James Madison Papers

From James Madison to James Monroe, 30 December 1785

To James Monroe

Richmond Decr. 30. 1785

Dear Sir,

The past week has been rendered important by nothing but some discussions on the subject of British debts. The bill brought in varied from that which miscarried last year 1. by adding provision in favor of the Creditor for securing payment at the dates of the instalments 2 by annexing a clause empowering the Executive to suspend the operation of the Act in case Congress should notify their wish to that effect. Great difficulty was found in drawing the House into Commte on the subject. It was at length effected on Wednesday. The changes made in the Bill by the Committee are 1. striking out the clause saving the Creditors from the act of limitation which makes the whole a scene of Mockery—2. striking out the provision for securities—3 converting the clause author[iz]ing Congs. to direct a Suspension of the Act, into a clause suspending it, untill Congs. should notify to the Executive that G. B. had complyed with the Treaty on her part, or that they were satisfied with the steps taken by her for evacuating the posts, paying for Negroes and for a full compliance with the Treaty. The sentence underlined was prepared as an amendment to the amendment and admitted by a very small majority only. 4. exonerating the public from responsibility for the payments into the Treasury by British debtors, beyond the real value of the liquidated paper. Since these proceedings of the Committee of the whole, the subject has slept on the table, no one having called for the report. Being convinced myself that nothing can be now done that will not extremely dishonor us, and embarrass Congs. my wish is that the report may not be called for at all.1 In the course of the debates no pains were spared, to disparage the Treaty by insinuations agst. Congs., the Eastern States, and the negociators of the Treaty, particularly J. Adams. These insinuations & artifices explain perhaps one of the motives from which the augmen[ta]tion of the fœderal powers & respectability have been opposed. The Reform of the County Courts has dwindled into directions for going thro’ the docket quarterly, under the same penalties as now oblige them to do their business monthly. The experiment has demonstrated the impracticability of rendering these Courts fit instruments of Justice; and if it had preceded the Assize Question would I think have ensured its success.2 Some wish to renew this question in a varied form, or at least under a varied title; but the Session is too near its period for such an attempt. When it will end I know not. The business depending wd. employ the House till March. A system of navigation and Commercial regulations, for this State alone, is before us and comprizes matter for a Month’s debate. The Compact with Maryd. has been ratified. It was proposed to submit it to Congs. for their sanction, as being within the word Treaty used in the Confederation.3 This was oppd. It was then attempted to transmit it to our Delegates to be by them simply laid before Congs. Even this was negatived by a large Majority. I can add no more without risking the opportunity by the post, except that I remain yr. affec. friend

Js Madison Jr.

RC (DLC). Addressed to Monroe “in Congress.” Docketed by JM.

1The report was not called for and the bill died with the end of the session. JM wrote to Jefferson that the several amendments had rendered the bill so inadequate that its patrons thought it best to let it sleep (JM to Jefferson, 22 Jan. 1786).

2There was an attempt to permit the Courts of Assize Act to go into effect on 1 Jan. 1786, as the law provided, but opponents of this reform measure (which JM had introduced at the Oct. 1784 session) were more anxious for an outright repeal. Archibald Stuart thought the bill “for reforming the county courts” was a ploy to weaken support for the Courts of Assize law. The county court bill was ordered prepared after a supplemental Assize Court bill was defeated on 13 Dec. by a 49–63 vote, with JM voting “aye.” The county court bill was introduced on 19 Dec. and passed the third reading on 28 Dec. “I believe upon a supposition that the County Court system might be amended, by which means many in the House hoped for the sum of 15/ pr Diem which was proposed to be levied off the littigants & paid to the setting magistrates. When this Eutopian scheme fell thro a Majority Could not be procured to repeal the old Law” (Stuart to John Breckinridge, 26 Jan. 1786 [DLC: Breckinridge Family Papers]). The Senate appears to have balked at this heavy expense and the House received the amended county court bill back on 4 Jan., passing it without any per diem provisions (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, 32–36). On the preceding day JM had introduced a bill to keep the Assize Court Act alive. In its new mode, the bill “to suspend the operation of the act … for the establishment of Courts of Assize” passed a third reading on 5 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. 129). After JM left the General Assembly the Assize Court bill was again suspended in 1787, and finally repealed on 5 Jan. 1788 (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, 497). Supporters of the assize, or circuit, courts, were convinced their opponents were more interested in holding on to power in their local courts (where many legislators also served as presiding county justices) than in judicial reform. Stuart noted that in Augusta County “there are now about seven hundred Causes On the Docket” (Stuart to John Breckinridge, 26 Jan. 1786 [DLC: Breckinridge Family Papers]).

3The House journal is silent on this sparring contest between the localists and delegates of JM’s bent, who might have used the Mount Vernon compact as a test case under the sixth article of Confederation: “No two or more states shall enter into any treaty, confederation or alliance whatever between them, without the consent of the United States in Congress assembled, specifying accurately the purposes for which the same is to be entered into, and how long it shall continue.” Presumably, JM led the nationalists in this losing battle.

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