To James Monroe
Richmond Decr. 17–1785
Since my last by the preceding post the fate of the Assize laws has been determined by a negative in the H. of Delegates on the Bill on which its execution depended. The majority consisted of 63 agst. 49. A reform of the County Courts is the substitute proposed by the adversaries of the Assize, and if it can be put into any rational shape, will be received by the other side as auxiliary to the Assize plan which may be resumed at another Session.1 It is surmised that the Senate will not part with this plan in any event, and as the law passed at the last Session, unless repealed or suspended, stops the proceedings of the Genl. Court after the 1st. day of Jany. a bill must be sent to the Senate which will give them an opportunity of proposing some amendment which may revive the question at the present Session.2 Our progress in the Revisal has been stopped by the waste of time produced by the inveterate and prolix opposition of its adversaries & the approach of Christmas. The Bill proportioning crimes & punishments was the one at which we stuck after wading thro’ the most difficult parts of it.3 A few subsequent bills however were excepted from the postponement. Among these was the Bill for establishing Religious freedom, which has got thro’ the H. of Delegates without alteration, though not without warm opposition. Mr. Mercer & Mr. Corbin were the principal combatants against it. Mr. Jones is well. With sincerity I am Yr. affe. friend
J. Madison Jr.
RC (DLC). Cover addressed by JM. Docketed by JM and by several unknown hands. Misdated 17 Dec. 1784 in calendar of “Letters from J. M. [to] Mr. Monroe.”
1. The Assize bill providing for a circuit court system passed at the Oct. 1784 session but was not to become operative until 1 Jan. 1786. “Adversaries of the Assize” feared a lessening of their control over local political matters and kept the advocates of legal reform at bay through substitute bills and other devices until a suspension act was passed in 1786, and a total repeal in 1787 (Hening, Statutes description begins William Waller Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619 (13 vols.; Richmond and Philadelphia, 1819–23). description ends , XI, 421 n.).
2. This letter is printed, from the words “Our progress …” to the end of the text, under the date 17 Dec. 1784, 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 , I, 114.
3. The discipline JM tried to maintain in the House of Delegates finally broke when his opponents took advantage of uneasiness over bill 64 on Jefferson’s original catalogue of 126 revised statutes. JM undertook the burden of guiding the Revised Code through the General Assembly, beginning on 31 Oct. Among the important bills passed before the tacticians stopped further action were the act regulating elections for the General Assembly and a law covering the troublesome problem of wills and intestate estates (Hening, Statutes description begins William Waller Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619 (13 vols.; Richmond and Philadelphia, 1819–23). description ends , XII, 120–29, 140–54). JM’s power crested about one week after the admiring delegate from Botetourt County, Archibald Stuart, reported JM was in complete control of the House. “Can you suppose it possible that Madison should shine with more than usual splendor [in] this Assembly. It is sir not only possible but a fact. He has astonished mankind & has by means perfectly constitutional become almost a Dictator upon all subjects that the House have not so far prejudged as to shut their Ears from Reason & armed their minds from Conviction. His influence alone has hitherto overcome the impatience of the house & carried them half thro the Revisd. Code altho motions are daily made to leave the ballance of the Business to another assembly” (Stuart to John Breckinridge, 7 Dec. 1785 [DLC: Breckinridge Family Papers]). On 15 Dec. the House voted to end its labors on the rest of the code and JM’s influence rapidly declined. A somewhat bitter Stuart later observed (after he had been found ineligible for his seat) that the House of Delegates “was upon the whole the most Stupid navish & designing Assembly that ever sat in this or I believe in any other Country—& as … [a] proof of this I need urge no other Argument with you but that Madison after the three first weeks lost all weight in the House, & the general Observation was that, those who had a favorite scheme ought to get Madison to oppose it, by which means it would certainly be carried” (Stuart to Breckinridge, 26 Jan. 1786 [ibid.]).