

Although JM necessarily had these provisions in mind, his discussion centers upon the place of commercial treaties in shaping the peacetime foreign policies of the United States and as being shaped by the divergent economic interests of the thirteen states. Even if free trade were beneficial to an agricultural nation, the rise of American manufacturers and shipping might make protective tariffs and preferential tonnage duties desirable. Because of changes to be anticipated in both international and interstate economic relationships, the provisions of a commercial treaty should be applicable during a short term only.

6JM had often stressed the prime interest of the New England states in shipping and hence in high freight rates as opposed to the need of the southern states to market their surplus staples overseas as inexpensively as possible. 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, 287; 288, n. 16; 290–92; 298–99; 431, n. 2.

7Ibid., IV, xviii–xix; 6–7; 56, 57, n. 7; V, xviii–xix; VI, 258, n. 4; 293, n. 15; 327; 392; 429.

9Papers 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, 47; 48, n. 4; 340; 341, n. 5; 370; 416; 418, n. 10; 422–23; 439; 458, n. 3; Randolph to JM, 15 May, and n. 5; JM Notes, 19 May 1783, and n. 1.

10In 1578 Queen Elizabeth of England had abolished the special privileges which merchants of the Hanse towns (Hamburg, Lübeck, Bremen, etc.) had enjoyed in the “Steelyard” of London for over three centuries (W[illiam] Cunningham, The Growth of English Industry and Commerce during the Early and Middle Ages [reprint of 5th ed.; New York, 1968], p. 195; W. Cunningham, The Growth of English Industry and Commerce in Modern Times [reprint of 4th ed.; New York, 1968], p. 74). The English Navigation Acts, enacted by Parliament in the third quarter of the seventeenth century and still in force in 1783, had been directed mainly against the Dutch. The Anglo-Dutch naval wars of 1652–54, 1665–67, and 1672–74 largely resulted from their rivalry in trade and navigation.

11Ibid., pp. 7–8, 675, n. 4; Pierre Daniel Huet, A View of the Dutch Trade in all the States, Empires and Kingdoms in the World (trans. from the French; 2d ed.; London, 1722), pp. 13, 17, 19, 32; George Masselman, The Cradle of Colonialism (New Haven, 1963), pp. 30, 44–69, 468–69. These references support JM’s generalization. The Dutch premise, as Huet expressed it, was that trade “has not any Enemy so Mortal as Constraint.” Producing little from their own soil, the Dutch were obliged to secure the raw materials for their manufacturing industries from the sea, foreign countries, or their own colonies. Obviously, therefore, they favored free trade. To “insinuate” themselves into the carrying trade, they charged lower freight rates than their rivals.

12JM Notes, 6 May, and n. 3; JM to Jefferson, 13 May, and nn. 6, 7; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXIV, 320–21, 404. See also 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 , IV, 476, and nn. 2, 3; 477, nn. 4, 5.

13JM was overly sanguine in expecting Great Britain, because her West Indian islands were not self-sufficient in food, to allow foreigners to trade with them. 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, 334; 337, n. 13; 340; 356; 357, n. 17.

14Great Britain’s desire to be again the principal market for American agricultural staples, produced mainly in the South, and to pay for them with her manufactured goods might induce her to permit American merchantmen to engage in her carrying trade, both between her colonies and the mother country and between them and foreign countries. If so, the southern states would be the cause but not the beneficiary of a concession chiefly advantageous to New England.

15Randolph apparently did not accede to JM’s request (Randolph to JM, 14, 21, and 28 June).

18For William Moore, a member of the House of Delegates from Orange County, 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 , I, 147; 148, n. 2.

19French Strother (1733–1800) of Culpeper County served as a member of the Virginia Convention of 1776, of the House of Delegates from 1776 to 1791, and of the Senate of the Virginia General Assembly from 1791 to 1800. He was also a member of the Convention of 1788 in Virginia which ratified the Federal Constitution. In 1783 he owned 26 slaves (Va. Herald [Fredericksburg], 4 July 1800; Swem and Williams, Register description begins Earl G. Swem and John W. Williams, eds., A Register of the General Assembly of Virginia, 1776–1918, and of the Constitutional Conventions (Richmond, 1918). description ends , pp. 1–54, passim, 242, 243; Augusta B. Fothergill and John Mark Naugle, comps., Virginia Tax Payers, 1782–87, Other Than Those Published by the United States Census Bureau [n.p., 1940], p. 121). JM and Strother probably became friends when they were fellow members of the Convention of 1776, as they held similar views on religious liberty.

20JM had encoded the paragraph in his letter of 13 May 1783 to Jefferson (q.v.) relating to the proposed treaty of commerce with Great Britain. In that communication, however, he had not clearly signified that he was expressing his own views of the subject.

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