James Madison Papers

From James Madison to James Monroe, 21 June 1785

To James Monroe

Orange 21. June 1785.

Dear Sir

Finding from a letter of Mr. Mazzei that you have never been furnished with a copy of the Bill for establishing the Christian Religion in this State, I now inclose one, regretting that I had taken it for granted that you must have been supplied thro’ some other channel. A very warm opposition will be made to this innovation by the people of the middle and back Counties, particularly the latter. They do not scruple to declare it an alarming usurpation on their fundamental rights and that tho’ the Genl. Assembly should give it the form if they will not give it the validity of a law. If there be any limitation to the power of the Legislature, particularly if this limitation is to be sought in their Declaration of Rights or Form of Government, I own the Bill appears to me to warrant this language of the people.1

A gentleman of credit lately from Kentucky tells me that he fell in with two persons on the Ohio, who were going down the River in the character of Commissrs. from Georgia, authorized to demand from the Spanish Govr. of N. Orleans, the posts within the limits of that State, and a settlement of the boundary in general between it [and the] Spanish possessions. The Gentleman did not see their Commission, but entertains no doubt of their having one. He was informed that two others were joined in it who had taken a different route. Should there be no mistake in this case, you will no doubt be able to get a full account of the Embassy. I would willingly suppose that no State could be guilty either of so flagrant an outrage on the fœderal Constitution, or of so imprudent a mode of pursuing their claims against a foreign Nation.2

I observe in a late Newspaper that the commercial discontents of Boston are spreading to New York and Philada.3 Whether they will reach Virginia or not I am unable to say. If they should, they must proceed from a different interest; from that of the planters, not that of the Merchants. The present system here is as favorable to the latter as it is ruinous to the former. Our trade was never more compleatly monopolised by G. B. when it was under the direction of the British Parliament than it is at this moment: But as our merchants are almost all connected with that Country & that only, and as we have neither ships nor seamen of our own, nor likely to have any in the present course of things, no mercantile complaints are heard. The planters are disatisfied, and with reason, but they enter little into the science of commerce, and rarely of themselves combine in defence of their interests. If any thing could rouse them to a proper view of their situation one might expect it from the contrast of the market here with that of other States. Our Staple has of late been as low as a guinea per Ct. hundred on Rappahannock, and not above 32 or 33/. on James River. The current prices in Philada. during the same period have been 44/. of this currency for tobacco of the latter inspections and in like proportion for that of the former. The prices of imports of every kind in these two markets furnish a contrast equally mortifying to us. I have not had the same information from other States northward of us, but I have little doubt that it would teach us the same lesson. Our planters cannot suffer a loss of less than 50 per Ct. on the Staple of the Country if to the direct loss in the price of the Staple be added their indirect loss in the price of what they purchase with their Staple. It is difficult notwithstanding to make them sensible of the utility of establishing a Philada.* or a Baltimore among ourselves, as one indispensible step towards relief: and the difficulty is not a little increased by the pains taken by the Merchants to prevent such a reformation, and by the opposition arising from local views. I have been told that A[rthur] L4[ee] paved the way to his election in Prince William by promising Dumfries that among other things he would overset the Port Bill. Mr. Jefferson writes me that the Port Bill has been published in all the Gazettes in Europe with the highest approbation every where except in G. B.5 It would indeed be as surprising if she should be in favor of it as it is that any among ourselves should be against it. I see no possibility of engaging other nations in a rivalship with her without some such regulation of our commerce. I am Dr. Sir Yrs. Affecly,

J Madison Jr.

RC (DLC). Cover missing. Docketed by JM. Italicized words, unless otherwise noted, are those encoded by JM using the code he sent Monroe on 14 Apr. 1785.

1JM first wrote, “I own the Bill appears to me to justify this strong language,” then altered it.

2On 5 Nov. 1784 a petition from Thomas Green in behalf of the people of Natchez was presented to the Georgia council and referred to the state assembly. The legislature took action on it in Jan. 1785, and on 3 Feb. 1785 the bill for laying out a district to be called Bourbon County was enacted. Instructions for the persons appointed justices of Bourbon County were drawn up and oaths administered to the four justices present on 8 Feb.: Thomas Green, Nicholas Long, William Davenport, and Nathaniel Christmas. Although other justices were named, these four were the only ones who took part in the negotiations with Spanish officials and seemed to have regarded themselves as special envoys. Green and Davenport went to Natchez via the Ohio and the Mississippi and must have been the two commissioners about whom JM had heard. They arrived at Natchez in June; Long and Christmas, who traveled through Indian country, arrived in Aug. They had been instructed to avoid all circumstances which might lead to conflict with Spain, to exercise their powers only in territory which Spain did not claim, or which Spain relinquished willingly to the Georgia commissioners. However, Green upon his arrival in Natchez exceeded his authority, violated his pacific instructions and demanded surrender of the district by the Spanish commander, and made threats when he was refused. Rumors spread that the commissioners were intending to use force and that George Rogers Clark was to lead an army of 2,500 Kentuckians to rout the Spaniards. Finally Gov. Miró upon orders from Capt.-General Gálvez, viceroy of New Spain, expelled the commissioners. Meanwhile Gardoqui had arrived in New York and protested to Congress the Georgians’ behavior. The affair ended with Congress giving satisfaction to Gardoqui and discomfiture to the Georgians (Edmund C. Burnett, ed., “Papers relating to Bourbon County, Georgia, 1785–1786, I,” AHR description begins American Historical Review. description ends , XV [Oct. 1909], 68–69, 71–72; Arthur P. Whitaker, The Spanish-American Frontier, 1783–1795: The Westward Movement and the Spanish Retreat in the Mississippi Valley [Boston, 1927], pp. 55–57). A state negotiating independently with a foreign power over territorial jurisdiction was an abrogation of the Articles of Confederation, an affront to Congress, and an encroachment upon territory over which Congress had jurisdiction—all abhorrent to JM.

3The “commercial discontents of Boston” were rumored in Virginia but had no basis in fact. Edmund Pendleton in Caroline County told of a spreading rumor that Bostonians had fired on three British ships and sunk them after their masters ignored a warning to clear the harbor (Mays, Papers of Edmund Pendleton, II, 482). Richard Henry Lee received Pendleton’s letter in which the rumor was repeated and set the record aright. “You have been misinformed with respect to the violent proceedings at Boston,” Lee wrote on 10 Oct. 1785, in a letter which Burnett thought might have been addressed to JM (Letters, VIII, 231 and n. 2). As Lee pointed out, both Massachusetts and New Hampshire had passed navigation acts that discriminated against foreign vessels.

4Lee never fulfilled his promise, since he was removed from his seat in the House for holding “a lucrative office under Congress” (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. 16–17).

6It appears that JM placed the asterisk by Philadelphia when he reviewed this some years later. His handwriting for the explanatory note is also of a later date.

Authorial notes

[The following note(s) appeared in the margins or otherwise outside the text flow in the original source, and have been moved here for purposes of the digital edition.]

* by concentrating our Commerce at Alexandria and Norfolk, the object of the Port-Bill6

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