James Madison Papers

Memorandum from an Unidentified Correspondent, [ca. 2 January] 1800

Memorandum from an Unidentified Correspondent

[ca. 2 January 1800]

I admit that the word states is used in the constitution, in all the senses which have been ascribed to it, by the paper which I have seen;1 that the state-governments neither created nor can abrogate the fœderal compact, and that the people of the states did create, and may abrogate it. But none of these considerations settle the question. The true enquiry is, in what sense the resolution of the last assembly2 intended to use that term? It seems to me, that nothing could have been more irrelevant3 to the subject matter, than to announce that the people of the states were parties to the constitution. Every body acknowledged it. To introduce this position therefore, appears to be so wanton,4 as that an attempt to shelter the assembly under that signification, will be deemed a downright subterfuge. The close reasoning of every other part of the resolutions will countenance this imputation.

But if the word is to be thus understood, what is to prevent the conclusion, that the people alone ought to interfere, in correcting violations of the constitution? I know that in some subsequent pages, which I have not seen, it is intended to insist upon the right of the state governments, to animadvert upon its violations. How then, can it affect the main purpose of the work, if an unity be given to it, by vesting the state governments uniformly with the power of thus animadverting? It deserves to be noticed too, that in sundry passages of the resolutions, the word states certainly includes the state governments; and the expression of the states being parties to the compact, was defended by the friends of the resolution during the last session, upon that idea.5

There is so much depending upon what is done now, that to afford an opportunity for a clamor throughout the United States, and an increased alienation of the Eastern from the southern people, will be a dreadful catastrophe. I submit then, to your consideration, whether in the paragraph speaking upon this subject, it may not be as well at least to make a salvo of this kind, that even if the word states were to be confined to the state governments, it will appear in the sequel, that the state governments themselves, have a right to pass such resolutions as those of the last assembly.

RC (DLC). Unsigned. Undated. Conjectural date assigned on the basis of internal evidence (see n. 1). Identified by Moncure Daniel Conway as having been written by Edmund Randolph, a possibility that is supported by the Peter Force lists (DLC, series 7, container 2), which calendar a two-page letter from Edmund Randolph to JM dated 1799 and concerning “Remarks on the meaning and intent of certain words used in certain Resolutions of the Virginia Assembly” (Conway, Omitted Chapters of History Disclosed in the Life and Papers of Edmund Randolph, pp. 366–69). The RC, however, is not in Randolph’s hand, nor is it in the hand of John Taylor of Caroline, as suggested in the Index to the James Madison Papers.

1JM’s correspondent, very likely a fellow member of the House of Delegates, was probably referring to the section of JM’s Report of 1800 relating to the third of the Virginia Resolutions of 1798. In this section JM discussed the several meanings of the term “states” in the context of the states’ being “parties” to the Constitution. This was a problem of definition that had bothered JM when he and Jefferson were composing the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, and it clearly aroused some controversy as the House of Delegates received and debated JM’s report (see The Report of 1800, 7 Jan. 1800, and Editorial Note; JM to Jefferson, 29 Dec. 1798; JM to Jefferson, 4 Jan. 1800).

2The reference is to the third of the Virginia Resolutions, passed by the Virginia legislature in the previous session, 1798–99.

3This word appears to have been crossed out, and “*unimportant at least” is interlined above it.

4At a later time JM placed an asterisk here and wrote in the left margin: “*The arguments used in support of the Alien & Sedition laws made it proper to State the facts and go to the foundation of the Constitution, wch rested on certain truisms. What are the principles on wch. the Declaration of Independence, and the Declaration of Rights by Virginia & other States, are founded but plain truths or ⟨truisms?⟩.”

5At a later time JM made a note here: “Quere. but if so, among the inaccuracies observable in the reasonings of particular members.”

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