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To Mr. Monroe, who was then taking an active part in the discussion of this matter in the Congress, Mr. Madison wrote in a letter dated August 7, 1785 :
“Viewing in the abstract the question whether the power of regulating trade, to a certain degree at least, ought to be vested in Congress, it appears to me not to admit of a doubt but that it should be decided in the affirmative. If it be necessary to regulate trade at all, it surely is necessary to lodge the power where trade can be regulated with effect; and experience has confirmed what reason foresaw, that it can never be so regulated with the States acting in their separate capacities. They can no more exercise this power separately than they could separately carry on war, or separately form treaties of alliance or commerce. The nature of the thing, therefore, proves the former power, no less than the latter, to be within the reason of the federal Constitution.
“Much indeed is it to be wished, as I conceive, that no regulations of trade, that is to say, no restrictions on imposts whatever, were necessary. A perfect freedom is the system which would be
“What is to be done? Must we remain passive victims to foreign politics, or shall we exert the lawful means which our independence has put into our hands of extorting redress? The very question would be an affront to every citizen who loves his country. What, then, are these means? Retaliating regulations of trade only. How are these to be effectuated ? Only by harmony in the measures of the States. How is this harmony to be obtained? Only by an acquiescence of all the States in the opinion of a reasonable majority. If Congress, as now constituted, can not be trusted with the power of digesting and enforcing this opinion, let it be otherwise constituted ; let its numbers be increased ; let the members be chosen oftener, and let their period of service be shortened; or if any better medium than Congress can be proposed by which the wills of the States may be concentrated, let it be substituted; or lastly let no regulation of trade adopted by Congress be in force until it shall have been ratified by a certain proportion of the States. But let us not sacrifice the end to the means; let us not rush on certain ruin in order to avoid a possible danger.
Should Great Britain persist in the machinations which distress us, and seven or eight of the States be hindered by the others from obtaining relief by federal
means, I own I tremble at the anti-federal expedients into which the former may be tempted.”
On this vital point of increasing adequately the powers of the Congress, the first men of Virginia were greatly divided. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison favored it, and believed substantially that such increase of the confederate power was the only respectable and satisfactory way to the solution of existing difficulties; and Mr. Jefferson, then usually cautious and scrupulous about taking any power from the States where all power was already found to be useless, wrote from Europe that the United States (so termed) had little respect abroad until it became certain that the Congress would be endowed with sufficient authority to give permanence and vigor to international matters. The opponents of this course in Virginia were Patrick Henry, George Mason, R. H. Lee, and James Monroe.
Bearing on this difficult subject of which men learned slowly even in the school of necessity, Mr. Madison wrote to his first friend, Jefferson, in a letter dated August 20, 1785 :
“The machinations of Great Britain, with regard to commerce, have produced much distress and noise in the Northern States, particularly in Boston, from whence the alarm has spread to New York and Philadelphia. Your correspondence with Congress will no doubt have furnished you with full information on this head. I only know the general fact, and that the sufferers are everywhere calling for such augmentation of the power of Congress as may effect relief. How far the Southern States, and Virginia in particular, will join in this proposition, can not be foreseen. It is easy to foresee that the circumstances which, in a confined view, distinguish our situation from that of our brethren, will be laid hold of by the partisans of Great Britain, by those who are or affect to be jealous of Congress, and those who are interested in the present course of business, to give a wrong bias to our councils. If any thing should reconcile Virginia to the idea of giving Congress a power over her trade, it will be that this power is likely to annoy Great Britain, against whom the animosities of our citizens are still strong. They seem to have less sensibility to their commercial interests, which they very little understand, and which the mercantile class here have not the same motives, if they had the same capacity, to lay open to the public, as that class have in the States north of us."
During the summer of 1785, Mr. Madison carried out his purpose of making a tour to some of the Northern States. The disposition of some honest and able politicians and public men of that day to make occasional trips to remote parts of the country was founded mainly on their desires to see for themselves, and thus be better able to judge of the various questions brought before them. Such tours were more necessary at that day of poor facilities for intercommunication, yet when the custom was established it was long continued, and in the course of time became, to some extent, a means of advancing individual and party interests.
When the Legislature of Virginia convened in the fall of 1785, Mr. Madison was in his seat. Here, as in other legislative bodies over the country, the struggle again was waged as to public debts, commerce, and other paramount interests, and the remedies, chief among which was an increase of the ability of the Congress. Mr. Madison was at the head of the committee on the state of the country, but was not pleased with any thing in the report of the committee except its preamble. The session was mainly occupied by wordy debates, and little was accomplished, besides the display of ill feeling and sectionalism by the enemies of the Congress.
In writing to Jefferson, then in France, on these scenes Mr. Madison said that the adversaries to the proposition to give the Confederacy authority to regulate commerce “ were bitter and illiberal against Congress and the Northern States beyond example, some of the members considering it as problematical whether it would not be better to encourage the British than the Eastern (States) marine.”
This was, indeed, a valuable epoch in Mr. Madison's career, marked by great unselfishness and patriotism; amidst these conflicts of self-interest he was Virginia’s solitary statesman. At all events, he hardly exhibited more broad statesmanlike qualities than during these four or five years of his life just preceding the inauguration of the Government of the United States in place of the old Confederacy.
But events were conspiring to hasten on a better state of affairs throughout the land.
The navigation of the Potomac River was a matter of dispute between Virginia and Maryland, and in the attempt to settle this, the commissioners made recommendations for mutually adjusting the conditions of trade between the two States, and the joint use of the river. The Maryland Legislature moving first on the result of this Potomac commission, invited Pennsylvania and Delaware to take part in the incipient scheme of commerce; and this step led Mr. Madison to propose to the Legislature of Virginia to call upon all the States to join in a convention for devising a mode of regulating and harmonizing the commerce of the whole country, and otherwise provide against some of the common defects of the present order of things, so distressing to all parts of the Confederacy. His resolution to that effect was finally agreed to towards the close of the session, in January, 1786. Immediately afterwards he wrote to Mr. Monroe that his purpose had been successful, and added :
“The expedient is, no doubt, liable to objections, and will probably miscarry. I think, however, it is better than nothing; and, as a recommendation of additional powers to Congress is within the purview of the commission, it may possibly lead to better consequences than at first occur. The commissioners first named were the Attorney (Edmund Randolph), Dr. Walter Jones of the Senate, and myself. The importunity of Mr. Page procured the addition of St. George Tucker, who is sensible, Federal, and skilled in commerce; to whom was added, on the motion of I know not whom, Meriwether Smith, who is, at least, exceptionable in the second quality, having made unceasing war, during the session, against the idea of bracing the Federal system. In the Senate, a further addition was made of Colonel Mason, Mr. David Ross, and Mr. Ronald. The name of the latter was struck out at his request. The others stand. It is not unlikely that this multitude of counsellors will stifle the thing in its birth.”
This movement substantially set on foot the events which led to the Constitution and the present Republic founded upon it. From this moment on to the inauguration of Washington as President of the real United States, the hand of Mr. Madison is everywhere conspicuous. Still it is not wisely or fairly claimed that he was the originator of the plan of a general commercial or constitutional convention. In fact, the Legislature of New York had recommended a general convention as early as July, 1782, and Massachusetts had done the same thing three years later. The idea was, indeed, not uncommon throughout the country.
In a letter, March 18, 1786, to Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Madison wrote of the new scheme :
“A quorum of the deputies appointed by the Assembly for a Commercial Convention, bad a meeting at Richmond shortly