Front Page Titles (by Subject) TO JAMES MADISON. - The Writings of George Washington, vol. XI (1785-1790)
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TO JAMES MADISON. - George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, vol. XI (1785-1790) 
The Writings of George Washington, collected and edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890). Vol. XI (1785-1790).
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TO JAMES MADISON.
Mount Vernon, 16 December, 1786.
Your favor of the 7th came to my hands the evening before last. The resolutions, which you say are inserted in the papers, I have not yet seen.1 The latter come irregularly, though I am a subscriber to Hay’s Gazette.
Besides the reasons, which were assigned in my circular letter to the several State societies of the Cincinnati, for my non-attendance at the next general meeting to be holden at Philadelphia on the first Monday in May next, there existed one, of a political nature, which operated stronger on my mind, than all the others, and which in confidence I will now communicate to you.
When this Society was first formed, I am persuaded not a member of it conceived, that it would give birth to those jealousies, or be charged with those dangers, real or imaginary, with which the minds of many, and of some respectable characters in these States, seem to be agitated. The motives, which induced the officers to enter into it, were, I am positive, truly and frankly recited in the institution; one of which, and the principal, was to establish a charitable fund for the relief of such of their compatriots, the widows and descendants of them, as were fit objects for such support, and for whom no public provision had been made by the public. But, the trumpet being sounded, the alarm was spreading far and wide. I readily perceived, therefore, that, unless a modification of the plan could be effected (to annihilate the Society altogether was impracticable on account of the foreign officers who had been admitted), irritations would arise, which would soon draw a line between the Society and their fellow citizens.
To avoid this, to conciliate the affections, and to convince the world of the purity of the plan, I exerted myself, and with much difficulty effected the changes, which appeared in the recommendation that proceeded from the general meeting to those of individual States. But the accomplishment of it was not easy; and I have since heard, that, while some States have acceded to the recommendation, others are not disposed to do so, alleging that unreasonable prejudices, and ill-founded jealousies, ought not to influence a measure laudable in its institution, and salutary in its objects and operation.
Under these circumstances it may readily be conceived, that the part I should have had to have acted would have been delicate. On the one hand, I might be charged with dereliction of the officers, who had nobly supported me, and had even treated me with uncommon attention and attachment; on the other, with supporting a measure incompatible with republican principles. I thought it best, therefore, without assigning this (the principal) reason, to decline the presidency and to excuse my attendance on the ground, which is firm and just, of necessity of attending to my private concerns, and in conformity to my determination of spending the remainder of my days in a state of retirement; and to indisposition occasioned by rheumatic complaints with which at times I am a good deal afflicted; professing at the same time my entire approbation of the institution as altered, and the pleasure I feel at the subsidence of those jealousies, which have yielded to the change, presuming on the general adoption of it.
I have been thus particular, to show, that, under circumstances like these, I should feel myself in an awkward situation to be in Philadelphia on another public occasion, during the sitting of this Society. That the present moment is pregnant of great and strange events, none who will cast their eyes around them can deny. What may be brought forth between this and the first of May, to remove the difficulties, which at present labor in my mind against the acceptance of the honor, which has lately been conferred on me by the Assembly, is not for me to predict; but I should think it incompatible with that candor, which ought to characterize an honest mind, not to declare, that, under my present view of the matter, I should be too much embarrassed by the meeting of these two bodies in the same place at the same moment, after what I have written to be easy in my situation, and therefore that it would be improper to let my appointment stand in the way of another. Of this, you, who have had the whole matter before you, will judge; for, having received no other than private intimation of my election, and unacquainted with the formalities, which are or ought to be used on these occasions, silence may be deceptious, or considered as disrespectful. The imputation of both or either I would wish to avoid. This is the cause of the present disclosure to you immediately upon my receipt of your letter, which has been locked up by ice; for I have had no communication with Alexandria for many days, till the day before yesterday.
My sentiments are decidedly against Commutables; for sure I am it will be found a tax without a revenue. That the people will be burthened, the public expectation deceived, and a few speculators only enriched. Thus the matter will end, after the morals “of some” are more corrupted than they now are—and the minds of all, filled with more leaven, by finding themselves taxed, and the public demands in full force. Tobacco, on acct. of the public places of deposit and from the accustomed mode of negotiating the article, is certainly better fitted for a Commutable than any other production of this country, but if I understand the matter rightly (I have it from report only) will any man pay five pounds in specie for five taxables when the same sum (supposing Tobacco not to exceed 20s. per cwt.), will purchase 500 lbs. of Tobo., and this if at 28s. will discharge the tax on Seven? And will not the man who neither makes, nor can easily procure this commodity, complain of the inequality of such a mode, especially when he finds that the revenue is diminished by the difference be it what it may between the real and nominal price? And that he is again to be taxed to make this good. These and such like things in my humble opinion are extremely hurtful and are among the principal causes that produce depravity and corruption, without accomplishing the object in view; for it is not the shadow, but the substance with which taxes must be paid, if we mean to be honest. With sentiments, &c.1
[1 ]On the Mississippi question, “I am entirely convinced, from what I observe here, that unless the project of Congress [for ceding to Spain the Mississippi for 25 years] can be reversed, the hopes of carrying this State into a proper federal system will be demolished.”—Madison to Washington, 7 December, 1786.
[1 ]In replying to this letter Mr. Madison said: “I have considered well the circumstances which it confidentially discloses, as well as those contained in your preceding favor. The difficulties, which they oppose to an acceptance of the appointment, in which you are included, can as little be denied as they can fail to be regretted. But I am still inclined to think, that the posture of our affairs, if it should continue, would prevent any criticism on the situation, which the contemporary meetings would place you in; and wish that at least a door could be left open for your acceptance hereafter, in case the gathering clouds should become so dark and menacing, as to supersede every consideration but that of our national existence or safety. A suspense of your ultimate determination would be nowise inconvenient in a public view, as the executive are authorized to fill vacancies, and can fill them at any time; and, in any event, three out of seven deputies are authorized to represent the State. How far it may be admissible in another view, will depend perhaps in some measure on the chance of your finally undertaking the service, but principally on the correspondence, which is now passing on the subject between yourself and the governor.”