James Madison Papers

To James Madison from James Monroe, 14 August 1786

From James Monroe

New York Augt. 14. 1786.

Dear Sir

It has occur’d to G.1 & myself to propose to Congress that negotiations be carried on with Spn. upon the following principles 1. that exports be admitted thro’ the Missisippi to some free port perhaps N. Orleans, to pay there a toll to Spn. of abt. 3. pr. centm. ad valorem & to be carried thence under the regulations of Congress 2. that imports shall pass into the western country thro the ports of the U S. only. 3. that this sacrifice be given up to obtain in other respects a beneficial treaty.2 I beg of you to give me yr. opinion on it. It is manifest here that Jay & his party in Congress are determin’d to pursue this business as far as possible, either as the means of throwing the western people & territory without the Govt. of the U S. and keeping the weight of population & govt. here, or of dismembering the govt. itself, for the purpose of a seperate confederacy.3 There can be no other object than one of these, & I am from such evidence as I have, doubtful which hath the influence. I write in Congress & therefore am depriv’d of the advantage of the cypher, but am so desirous of yr. sentiments as to risque mine without that cover. Sincerely yr. friend & servant

Jas. Monroe


1William Grayson.

2For this plan as presented to Congress in Committee of the Whole, see the Virginia Delegates’ Motion, 18 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, 440–42).

3Several letters Monroe wrote about this time mention his suspicions that some Northerners were in collusion to dismember the Confederation and to form a separate confederacy east of the Hudson, or possibly of all the states north of the Potomac. Integral to the plot was Jay’s scheme of negotiation with Gardoqui. “It is a system of policy which has for its object the keeping the weight of govt. and population in this quarter, and is prepared by a set of men so flagitious, unprincipled and determined in their pursuits, as to satisfy me beyond a doubt they have extended their views to the dismemberment of the govt. and resolved either, that sooner than fail it shall be the case, or being only desirous of that event [dismemberment] have adopted this [the occlusion of the Mississippi] as the necessary means of effecting it.” As Monroe viewed the situation, the conspirators were “Eastern men and others of this [New York] State; … the measure is talked of in Mass: familiarly, and is supposed to have originated there” (Monroe to Patrick Henry, 12 Aug. 1786, ibid., VIII, 424–25). Among the men implicated by Monroe seem to have been Rufus King, Nathan Dane, Theodore Sedgwick, Nathaniel Gorham, and John Jay. Monroe also believed Charles Pettit and John Bayard of Pennsylvania, “who are under the influence of eastern politicks,” were in favor of an eastern confederacy (ibid., VIII, 425; Monroe to Jefferson, 16 July and 19 Aug. 1786, ibid., VIII, 404, 445). Monroe was “given to seeing ulterior motives and suspecting plots,” but certainly disunion sentiment was in the Massachusetts air at that time (Ernst, Rufus King, p. 74). Robert A. East believes that Monroe’s suspicions of secret meetings held in New York under the leadership of Massachusetts men were exaggerated, but that by 1786 the idea of a northern confederacy had gained greater support than the plan to strengthen the Union. East suggests that the sectional feeling in Massachusetts was stimulated by “the fear that many of the states were increasing in wealth and numbers much faster than Massachusetts, and ‘New States forming.’ It was the same sort of apprehension which moved the Massachusetts delegates to Congress in 1786 to oppose the demands of the South and West on the Mississippi navigation question, thus contributing to the political stalemate in that year.” The debates in Congress over the Jay-Gardoqui negotiations in the summer of 1786 aggravated the mutual distrust between the two sections to the extent that prominent men in Massachusetts discouraged cooperation in attending the Annapolis convention simply because it originated with the Virginians. Rufus King, Theodore Sedgwick, and Stephen Higginson all were critical of the meeting (“The Massachusetts Conservatives in the Critical Period,” in Morris, ed., The Era of the American Revolution, pp. 372–74). But only Sedgwick is known to have made explicit what many Massachusetts men might have been thinking. “It well becomes the eastern and middle States, who are in interest one, seriously to consider what advantages result to them from their connection with the Southern States.… Even the appearance of a union cannot in the way we now are long be preserved. It becomes us seriously to contemplate a substitute.… No other substitute can be devised than that of contracting the limits of the confederacy to such as are natural and reasonable, and within those limits instead of a nominal to institute a real, and an efficient government” (Theodore Sedgwick to Caleb Strong, 6 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, 415–16).

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