James Madison Papers

To James Madison from George Muter, 23 September 1786

From George Muter

Mercer Septr. 23d 1786.


There will be so many members of convention1 absent, principally from being engaged in the present expeditions against the Indians,2 that I am doubtfull there will not a sufficient number meet to chuse a president & proceed to business. It is probable therefore, that the question respecting a separation will not be determined at the ensuing meeting of Convention, & perhaps not before next spring.3 This I am hopefull will not be considered as deveating from the true intent & meaning of the Act of Separation, as that seems to give the Convention ’till the end of July next to determine in.4

People in this District are at present more divided in their sentiments than they were last year. They differ however principally about the proper time for separation; all seem to agree that a separation must necessarily take place, and that at a period, not far distant.5 Great pains have been taken by some to convince the unthinking part of the people, that the Assembly never means to call on the people of this District for payment of taxes; that so long as they continue part of Virginia, they will be perfectly clear of taxation; and that the moment they separate, taxation & heavy taxation too, must necessarily & immediately begin.6 And one man, under the signature of A planter, has assured the people that it is the intention of the leading men here, as soon as a separation takes place, to have nothing but a poll tax; by which means, all property whatever, will be clear of taxes & the poor will be obliged to pay to the full as much as the rich. Those for a separation, have perhaps not been altogether so candid in their informations to the people as could have been wished;7 but I hope that the convention, or such members as may meet, will take proper steps, to have a true & candid state of the District laid before the people, and also explain to them the true intent & meaning of the Act of Assembly, that they may be fully enabled to judge for themselves, what they ought to do, in a matter, to them, of so much importance. I have some reason still to fear, we have a few lurking among us, that wish for an unconditional separation:8 I hope however, their number is small, & their weight, nothing.

’Tis probable an application will be made to the Assembly, to have the time allowed by the Act for Congress to determine in, prolongued.9 It is feared—Congress having business of so much more importance continually before them, will not have leisure, to attend to & determine, respecting our separation before the first of June next. And there are a few with us; that give it as their opinion, that the time allowed to Congress, by the Act to determine, was made so short, with a view to prevent a separation from taking place altogether. This seems to me to be a wild opinion, however I can assure you, it has repeatedly been mentioned to me.

I expect too, from having the sentiments of many, that application will be made to the Assembly to explain the expression of “The respective jurisdictions &C on the river as aforesaid, shall be concurrent only &C.[”] which is used in the seventh clause or section of the Act. The freedom of navigation they fully agree to, but they think that if the jurisdiction is concurrent with the State10 on the other side of the river, it will be productive perhaps of confusion & mischief; and they think that by the limits of the district, as settled by the cession to Congress, the whole of the Ohio, as far as the District extends is within it, as Potowmack is, or was, in Maryland. I am with great respect Sir Your Most Obedt humble servant

George Muter

RC (DLC). Docketed by JM.

1The so-called fourth convention called to determine whether to establish Kentucky as a separate state. According to the enabling act passed by the Virginia legislature, the convention was to convene on the fourth Monday of September (25 Sept.) 1786 at Danville, and to fix a day after 1 Sept. 1787 when Kentucky would become an independent state—contingent upon Congress’s assent prior to 1 June 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 , XII, 38, 39, 40).

2Because of the continuous Indian depredations, plans had been made during the summer for an expedition against the Shawnee. By early fall the Kentucky militia were ready and Gen. George Rogers Clark assembled officers and men at Clarksville. He ordered Col. Benjamin Logan to attack the Shawnee villages on the Great Miami; Logan successfully devastated the towns in early October. Meanwhile Clark proceeded to establish an unauthorized garrison at Vincennes and illegally to seize and confiscate private property, including that of Spanish merchants (Randolph C. Downes, Council Fires on the Upper Ohio: A Narrative of Indian Affairs in the Upper Ohio Valley until 1795 [Pittsburgh, 1940], p. 298; Thomas Marshall Green, The Spanish Conspiracy: A Review of Early Spanish Movements in the South-West [Cincinnati, 1891], pp. 67–72).

3A quorum was not present until late January 1787, when a majority voted to accept Virginia’s terms of separation. The representatives who had gathered at Danville in the fall continued to meet from day to day to keep the convention alive until a quorum was present. Among them were Ebenezer Brooks, Thomas Marshall, Caleb Wallace, George Muter, Harry Innes, James Wilkinson, and John Brown (Watlington, The Partisan Spirit, pp. 117, 119).

4Muter seems to have been confused on the time stipulated by the enabling act. James Wilkinson may have contributed to Muter’s confusion when he asserted in a speech arguing for immediate separation that the phrase “posterior to the first day of September, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-seven” in the enabling act meant before, not after, that date (ibid., p. 114; 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, 39).

5According to Patricia Watlington. “A poll of citizens would probably have shown that a majority opposed separation from 1786 until 1790” (The Partisan Spirit, p. 111). Samuel Taylor and Ebenezer Brooks led this opposition to the faction then in control of Kentucky. The so-called court party, composed largely of transplanted Virginians, wished to assert its authority free of Virginia’s restrictions. The anti-separatists argued that Virginia’s support was needed to open the Mississippi (and to protect their interests against the local opposition). The attitude of the various groups towards separation shifted according to their perceptions of their self-interest.

6Ebenezer Brooks and other partisans used this argument against separation and its proponents—the large landowners, judges, and surveyors who had come from Virginia and held political control in Kentucky. Separation, as they saw it, would consolidate their own position (ibid., pp. 115–17).

7Muter himself was not being completely candid with JM. Muter’s faction “had told less than the whole truth to their Virginia friends.” in explaining their position, “and they had been less than honest with their constituents while campaigning for seats in the conventions” (ibid., p. 104). When running for office, they talked as if they were against separation.

8James Wilkinson was the chief proponent of unconditional separation (Abernethy, Western Lands and the American Revolution, p. 321).

9Instead, the Virginia General Assembly passed JM’s enabling act which called for another convention to be held in September 1787 (Bill Providing for Kentucky Statehood, 15 Dec. 1786). The deadlines for Congress’s assent and the establishment of independence, were set forward another year—congressional approval by 4 July 1788 and separation by 1 Jan. 1789. JM explained the circumstances behind passage of the bill to Muter, who was distressed by the delay (JM to Muter, 7 Jan. 1787).

10Muter wrote “peuple” above which he wrote “State.”

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