George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Beverley Randolph, 4 January 1791

From Beverley Randolph

Council Chamber [Richmond, Va.] Jany 4th 1791.

Sir,

In conformity to a Resolution of the General Assembly of this State herewith inclosed, I do myself the honour to transmit a Memorial from the Representatives of the Frontier Counties, & the Proceedings of the Executive respecting a temporary System of defence for the Western Frontier.1 I beg leave also to lay before you copies of two other Resolutions of the General Assembly2 together with the Petition of sundry Officers of the Virginia Line on Continental Establishment on the subject of the Bounty Lands allotted to them on the Northwest side of the Ohio.3 I have the Honour to be with the highest respect Your Obedt Servant.

Beverley Randolph

LS, DNA: RG 46, First Congress, 1789–1791, Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages; extract, DNA: RG 46, First Congress, 1789–1791, Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages; LB, Vi: Executive Letter Book.

1The first of these enclosures was an undated memorial of the delegates to the Virginia legislature from the frontier counties of that state. Randolph had enclosed a copy of this memorial in his letter to GW of 10 Dec. 1790. He also enclosed with the 4 Jan. letter a copy of a resolution of the Virginia house of delegates of 20 Dec. 1790 authorizing the governor to take steps for the defense of the frontier, and an extract from the journal of the executive council of Virginia, dated 29 Dec. 1790, directing measures for the defense of the state’s exposed western counties. GW referred these documents, along with Randolph’s letter, to Henry Knox for his report (see Knox to GW, 15 Jan. 1791, third letter). The full text of these enclosures appears as enclosures 2–4 with the printed text of Knox’s report in DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972—. description ends 5:1409–15. Knox’s report and its enclosures, including Randolph’s letter of 4 Jan. 1791 and the enclosures relating to the Virginia frontier, were presented to Congress by GW on 24 Jan. 1791.

Neither GW nor Knox made a specific reply to Randolph, and the governor apparently was unaware that his letter and its enclosures relating to the frontier had been presented to Congress when he wrote to GW on 17 Feb. 1791. His letter reads: “I did myself the Honour to write you on the 4th of January inclosing a Memorial from the Representatives of the frontier counties of Virginia and the proceedings of the Executive respecting a temporary System of Defence for the Western Country. Not having heard from you on the subject of these papers I am apprehensive, that they may have miscarried. I shall therefore be, extremely obliged to you if you will inform me whether they have been received” (Vi: Executive Letter Book). In response to this letter, Tobias Lear wrote to Henry Knox at GW’s order on 26 Feb., transmitting Randolph’s letter of 17 Feb. and requesting Knox, “to whom the papers therein mentioned have been referred,” to “form such an answer to Governor Randolph as the case may require” (DLC:GW). Knox replied to Lear the same day, transmitting the draft of a letter to Randolph (not found), adding that “If it should be the opinion of the President that the letter ought to be signed by himself, you could easily modify it accordingly” (DLC:GW). Knox subsequently wrote to Randolph on 14 Mar. 1791, enclosing a copy of his 10 Mar. letter to the lieutenants of the frontier counties of Pennsylvania and Virginia (DLC:GW).

2Randolph enclosed copies of a series of resolutions passed in the Virginia general assembly protesting against Hamilton’s funding and assumption program. All of these enclosed resolutions are in DNA: RG 46, First Congress, 1789–1791, Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages. The first of these resolutions, passed by the house of delegates on 3 Nov. 1790, asserts that “so much of the Act intitled ‘An Act making provision for the debt of the United States,’ as assumes the payment of the State debts, is repugnant to the Constitution of the United States, as it goes to the exercise of a power not granted to the General Government.” The second in the series is a resolution of the Virginia senate, dated 4 Nov. 1790, which asserts that “so much of the Act intitled ‘An Act making provision for the debt of the United States,’ as limits the right of the United States, in their redemption of the public debt, is dangerous to the rights, and subversive of the Interest of the people, and demands the marked disapprobation of the General Assembly.”

These protests against assumption by the house of delegates and the funding system by the Virginia senate led to the passage of two joint resolutions. The first, which Randolph enclosed, and which was passed by the house of delegates on 8 Nov. 1790, complains that the assumption of state debts “will in its operation be highly injurious to those States, which have by persevering and strenuous exertions, redeemed a considerable portion of the debts incurred by them during the late War, and will particularly produce great injury to this State: because a large proportion of the debt then contracted by this Commonwealth, having been already redeemed by the Collection of heavy taxes levied on its Citizens, and measures having been taken for the gradual payment of the balance so as to afford the most certain prospect of extinguishing the whole at a period not very distant, the Commonwealth will by the operation of the aforesaid Act be involved for payment of debts contracted by other States, which either have not paid any part thereof themselves, or have reduced them but in a small proportion, compared with the payments made by this State; by means whereof a heavy debt will be intailed on this State, which never can be extinguished by all its efforts, whilst any part of the debts contracted by any State in the American Union, and so assumed shall remain unpaid.”

The second joint resolution, passed by the house of delegates on 16 Dec. 1790 and approved by the senate, complains that the establishment of a permanent funding system was not warranted by policy, justice, or the Constitution. “Republican policy,” the resolution asserts, “in the opinion of your Memorialists could scarcely have suggested those clauses in the aforesaid Act, which limit the right of the United States, in their redemption of the public debt. On the contrary they discern a striking resemblance between this system and that which was introduced into England at the Revolution: a System which has perpetuated upon that nation an enormous debt, and has moreover insinuated into the hands of the Executive an unbounded influence, which pervading every branch of the Government, bears down all opposition, and daily threatens the destruction of every thing that appertains to English liberty. The same causes produce the same effects.

“In an Agricultural Country like this, therefore, to erect and concentrate and perpetuate a large insured interest, is a measure which your Memorialists apprehend must in the course of human events, produce one or other of two evils—the Prostration of Agriculture at the feet of Commerce, or a change in the present form of Fœderal Government, fatal to the existence of American liberty.

“The General Assembly pass by various other parts of the said Act which they apprehend will have a dangerous and impolitic tendency, and proceed to shew the injustice of it, as it applies to this Commonwealth. It pledges the faith of the United States, for the payment of certain debts, due by the several states in the Union, contracted by them during the late war.

“A large proportion of the debt thus contracted by this State, has been already redeemed by the collection of heavy taxes levied on its Citizens, and measures have been taken for the gradual payment of the balance, so as to afford the most certain prospect of extinguishing the whole at a period not very distant. But by the opperation of the aforesaid Act, a heavy debt, and consequently heavy taxes, will be intailed on the Citizens of this Commonwealth, from which they never can be relieved by all the efforts of the General Assembly, whilst any part of the debts contracted by any State in the American Union and so assumed, shall remain unpaid, for it is with great anxiety your Memorialists perceive, that the said Act without the smallest necessity, is calculated to extort from the General Assembly, the power to taxing their own constituents for the payment of their own debts, in such a manner as would be best suited to their own ease and convenience.

“Your Memorialists cannot suppress their uneasiness at the discriminating preference, which is given to the holders of the principal of the Continental debt, over the holders of the principal of the State debts, in those instances where States have made ample provision for the Annual payment of the Interest, and where of course there can be no Interest to compound with the Principal; which happens to be the situation of this Commonwealth.

“The Continental Creditors have preferences in other respects, which the General Assembly forbear to mention, satisfied that Congress must allow, that Policy, Justice and the principles of Public Credit, abhor discriminations between fair Creditors.

“Your Memorialists turn away from the Impolicy and Injustice of the said Act, and view it in another light, in which to them it appears still more odious and deformed.

“During the whole discussion of the Fœderal Constitution by the Convention of Virginia, your Memorialists were taught to believe, ‘that every power not granted, was retained,’; Under this impression, and upon this positive condition declared in the instrument of Ratification, the said Government was adopted by the people of this Commonwealth; but your Memorialists can find no clause in the Constitution, authorizing Congress to assume debts of the States. As the Guardians then of the rights and Interests of their Constitutents, as Sentinels placed by them over the Ministers of the Fœderal Government, to shield it from their incroachments, or at least to sound the alarm when it is threatened with invasion, they can never reconcile it to their consciences silently to acquiesce in a measure which violates that hallowed maxim. A maxim, on the truth and sacredness of which, the Fœderal Government depended for its adoption in this Commonwealth. But this injudicious Act not only deserves the censure of the General Assembly, because it is not warranted by the Constitution of the United States, but, because it is repugnant to an express provision of that Constitution—this provision is, ‘that all debts contracted and engagements entered into, before the adoption of this Constitution, shall be as vaild against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation,’ which amounts to a constitutional ratification of the contracts respecting the State debts in the situation in which they existed under the Confederation. And resorting to that standard, there can be no doubt that in the present question, the rights of States as contracting parties with the United States, must be considered as sacred.

“The General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia confide so fully in the Justice and Wisdom of Congress upon the present occasion, as to hope, that they will revise and amend the aforesaid Act generally, and repeal in particular, so much of it, as relates to the Assumption of the State debts.”

3Randolph enclosed a copy of an undated petition from former officers of the Virginia line, addressed to the general assembly, seeking state action to secure bounty lands promised to them by the state before Virginia’s cession of its western lands to the general government. The petition complained that many surveys made before the cession of land northwest of the Ohio River had been annulled and sought the interposition of the Virginia general assembly to have the federal acts relating to the land revised in order to facilitate the distribution of bounty lands in the manner formerly prescribed by Virginia law. This petition was signed by seventeen men (DNA: RG 46, First Congress, 1789–1791, Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages).

Randolph also enclosed a copy of a resolution of the house of delegates of 20 Dec. 1790, approved by the Virginia senate on 22 Dec., responding to the petition and complaining that “the Act of Congress, intitled ‘An Act to enable the Officers and Soldiers of the Virginia line on Continental establishment, to obtain titles to certain lands lying North West of the River Ohio between the little Miami and Scioto’ renders the entries and surveys made for the Officers and Soldiers of the Continental line of this State on the North West side of the Ohio, doubtful and precarious, and destroys the rights of their Assignees, which rights have been sanctioned by the laws of this Commonwealth.

“Resolved that the expression of the said Act is so vague as to leave it uncertain, whether Officers having title to lands under the Acts and Resolutions of the General Assembly of this Commonwealth, but who have not continued in service to the end of the War, shall have grants on the warrants which have been issued to them.

“Resolved that the Executive be requested to transmit a copy of the foregoing resolutions together with the Petition of the Officers and Soldiers of the Virginia line, to the President of the United States” (DNA: RG 46, First Congress, 1789–1791, Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages).

At GW’s direction Tobias Lear transmitted these documents to Henry Knox with a note dated 12 Jan. 1791, requesting Knox’s opinion on the matter (DLC:GW). Knox reported to GW in a letter dated that same day. His letter reads: “The Secretary of War, to whom the President of the United States was pleased to refer, certain resolves of the Legislature of Virginia respecting ‘an act to enable the officers and soldiers of the Virginia line on continental establishment to obtain title to certain lands lying North West of the river Ohio between the Little Miami and Scioto,’ and a petition of the officers of the late Virginia line to the said Legislature upon the same subject; as transmitted by his excellency the governor of Virginia, in his letter of the 4th of January 1791. Reports, That as said Resolves & petition, set forth certain inconveniencies to which the officers of the said line will be subjected by the operation of the aforesaid law passed the last session of Congress; it will be proper that the said resolves, and the petition, should be laid before the Congress of the United States. All which is humbly submitted to the President of the United States” (DLC:GW).

Knox transmitted a duplicate of this report, dated 14 Jan. 1791, to GW in his letter to Tobias Lear of 15 Jan. 1791, which reads: “I transmit a short report to be submitted to the President of the United States relative to the petitions of the officers of the late Virginia line, concerning the lands due them—I have prepared another report on the other papers relative to the defence ordered by Virginia for the protection of the frontiers—but as it is an important subject I wish before it is submitted to the president to obtain the opinion of Mr Jefferson and Hamilton thereon; combined with other matter respecting the frontiers. Those gentlemen have appointed to meet me on monday morning upon the subject: And as soon as they have made up their judgement on the points which will be laid before them I will report the result to the president of the United States. Pray let me know whether I returned Doctor Fallon’s address to the President of the United States—if so pray send it to me to morrow” (DLC:GW). For James O’Fallon’s letter to GW of 25 Sept. 1790, see Thomas Jefferson and Edmund Randolph to GW, 14 Feb. 1791. GW submitted Knox’s report on petition of the officers of the Virginia line to Congress on 17 Jan. 1791.

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