George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Patrick Henry, 11 November 1785

From Patrick Henry

Richmond novr 11th 1785

Dear sir.

The post Yesterday brought me your Favors. That which was official I have just sent down to the Assembly.1 The Result shall go to you as soon as I get it—The Report concerning the intended Canal I could not send you ’til now, having obtained a Copy of it only two Days ago. Mr Andrews tells me the Comrs could not take a very particular View of the Ground, having gone to it shortly after the great Storm which happen’d in Sepr. But it seems universally agreed that the Cut ought to go from Pasquotank thro’ the Dismal as reported. I understand Opposition will be made to this usefull Undertaking by some people in Carolina, & that it will be usher’d forth under the Guise of public Spirit, taking Alarm at a Measure which will place the Trade of that Country in a Situation of Dependance upon the Will & Pleasure of this—To obviate such Cavils I have recommended to some Friends of the Scheme to preface the Act proposed to be passed on the Subject with a Declaration, in the clearest Terms, that the Benefits resulting shall be reciprocal to both States, & that a Conference be offer’d to hear & refute Objections—I am apprehensive that the Measure may not be brot forth into Discussion with the Advantages that could be wished, & the Nature of it requires: The Men of Business in the House being generally unacquainted, & in some Measure inattentive to it. I think a Line from you on the Subject, if the Report has yr approbation, would have a good Effect—If Success can be given to this Navigation, & at the same Time to that of Potowmack & James River, great Things must result. And indeed, nothing more is necessary in this Canal Business, than giving a proper Direction to the Efforts which seem ready for Exertion.2

Mr Andrews further tells me he thinks one Lock necessary for the southern, & another for the northern End of the Canal, for letting out & in the Vessels, &c. & that the Waters of the Lake will be sufficient for a constant Supply to the Canal. I wish the Report had been more particular, but such as it is I inclose it to you, & will be much obliged by yr Observations on the Subject. Mrs Henrys Compliments with mine are respectfully presented to your self & your Lady & with the most sincere Attachment I remain dear sir your most humble Servant

P. Henry


1GW sent Governor Henry two letters dated 29 Oct. [1] [2], the one enclosing the other giving GW’s official decision to the Virginia legislature regarding its gift to him of shares in both the Potomac and James River companies.

2On 1 Jan. 1785 the Virginia house of delegates adopted a resolution calling for the governor to appoint three commissioners to “fix on the most convenient course for a canal” from the Elizabeth River “to those passing through the State of North Carolina” and report to the general assembly. The commissioners’ report of 15 Oct. 1785 to Benjamin Harrison, speaker of the house of delegates, a copy of which James Madison also enclosed in a letter to GW of this date, was the basis for a bill being prepared and debated in the October 1785 session of the house. On 19 Jan. 1786 the delegates voted to suspend further consideration of the bill and to authorize the governor to approach the governor of North Carolina for the purpose of arranging for commissioners from each state to meet and prepare a bill providing for opening and operating a mutually advantageous Elizabeth River (or Dismal Swamp) canal (House of Delegates Journal, 1781–1785 description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia; Begun and Held in the Town of Richmond, In the County of Henrico, on Monday, the Seventh Day of May, in the Year of Our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Eighty-One. Richmond, 1828. description ends ). The report to Harrison of 15 Oct. 1785, from Portsmouth, Va., reads: “Sir, According to the Commission given to us by His Excellency—the Governor and the Honorable the Council we have viewed the Country which lies between the Waters of Elizabeth River and those of the State of North Carolina, and have informed ourselves of the Courses & Navigation of these Waters. It appears to us that the most convenient Course for a Canal between these Waters is from the Head of either Deep Creek or new mill Creek, Branches of the Southern Branch of Elizabeth River to the head of Pasquotank River in the State of North Carolina, the Communication with the upper Country by this Route being much shorter than that by the North River, which empties into Currituck Sound, and free from the great Dangers & Difficulties which attend the Currituck Navigation. We are farther induced to prefer this Route on account of its immediate Communication with a very fertile and extensive Country, and as it seems to be the only one approved of by the Citizens of North Carolina, or which they think will be of much Advantage to them. The Length of a Canal this Way will be about 18 Miles, and we are of Opinion that the Expence of cutting it will not exceed twenty four thousand pounds. The State of North Carolina not having appointed Commissioners we had no Opportunity of holding any public Conference on this Business but we have reason to believe that Carolina will readily concur in it provided its Trade through the Canal be secured from Imposts for the Benefit of the State of Virginia. We have the Honor to be &c. Robert Andrews[,] David Meade” (DLC:GW). See GW to Henry, 30 November. Not until 1 Dec. 1787 did the Virginia assembly pass “An Act for cutting a navigable Canal from the waters of Elizabeth river, in this State, to the waters of Pasquotank river, in the State of North Carolina.” It was not to go into effect until “the passing of a like act by the general assembly of North Carolina,” which North Carolina did not do until 1790 (12 Hening 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. 1819–23. Reprint. Charlottesville, Va., 1969. description ends 479–94). See also Henry to GW, 10 June 1785, and notes.

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