George Washington Papers

To George Washington from James Madison, 11 November 1785

From James Madison

Richmond Novr 11. 1785

Dear Sir

I recd your favor of the 29th ulto on thursday. That by Col. Lee had been previously delivered.1 Your letter for the Assembly was laid before them yesterday. I have reason to believe that it was received with every sentiment which would correspond with yours. Nothing passed from which any conjecture could be formed as to the objects which would be most pleasing for the appropriation of the fund. The disposition is I am persuaded much stronger to acquiesce in your choice whatever it may be than to lead or anticipate it: and I see no inconveniency in your taking time for a choice that will please yourself. The letter was referred to a Committee which will no doubt make such report as will give effect to your wishes.2

Our Session commenced very inauspiciously with a contest for the Chair which was followed by a rigid scrutiny into Mr Harrison’s election in his County. He gained the Chair by a majority of 6 votes and retained his Seat by a majority of still fewer. His residence was the point on which the latter question turned. Doctr Lee’s election was questioned on a similar point and was also established; but it was held to be vitiated by his acceptance of a lucrative post under the United States.3 The House have engaged with some alacrity in the consideration of the Revised Code proposed by Mr Jefferson Mr Pendleton & Mr Wythe. The present temper promises an adoption of it in substance. The greatest danger arises from its length compared with the patience of the members. If it is persisted in it must exclude several matters which are of moment, but I hope only for the present Assembly.4 The pulse of the H. of D. was felt on thursday with regard to a general manumission by a petition presented on that subject. It was rejected without dissent but not without an avowed patronage of its principle by sundry respectable members. A motion was made to throw it under the table, which was treated with as much indignation on one side, as the petition itself was on the other. There are several petitions before the House against any Step towards freeing the slaves, and even praying for a repeal of the law which licences particular manumissions.5 The Merchants of several of our Towns have made representations on the distresses of our commerce, which have raised the question whether relief shall be attempted by a reference to Cong[res]s or by measures within our own Compass. On a pretty full discussion it was determined by a Large majority that the power over trade ought to be vested in Congress, under certain qualifications. If the qualifications suggested & no others should be annexed, I think they will not be subversive of the principle tho’ they will no doubt lessen its utility. The Speaker Mr M. Smith & Mr Braxton are the champions against Congress. Mr Thruston & Mr White have since come in, and I fancy I may set down both as auxiliaries. They are however not a little puzzled by the difficulty of substituting any practicable regulations within ourselves. Mr Braxton proposed two that did not much aid his side of the question; the 1 was that all British vessels from the W. Indies should be excluded from our ports—the 2. that no Merchant should carry on trade here untill he sd have been a resident——years. Unless some plan freer from objection can be devised for this State, its patrons will be reduced clearly to the dilemma of acceding to a general one, or leaving our trade under all its present embarrassments. There has been some little skirmishing on the ground of public faith, which leads me to hope that its friends have less to fear than was surmised.6 The Assize & Port Bills have not yet been awakened. The Senate will make a House today for the first time. With the greatest respect & regard I have the honor to be Dr Sir, Yr Obedt & very humble Servt

J. Madison Jr

P.S. Inclosed herewith are two reports from the Commsrs for examining the head of James River &c. and the ground between the waters of Elizabeth River & N. Carolina—also a sensible pamphlet said to be written by St George Tucker of this State.7

ALS, DLC:GW; LB, DLC: Madison Papers.

2See GW to Patrick Henry, 29 Oct. (second letter), n.1. Madison wrote Thomas Jefferson on 22 Jan.: “The donation presented to Genl. W. embarrass[ed] him much. On one side he disliked the appearance of slighting the bounty of his Country and of an ostentatious disinterestedness. On the other an acceptance of reward in any shape was irreconcileable with the law he had imposed on himself. His answer to the Assembly declined in the most affectionate terms the emolument allotted to himself, but intimated his willingness to accept it so far as to dedicate it to some public and patriotic use. This Act recites the original act & his answer, and appropriates the future revenue from the shares to such public objects as he shall appoint. He has been pleased to ask my ideas with regard to the most proper objects. I suggest in general only, a part[i]tion of the fund between some institution which would please the [phil]osophical world and some other which may be of [a] popular cast. If your knowledge of the several institutions, in France or else where, should suggest models, or hints, I could wish for your ideas on the case which is no less concerns the good of the common wealth than the character of its most illustrious citizen” (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 8:472–82).

3Arthur Lee’s election from Prince William County was challenged on the points of residency and of holding a paying position from Congress. On 31 Oct. he was declared ineligible to serve in the house on the second count (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 ).

4For the revisal of the Virginia code, see the editorial note in “The Revisal of the Laws, 1776–1786” in Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 2:305–665. See also Madison’s report of 22 Jan. 1786 to Jefferson on the progress made in this session on the revision and “Bills for a Revised State Code of Laws” (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 8:472–82, 391–99).

5A petition for the emancipation of the slaves drawn up and circulated in the summer and fall of 1785 under the guidance of the Methodist leaders Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke was read in the house on 8 Nov. and rejected 10 Nov. without dissent. The legislative history of the unsuccessful attempt in the Virginia house of delegates during this session to amend or repeal the act permitting the manumission of slaves is given in note 4 of this letter from Madison to GW as printed 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 8:403–5. See also Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 22 Jan. 1786, ibid., 472–82.

6Joseph Prentis introduced in the house of delegates four resolutions for vesting in Congress the power to regulate trade, but after much controversy the house took no action until the last day of the session when it passed a resolution “proposing a general meeting of Commssrs from the States to consider and recommend a fœderal plan for regulating Commerce” and appointing seven commissioners from Virginia (Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 22 Jan. 1786, ibid., 472–82; see also “Resolution Authorizing a Commission to Examine Trade Regulations,” ibid., 470–71, and Madison to GW, 9 Dec. 1785, n.1). Madison identifies Benjamin Harrison, Meriwether Smith, and Carter Braxton as the leading opponents of empowering Congress to regulate trade.

7For the report on the Elizabeth River Canal, see Henry to GW, 11 Nov., n.2. St. George Tucker has been identified as the author of a pamphlet published in Richmond entitled Reflections on the Policy and Necessity of Encouraging the Commerce of the Citizens of the United States of America, and of Granting Them Exclusive Privileges of Trade.

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