Madison to Jefferson on the Need for a More Perfect Union

Liberty Letters, James Madison

On March 18, 1786, James Madison wrote Thomas Jefferson regarding the Constitutional Convention’s warm-up, a commercial convention in Annapolis, discussing the desperate need for a more unified nation, focusing this letter on the matter of commerce:

A quorum of the deputies appointed by the Assembly for a commercial Convention had a meeting at Richmond shortly after I left it, and the Attorney tells me it has been agreed to propose Annapolis for the place, and the first Monday in September for the time, of holding the Convention. It was thought prudent to avoid the neighborhood of Congress and the large Commercial towns, in order to disarm the adversaries to the object of insinuations of influence from either of these quarters. I have not heard what opinion is entertained of this project at New York, nor what reception it has found in any of the States. If it should come to nothing, it will, I fear, confirm Great Britain and all the world in the belief that we are not to be respected nor apprehended as a nation in matters of commerce. The States are every day giving proofs that separate regulations are more likely to set them by the ears than to attain the common object. When Massachusetts set on foot a retaliation of the policy of Great Britain, Connecticut declared her ports free. New Jersey served New York in the same way. And Delaware, I am told, has lately followed the example, in opposition to the commercial plans of Pennsylvania.

A miscarriage of this attempt to unite the States in some effectual plan will have another effect of a serious nature. It will dissipate every prospect of drawing a steady revenue from our imposts, either directly into the federal treasury, or indirectly through the treasuries of the Commercial States, and, of consequence, the former must depend for supplies solely on annual requisitions, and the latter on direct taxes drawn from the property of the Country. That these dependencies are in an alarming degree fallacious, is put by experience out of all question. The payments from the States under the calls of Congress have in no year borne any proportion to the public wants. During the last year, that is, from November, 1784, to November, 1785, the aggregate payments, as stated to the late Assembly, fell short of 400,000 dollars, a sum neither equal to the interest due on the foreign debts, nor even to the current expenses of the federal Government. The greatest part of this sum, too, went from Virginia, which will not supply a single shilling the present year.

Another unhappy effect of a continuance of the present anarchy of our commerce will be a continuance of the unfavorable balance on it, which, by draining us of our metals, furnishes pretexts for the pernicious substitution of paper money, for indulgences to debtors, for postponements of taxes. In fact, most of our political evils may be traced up to our commercial ones, as most of our moral may to our political. The lessons which the mercantile interest of Europe have received from late experience will probably check their propensity to credit us beyond our resources, and so far the evil of an unfavorable balance will correct itself. But the Merchants of Great Britain, if no others, will continue to credit us, at least as far as our remittances can be strained, and that is far enough to perpetuate our difficulties, unless the luxurious propensity of our own people can be otherwise checked.

This view of our situation presents the proposed Convention as a remedial experiment which ought to command every assent; but if it be a just view, it is one which assuredly will not be taken by all even of those whose intentions are good. I consider the event, therefore, as extremely uncertain, or rather, considering that the States must first agree to the proposition for sending deputies, that these must agree in a plan to be sent back to the States, and that these again must agree unanimously in a ratification of it, I almost despair of success. It is necessary, however, that something should be tried, and if this be not the best possible expedient, it is the best that could possibly be carried through the Legislature here. And if the present crisis cannot effect unanimity, from what future concurrence of circumstances is it to be expected ? Two considerations particularly remonstrate against delay. One is the danger of having the same game played on our Confederacy by which Philip managed that of the Grecians. I saw enough during the late Assembly of the influence of the desperate circumstances of individuals on their public conduct, to admonish me of the possibility of finding in the council of some one of the States fit instruments of foreign machinations. The other consideration is the probability of an early increase of the confederated States, which more than proportionally impede measures which require unanimity; as the new members may bring sentiments and interests less congenial with those of the Atlantic States than those of the latter are one with another.

The price of our staple is down at 22s. at Richmond. One argument for putting off the taxes was, that it would relieve the planters from the necessity of selling, and would enable them to make a better bargain with the purchasers. The price has, notwithstanding, been falling ever since. How far the event may have proceeded from a change in the Market of Europe, I know not. That it has in part proceeded from the practice of remitting and postponing the taxes, may, I think, be fairly deduced. The scarcity of money must, of necessity, sink the price of every article, and the relaxation in collecting the taxes increases this scarcity by diverting the money from the public Treasury to the shops of Merchandize. In the former case it would return into circulation. In the latter, it goes out of the Country to balance the increased consumption. A vigorous and steady collection of taxes would make the money necessary here, and would therefore be a mean of keeping it here. In our situation it would have the salutary operation of a sumptuary law. The price of Indian Corn in this part of the Country, which produced the best crops, is not higher than two dollars per barrel. It would have been much higher but for the peculiar mildness of the winter. December and January scarcely reminded us that it was winter. February, though temperate, was less unseasonable. Our deepest snow (about seven inches) was in the present month. I observe the tops of the blue ridge still marked with its remains. My last was dated January 22d, and contained a narrative of the proceedings of the Assembly.

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The Liberty Letters are researched, and edited (with occasional commentary) by Steve Farrell. Spelling has been modernized in this letter. Copyright © 2012 Steve Farrell and The Moral Liberal.