From Edmund Randolph
Wmsburg March 27. 1789.
My dear friend
Colo. Griffin having announced to me, that you were safely lodged within the fœderal precincts, I shall renew the assault of my uninteresting correspondence.
There is a general calm of politicks. The discontented themselves seem willing to wait with temper, until congress shall open their views. It gave me much pleasure, to read your letter to Colo. T. M. Randolph; as it shews a consciousness of amendments being necessary, and a disposition to procure them.1 Altho’ I am convinced, that nothing will soften the rancour of some men, I believe that a moderate and conciliating conduct in our fœderal rulers will detach from their virulence those, who have been opposed from principle. A very injudicious, and ill written publication, which you have seen under the signature of Decius, may impede perhaps this salutary effect; by keeping in a state of irritation those minds, which are well affected to the object of his bitterness. His facts are of a trivial cast, and his assertions are not always correct; and he thus becomes vulnerable in almost every part. The liberty of the press is indeed a blessing, which ought not to be surrendered but with blood; and yet it is not an illfounded expectation in those, who deserve well of their country, that they should be assailed by an enemy in disguise, and have their characters deeply wounded, before they can prepare for defence. I apply not this to any particular person.2
The judiciary have made a retreat, by which they sacrifice the vitals of their remonstrance, and give absolute permission to the legislature, to incroach upon them at pleasure. This is a sufficient hint of my aversion to their proceeding; under which I have no consolation, but that we have in motion a system of jurisprudence, which they commend in higher terms, than I could venture to use.3 However the inaccuracies in the laws, establishing the new courts, call for a speedy alteration, in order to carry the scheme through with due harmony.
On examining the revised laws, I find many defects, which require the attention of the committee. Mr. Wythe declines the prosecution of the work, and the other gentlemen wish me to take a part. But I do not choose to encounter the anxiety, which I must undergo, in supporting such a work in the legislature, when I have been in any manner concerned in it out of doors.4 To say the truth, I absolutely fear, that the new language, which those laws contain, is far, very far, from being fixed by adjudications. It is acknowledged by some of the revisors themselves, that the law of descents must be considerably changed;5 and none of them can explain the Act, intended to determine who shall be mulattoes, which makes a man more of a mulatto, in proportion as he is more of a negro.6
If the peace of this country is interrupted by any untoward event, one of three things will have a principal agency in the misfortune; the new constitution, british debts and taxes. The two former are not within the reach of any act of Virginia; the latter too will become formidable, chiefly by the accumulation of the public burthens, on account of fœderal purposes. I wish you could suggest some expedient, by which these dangers can be averted, and in which we can cooperate, in our different legislative functions.
I feel here a happiness, to which I have been hitherto a stranger; and which is not a little increased, by having shaken off a dependance on those, who think every man in office to be the servant of the legislature. I enjoy that opportunity, which I long sought in vain amidst the tumult of business, of examining and settling my opinions. But the scarcity of money obliges me to attend the court of appeals, and to give advice, which labours, could I avoid, would leave behind them no cares, but for public tranquillity.
I cannot at present answer Mr. St. John’s question; but will do so next week.7 Adieu my dear friend; and believe to be in all changes of time & place
RC (DLC). Addressed by Randolph. Docketed by JM. Signature clipped.
1. JM’s published letter of 13 Jan. 1789 (PJM description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (vols. 1–10, Chicago, 1962–77; vols. 11—, Charlottesville, Va., 1977—). description ends , XI, 415–17).
2. The letters of “Decius” appeared in the Va. Independent Chronicle between January and July 1789. These letters and the replies to “Decius” were later published as Decius’s Letters on the Opposition to the New Constitution in Virginia, 1789 (Richmond, ; Evans description begins Charles Evans, ed., American Bibliography … 1639 … 1820 (12 vols.; Chicago, 1903–34). Roger P. Bristol, Supplement to Charles Evans’ American Bibliography (Charlottesville, Va., 1970). description ends 21971). The author was probably John Nicholas, Jr. (1758–1836), of Albemarle County. The publication was a scathing attack on the Virginia Antifederalists, notably Patrick Henry, who (among other charges) was accused of enriching himself at public expense during his war governorship (Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (19 vols. to date; Princeton, 1950—). description ends , XVI, 139–45).
3. Randolph alluded to the public notice whereby the judges of the old court of appeals resigned their appointments in order to make way for the new court system established by the General Assembly at its last session. The judges took this occasion to protest that the legislature, by abolishing the former court of appeals, had unconstitutionally removed them from office (Va. Independent Chronicle, 11 Mar. 1789; reprinted in Mays, Papers of Edmund Pendleton, II, 553–54). The preceding year the judges had issued their celebrated “remonstrance” against the district court act of 2 Jan. 1788, which they deemed unconstitutional on the grounds that it imposed new burdens on them without additional compensation (Mays, Papers of Edmund Pendleton, II, 504–9). As a result, this act was suspended and further legislation was enacted in the fall of 1788, including an act creating a separate court of appeals (Mays, Edmund Pendleton, II, 273–75).
4. George Wythe, Edmund Pendleton, and John Blair had been appointed a committee of three in 1786 to complete the revision of the laws. When these gentlemen declined the work, Randolph undertook the task and remained actively engaged in it until he assumed his duties as federal attorney general in 1790 (PJM description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (vols. 1–10, Chicago, 1962–77; vols. 11—, Charlottesville, Va., 1977—). description ends , IX, 193–96, 228–29 n. 1; Cullen, “Completing the Revisal of the Laws,” VMHB description begins Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. description ends , LXXXII , 84–99).
5. Jefferson considered his bill “directing the course of descents,” which provided for equal division of the property of one dying intestate, to be one of the most important parts of the code revision. The bill, enacted by the legislature in 1785, was amended in 1790 (Boyd, Papers of Jefferson description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (19 vols. to date; Princeton, 1950—). description ends , II, 391–93 and n.; 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, 138–40; XIII, 122–24).
6. According to the 1785 act defining mulattoes, “every person of whose grandfathers or grandmothers any one is, or shall have been a negro, although all his other progenitors, except that descending from the negro, shall have been white persons, shall be deemed a mulatto; and so every person who shall have one-fourth part or more of negro blood, shall, in like manner, be deemed a mulatto” (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, 184).
7. JM had relayed Crèvecoeur’s request for information on the Virginia law regulating conveyances of land (PJM description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (vols. 1–10, Chicago, 1962–77; vols. 11—, Charlottesville, Va., 1977—). description ends , XI, 363, 364 and n. 3).