James Madison Papers

From James Madison to James Monroe, 28 April 1785

To James Monroe

Orange Apl. 28. 1785

Dear Sir

I have written several letters within a little time past which were Sent to you partly by the post, partly by Mr. Burnley,1 a young Gentleman of this County. In one of the latter I inclosed a Cypher2 wch. will serve all the purposes of our future Correspondence. This covers a letter for Mr. Jefferson3 which you will be so good as to forwd. by the first packet or other equally eligible conveyance. Our Elections as far as I hear are likely to produce a great proportion of new members. In some Counties they are influenced by the Bill for a Genl. Assesst. In Culpeper Mr. Pendleton a worthy man & acceptable in his general character to the people was laid aside in consequence of his vote for the Bill, in favour of an Adversary to it.4 The Delegates for Albemarle are your friend Mr. W. C. Nicholas & Mr. Fry.5 Mr. Carter stood a poll but fell into the rear. The late Govr. Harrison I am told has been baffled in his own County, meant to be a candidate for Surry & in case of a rebuff there to throw another die for the Borough of Norfolk. I do not know how he proposes to satisfy the doctrine of residence.6

I hear frequent complaints of the disorders of our Coin & the wan[to]f uniformity in the denomination of the States. Do not Congress think of a remedy for these evils? The regulation of weights & measure seem also to call for their attention. Every day will add to the difficulty of executing these works. If a mint be not established & a recoinage effected while the fœderal debts carry the money thro’ the hands of Congress I question much whether their limited powers will ever be able to render this branch of their prerogative effectual. With regard to the regulation of weights & measures, wd. it not be highly expedient as well as honorable to the fœderal administration, to pursue the hint which has been suggested by ingenious & philosophical men, to wit, that the standard of measure sd. be first fixed by the length of a pendulum vibrating seconds at the Equator or any given latitude—& that the Standard of weight sd. be a Cubical piece of Gold or other homogeneous body of dimensions fixed by the standard of measure.7 Such a scheme appears to be easily reducible to practice; & as it is founded on the division of time which is the same at all times & in all places & proceeds on other data which are equally so, it would not only secure a perpetual uniformity throughout the U. S. but might lead to Universal standards in these matters among nations. Next to the inconveniency of speaking different languages, is that of using different & arbitrary weights & measures. I am Dr. Sir Yr. affece. friend

J. Madison Jr.

RC (DLC). Addressed and docketed by JM.

1Hardin Burnley, son of Zachariah and Mary Burnley (VMHB description begins Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. description ends , XXXVII [1929], 350).

2This is the “8 May 1785” code used by JM and Monroe. JM sent it in his 12 Apr. 1785 letter to Monroe, and Monroe first used it in his 8 May letter to JM.

4James Pendleton (1735–1793) represented Culpeper in both the House of Burgesses and the House of Delegates, was a colonel in the Revolution and high sheriff of the county (Katherine C. Gottschalk and John B. C. Nicklin, “The Pendleton Family,” VMHB description begins Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. description ends , XXXIX [1931], 283–84). Henry Fry unseated him in the 1785 election (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. 19, 21, 417).

5Wilson Cary Nicholas (1761–1820) represented Albemarle in the House of Delegates in 1784, 1785, and in the convention of 1788 to ratify the Constitution. He served in the legislature in 1789, 1790, and from 1794 to 1799, when he became a U. S. senator. From 1804 to 1807 he was collector of customs for Norfolk and Portsmouth. He was elected to the 10th and 11th Congresses as a representative, and from 1814 to 1816 he was governor of Virginia (Grigsby, Virginia Convention of 1788, II, 299–360). Joshua Fry (b. 1760), the son of Col. John Fry and grandson of Col. Joshua Fry, defeated Edward Carter (WMQ description begins William and Mary Quarterly. description ends , 1st ser., X [1902], 258–59; Magazine of Albemarle County History, XIII [1953], 23; 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 , p. 19).

6Benjamin Harrison’s “own County” where John Tyler was also a resident was Charles City. He succeeded in Surry County, but the election was contested in the House on the grounds of nonresidence and he barely kept his seat by a margin of six votes (JHDV 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 is the one in which the journals for 1777–1786 are brought together in two volumes, with each journal published in Richmond in either 1827 or 1828 and often called the “Thomas W. White reprint.” description ends , Oct. 1785, pp. 12, 19, 21).

7Sir Isaac Newton was certainly one of the “ingenious & philosophical men” JM had in mind. It is likely that JM and Jefferson had discussed the need for uniformity in weights and measurements before the latter left for Europe. Jefferson alluded to Newton’s calculation on pendulum when he drew up his observations on coinage, weights, and measures which Boyd fixes as having been drafted around Mar. 1784 (Papers of Jefferson, VII, 173–74). Congress took up the matter on 19 Aug. 1785, when Rufus King introduced a motion calling for a report fixing standard weights and measures by the treasury board (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXIX, 647 n.). Nothing concrete was accomplished, however, and the problem was still acute when the Federal Convention met in Philadelphia. Randolph’s draft, which he prepared for the Committee of Detail, contained a provision that placed the regulation of weights and measures among the specified powers of Congress (Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 [4 vols.; New Haven, 1911–37], IV, 44). For decades Congress took no official action, however, so that only the weights and measures specified by various local ordinances and state laws were reliable standards. Finally, exactly two weeks before JM died, Congress passed on 14 June 1836 a joint resolution that sanctioned the use of the existing English standard weights and measures in interstate commerce.

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