George Washington Papers

To George Washington from James Madison, 2 July 1784

From James Madison

Richmond [Va.] July 2d 1784.

Dear Sir

The sanction given by your favor of the 12th inst. to my desire of remunerating the genius which produced Common Sense, led to a trial for the purpose. The gift first proposed was a moiety of the tract on the Eastern Shore, known by the name of “the Secretary’s land.” The easy reception it found induced the friends of the measure to add the other moity to the proposition, which would have raised the market value of the donation to about £4000 or upwards, though it would not probably have commanded a rent of more than £100 per annum. In this form the bill passed through two readings. The third reading proved that the tide had suddenly changed, for the bill was thrown out by a large majority. An attempt was next made to sell the land in question and apply £2000 of the money to the purchase of a Farm for Mr Paine. This was lost by a single voice.1 Whether a greater disposition to reward patriotic and distinguished exertions of genius will be found on any succeeding occasion is not for me to predetermine. Should it finally appear that the merits of the Man, whose writings have so much contributed to infuse & foster the Spirit of Independence in the people of America, are unable to inspire them with a just beneficence: the world, it is to be feared, will give us as little credit for our policy as for our gratitude in this particular. The wish of Mr Paine to be provided for by separate acts of the States, rather than by Congress, is I think a natural and just one. In the latter case it might be construed into the wages of a mercenary writer, in the former it would look like the returns of gratitude for voluntary services. Upon the same principle the mode wished by Mr Paine, ought to be preferred by the States themselves.2I beg the favor of you to present my respectful compliments to Mrs Washington and to be assured that I am with the profoundest respect & sincerest regard your Obedt & humble servant

J. Madison Jr.

ALS, DLC:GW; copy, in Madison’s hand, DLC: Madison Papers.

1For further details of the attempts of Madison and Patrick Henry on 28 and 30 June to have the Virginia legislature bestow land on Thomas Paine, see the notes in “Bill to Aid Thomas Paine,” 28 June 1784, in Rutland and Rachal, Madison Papers, description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds. The Papers of James Madison, Congressional Series. 17 vols. Chicago and Charlottesville, Va., 1962–91. description ends 8:88–89. See also note 2. The “Secretary’s Land” was 500 acres on King’s Creek Northampton County, the income from which, before the Revolution, had gone to the secretary of the colony of Virginia.

2Fearing that GW had not received this letter, Madison wrote him again from Orange County, Va., on 12 Aug. conveying much the same information but in different words: “I had the honor of receiving your favor of the 12th of June during my attendance in the Legislature and of answering it a few days, before I left Richmond. Since my return home I have been informed that the gentleman into whose hands my answer was put has mislaid or lost it, and that I cannot rely on its ever finding its way to you. I have therefore to repeat, Sir, that the sanction which your judgment gave to the propriety of rewarding the literary Services of Mr Payne led to an attempt in the House of Delegates for that purpose. The proposition first made was that he should be invested with a moity of a tract of public land known by the name of the Secretary’s lying on the Eastern Shore. The kind reception given to this proposition induced some gentleman to urge that the whole tract containing about 500 acres might be included in the donation as more becoming the dignity of the State, and not exceeding the merits of the object. The proposition thus enlarged, passed through two readings without apprehension on the part of its friends. On the third a sudden attack grounded on considerations of economy and suggestions unfavorable to Mr Payne, threw the bill out of the house. The next idea proposed was that the land in question should be sold and £2000 of the proceeds allotted to Mr Payne to be laid out in the purchase of a Farm if he should think fit. This was lost by a single vote. Whether a succeeding Session may resume the matter and view it in a different light, is not for me to say. Should exertions of genius which have been every where admired, and in America unanimously acknowledged, not save the author from indigence and distress, the loss of national character will hardly be balanced by the savings at the Treasury” (DLC: Madison Papers).

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