TO NOAH WEBSTER.
Washington, Oct. 12, 1804.
I received, during a visit to my farm, your letter of Aug. 20, and hoped that I should, in that situation, find leisure to give it as full an answer as my memory and my papers would warrant. An unforeseen pressure of public business, with a particular one of private business interesting to others as well as to myself, having disappointed me, I find myself under the necessity of substituting the few brief remarks which return to the occupations of this place, and the absence of my papers, will admit.
I had observed, as you have done, that a great number of loose assertions have at different times been made with respect to the origin of the reform in our system of federal government, and that this has particularly happened on the late occasion which so strongly excited the effusions of party and personal zeal for the fame of Gen. Hamilton.
The change in our government like most other important improvements ought to be ascribed rather to a series of causes than to any particular and sudden one, and to the participation of many, rather than to the efforts of a single agent. It is certain that the general idea of revising and enlarging the scope of the federal authority, so as to answer the necessary purposes of the Union, grew up in many minds, and by natural degrees, during the experienced inefficacy of the old confederation. The discernment of Gen. Hamilton must have rendered him an early patron of the idea. That the public attention was called to it by yourself at an early period is well known.
In common with others, I derived from my service in the old Congress during the latter stages of the Revolutionary war, a deep impression of the necessity of invigorating the federal authority. I carried this impression with me into the legislature of Virginia; where, in the year 1784, if my recollection does not fail me, Mr. Henry co-operated with me and others in certain resolutions calculated to strengthen the hands of Congress.
In 1785, I made a proposition with success in the legislature of the same state, for the appointment of commissioners to meet at Annapolis such commissioners as might be appointed by other states, in order to form some plan for investing Congress with the regulation and taxation of commerce. This I presume to be the proceeding which gave you the impression that the first proposal of the present constitution was then made. It is possible that something more might have been the subject of conversation, or may have been suggested in debate, but I am induced to believe that the meeting at Annapolis was all that was regularly proposed at that session. I would have consulted the journals of it, but they were either lost or mislaid.
Although the step taken by Virginia was followed by the greater number of the states, the attendance at Annapolis was both so tardy and so deficient, that nothing was done on the subject immediately committed to the meeting. The consultations took another turn. The expediency of a more radical reform than the commissioners had been authorized to undertake being felt by almost all of them, and each being fortified in his sentiments and expectations by those of others, and by the information gained as to the general preparation of the public mind, it was concluded to recommend to the states a meeting at Philadelphia, the ensuing year, of commissioners with authority to digest and propose a new and effectual system of government for the Union. The manner in which this idea rose into effect, makes it impossible to say with whom it more particularly originated. I do not even recollect the member who first proposed it to the body. I have an indistinct impression that it received its first formal suggestion from Mr. Abraham Clark of New Jersey. Mr. Hamilton was certainly the member who drafted the address.
The legislature of Virginia was the first I believe, that had an opportunity of taking up the recommendation, and the first that concurred in it. It was thought proper to express its concurrence in terms that would give the example as much weight and effect as possible; and with the same view to include in the deputation, the highest characters in the state, such as the governor and chancellor. The same policy led to the appointment of Gen. Washington, who was put at the head of it. It was not known at the time how far he would lend himself to the occasion. When the appointment was made known to him, he manifested a readiness to yield to the wishes of the legislature, but felt a scruple from his having signified to the Cincinnati, that he could not meet them at Philadelphia, near about the same time, for reasons equally applicable to the other occasion. Being in correspondence with him at the time and on the occasion, I pressed him to step over the difficulty. It is very probable that he might consult with others, particularly with Mr. Hamilton, and that their or his exhortations and arguments may have contributed more than mine to his final determination.
When the convention as recommended at Annapolis took place at Philadelphia, the deputies from Virginia supposed, that as that state had been first in the successive steps leading to a revision of the federal system, some introductory propositions might be expected from them. They accordingly entered into consultation on the subject, immediately on their arrival in Philadelphia, and having agreed among themselves on the outline of a plan, it was laid before the convention by Mr. Randolph, at that time governor of the state, as well as member of the convention. This project was the basis of its deliberations; and after passing through a variety of changes in its important as well as its lesser features, was developed and amended into the form finally agreed to.
I am afraid that this sketch will fall much short of the object of your letter. Under more favorable circumstances, I might have made it more particular. I have often had it in idea to make out from the materials in my hands, and within my reach, as minute a chronicle as I could, of the origin and progress of the last revolution in our government. I went through such a task with respect to the declaration of independence, and the old confederation, whilst a member of Congress in 1783; availing myself of all the circumstances to be gleaned from the public archives, and from some auxilliary sources. To trace in like manner a chronicle or rather a history of our present constitution, would in several points of view be still more curious and interesting; and fortunately the materials for it are far more extensive, Whether I shall ever be able to make such a contribution to the annals of our country, is rendered every day more and more uncertain.
I will only add that on the slight view which I have taken of the subject to which you have been pleased to invite my recollections, it is to be understood, that in confining myself so much to the proceedings of Virginia, and to the agency of a few individuals, no exclusion of other states or persons is to be implied, whose share in the transactions of the period may be unknown to me.
With great respect and esteem, I remain, sir,
Your most obedient servant,
TO JAMES MONROE.d. of s. mss. instr.
Department of State March 6th 1805.
My last general letter was dated the 26th of October, and sent in sundry copies both to London and Madrid, it not being then certain at which of those places it would find you. The letters since received from you are of October 15th & December 20th. From Mr. Purviance a letter has also been received of October 19th.
The procrastinations of the British Ministry in meeting you effectively, on the subjects proposed in your project for a Convention, betray a repugnance to some of them, and a spirit of evasion, inauspicious to a satisfactory result. Still your conduct was prudent, in winking at this dilatory policy, and keeping the way open for a fair and friendly experiment on your return from Madrid, which it is presumed will have taken place before this will reach London. The experience of every day, shows more and more the obligation on both sides, to enter seriously on the means of guarding the harmony of the two countries against the dangers with which it is threatened by a perseverance of Great Britain in her irregularities on the high seas, and particularly in the impressments from American vessels. The extent in which these have taken place since the commencement of the War, will be seen by the inclosed report required from this Department by a vote of the House of Representatives, and the call for it whilst negotiations on the subject were understood to be in train, is itself a proof of the public sensibility to those aggressions on the security of our citizens and the rights of our flag. A further proof will be seen in the motion also inclosed, which was made by Mr. Crowninshield, and which will probably be revived at the next Session. This motion with his remarks on it, appear very generally in the newspapers, with comments proceeding from a coincidence of the sensibility out of doors with that within. A still stronger proof of impatience under this evil, will be found in the proceedings authorized by an Act of Congress just passed and which is likewise inclosed, against British Officers committing on the high seas trespasses or torts on board American vessels; offences manifestly including cases of impressment.
In communicating these circumstances it will occur to you that whilst they may be allowed to proclaim the growing sensibility of the United States on the subject of impressments, they ought, by proper explanations and assurances to be guarded against a misconstruction into marks of illiberal or hostile sentiments towards Great Britain. The truth is, and it may be so stated by you, that this practice of impressments, aggravated by so many provoking incidents has been so long continued, and so often, in vain remonstrated against, that without more encouragement than yet appears, to expect speedy redress from the British Government, the United States are in a manner driven to the necessity of seeking for some remedy dependent on themselves alone. But it is no less true that they are warmly disposed to cherish all the friendly relations subsisting with Great Britain; that they wish to see that necessity banished by just and prudent arrangements between the two Governments; and that with this view you were instructed to open the negotiations which are now depending. It is impossible for the British Government to doubt the sincerity of these sentiments. The forbearance of the United States year after year, and war after war, to avail themselves of those obvious means which without violating their national obligations of any sort, would appeal in the strongest manner, to the interest of Great Britain, is of itself a sufficient demonstration of the amicable spirit which has directed their public councils. This spirit is sufficiently manifested also, by the propositions which have been lately made thro’ you, and by the patience and cordiality with which you have conducted the negotiation. I might add, as a further proof to the same effect, that notwithstanding the refusal of which we have official information, from Glasgow and Liverpool particularly, to restore American seamen deserting their ships in British ports, the laws of many of the States have been left, without interruption, to restore British deserters. One of the States, Virginia, has even at the last Session of its Legislature, passed an Act for the express purpose of restoring such deserters; which deserves the more attention, as it was done in the midst of irritations resulting from the multiplied irregularities committed by British ships in the American seas.
Mr. Merry has expressed some inquietude with respect to the clause in the Act above referred to, which animadverts on British trespasses on board American vessels; and his language on several late occasions has strongly opposed the expectation that Great Britain will ever relinquish her practice of taking her own subjects out of neutral vessels. I did not conceal from him my opinion that the terms “trespass &c” would be applicable to the impressment of British subjects as well as others, or that the United States would never accede to that practice. I observed to him that every preceding administration had maintained the same doctrine with the present on that point; and that such were the ideas and feelings of the Nation on it, that no administration would dare so far surrender the rights of the American flag. He expressed dissatisfaction also at the section which requires certain compliances on the part of British ships of War entering our harbours, with arrangements to be prescribed by the Collectors. He did not deny the right of the Nation to make what rules it might please in such cases; but apprehended that some of them were such as the Commanders might deem incompatible with their just pretensions, especially when subjecting them to the discretion of so subaltern an authority as that of the Collectors; and consequently, that the law would have the unfriendly effect of excluding British ships of War altogether from American ports. He was reminded, in reply, that the Collectors were, according to the terms of the section, to be guided in the exercise of their power by the directions of the President; and it was not only to be presumed, but he might be particularly assured, that the directions given would be consistent with the usages due to public ships, and with the respect entertained for nations in amity with the United States. He asked whether in transmitting the Act to his government, as his duty would require, he might add the explanation and assurances he had heard from me. I answered, that without having received any particular authority for that purpose from the President, I could safely undertake that what I had stated was conformable to his sentiments.
Inclosed is another Act of Congress restraining and regulating the arming of private vessels by American citizens. This Act was occasioned by the abuse made of such armaments in forcing a trade, even in contraband of war, with the Island of St. Domingo; and by the representations made on the subject of that trade by the French Chargé des Affaires and Minister here, and by the British Minister with respect to abuses which had resulted ormight result from such armaments in cases injurious to Great Britain. A report of these representations as made to the President is herewith inclosed. The Act, in substituting a security against the unlawful use of the armaments in place of an absolute prohibition of them; is not only consistent with the obligations of a neutral nation, but conformable to the laws and ordinances of Great Britain and France themselves, and is consequently free from objections by either. The interposition of the Government tho’ claimed in behalf both of Great Britain and of France, was most pressed in behalf of the latter. Yet the measure, particularly as it relates to the shipment of contraband Articles for the West Indies, is likely to operate much more conveniently for Great Britain than for France, who cannot like Great Britain otherwise ensure a supply of these Articles for the defence of her Colonies.
(In the project which you have offered to the British Government I observe you have subjoined a clause for securing respect to certificates of citizenship. The effect of this clause taken as it ought to be & as was doubtless intended, in context with the preceding clause, is limited to the case provided for in that clause. Still it may be well in order to guard against the possibility of its being turned into a pretext for requiring such certificates in other cases, that a proviso for the purpose be added, or that words of equivalent restriction be inserted.
I find also that you have considered it as expedient to drop altogether the 4th Article contained in the project transmitted to you. It would certainly be better to do this than to listen to such an Article concerning provisions as Sweden was induced by the little interest she has in that branch of trade, to admit into her late Treaty with Great Britain. It is certainly, in a general view, ineligible also to strengthen by positive stipulations the doctrine which subjects to confiscation, enemies property in neutral vessels. It appears to the President nevertheless, that this consideration is outweighed by the great advantages which would be gained by the Article, and by the sanction which the United States have already given to that doctrine. It can scarcely be presumed that France would complain of such an Article when seen in its real shape. The immunity given to naval stores, and the security given to the trade of her Colonies, including the supplies essential to them, would seem to render such an Article particularly desirable to her. For this reason among others it is not probable that the British Government would have ever acceded to the Article even as making a part of the general arrangement; and more so that it will be rejected on its intrinsic merits. I have thought it proper, however, to make you acquainted with the view which the President has of the subject, that you may pursue it as far as any opportunity may present itself.)
Another subject requiring your attention is pointed at by the Resolutions of the Senate moved by General Smith on the subject of a British Tax on exports under the name of a Convoy duty. A copy of the Resolution is inclosed. A duty under that name was first laid in the year 1798. It then amounted to p. of one P. Cent on exports to Europe; and one P Cent on exports to other places, and consequently to the United States. The discrimination being evidently contrary to the Treaty then in force, became a subject of discussion between Mr. King and the British Ministry. His letters to the Secretary of State and to Lord Grenville explain the objections urged by him and the pretexts in support of the measure alleged by them. The subject was resumed in my letter of 5th March 1804 to Mr. King with a copy of which you have been already furnished. It was received by Mr. Gore during the absence of Mr. King on the Continent; and if any occasion was found proper by either for repeating the remonstrance against the duty, it appears to have been without effect. Whilst the Treaty was in force the discrimination was unquestionably a violation of its faith. When the War ceased, it lost the pretext that it was the price of the Convoy, which giving a larger protection to the American than to the European trade, justified a higher price for the former than for the latter. Even during war the exports are generally made as American property and in American vessels, and therefore with a few exceptions only, a convoy which would subject them to condemnation, from which they would otherwise be free, would be not a benefit but an injury. Since the expiration of the Treaty, the discrimination as well as the duty itself can be combated by no other arguments than those, which in the document referred to are drawn from justice, friendship and sound policy; including the tendency of the measure to produce a discontinuance of the liberal but unavailing example given to Great Britain by the regulations of commerce on our side, and a recurrence to such counteracting measures as are probably contemplated by the mover of the Resolutions of the Senate. All these arguments gain strength in proportion to the augmentations which the evil has latterly received; it being now stated that the duty amounts to 4 P Cent on the exports to the United States. These, according to Cockes answer to Sheffield amounted in the year 1801 to about 7 Millions sterling and therefore levy a tax on the United States of about 1,300,000 dollars. From this is indeed to de deducted a sum proportional to the amount of re-exportations from the United States. But on the other hand, is to be added, the increase of the exports since the year 1801 which probably exceed the re-exportations.
With the aid of these communications and remarks, you will be at no loss for the views of the subject most proper to be presented to the British Government, in order to promote the object of the Resolutions; and the resolutions themselves ought powerfully to second your efforts, if the British Government feels the same desire as actuates the United States to confirm the friendship and Confidence on both sides, by a greater conformity on that side to the spirit of the Commercial regulations on this.
I have referred above to the inclosed copy of the motion made by Mr. Crowninshield in the House of Representatives. The part of it which has relation to the trade with the West Indies, was suggested as appears in his introductory observations by the late proclamations of the British West India Governors, excluding from that trade vessels of the United States, and certain Articles of our exportations particularly fish, even in British vessels. These regulations are to be ascribed partly to the attachment of the present administration in Great Britain to the Colonial and Navigation system, partly to the interested representations of certain merchants and others residing in the British Provinces on the Continent. Without entering at large into the policy on which the Colonial restrictions are founded, it may be observed that no crisis could be more ineligible for enforcing them, than the present, because at none more than the present, have the West Indies been absolutely dependent on the United States for the supplies essential to their existence. It is evident in fact that the United States by asserting the principle of a reasonable reciprocity, such as is admitted in the trade with the European ports of Great Britain, and as is admitted even in the Colonial trade of other European Nations, so far at least as respects the vessels employed in the trade, might reduce the British Government at once to the dilemma of relaxing her regulations or of sacrificing her Colonies: and with respect to the interdict of supplies from the United States of Articles necessary to the subsistence and prosperity of the West Indies, in order to force the growth and prosperity of the Continental provinces of Nova Scotia &c; what can be more unjust than they to impoverish one part of the foreign dominions which is considered as a source of wealth and power to the parent country, not with a view to favor the parent country but to favor another part of its foreign dominions, which is rather expensive than profitable to it? What can be more preposterous than thus at the expence of Islands which not only contribute to the Revenue, commerce and navigation of the parent state, but can be secured in their dependence by that Naval ascendancy which they aid, to foster unproductive establishments which from local causes must eventually detach themselves from the parent state and the sooner in proportion as their growth may be stimulated.
Considerations, such as these ought to have weight with the British Government, and may very properly enter into frank conversations with its Ministry on favorable occasions. However repugnant that Government may be to a departure from its system in the extent contemplated by Mr. Crowninshield’s motion, it may at least be expected that the trade as opened in former wars, will not be refused under circumstances which in the present, particularly demand it: it may be hoped that the way will be prepared for some permanent arrangement on this subject between the two Nations, which will be conformable to equity, to reciprocity and to their mutual advantage.
I have the honor to be &c