To Ambrose Madison
Richmond Decr. 15 — 1785
I wrote to my father a day or two ago1 by Col: Burnley2 to which I refer. The principal step since taken by the H. of Delegates has been the rejection of a bill on which the Assize scheme depended. The majority consisted of 63 agst, 49.3 Yesterday the vote of the Speaker decided in the affirmative a resolution to repeal the Act which permits Masters to free their slaves. I hope the bill which must follow on the subject may be less successful. Many who concurred in the Resolution will probably be content finally with some amendment of the law in favor of Creditors.4 Should it prove otherwise this retrograde step with regard to an emancipation will not only dishonor us extremely but hasten the event which is dreaded5 by stimulating the efforts of the friends to it. The residue of the Revisal from No. 65 will be put off, except the Religious Bill and a few others. Leave was given yesterday for a bill in favor of British Creditors, but not without proofs that it will be opposed in every stage of its progress thro’ the House. The price of Tobo. is not much if at all changed. I have nothing to add to my last on that subject which signified my wishes for your going on with your purpose. The low price is the effect of the dearth of money more than of the price in Europe. I inclose a letter from Mr. Smith which you will communicate to brother F. & Capt: Walker, and let them know that I will apply according to its request any remittances to my hands. I have recd. from Capt. W. £4. 10 which will lessen so much his balance. Adieu
J. M. Jr.
Inform Col: F. Taylor that I have got from Dunscomb a written memorandum of the reasons which hinder him from taking cognizance of Col. Ts. acct. and that I found it would be in vain to present his Memorial to the House.
RC (NN). Addressed by JM. Docketed by Ambrose Madison.
1. Letter not found.
2. Zachariah Burnley (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (8 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , I, 148 n. 2, 315, 316 n. 1).
3. JM had introduced the bill amending the Assize Court Act that he had brought forward at the Oct. 1784 session as a judicial reform (Bill for the Establishment of Courts of Assize, 2 Dec. 1784). A manuscript of this amending measure has not been found. JM introduced the bill on 26 Nov.; it was amended by the Committee of the Whole on 12 Dec. and defeated on 13 Dec. (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. 89–90). Carter Henry Harrison and Meriwether Smith were among the opponents of JM’s bill, which entrenched local politicians had consistently opposed. “You have also heard of the fate of the Assize Bill,” Archibald Stuart observed, “by which the work of an Age I may almost say was destroyed by a set of D— Asses” (Stuart to John Breckinridge, 26 Jan. 1786 [DLC: Breckinridge Family Papers]).
4. Brant interprets this to mean that the contest over manumission was economic, not social. Theoretically, creditors of owners who freed their slaves would suffer financial loss, since manumission was tantamount to liquidation of a capital asset (Brant, Madison description begins Irving Brant, James Madison (6 vols.; Indianapolis and New York, 1941–61). description ends , II, 361). However, many of the leading social conservatives of the Harrison coalition voted for repeal of the act. It seems unlikely that concern for creditors in a planter-dominated, pro-debtor legislature was the main motivation behind the attempted repeal. For whatever reasons, the bill to amend the act allowing manumission was rejected without recorded vote on 17 Jan. 1786 (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, p. 145).
5. “The event which is dreaded,” i.e., a general emancipation of slaves. Neither JM nor Jefferson thought this the proper time to forward the cause of emancipation. Jefferson, in commenting on the failure of the Virginia legislature to pass emancipation, said that there were men enough of virtue and talent in the General Assembly to sponsor such an act—“But they saw that the moment for doing it with success was not yet arrived.” Further, an unsuccessful attempt “would only rivet still closer the chains of bondage, and retard the moment of delivery to this oppressed description of men” (Jefferson to Jean Nicolas Démeunier, 26 June 1786, Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (18 vols. to date; Princeton, N. J., 1950——). description ends , X, 62–64). Closer to the political realities in Virginia than Jefferson, JM perceived the complexity of the whole slavery problem. JM’s fears regarding emancipation are elucidated in his note to William Thornton in 1788 on Negro colonization. He viewed the removal of freed Negroes from America as a necessity upon which the fate of the emancipation cause depended. For the happiness and well-being of both society and Negroes, the latter must be wholly incorporated into the former. And this JM viewed as impossible because of white prejudice based on color. Meanwhile the insidious presence of freedmen inhibited masters from freeing more of their slaves and made the continuance of existing manumission laws precarious (Gaillard Hunt, “William Thornton and Negro Colonization,” American Antiquarian Society, Proceedings, new ser., XXX , 51–52; Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812 [Chapel Hill, 1968], pp. 552–53).