James Madison Papers

To James Madison from James Monroe, 31 May 1786

From James Monroe

New York May 31. 1786.

Dear Sir

Since my last a letter has been recd. from Mr. Jay to the following effect “that difficulties had taken place in his negotiation with Gardoqui & requesting that a Committee be appointed with power1 to direct & controul the sd. negotiation.” It was immediately perciev’d that the object was to relieve him from the instruction respecting Missisipi & to get a committee to cover2 the measure. That this wod. be thus brought forward I was appriz’d upon my first arrival here in the winter, & have been acquainted with all the previous arrangements, those in favr. of it found necessary to make, to prepare for its reception—his plan is, from evidence conclusive on my own mind; not to be simply quiet as to that object but to enter into engagments, at least for a certain term, for its occlusion & further to enter into a reciprocal guaranty of their respective possessions in3 America; in consideration for which we are to be admitted reciprocally, they into our ports here & we into theirs in Europe, upon an equal footing with our citizens & subjects respectively. What we are to gain on our part then simply is, the aid of this power in favor of the posts & this commercial stipulation. When the letter was presented Mr. King who is associated in this business in a long speech in which he took a view of the insidious designs of France in the late treaty especially, & of the little dependence to be put on her in future, made a tryal of the pulse of the house on the subject. The letter was committed, Pettit,4 King & myself are of the committee—as yet the Committee have not met, to morrow they will.5 Jay will attend it. From the best investigation that I have been able to give the subject I am of opinion that it will be for the benefit of the U S. that the river6 shod. be opend that although we may not be in a situation, nor even think of it for the present, to contest it, yet if we enter’d into engagements to the contrary, we seperate those people I mean all those westward of the mountains from the federal government & perhaps throw them into the hands eventually of a foreign power.7 That under the direction of Congress the produce of that country will be in trade the source of great national wealth & strength to the U S. That a reciprocal guaranty stipulates an important consideration to them without a return. That whether it may not tend to weaken the connection between us & France is doubtful. That the commercl. engagment will operate upon its own merits only to the disadvantage of the U S. I remember upon a former occasion, unconnected with objects & considerations of this kind to have remarked to you—after the publick debt is pd. (& if the western land is properly dispos’d of, great part of it will be pd. shortly) the situation of these States will be such as to make it unnecessary for them to lay such duties on the trade of their citizens as the expensive civil & military establishments of the European countries will require. The duties of our citizens & their subjects in our respective ports will of course be unequal, ours depress’d with the weight of their govt. & theirs entitled to all the benefits which arise from our ease & happy situation. If we knew precisely the duties impos’d on our trade by our citizens in their ports, we might put their subjects on equal footing here. The indulgence then given to our people in our ports arising from the ease of our circumstances, superior to that wh. the subjects of other countries can possibly obtain, wod. be a manifest advantage which might enable them to improve their circumstances. Tobo8 I am also inform’d is to be excluded from the benefit (if it can be term’d such) of this treaty.9 I am clearly of opinion that Spain is of all the powers of Europe the most in our hands. That for a guaranty we might obtain not only the points in contest but whatever else we wish’d.10 But such is the folly of our councils & the vice of those who govern them in many instances, that the real blessings of our situation in those few cases which exist, cannot be turn’d to any publick advantage. Petit who is always here & the influencial man from Pennsylvania is a speculator in certificates. He came forward under the patronage of Reid11 with impressions entirely Eastern and the opposition given the requisition last year by the delegation of Virginia has given him an opinion that she wishes to defraud the publick creditors. The evidence of her payments, of passing the requisition upon terms unfavorable to her, of her honest & federal attachments, are no proof to him. He always acts under this impression & the utmost prudence, good temper (personally), and assurance on the part of the delegation cannot remove it. His State therefore can generally be calculated on in favor of all the measures of Massachusets, who is always zealous upon all subjects of old emission money, publick securities &ca. She always hath some influence with Delaware & Jersey; King hath married a woman of fortune in New York so that if he secures a market for fish and turns the commerce of the western country down this river12 he obtains his object.13

We have not as yet brought on the claims of the State, we shall do it in a few days. I am thoroughly satisfied they will be rejected—all the expences of Ld. Dunmore’s expedition although precisely on the same footing with the first campaign at Boston will be thrown on the State.14 Yet Mass: hath (& did in the close of that campaign) draw money to defray its expences. It appears to me as if the State debt wod. never be settled and if it is, upon terms highly disadvantageous to us. That the certificate debt will be press’d only untill by the operation of the facility system most of the securities are mov’d southwd., after which it will be given up. We shall however bring the subject on shortly, and upon the fairest principles for the State, in the event of a decision agnst her, put her pretensions on the journals. Many of these questions you will observe are as important as they are intricate. That to a wise decision as to the expedience, the greatest industry & ability in their managment will be necessary. I must confess I have little hope that they will take a direction agreeably to my own impressions of propriety. One great advantage is, that the delegation are in genl. in sentiment, & act together—but there are such powerful combinations agnst us, supported by & founded in considerations of private interest, that I almost despair. What effect these measures may have, especially in the instances of the tobo15 & our accts., upon the State I cannot determine. Whether they may extend their influence to other objects than those they particularly affect, is incertain; fully persuaded however I am that they will give arguments to those oppos’d to an extension of foederal powers of greater weight than any they have had before. I most sincerely wish you may come up and that if you shall not be able you will give me yr. sentiments fully on these subjects. I am yr. friend & servant

Jas. Monroe

RC (DLC). The italicized words, unless otherwise noted, are those encoded by Monroe with the code JM sent him on 14 Apr. 1785. JM interlined his decoding in the Ms.

1Miscoded as outwer.

2Miscoded as covmay, but corrected by JM.

3Miscoded as ui, but corrected by JM.

4Coded as Pit, but Monroe certainly meant Charles Pettit who was on the committee with King and himself (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXX, 323). See n. 5 below.

5Congress commissioned Jay on 20 July 1785 to negotiate a treaty with Gardoqui. On 25 Aug. a committee headed by Monroe instructed Jay “to stipulate the right of the United States to their territorial bounds, and the free Navigation of the Mississippi, from the source to the Ocean, as established in their Treaties with Great Britain”; and Jay was neither to conclude nor sign any treaty “until he hath previously communicated it to Congress, and received their approbation” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXIX, 658). Upon Monroe’s arrival at Congress in December 1785, conversations with Jay made it clear that Jay had agreed with Gardoqui to postpone the issue of the Mississippi in order to discuss a commercial treaty. He found that Jay already had formulated the terms on which he would agree, upon condition that the U.S. would “forbear” the use of the Mississippi for twenty-five or thirty years. From Monroe’s viewpoint, Jay was sacrificing the right of navigation in exchange for a commercial treaty worthless to the southern states, thereby “defeating the object of his instructions.” At the time of their discussion Jay had expressed doubt that Congress would approve of the direction of the negotiations and thought it expedient to request appointment of a committee to which he would be responsible in the negotiations, instead of the whole Congress. Monroe said he “then reminded him of the instructions from our State respecting the Mississippi to the delegation and of the impossibility of their concurring in any measures of the Kind.… From that time, and I had reason to believe he had begun even before my arrival, we have known of his intriguing with the members to carry the point” (Monroe to Gov. Patrick Henry, 12 Aug. 1786, Burnett, Letters description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (8 vols.; Washington, 1921–36). description ends , VIII, 422–25). Jay made his request for a special committee (which would thus indirectly release him from his instructions) in a letter submitted to Congress on 31 May. The letter was committed to Rufus King, Charles Pettit, and Monroe, who on 1 Aug. referred it to a Committee of the Whole, thereby initiating a debate in Congress that raged through the rest of August (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXX, 323; XXXI, 457).

The controversy exposed a sectional rift. Southerners viewed the free navigation of the Mississippi as essential to western development, while northerners were chiefly concerned with expanding oceanborne commerce. The main argument supporting Jay’s proposition was Gardoqui’s instructions stipulating that under no conditions was he to relinquish Spain’s exclusive right to the navigation of the Mississippi. In a letter of 25 May Gardoqui reiterated that the navigation of the river was not negotiable, that the country east of the Mississippi belonged to Spain by conquest, and that the U.S. would act wisely in admitting these rights to Spain. This was the price for maintaining Spain’s friendly disposition toward the U.S. and taking advantage of Spain’s offer of a commercial treaty and territorial guarantee (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXXI, 469–72).

Since neither agent was empowered to yield the point of navigation, Jay negotiated around the issue and drafted what he thought was an advantageous commercial treaty at the expense of surrendering the use of the Mississippi for a term of years—a concession which almost certainly would lead to war. Jay’s bias was eastern and commercial, for he had little knowledge or experience of the western territory. The eastern states were as fearful that the populating and developing of the West would be forwarded at their expense as the South was of the eastern plans to inhibit western growth (Monaghan, John Jay, pp. 255–60; Samuel Flagg Bemis, Pinckney’s Treaty: A Study of America’s Advantage from Europe’s Distress, 1783–1800 [Baltimore, 1926], pp. 98–100).

On 1 June, Rufus King wrote Elbridge Gerry that Jay “accords with my sentiments.” King expressed his ideas to Gerry in a letter dated 4 June, saying that “should there be an uninterrupted use of the Mississippi at this time by the Citizens of the U.S. I should consider every emigrant to that country from the Atlantic States as forever lost to the Confederacy.” He dwelt on the commercial benefits to be gained by such a treaty as Jay proposed. King’s speech of 31 May must have alluded to the negotiations of the peace treaty, in which Vergennes supported Spain’s claims to the American West, exclusive control of the Mississippi, and a share in the Newfoundland fisheries. King’s object probably was to suggest that French support was questionable and thus that an amicable treaty with Spain would be to America’s advantage. As Jay put it to Congress on 3 Aug. 1786, “we are well apprized of the sentiments of France relative to our Western Claims; in which I include that of freely navigating the river Mississippi. I take it for granted that, while the [family] compact [between France and Spain] in question exists, France will invariably think it her interest to prefer the good will of Spain to the good will of America; and altho’ she would very reluctantly give umbrage to either, yet, if driven to take part with one or the other, I think it would not be in our favour. Unless we are friends with Spain, her influence, whether more or less, on the Counsels of Versailles, will always be against us” (Burnett, Letters description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (8 vols.; Washington, 1921–36). description ends , VIII, 379, 380–82; Bemis, Pinckney’s Treaty, pp. 19, 25, 38–43; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXXI, 473–74).

6Miscoded as rivmay, but corrected by JM.

7Monroe’s fears of alienating the westerners proved well founded. News of the Jay-Gardoqui treaty made the situation in the West ripe for the agitation of ambitious men like James Wilkinson, who began conspiring late in 1786 with Spanish officials to separate Kentucky from the U.S. and to ally the area with Spain (Whitaker, Spanish-American Frontier, pp. 96–98).

8In a previously printed copy of this letter the cipher was decoded erroneously as “Great Britain” (Stanislaus Murray Hamilton, ed., The Writings of James Monroe … [7 vols.; New York & London, 1898–1903], I, 134).

9The treaty was to establish commercial reciprocity between the two nations. American manufactures and products, except tobacco, were to be admitted to Spain and the Canaries on an equal footing with Spanish goods (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXXI, 477).

10A primary factor influencing the Spanish in the negotiations was their anxiety over the rapid growth of the West. Spanish officials in America, worried over the increased activity of Americans in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, brought pressure upon Floridablanca to take restrictive measures. Consequently, in 1784, Floridablanca blocked the Mississippi and initiated negotiations (through Gardoqui) for an accommodation with the U.S. The goal was to stifle the western settlements and thus to prevent a resurgence of contraband trade and the encroachment on Spanish territory by American settlers. The object of the negotiations was a mutual guarantee of boundaries which would protect Spanish possessions against American expansion. The commercial treaty was a lure held out to the northern interests by the Spanish to gain their own ends. Monroe’s assessment of the Spanish position was accurate as to their vulnerability and desire for a territorial guarantee. The boundaries were negotiable; the navigation of the Mississippi was not. However, Monroe was wrong in thinking the U.S. could gain “the points in contest.” The Mississippi blockade was an essential measure in the Floridablanca policy at this time (Whitaker, Spanish-American Frontier, pp. 63–68, 72).

11Charles Pettit was related to Joseph Reed through his marriage to Reed’s half-sister Sarah. The two men were partners in land speculation, as well as close friends. Upon Reed’s death in 1785, Pettit was elected to take his seat in Congress (John F. Roche, Joseph Reed: A Moderate in the American Revolution [New York, 1957], p. 5 and passim).

12Miscoded as rivmay, but corrected by JM.

13Rufus King (1755–1827) on 30 Mar. 1786 had married Mary Alsop, only child of John Alsop, a wealthy New York merchant. The couple kept company among fashionable New York society. Monroe obviously believed that King’s marriage and resulting New York connections would heighten his interest in closing the Mississippi, thus forcing western commerce to flow eastward along the Mohawk and Hudson rivers. Monroe’s taunt about King’s interest in fish was founded on fact. King wrote to Elbridge Gerry on 13 Aug. that “our Fish, and every article we sell in Spain, is sold upon the Footing of the most favored nation in that country—this is favor, and not right. Should we embarrass ourselves in the attempts of imprudent men to navigate the mississippi below the northern boundary of Florida, we can expect no favors from the Spanish Government. England is our Rival in the Fisheries, France does not wish us prosperity in this branch of commerce. If we embroil ourselves with Spain, what have we to expect on this subject?” (Burnett, Letters description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (8 vols.; Washington, 1921–36). description ends , VIII, 425–26). King’s recent biographer thought that “King’s acceptance by the controlling families of the city made him a more effective delegate to Congress, At ease among lawyers and merchants, he found support for his defense of mercantile interests.” King moved to New York City in 1789 because of his connections and brighter political prospects there (Robert Ernst, Rufus King: American Federalist [Chapel Hill, 1968], pp. 6, 65–66, 68–69; DAB description begins Dictionary of American Biography. description ends , X, 398–400).

14The Virginia delegation does not appear to have brought the state’s claim for federal reimbursement forward at this time. By Rufus King’s motion on 9 Aug. the subject of state accounts with the U.S. was revived. Lord Dunmore’s expedition wrought great destruction in and around Norfolk during 1775–1776. Combined forces under Col. William Woodford and Col. Robert Howe from Virginia and North Carolina were sent to drive Dunmore out of Norfolk and prevent his ships from obtaining supplies along the coast (Wertenbaker, Norfolk [1962 ed.], pp. 54–68).

15Erroneously decoded as “British debt” in Hamilton, ed., The Writings of James Monroe, I, 136.

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