George Washington Papers

To George Washington from John Steele, 4 January 1791

From John Steele

Philadelphia January 4th 1791


I concieve it my duty to communicate to Your Excellency the inclosed, and following information.

One of these papers will shew the fate of a motion made in the General Assembly of No. Carolina the other a premeditated attempt to draw that state into a contest with the Union.1

About the same time a bill was introduced, to authorise the Marshals to make use of the Jails of that State should occasion require it, which was rejected by a very large majority2

I am also sorry to observe that nothing is more common than to hear demagogues on all public occasions, in different parts of that state, declaiming furiously against Congress, their proceedings, the administration, and even against the constitution itself. All this popular rage might be prevented, in my humble opinion by administering the oath to the state officers. If it is not checked shortly, and any measures shou’d be adopted in the present sessions of Congress which might further irritate the minds of the people, I deplore the consequences.3

I therefore with great deference submit to Your Excellency the expedient of commanding the Governor (who has not firmness enough to do it himself) to take the oath before a proper officer, and that he should also cause it to be administered to others. A sincere desire that this Government which has cost the best people in America, so much pains and trouble to establish might not be injured by illtimed and illjudged opposition, has dictated this letter. If it is improper, or unnecessary I hope to be excused. I have the Honour, Sir With the highest respect to be, Your Excellency’s Most Obedient Servant

Jno. Steele

ALS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters.

1The enclosures have not been found. The first enclosure, dealing with “a motion made in the General Assembly,” probably was related to one of several Antifederalist resolutions passed by the North Carolina legislature at the end of 1790. These included resolutions adopted on 14 Dec. calling for the U.S. Senate to make its proceedings public and for the state’s members of Congress to “use their utmost endeavours to effect economy in the expenditure of public monies,” oppose any excise or other direct tax, and seek expansion of the postal service and changes to the federal judicial establishment in the state (N.C. State Records, description begins Walter Clark, ed. The State Records of North Carolina. 16 vols., numbered 11-26. Winston and Goldsboro, N.C., 1895–1907. description ends 21:1028–30, 1040–41, 1044, 1049) and resolutions adopted on 15 Dec. 1790 protesting against assumption as an infringement on state sovereignty and calling upon the state’s congressional delegates to “exert their endeavours to prevent as far as possible the evil operations of such acts to the interests and liberties of this country” (ibid., 21:1055–56). At the same session the legislature also postponed consideration of a state convention to consider changes to make the state constitution conform to the federal Constitution and passed a law forbidding federal officeholders from concurrently occupying state offices (ibid., 21:1052; McRee, Life and Correspondence of Iredell, description begins Griffith J. McRee. Life and Correspondence of James Iredell, One of the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. 2 vols. New York, 1857–58. description ends 2:302).

Steele had personal reasons to be concerned about the resolution protesting assumption; he had voted against assumption but in late 1790 found himself accused of supporting the measure, of failing to send notification of the bill’s passage, and of taking advantage of this situation to speculate on the state debt. Assumption and the federal excise were extremely unpopular in North Carolina; most state leaders preferred that North Carolina discharge its Revolutionary debt in depreciated paper money rather than accept a federal excise, particularly since many state certificates recently had been bought up by northern speculators. On 27 Dec. 1790 the North Carolina Chronicle, or Fayetteville Gazette published a letter from Steele defending his conduct with regard to assumption and supporting letters testifying that Steele had voted against assumption in the House of Representatives and had sent word of the passage of the assumption bill in a timely manner (Wagstaff, Steele Papers, description begins H. M. Wagstaff, ed. The Papers of John Steele. 2 vols. Raleigh, N.C., 1924. description ends 73–77).

The second enclosure, related to what Steele called “a premeditated attempt to draw” North Carolina “into a contest with the Union,” probably involved a resolution of the North Carolina legislature supporting a state court’s refusal to honor a writ issued by the federal district court. In November 1790 the state superior court for the Edenton district had refused to obey a writ of certiorari from the federal district court, on the grounds that the state court had “original general supreme and unlimited jurisdiction” and was not subordinate to the federal judiciary. The North Carolina general assembly resolved to “commend and approve of the conduct of the Judges . . . in this particular” on 15 Dec. 1790. Five Federalist members of the legislature signed a formal dissent from the resolution, protesting that it might disturb “the tranquility of that government of which we are common members” (N.C. State Records, description begins Walter Clark, ed. The State Records of North Carolina. 16 vols., numbered 11-26. Winston and Goldsboro, N.C., 1895–1907. description ends 21:865–67, 1054–55, 1080–82).

On 8 Jan. 1791 Tobias Lear transmitted Steele’s letter, along with the enclosures, to Attorney General Edmund Randolph, along with GW’s request “that the Atty General will give the papers respecting North Carolina an attentive and serious consideration, and report to the President his opinion thereupon as soon as he has made up his mind upon the subject” (DLC:GW). No reply from Randolph has been found.

2The North Carolina legislature passed an act authorizing the use of North Carolinia jails to confine federal prisoners on 13 Dec. 1790; see Alexander Martin to GW, c.1 Feb. 1791.

3On 9 Dec. 1790 the lower house of the North Carolina legislature rejected a resolution calling for the governor and members of the legislature to take an oath to support the U.S. Constitution by a vote of 55 to 26 (N.C. State Records, description begins Walter Clark, ed. The State Records of North Carolina. 16 vols., numbered 11-26. Winston and Goldsboro, N.C., 1895–1907. description ends 21:1021).

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