George Washington Papers

To George Washington from James Madison, 5 November 1788

From James Madison

N. York Novr 5th 1788

Dear Sir

The inclosed memorandum was put into my hands by Mr St John the French Consul.1 He is a very worthy man & entitled by his philanthropy and zealous patronage of whatever he deems useful, to much esteem and regard. You will therefore oblige me by putting it in my power to afford him the little gratification he asks. I have another request to trouble you with, which concerns myself. Col. H. Lee tells me that he has purchased the tract of land thro’ which the Canal at the great falls is to run, and on which the bason will be, for £4000. The tract contains 500 Acres only and is under the incumbrance of a rent of £150 Sterlg per annum; but on the other hand derives from its situation, as he supposes, a certain prospect of becoming immensely valuable. He paints it in short as the seat of an early Town, the lots of which will be immediately productive, and possessing other peculiar advantages which make the bargain inestimable.2 In addition to many instances of his friendship he tenders me a part in it, and urges my acceptance on grounds of advantage to myself alone. I am thoroughly persuaded that I am indebted for the proposal to the most disinterested and affectionate motives, but knowing that the fervor with which he pursues his objects sometimes affects the estimate he forms of them, and being in no condition to make hazardous experiments, it is adviseable for me to have the sanction of other judgments to his opinions. You are well acquainted with the situation and can at once decide whether it presents the material and certain advantages on which Col. Lee calculates. A general intimation therefore of the light in which the matter strikes you, will lay me under a very particular obligation. I am by no means sure, that in any result it will be in my power to profit by Col. Lee’s friendship, but it may be of some consequence whether the opportunity be worth attending to or not.

My information from Richmond is very unpropitious to federal policy. Yours is no doubt more full and more recent. A decided and malignant majority may do many things of a disagreeable nature; but I trust the Constitution is too firmly established to be now materially vulnerable. The elections for the Legislatures of Penna N. Jersey, & Maryland ensure measures of contrary complexion in those States. Indeed Virginia is the only instance among the ratifying States in which the Politics of the Legislature are at variance with the sense of the people expressed by their representatives in Convention. We hear nothing from Massachts or N. Hampshire since the Meeting of their General Courts. It is understood that in both the appointments & arra[n]gements for the Government will be calculated to support and as far as possible to dignify it. The public conversation seems to be not yet settled on the Vice President. Mr Hancock & Mr Adams have been most talked of. The former it is said rejects the idea of any secondary Station; and the latter does not unite the suffrages of his own State, and is unpopuler in many other places. As other Candidates however are not likely to present themselves, and New England will be considered as having strong pretensions, it seems not improbable that the question will lie between the Gentlemen abovenamed. Mr Jay & Genl Knox have been mentioned; but it is supposed that neither of them will exchange their present situations for an unprofitable dignity.

I shall leave this in a day or two, but am not yet finally determined how far my journey may be continued Southward. A few lines on the subject above mentioned will either find me in Philada or be there taken care of for me. Should any thing occur there or elsewhere worth your attention it shall be duly communicated by Dear Sir your very respectful and Affectionate Servant

Js Madison Jr

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

1Michel-Guillaume St. Jean de Crèvecoeur (1735–1813) arrived in Canada during the French and Indian War. In 1759 he began a series of journeys through the English colonies and settled in Orange County, N.Y., in 1769. Before his return to France in 1780 he wrote Letters from an American Farmer, published in 1782 under the name of J. Hector St. John. Crèvecoeur returned to the United States in 1783 and was appointed French consul at New York, a post he held until his return to France in 1790. The enclosure was undoubtedly a memorandum on sulla (Hedysarum coronarum, sulla clover) given to Madison by Crèvecoeur (Madison to Crèvecoeur, 30 Nov. 1788, in Rutland, 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 11:370–71). Crevecoeur left the seed for the plant at GW’s lodgings in Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention (see GW to Madison, 17 Nov. 1788).

2Henry Lee (1756–1818) returned to Virginia after the Revolution and married his cousin Matilda Lee, heiress to Stratford. He served in the Virginia legislature and the Continental Congress during the Confederation and strongly supported ratification of the Constitution. In 1788 Lee developed a plan to purchase from Bryan Fairfax 500 acres of land adjacent to the Great Falls of the Potomac in the vicinity of the Potowmack Company’s canal, which was still in the process of construction. In addition to the purchase price of £4,000, the tract carried an additional obligation of an annual quitrent of £150 per year to be paid to Fairfax. Lee approached Madison in October 1788 with a proposal to join in the purchase. “The advantages infinitely exceed that of any spot of ground in the U. States,” he wrote Madison enthusiastically. “The canal runs thro the land, & the bason is in the land, the situation beautiful for a town & in the center of an excellent populous country” (Lee to Madison, 29 Oct. 1788, in Rutland, 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 11:321–22). Lee viewed the site as the gateway to a network of rivers and canals which would bring western trade to the Potomac region. He planned to build a town on the site to be called Matildaville in honor of his wife. At this time he was also considering bringing additional investors into the scheme, including among others Robert Morris as well as Jeremiah Wadsworth of Connecticut. On 17 Nov. GW returned to Madison a somewhat guarded but essentially favorable review of Lee’s proposal. By the end of November Madison had tentatively decided to participate in the venture (Lee to Madison, 29 Oct., 19 Nov., 8 Dec. 1788, Madison to Lee, 30 Nov. 1788, ibid., 321–22, 355–58, 371–73, 387–88).

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