Page images

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 four hundred thousand 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."

Three other matters of importance to the State mainly absorbed Mr. Madison's attention during this session of the Legislature in the winter of 1785. These were the movement on the part of Kentucky for separation from Virginia; the passage of the bills of the revised laws as reported in 1779; and the regulation of the State finances, and collection of the State taxes. In the first two of these he led the way, and by his perseverance was not only nearly a half of the bills in the revised code made laws, but also a wise course was adopted concerning Kentucky which resulted in her delaying her application for a State establishment for seven years, when such a step was to her own advantage and that of the country at large.

Mr. Madison was opposed to a fluctuating, uncertain paper currency as a foundation to prosperity at home or credit abroad, and looked with anxiety upon the advances of its advocates, as he did the tendencies among the same men to favor the non-performance of foreign obligations, and to the hindrance, in various ways, to the payment and collection of State taxes.

In August, 1785, Mr. Madison received a letter from John Brown, a distinguished lawyer of Kentucky, asking him for a plan of State government for that territory. In the same month he made a reply, but only gave an outline of ideas, referring to other constitutions, and answering a number of questions in a general way, urging the pressure of other demands upon his time as an apology for brevity. His heart was evidently not in the idea of Kentucky adding a new disturbing element to the crumbling Confederacy. It was not the time for increasing the number of the States. His experiences were unfavorable for recommending such a step. Still in the outline views sent to Mr. Brown, he favored a property qualification for a voter, and voting by ballot as the method freest from abuses and most independent.

Late in January, 1786, the Legislature adjourned, and Mr. Madison again hastened to the retirement of his father's plantation. There, as usual, he occupied his time mainly in writing to his acquaintances and in reading. From his letters at this date it appears that natural history, to which many scholarly men even at that day in America gave much of their attention, afforded Mr. Madison a constant source of interest. To France, Americans were then undoubtedly indebted for the most recent incentives to entering this delightful and limitless field of research. Buffon's beautiful, if not always truthful, works had, indeed, aroused an interest before unfelt in this direction. On this subject Mr. Madison's reflections were often committed to his commonplace record, or written in letters, mainly to Mr. Jefferson. The most casual observer could not fail to note the difference given to the thoughts of these two friends from their study of natural history. Mr. Madison saw at every step the marks of design; everywhere a system, a plan, which he believed could in the same way be found to involve the lowest of existences in the world of matter; a plan beyond the ingenuity or device of man, or accident, or vagary. His conclusions were naturally metaphysical and moral. On the other hand Mr. Jefferson cared not to look beyond the objects themselves. In their systematic relations and dependencies his shallow philosophies saw nothing to carry him into a metaphysical, moral, or supernatural atmosphere which he seemed to hate, and certainly shunned.

As the time for the meeting of the Convention at Annapolis approached affairs throughout the country became more desperate. It seemed to be the moment

for unanimous, patriotic action. While the Convention was only designed by most of its advocates to take some satisfactory step toward removing the commercial evils of the country, it was hoped by many that it might lead to more substantial benefits to the entire Confederacy. More than this. It was now looked for by not a few as the best feasible and only probable means of saving the weak fabric that was called the Union. Still, there were no certain premonitory symptoms of unanimity in the counsels of the Convention. On the other hand there were not wanting evils which it was feared might prevent the attainment of any of the greatly needed benefits. Among these was the negotiation at that time in process between Mr. Jay, the Secretary of the Congress, and the Spanish Minister concerning the western and the south-western boundaries and the navigation of the Mississippi to its mouth. Mr. Jay was disposed to waive the claim to the free use of the Mississippi for a number of years. This surrender was stubbornly opposed by the South, as it should have been, doubtlessly, by the whole country, with perfect unanimity. But New York and the New England States were very well inclined to accept Mr. Jay's view of the case, and as to the other Middle States it was feared they would take the same side. This was regarded as a purely Northern scheme to build up that section to the detriment of the South. The charge was directly made that New York was aiming to draw to her the vast trade of the West by opening a way to the Hudson. And with the narrow views of territorial expansion and improvement belonging to that period it was easy, perhaps, to believe that closing the Mississippi would destroy the prosperity of one section at the expense of the other. One faction in the Congress favored the adoption of the Articles of Confederation to the course proposed by Mr. Jay ; but the voice of nine States was necessary for this step. But this was not all. Nearly every step at this period, in or out of the Congress, seemed only to further increase the general irritation. No croaker over the wickedness and perverseness of these latter days can read with care the history of the Congress and Legislatures from 1784 to the inauguration of the National Federal Government in the spring of 1789, without experiencing some relief from one of the errors of his life.

A striking comment on the character of the times may be seen in the selection of Annapolis as the place of meeting for the Convention. This conduct was based on the dread of the sinister influence which might be exerted by the powerless Congress, and the aspiring commercial communities. The Congress, it was said, had an itching for power, and its pretensions were much dreaded, although it clearly had not authority and harmony enough in it to make a single State or itself respectable anywhere. Towns that aspired to consequence were also deemed dangerous to the best interests of the country, or at any rate to the calm deliberations of an assembly of unripe statesmen.

But even in the Cortinental Congress things could not be so bad as to have no good in them; and if it did nothing else, as Mr. Madison said, it served to keep the country together. For example. When the New Jersey Legislature resolved not to comply with the requisitions of the Congress, in 1786, that powerful body, then sitting in New York, sent some com

« PreviousContinue »