George Washington Papers

To George Washington from James Madison, 20 November 1789

From James Madison

Orange [Va.] Novr 20 1789.

Dear Sir

It was my purpose to have dropped you a few lines from Philada but I was too much indisposed during my detention there to avail myself of that pleasure. Since my arrival here I have till now been without a fit conveyance to the post office.

You will recollect the contents of a letter shewn you from Mr Innis to Mr Brown.1 Whilst I was in Philada I was informed by the latter who was detained there as well as myself by indisposition, that he had recd later accounts though not from the same correspondent, that the Spaniards have finally put an entire stop to the trade of our Citizens down the river. The encouragements to such as settle under their own Government are continued.

A day or two after I got to Philada I fell in with Mr Morris. He broke the subject of the residence of Congs, and made observations which betrayed his dislike of the upshot of the business at N. York, and his desire to keep alive the Southern project of an arrangement with Pennsylvania.2 I reminded him of the conduct of his State, and intimated that the question would probably sleep for some time in consequence of it. His answer implied that Congress must not continue at New York, and that if he should be freed from his Engagements with the E. States by their refusal to take up the bill and pass it as it went to the Senate, he should renounce all confidence in that quarter, and speak seriously to the S. States. I told him they must be spoken to very seriously, after what had passed, if Penna expected them to listen to her, that indeed there was probably an end to further intercourse on the subject. He signified that if he should speak it would be ⟨in earne⟩st, and he believed no one would pretend that his conduct would justify the least distrust of his going throug[h] with his undertakings; adding however that he was determined & accordingly gave me as he had given others notice that he should call up the postponed bill as soon as Congs should be re-assembled. I observed to him that if it were desirable to have the matter revived we could not wish to have it in a form more likely to defeat itself. It was unparliamentary and highly inconvenient, and would therefore be opposed by all candid friends to his object as an improper precedent, as well as by those who were opposed to the object itself. And if he should succeed in the Senate, the irregularity of the proceeding would justify the other House in withholding the signature of its Speaker, so that the bill could never go up to the President. He acknowledged that the bill could not be got thro’ unless it had a majority in both houses on its merits. Why then, I asked, not take it up anew? He said he meant to bring the gentlemen who had postponed the bill to the point, acknowledged that he distrusted them, but held his engagements binding on him, until this final experiment should be made on the respect they meant to pay to theirs. I do not think it difficult to augur from this conversation the views which will govern Penna at the next Session. Conversations held by Grayson both with Morris & others in Philada and left by him in a letter to me, coincide with what I have stated.3 An attempt will first be made to alarm N. York and the Eastern States into the plan postponed, by holding out the Potowmac & Philada as the alternative, and if the attempt should not succeed, the alternative will then be held out to the Southern members. On the other hand N.Y. and the E. States, will enforce their policy of delay, by threatening the S. States as heretofore, with German Town or Trenton or at least Susquehanna, and will no doubt carry the threat into execution if they can, rather than suffer an arrangement to take place between Pena & the S. States.

I hear nothing certain from the Assembly. It is said that an attempt of Mr H. to revive the project of commutables has been defeated, that the amendments have been taken up, and are likely to be put off to the next Session, the present house having been elected prior to the promulgation of them.4 This reason would have more force, if the amendments did not so much correspond as far as they go with the propositions of the State Convention, which were before the public long before the last Election.5 At any rate, the Assembly might pass a vote of approbation along with the postponement, and Asign the reason of referring the ratification to their successors. It is probably that the scruple has arisen with the disaffected party. If it be construed by the public into a latent hope of some contingent opportunity for prosecuting the war agst the Genl Government; I am of opinion the experiment will recoil on the authors of it. As far as I can gather, the great bulk of the late opponents are entirely at rest, and more likely to censure further opposition to the Govt as now Administered than the Government itself. One of the principal leaders of the Baptists lately sent me word that the amendments had entirely satisfied the disaffected of his Sect, and that it would appear in their subsequent conduct.6

I ought not to conclude without some apology for so slovenly a letter. I put off writing it till an opportunity should present itself not knowing but something from time to time might turn up that would make it less unworthy of your perusal. And it has so happened that the oppy barely gives me time for this hasty scr⟨awl⟩. With the most perfect esteem & affect. attachment I remain Dear Sir Yr Mot Obedt ⟨servt⟩

Js Madison Jr

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

1The letter from Harry Innes to John Brown has not been located.

2For the proceedings in Congress over the location of the Federal City, in which Sen. Robert Morris played a leading role, see Pierre L’Enfant to GW, 11 Sept. 1789.

3For Grayson’s comments on congressional dissension over the site for the new Federal City, see his letter to Madison, 7 Oct. 1789, 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 12:431–32.

4For Patrick Henry’s unsuccessful attempt in the Virginia house of delegates to make hemp and tobacco commutable for the payment of 1789 taxes, in addition to payments in specie, see Journal of the House of Delegates, description begins Journal of the House of Delegates, of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Begun and Held at the Capitol in the City of Richmond, on Monday, the nineteenth of October, in the Year of our Lord, One Thousand, Seven Hundred and Eighty-Nine, and of the Commonwealth the Fourteenth. Richmond, [1789]. description ends 1789, 57.

5For the amendments to the Constitution submitted to the states for ratification, see GW’s Circular to the Governors of the States, 2 Oct. 1789. Virginia was in the forefront of the states demanding that a bill of rights be added to the Constitution, and some members of the state ratifying convention had considered conditional ratification until such amendments were introduced. As Madison later observed, “In many States the Constn. was adopted under a tacit compact in favr. of some subsequent provision on this head. In Virga. It would have been certainly rejected, had no assurances been given by its advocates that such provisions would be pursued” (Madison to Richard Peters, 19 Aug. 1789, 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 12:346–48). The Virginia Ratifying Convention had formulated twenty articles to constitute a bill of rights, and it had suggested another twenty additional amendments to the Constitution. See Robertson, Debates and Other Proceedings of the Convention of Virginia, description begins David Robertson. Debates and Other Proceedings of the Convention of Virginia, Convened at Richmond, on Monday the Second Day of June, 1788, for the Purpose of Deliberating on the Constitution Recommended by the Grand Federal Convention. 2d ed. Richmond, 1805. description ends 471–75, for the text of the twenty articles. Even after ratification, many of the opponents of the Constitution in Virginia, as well as in other states, advocated calling a second convention to consider amendments limiting federal powers. During the debates in Congress over the amendments in the summer of 1789, senators Richard Henry Lee and William Grayson campaigned vigorously and unsuccessfully to have all of Virginia’s amendments submitted to the states. Their apologetic letters to the governor and the house of delegates are printed in note 4 of Edmund Randolph’s letter to GW, 26 Nov. 1789. When the twelve amendments enacted by Congress were finally presented to the states in October 1789, some Antifederalists in Virginia, as in other states, opposed them as inadequate. See, for example, Edmund Randolph to GW, 26 Nov., nn.3 and 4, and 6, 11, and 15 Dec. 1789, David Stuart to GW, 3 Dec., and Madison to GW, 5 Dec. 1789. Critics of the Constitution continued to push for prohibitions against standing armies and direct taxes and for protection for paper money already in circulation, and Virginia continued to agitate for adoption of the amendments promulgated in the state’s ratifying convention. The amendments were submitted to the states in October 1789. See GW’s Circular to the Governors of the States, 2 Oct. 1789. When the amendments were introduced in the Virginia general assembly, Patrick Henry led the opposition. Perhaps the best description of the proceedings concerning amendments in this session of the house of delegates is found in a letter from Edward Carrington to Madison, 20 Dec. 1789: “During the session, there has been much less intemperance than prevailed last year. Mr. H[enry] was disposed to do some antifederal business, but having felt the pulse of the House on several points and finding that it did not beat with certainty in unison with his own, he at length took his departure about the middle of the session without pushing any thing to its issue. His first effort was to procure an address of thanks, or in some other mode the acknowledgements of the House, for the great vigilance of our senators manifested in their letter upon the subject of our forlorn prospect in regard to such amendements as will secure our liberties under the Government. Upon this point he made a Speech to the house, but it not appearing to take well, it was never stirred again. This letter was considered by some of the most violent of the Anti’s as seditious and highly reprehensible. His next effort was to refer the amendments sent forward by Congress, to the next session of Assembly, in order that the people might give their sentiments whether they were satisfactory, alledging that in his opinion they were not. To this purpose he proposed a resolution, but finding the disposition of the house to be otherwise, he moved that it might lie on the Table, and went away without ever calling it up again. Somewhat later in the session the subject of the amendments was taken up—the ten first were, with the exception of perhaps not more than ten Members, unanimously agreed to—on the eleventh and twelfth some difficulty arose, from Mr. E. Randolphs objecting to them as unsatisfactory—after much debate they were rejected in the Committee of the whole but the report being defered a few days they were accepted in the House by a pretty good Majority thus the whole were adopted in the lower house—they went to the senate in one resolution where they remained long—the resolution at length returned with a proposition to amend by striking out the 3d. 8th. 11th. & 12, these to be refered to the consideration of the people. To this amendment the lower house disagreed and requested a conference—the Senate insisted, and assented to the conference, this was, however, productive of conviction on neither side, the Committee on the part of the Senate returned with S[tevens] T[homson] Mason at their head, to their House, which upon his Motion, immediately adhered before any thing further passed between the two Houses; the delegates could in no stage have seen cause to recede from their disagreement, but under this intemperate and unprecedented Conduct they were left without a choice of any thing but to adhere also, and thus the whole amendments have fallen. The sense of the house of delegates was fairly & fully passed on the propriety of adopting them, and the intemperance manifested in the conduct of the Senate, will doubdess shew the people whether this fate of the amendments, was produced from a want of merit in them, or in the senate. Through the whole course of the business in that house there was on the several questions equal divisions of the members, so, as to leave the decision to the chair. Notwithstanding the unequivocal decision in the house of delegates for adopting the amendments, yet in the course of the discussion some intemperance was generated —this led to propositions which in the earlier parts of the session none would have thought of, and it was with difficulty that a proposition for demanding a compliance with the amendments proposed by our convention, so far as they have not been agreed to, by Congress was prevented from passing. This proposition was presented to the house as often as three times, at first it was rejected by a great majority, at the next attempt it was rejected by a less majority, and at the third by the vote of the Speaker. Had Mr. Henry conceived that such would have been the temper in the latter stages of the session, he would not have left us” (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 12:462–65). For other comments on the journey of the amendments through this session of the Virginia legislature, see Randolph to GW, 22, 26 Nov., 6, 11, and 15 Dec. 1789, and Madison to GW, 5 Dec. 1789.

6Virginia Baptists were among the most avid supporters of a bill of rights containing clauses guaranteeing not only their right to worship freely but relieving them for the support of an established church. Encouraged by the provisions of the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights assuring the free practice of religion, they led the opposition in the early 1780s to a bill in the legislature granting state subsidies to religious education and to the Incorporation Act of 1784 designed to preserve the glebe lands held by the Episcopal church (see Randolph to GW, 22 Nov. 1789, n.6). For a statement of their views, see the church’s address to GW, printed in the notes to GW’s letter of reply, May 1789.

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