James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Augustus Woodward, 31 January 1807

Detroit, january 31. 1807.

I have the honor now to transmit to the Secretary of State the map which I promised to procure of, his Britannic Majesty’s province of Upper Canada, accompanied by a small pamphlet of statistical information. I made enquiries for it immediately on my return to this country, but having been confined to this side of the river by unceasing public business I did not succeed until yesterday in obtaining it. Not having seen the merchant from whom it was procured I am not yet acquainted with its price; and I have understood a second copy, from another quarter, is on its way to me which, if received, I shall also transmit.

You will immediately perceive, Sir, that this country is by no means unimportant. A prejudice prevails to the Southward that these northern countries are cold, sterile, and unprofitable. It a⟨ri⟩ses from the attention being turned to Nova Scotia, New Brunswic, and other ⟨com⟩paratively barren provinces in the v⟨ici⟩nity of the Ocean. I was myself ⟨a⟩ victim to it until my own obser⟨va⟩tions corrected the error; nor had I the most distant apprehension of the ad⟨van⟩ces it had made. From the Ocean ⟨all⟩ the way to these settlements there i⟨s⟩ a continued line of improvements; fo⟨llow⟩ing, without deviation, the course of ⟨the⟩ navigation. It is seldom more than ⟨forty⟩ miles of breadth; but its length is ⟨at⟩ least fifteen hundred miles. These se⟨ttle⟩ments are fertile, pleasant, and even opulent. They present, along the whole line, a scene of activity little imag⟨ined⟩ in the United States. The Commerce in Furs, which has been carried on in one channel for two centuries, and which will continue for a considerable period to come, is the cause of this phenomenon.

The measures of Bonaparte have just in a great degree cut off the English from their continental market for furs. The Chinese have also laid restrictions on the Commerce. At present there is a shock felt along the whole line I have described; and which paralyses even this country.

The settlements of this vicinity may be considered as having been, while in the possession of the English, the extremity of the firm and perfectly civilized establishments. To this point their direction has been westward; and at this point the line may be considered as making an angle to the north-west, and at the same time assuming a difference of aspect, from the point of contact with the savages not having hitherto been extended to a greater distance from the ocean. The north-west line may be considered as extending fifteen hundred ⟨miles⟩ more. But if another angle is assumed ⟨at⟩ the Arabasea Lake, it may be considered as divided into two lines, one north, and ⟨one⟩ west; and then the line of this comm⟨erce⟩ may be considered as reaching the Pac⟨ific⟩ and Arctic seas, though with traces very faint at those remote extremities.

This commerce belongs to an⟨other⟩ nation. The Americans have never be⟨en⟩ able to succeed in it, though the most ⟨va⟩luable part of it belongs to their ow⟨n⟩ Territory, and the whole passes along their ⟨line.⟩ Since the cession to the Americans the ⟨coun⟩try from which I write has been languishing. American exertion is destitute of the most common and necessary protection. A furi⟨ous⟩ and irrational antipathy to commercial ⟨enter⟩prize is supposed to pervade their counc⟨ils.⟩ Without dwelling on the point the triump⟨h⟩ of their rivals is complete; and however un⟨im⟩portant any participation whatsoever in the Fur Trade may be to the United Sta⟨tes⟩ genera⟨lly⟩ to this country it is all-important. Per⟨haps⟩ it cannot be said there is any positive ⟨dis⟩affection; but it is a remark, which the experience of mankind too often very fatally verifies, that small causes sometimes give rise to great events. For thirteen years the inhabitants of the small section which has fallen to the Americans have lived on hope; and hope, according to an expressive proverb sometimes used among their traders is a good breakfast, but a bad supper. L’Espoir fait un bon dejeuné, mais un mauvais soupé.

It cannot therefore be considered unimportant in American policy to encourage these quarters of their dominions in the line of industry to which they have been accustomed, so far as it is usual and proper for government to regulate their concerns.

An application was made here by commercial characters during the last summer to favor the embarkation of a very respectable American Capital in this Commerce. It was notified to the Senate of the United States in anticipation the past winter. They proposed to commence their operations with an institution of primary importance to their enterprize. As this institution has very suddenly been distorted, by those who did not comprehend its object, and has attracted, Sir, a share of you⟨r⟩ attention; instead of reducing to writing the observations which I submitted when you di⟨d⟩ me, Sir, the honor of consulting on the communication from the Governor of New-Yo⟨rk,⟩ relative to the islands along the American and British line, which was what I at first intended; I will confine myself to one o⟨r⟩ two explanations relative to that institution⟨.⟩

First of all it is necessary to premise that Colonel Burr, his agents, emissa⟨ries,⟩ or friends, have no possible concern in it; a⟨nd⟩ probably scarcely know of its existence. A su⟨s⟩picion of this nature appears here the mo⟨st⟩ strange and unjust.

In the next place I remark tha⟨t⟩ if it is thought improper, on general principles, to have a Bank here; I do not in⟨tend⟩ to occupy either your attention, Sir, or my own, with any arguments on one side or the other of that question.

If it is thought, in that medley of opinions which exists relative to the p⟨owers⟩ of territorial governments in their present most awkward and imperfect state, that this government has not a power of adopting laws of this description, I am also silent.

Assuming the other points; it is alone the details of the Bill which I undertake to justify.

On a careful perusal of it I can only discover two points, which it appears to me will not be immediately understood elsewhere; and for these I am in a great measure responsible myself, since they were at first advocated very differently by others. These are the duration, and capital assigned to the institution. They were at first made thirty years, and I believe a hundred thousand dollars. On my arguments they were changed to a hundred and one years, and a million of dollars. It is necessary those arguments should be understood.

It was a principle made that incorporating laws are necessary in governments to answer only two substantial purposes; one, to enable an association to act as a moral person, to have one will, to be capable of representation in courts of justice and elsewhere as a moral person having a unity of will, and of course, while it lasts, to have succession, that is to say, that whatever individuals may successively compose it the body itself may remain the sam⟨e.⟩ The other, to exempt those individuals from a liability in their private property for the contracts of the body itself. The common law ⟨of⟩ England, adopted in this country, renders these provisions necessary; otherwise associations might, at any time, act without the necessity ⟨of⟩ any legislative aid. All the other powers a⟨nd⟩ forms accompanying them are considered as only subsidiary to these purposes.

It was a principle next made, that ⟨in⟩ no American government ought any privileg⟨e to⟩ be given to an association, which individuals or other associations did not possess.

The next principle made, and tha⟨t⟩ the most firmly adhered to, is that an act in⟨cor⟩porating any institution is, and ought ever to be, like an act of ordinary legislation rep⟨ea⟩lable at the pleasure of the legislative po⟨wer,⟩ and that in order to remove all question on the point every law of that kind ought to contain a clause to that effect.

Expedience may sometimes req⟨uire⟩ a pledge of the public faith against a repeal for a certain time as an indemnification for particular advances. In this case it could only relate to the expence of the edifice, and a few years would have sufficed.

It is therefore well understood that this act is at any time repealible at the pleasure of the legislative power of the United States.

It is further understood that the legislative power of the Territory may at any time request such repeal, if they do not undertake to make it.

It was further contemplated to insert in the act a clause expressly reserving to the legislative power of Michigan, for the time being, a spontaneous right of repeal. But not being able to find a precedent, even in an imperfect shape applicable, it has been deferred, the Congressional right fully answering the object for the present. At a future day, if not previously ⟨an⟩ticipated by Congress, it will be the subject of mutual and satisfactory arrangement.

It therefore appears that a constant ⟨a⟩nd spontaneous right of repeal is the basis ⟨o⟩n which this government tread. The duration therefore was considered mere form under the circumstances, and as short periods ⟨opened⟩ always a door for intrigue and corruption ⟨for⟩ renewal, and also held out an implicati⟨on⟩ of promise to let the period run out, i⟨t was⟩ deemed prudent in order to manifest the ⟨clear⟩ness of the right, and to prevent intri⟨gue,⟩ to extend the period beyond the lives ⟨of⟩ all who might be at present a⟨ffec⟩ted.

This much, Sir, on the right of ⟨repeal;⟩ and the consequent formal duration assig⟨ned.⟩

On the capital it is to be con⟨sidered⟩ that this like the others is deemed form. ⟨In⟩deed it follows from the other princip⟨le; and⟩ for the same reason it is extended at on⟨ce⟩ beyond the possible limits it can ever re⟨ach.⟩

It may however be remarked, ⟨and⟩ it is conceived with the utmost justice ⟨and⟩ propriety, that all attempts on the pa⟨rt of⟩ legislative powers to assign limita⟨tions⟩ to capital, or quantum of medium, are ⟨fruitless⟩ and unnecessary; and are a mere relic of popular pr⟨ejudice⟩ and mistake.

One or two abstract principles w⟨ill⟩ perhaps immediately shew this.

Coin is valuable to man, in ⟨the civi⟩lized state, because it is an artificial mode of representing the necessaries and comforts of life. Let coin cease to represent the necessaries and comforts of life, and it ceases to be valuable as such. It is alone because coin is exchangible ⟨at p⟩leasure ⟨f⟩or the necessaries and comforts of life that it has a value. When it ceases to have that value, it ceases to be coin; and is converted into the raw material.

A bank-bill is valuable to a member of the civilized state because it is an arti⟨f⟩icial mode of representing coin. Let a bank-bill ⟨c⟩ease to represent coin, and it ceases to be valuable. It is alone because a bank-bill is exchan⟨g⟩ible at pleasure for coin that it possesses any ⟨v⟩alue. When a bank bill ceases to be exchan⟨g⟩ible at pleasure for coin, it ceases to be a ⟨b⟩ank-bill; and is converted into worthless paper.

Popular sagacity and good sense, t⟨h⟩ough perhaps not always competent to express these ideas with precision, yet is always competent to act on them, and always does act on them, and that with the greatest precision. Governments need therefore never attempt to regulate the quantity of coin, or of bank bills in society. The good sense of society always regulate both, without any aid, and much better without aid ⟨than⟩ with it.

When capital can be emplo⟨yed⟩ more profitably in a bank than in other kinds ⟨of⟩ trade it will flow into that channel, an⟨d the⟩ effect is beneficial to society.

When capital can be emplo⟨yed⟩ more profitably in other kinds of trade ⟨it⟩ flows into those channels; and the effect ⟨is⟩ again beneficial to society.

When coin multiplies unnecess⟨arily⟩ popular good sense converts it into it⟨s⟩ raw material.

When bank bills multiply ⟨un⟩necessarily popular good sense conver⟨ts⟩ them into coin.

The government need not the⟨refore⟩ and on correct principles ought not, to regul⟨ate⟩ either. When flagrant and unprincipled ⟨abuse⟩ are practised the spontaneous right of ⟨repeal⟩ is a radical, prompt, effective remedy; ⟨as⟩ long as legislatures remain virtuous and ⟨un⟩corrupted. When they cease to be so, th⟨e pecu⟩niary interests of society are not alone ⟨at⟩ stake. All the interests of society are in danger.

To turn from principles to plain facts, a bank has been instituted here, supported by merchants of the country and ⟨o⟩thers on the sea-board, concerned in the commerce of Furs. The specie in its vaults is between twenty and thirty thousand dollars. Thirty thousand more are called for on the first day of next July. After that period the increase will be small and gradual. It is in successful operation, has the confidence ⟨of⟩ the country, has already done much good, and ⟨i⟩s calculated to do much more. If hastily and unadvisedly extinguished Canadian confidence ⟨c⟩an never be regained; and one species of national enterprize is for the present effectually ⟨s⟩acrificed. I enclose specimens of the medium ⟨f⟩ormerly used here. I enclose also specimens of the present medium.

Shortly after the institution went into operation an application was received here from the Exchange Office of Boston for a loan. It was deemed useful, and acquiesced with. Its obvious tendency is to commence at once in each extremity of the line, through which the commerce of furs is destined to travel, the operations of the capital which is em⟨barked⟩ in it. If any abuse exists, which is n⟨ot be⟩lieved here, like all others it will ne⟨cessarily⟩ correct itself. I am not acquainted wit⟨h⟩ facts, and can therefore say nothing; but ⟨I⟩ trust investigation will be candid, delib⟨erate⟩, and independent.

If, Sir, the subject should b⟨e⟩ under the attention of a committee of either house, or should otherwise ⟨at⟩tract attention, I beg you to commun⟨icate⟩ these remarks, as no objection is conceive⟨d to⟩ exist to their publicity. I have the honor to be, ⟨Sir⟩, with the most perfect resp⟨ect,⟩ your obedient servant,

Augustus B. Woodwa⟨rd⟩

If any legislative measures are thought advisable at present I suggest one of the underwritten.

An act concerning the Bank of ⟨D⟩etroit, in the City of Detroit, in the Territory of Michigan.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives, &c., that the act of the government of the Territory, of Michigan entitled an act concerning the Bank of Detroit passed on the [  ] day of [  ] one thousand ⟨ei⟩ght hundred six, be, and the same ⟨is⟩ hereby made repealible at any time ⟨a⟩t the pleasure of the legislative power ⟨o⟩f the United States, or the legislative power of Michigan, for the time being, any thing whatsoever to the contrary thereof notwithstanding.


An act concerning incorporations in the Territorial governments.

Be it enacted &c. that al⟨l⟩ acts passed in any territorial government of the United States, incorporating any instituti⟨ons⟩ whatsoever, shall be and the same ⟨are⟩ hereby made repealible at any time at the pleasure of the legislative power of the United States, or the leg⟨isla⟩tive power of the Territory or coun⟨try⟩ for the time being, anything wh⟨atso⟩ever to the contrary thereof notw⟨ith⟩standing.

Either of these regula⟨tions⟩ will appear to me to place su⟨bjects⟩ of this description exactly on the footing they ought to stan⟨d.⟩

A. B. Woodward

Jan. 31. 1807.

The date of the communication ⟨to the⟩ Senate relative to the merchants ⟨prop⟩osing to embark in the Fur trade is ⟨Apri⟩l 14, 1806.

A. B. W.

DNA: RG 59—Territorial Papers—TP, Michigan.

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