James Madison Papers

From James Madison to James Madison, Sr., 8 September 1783

To James Madison, Sr.

RC (LC: Madison Papers). Docketed by James Madison, Sr., “Sep 8 1783.” Cover missing.

Philada. Sepr. 8. 1783.

Hond Sir

Mr. Jones & myself being here transacting some private business which brought us from Princeton the end of last week, I here receive[d] your letter of the 22d. ulto.1 The favorable turn of my Mothers state of health is a source of great satisfaction to me, and will render any delay in my sitting out for Virga. the less irksome to me.2 I shall return to Princeton tomorrow; my final leaving of which will depend on events, but can not now be at any very great distance.3 On a view of all circumstances I have judged it most prudent not to force Billey back to Va. even if could be done; and have accordingly taken measures for his final separation from me.4 I am persuaded his mind is too thoroughly tainted to be a fit companion for fellow slaves in Virga. The laws here do not admit of his being sold for more than 7 years.5 I do not expect to get near the worth of him; but cannot think of punishing him by transportation merely for coveting that liberty for which we have paid the price of so much blood, and have proclaimed so often to be the right, & worthy the pursuit, of every human being.6

We have no later advices from Europe than when I wrote by Merry Walker.7

1James Madison, Sr.’s letter of 22 August 1783 to JM has not been found. Cashing bills of exchange from Jacquelin Ambler was at least part of the “business” (Jones to JM, 4 Aug.; JM to Randolph, 8 Sept. 1783).

2For his “Mothers state of health,” see JM to James Madison, Sr., 30 Aug. 1783, and citations in n. 1.

3Jefferson to JM, 7 May, n. 19. If JM left Philadelphia on 9 September, he probably reached Princeton the next day. He did not vote in tallied polls taken in Congress on 10 and 11 September. Although no session on 12 September is recorded in the journal, Congress convened and JM probably attended, for he was appointed to a committee on that day (NA: PCC, No. 186, fol. 123). There is no doubt that he shared in the deliberations of 13 September (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXV, 542–45, 552–53, 559).

4In 1759 Billey (b. 1759) had been deeded to James Madison, Sr., in trust for JM, then a minor, by JM’s grandmother, Rebecca Catlett Conway Moore, in her will (Va. Mag. Hist. and Biog., LII [1944], 66–67; 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, 396; 398, n. 19).

What “measures” JM had taken have not been discovered. It would appear that under the provisions of the Pennsylvania Emancipation Act of 1780, prudence might have dictated his “registering” Billey and, by establishing the slave’s identity, have safeguarded him against possible false charges of being an “absconding or runaway negroe” returnable to a professed master in a state from which he had allegedly fled (Pa. Packet, 29 Dec. 1779). Presumably such registration would have been entered with the clerk of the Court of Record of the City of Philadelphia; but the present city archivist of Philadelphia states that no such records are in his custody (letter from Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., 17 Dec. 1969). At the same time, an “extended search” undertaken by the curator of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania of pertinent collections in that institution has been no more rewarding (letter from John D. Kilbourne, 26 Jan. 1970). From these facts it is at least inferable that JM took one of two “measures.” He may have covered Billey’s identity in a bill of sale made out to a Pennsylvanian, probably a Philadelphian, for the six months that the slave’s services would have been legally available if Billey remained in the state, and left the burden of registration to the unknown purchaser. Second, he may have “covenanted” Billey to “personal servitude or apprenticeship” for the legal limit of seven years. In his will, dated 17 September 1787, James Madison, Sr., stated that after he transferred to JM a “good right and title” to Billey, JM “has since sold” the slave (Orange County Court Records, MS in Va. State Library). The word “sold” obviously does not bar the possibility that JM received money for relinquishing his title to Billey by consigning him to a master who kept him as an indentured servant for seven years. In a letter of 6 September 1788, written from New York City to his father, JM made clear, without specifying the place, that he knew where Billey then was (LC: Madison Papers).

5Papers 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, 28, n. 5; 97.

6Ibid., II, 209; 210, n. 1.

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