James Madison Papers

From James Madison to James Monroe, 21 June 1786

To James Monroe

Orange June 21th. [st] 1786.

Dear Sir

Your favor of the 31th. ult. did not come to hand till two days ago. As I expect to see you in a short time, I will suspend the full communication of my ideas on the subject of it till I have that pleasure. I cannot however forbear in the mean time expressing my amazement that a thought should be entertained of surrendering the Missisipi and of guarantying the possessions of Spain in1 America. In the first place has not Virga., have not Congress themselves, and the Ministers of Congs. by their orders, asserted the right2 of those who live on the waters of the Missisipi to use it as the high road given by nature to the sea. This being the case, have Congress any more authority to say that the western citizens of Virginia shall not pass thro the capes of Missisipi than to say that her eastern citizens shall not pass thro the capes Henry and Charles.3 It should be remembered that the United States are not now extricating themselves from war a crisis which often knows no law but that of necessity. The measure in question would be a voluntary barter in time of profound peace of the rights of one part of the empire to the interests of another part.4 What would Massachusets say to a proposition for ceding to Britain her right of fishery as the price of some stipulations in favor5 of tobacco.

Again can there be a more shortsighted or dishonorable policy than to concur with Spain in frustrating the benevolent views of nature—to sell the affections of our ultramontane brethren6 to depreciate the richest fund we possess to distrust an ally7 whom we know to be able to befriend us and to have an interest in doing it against the only nation8 whose enmity we can dread, and at the same time to court by the most precious sacrifices the alliance of a nation whose impotency is notorious, who has given no proof of regard for us and the genius of whose government religion & manners unfit them, of all the nations in Christendom for a coalition with this country. Can any thing too, as you well observe, be more unequal than a stipulation which is to open all our ports to her and some only and those the least valuable of hers to us; and which places the commercial freedom of our ports against the fettered regulations of those in Spain.9 I always thought the stipulations with France and Holland of the privileges of the most favoured nation as unequal and only to be justified by the influence which the treaties could not fail to have on the event of the war.10 A stipulation putting Spanish subjects on the same footing with our own citizens is carrying the evil still farther without the same pretext for it; and is the more to be dreaded, as by making her the most favoured nation it would let in the other nations with whom we are now connected to the same privileges, whenever they may find it their interest to make the same compensation for them whilst we have not a reciprocal right to force them into such an arrangement in case our interest should dictate it. A guaranty is if possible still more objectionable. If it be insidious we plunge ourselves into infamy. If sincere, into obligations the extent of which cannot easily be determined. In either case we get farther into the labyrinth of European politics from which we ought religiously to keep ourselves as free as possible.11 And what is to be gained by such a rash step? Will any man in his senses pretend that our territory needs such a safeguard, or that if it were in danger, it is the arm of Spain that is to save it. Viewing the matter in this light I cannot but flatter myself, that if the attempt you apprehend should be made, it will be rejected with becoming indignation. I am less sanguine as to the issue of the other matter contained in your letter. I know the mutual prejudices which impede every overture towards a just & final settlement of claims & accts. I persist in the opinion that a proper & speedy adjustment is unattainable from any Assembly constituted as Congs. is, and acting under the impulse which they must. I need not repeat to you the plan which has always appeared to me most likely to answer the purpose.12 In the mean time, it is mortifying to see the other States or rather their Representatives, pursuing a course which will make the case more & more difficult, & putting arms into the hands of Enemies to every amendment of our federal System. God knows that they are formidable enough in this State, without such an advantage. With it their triumph will be certain & easy. But I have been led much farther already than I proposed, and will only add that I am with the sincerest affection Yr. friend & servt.

Js. M.

The inclosed Tickets belong to a very worthy friend who knows not how to obtain a small prize which they have drawn without giving you the trouble of applying for it. He is apprehensive that the door may be already shut agst. the demand. If it should not you will kind eno’ to call on the proper office, and get the proper certificate. There are but 2 of the Tickets I believe which are entitled to prizes, but as they cannot be distinguished here, it must be done by the Register in the Office.

RC (DLC). Addressed by JM. JM originally had written “June 20th.” which he then changed. The italicized words, unless otherwise noted, are those encoded by JM using the code he sent Monroe on 14 Apr. 1785. Monroe interlined his decoding in the Ms.

1In code ui, but corrected to in by Monroe.

2This word is underscored as well as in code in the Ms.

3Cape Henry and Cape Charles are at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.

4The words rights and interests are underscored as well as in code in the Ms. This question of a contest of interests over the “empire” was made explicit by William Grayson at the Virginia ratifying convention of 1788: “I look upon this as a contest for empire. Our country [Virginia] is equally affected with Kentucky. The southern states are deeply interested in this subject. If the Mississippi be shut up, emigrations will be stopped entirely. There will be no new states formed on the western waters.… This contest of the Mississippi involves this great national contest: That is, whether one part of the continent shall govern the other. The northern states have the majority, and will endeavor to retain it” (Whitaker, Spanish-American Frontier, p. 75; Jonathan Elliot, The Debates in the Several State Conventions, on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, … [4 vols.; Washington, 1836], III, 343).

5JM omitted the code, “414.440,” vor, which Monroe added.

6JM wrote “30,” d, rather than “390.” en.

7New Englanders particularly were distrustful of France after the publication of the Arrêts of August and September 1784, which had placed extra duties on foreign salt fish imported into the French West Indies, and granted a bounty on French fish. The decree of September 1784 in effect prohibited American fish from the French market in the islands (Frederick L. Nussbaum, “The French Colonial Arrêt of 1784,” South Atlantic Quarterly, XXVII [1928], 69, 74). See also Monroe to JM, 31 May 1786 and n. 5.

8JM omitted the code “508,” tion, which Monroe added.

9Monroe and JM had evidently discussed the prospects of the American states’ enjoying commercial freedom (see Monroe to JM, 31 May 1786). America, prospering from a simple republican style of life, would be free to discard the mercantilist policy of the decadent European nations, who, to maintain their “expensive civil & military establishments,” necessarily laid heavy duties on their trade (ibid.). Both men were familiar with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which advocated free trade (JM to Jefferson, 27 Apr. 1785, Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (19 vols. to date; Princeton, N. J., 1950——). description ends , VIII, 111; Monroe to Jefferson, 16 June 1785, ibid., VIII, 216). JM regarded a policy of commercial freedom as an antidote to the old European system of alliances, which was buttressed by mercantilism and plagued with recurrent wars. JM’s thinking followed the pacifist Whig argument for supplanting the alliance system with commercial ties between nations. American colonists at the beginning of the Revolution had adopted the philosophy of political isolation and commercial ties, as best expressed by Thomas Paine in his Common Sense: “Our plan is commerce, and that well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of Europe, because it is the interest of all Europe to have America a free port.… As Europe is our market for trade, we ought to form no political connections with any part of it. ’Tis the true interest of America, to steer clear of European contentions, which she never can do, while by her dependance on Britain, she is made the makeweight in the scale of British politics” (William C. Stinchcombe, The American Revolution and the French Alliance [Syracuse, 1969], pp. 6–7; Thomas Paine, Common Sense … [Philadelphia & Boston, 1776], p. 21).

10In his study of commercial reciprocity, Vernon G. Setser commented, “Under the circumstances existing at the end of the eighteenth century, the most-favored-nation clause conferred no privileges of any great importance, for the general rule was to treat all foreign nations as equals. Most-favored-nation treatment then, meant not favored treatment, but merely a guarantee against being less favorably treated than other foreign nations. It placed no obstacle in the way of a nation which desired to adopt a highly protective policy in favor of its own industry.” The commercial treaties which the U.S. negotiated all stated in the preamble that complete reciprocity was their basis, yet “every American knew that it was not so American trade was relatively free, European generally restricted.” Efforts to drop the most-favored-nation clause and develop a method to guarantee complete reciprocity by treaty “were unavailing.” “Reciprocal national treatment would, of course, have admitted Americans to the trade with European colonies, and relieved them of alien duties wherever such were chargeable against their ships and goods” (Commercial Reciprocity Policy of the United States, 1774–1829, pp. 68–69). Congress was aware of the discrimination against America involved in most-favored-nation treaties. Monroe was chairman of a committee which on 2 June 1785 reported to Congress on revising the instructions for commissioners authorized to form commercial treaties. The report urged commercial freedom and reciprocity as the principles upon which treaties should be made. The committee also criticized the lack of power of the U.S. (under the Articles of Confederation) to regulate trade and thus to lay restraints on other nations in order to force reciprocity (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXVIII, 418–22). Elbridge Gerry wrote to Jefferson on 25 Feb. 1785 that “this favoured Nation System appears to me a System of Cobwebbs to catch Flies. Attend to it as it respects Restrictions, prohibitions, and the carrying Trade, and it is equally distant from a Rule of Reciprocity, which is the only equitable and beneficial Rule for forming Commercial Treaties” (Burnett, Letters description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (8 vols.; Washington, 1921–36). description ends , VIII, 44).

11Implicit in JM’s republicanism was the idea of America’s mission to create a separate society distinct from Europe. Pure in her religion and morals, America was to remain aloof from European involvements and to be free and unhindered in developing her vast resources. William C. Stinchcombe observed that “Disciples of evangelical religion, simple republicanism, and western land speculation found themselves in agreement on a foreign policy rejecting American involvement with Europe” (American Revolution and the French Alliance, pp. 206–7). JM’s inclination to eschew foreign entanglements is clear, but he, with most other Americans at that time, probably accepted treaties with European countries with a mixture of pragmatism and moralism as a means to further the righteous ends of America (ibid., pp. 1–3 and passim).

12“The plan” was amending the federal system by granting Congress the power to regulate commerce and to collect a federal impost, and thus to restore national solvency (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (9 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , VI, 478–79 and passim; VII, 388, 390 n.; VIII, 57, 406–9 and passim).

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