Front Page Titles (by Subject) TO JAMES MADISON, IN CONGRESS. 1 - The Writings of George Washington, vol. XI (1785-1790)
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TO JAMES MADISON, IN CONGRESS. 1 - 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, IN CONGRESS.1
Mount Vernon, 31 March, 1787.
My dear Sir,
At the same time that I acknowledge the receipt of your obliging favor of the 21st ultimo from New York, I promise to avail myself of your indulgence to write only when it is convenient to me. If this should not occasion a relaxation on your part, I shall become very much your debtor, and possibly, like others in similar circumstances, (when the debt is burthensome,) may feel a disposition to apply the sponge, or, what is nearly akin to it, pay you off in depreciated paper, which, being a legal tender, or, what is tantamount, being that or nothing, you cannot refuse. You will receive the nominal value, and that you know quiets the conscience, and makes all things easy with the debtor.
I am glad to find that Congress have recommended to the States to appear in the convention proposed to be holden in Philadelphia next May. I think the reasons in favor have the preponderancy over those against it. It is idle in my opinion to suppose that the Sovereign can be insensible to the inadequacy of the powers under which they act, and that, seeing it, they should not recommend a revision of the federal system; especially when it is considered by many as the only constitutional mode by which the defects can be remedied. Had Congress proceeded to a delineation of the powers, it might have sounded an alarm; but, as the case is, I do not conceive that it will have that effect.1
From the acknowledged abilities of the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, I have no doubt of his having ably investigated the infractions of the treaty on both sides. Much is it to be regretted, however, that there should have been any on ours. We seem to have forgot, or never to have learnt, the policy of placing one’s enemy in the wrong. Had we observed good faith on our part, we might have told our tale to the world with a good grace, but complaints illy become those who are found to be the first aggressors.
I am fully of opinion that those, who lean to a monarchical government, have either not consulted the public mind, or that they live in a region, which (the levelling principles in which they were bred being entirely eradicated) is much more productive of monarchical ideas, than are to be found in the southern States, where, from the habitual distinctions which have always existed among the people, one would have expected the first generation and the most rapid growth of them. I am also clear, that, even admitting the utility, nay, necessity of the form, yet that the period is not arrived for adopting the change without shaking the peace of this country to its foundation. That a thorough reform of the present system is indispensable, none, who have capacities to judge, will deny; and with hand [and heart] I hope the business will be essayed in a full convention. After which, if more powers and more decision is not found in the existing form, if it still wants energy and that secrecy and despatch (either from the non-attendance or the local views of its members), which is characteristic of good government, and if it shall be found (the contrary of which, however, I have always been more afraid of than of the abuse of them), that Congress will, upon all proper occasions, exert the powers which are given, with a firm and steady hand, instead of frittering them back to the States, where the members, in place of viewing themselves in their national character, are too apt to be looking,—I say, after this essay is made, if the system proves inefficient, conviction of the necessity of a change will be disseminated among all classes of the people. Then, and not till then, in my opinion, can it be attempted without involving all the evils of civil discord.
I confess, however, that my opinion of public virtue is so far changed, that I have my doubts whether any system, without the means of coercion in the sovereign, will enforce due obedience to the ordinances of a general government; without which every thing else fails. Laws or ordinances unobserved, or partially attended to, had better never have been made; because the first is a mere nihil, and the second is productive of much jealousy and discontent. But what kind of coercion, you may ask. This indeed will require thought, though the non-compliance of the States with the late requisition is an evidence of the necessity. It is somewhat singular that a State (New York), which used to be foremost in all federal measures, should now turn her face against them in almost every instance.
I fear the State of Massachusetts has exceeded the bounds of good policy in its disfranchisements. Punishment is certainly due to the disturbers of a government, but the operation of this act is too extensive. It embraces too much, and probably will give birth to new instead of destroying the old leaven. Some acts passed at the last session of our Assembly, respecting the trade of this country, have given great and general discontent to the merchants. An application from the whole body of them at Norfolk to the governor has been made, it is said, to convene the Assembly.
I had written thus far, and was at the point of telling you how much I am your obliged servant, when your favor of the 18th ultimo calls upon me for additional acknowledgments. I thank you for the Indian vocabulary, which I dare say will be very acceptable in a general comparison. Having taken a copy, I return you the original with thanks.
It gives me great pleasure to hear, that there is a probability of a full representation of the States in convention; but if the delegates come to it under fetters, the salutary ends proposed will in my opinion be greatly embarrassed and retarded, if not altogether defeated. I am desirous of knowing how this matter is, as my wish is that the convention may adopt no temporizing expedients, but probe the defects of the constitution to the bottom, and provide a radical cure, whether they are agreed to or not. A conduct of this kind will stamp wisdom and dignity on their proceedings, and hold up a light which sooner or later will have its influence.1
I should feel pleasure, I confess, in hearing that Vermont is received into the Union upon terms agreeable to all parties. I took the liberty years ago to tell some of the first characters in the State of New York, that sooner or later it would come to this; that the longer it was delayed, the terms on their part would probably be more difficult; and that the general interest was suffering by the suspense in which the business was held, as the asylum which it afforded was a constant drain from the army, in place of an aid which it would have afforded; and lastly, considering the proximity of it to Canada, if they were not with us, they might become a sore thorn in our side, which I verily believe would have been the case if the war had continued. The western settlements, without good and wise management, may be equally troublesome.
With sentiments of sincere friendship, I am &c.
[1 ]Mr. Madison had taken his seat in Congress as a delegate from Virginia on the 12th of February.
[1 ]The commissioners, who had met at Annapolis in September, 1786, sent a letter to Congress, accompanied by their address to the several States, proposing a convention at Philadelphia on the second Monday of May. These papers were taken up by Congress, and referred to a committee, consisting of one member from each State, who reported in favor of recommending to the several legislatures to send delegates.
[1 ]“It gives me pleasure to find by your letter, that there will be so full a representation from this State. If the case had been otherwise, I would in emphatical terms have urged again that, rather than depend upon my going, another might be chosen in my place; for, as a friend and in confidence, I declare to you, that my assent is given contrary to my judgment; because the act will, I apprehend, be considered as inconsistent with my public declaration, delivered in a solemn manner at an interesting era of my life, never more to intermeddle in public matters. This declaration not only stands on the files of Congress, but is I believe registered in almost all the gazettes and magazines that are published; and what adds to the embarrassment is, I had, previous to my appointment, informed by a circular letter the several State Societies of the Cincinnati of my intention to decline the presidency of that order, and excused myself from attending the next general meeting at Philadelphia on the first Monday in May; assigning reasons for so doing, which apply as well in the one case as in the other. Add to these, I very much fear that all the States will not appear in convention, and that some of them will come fettered so as to impede rather than accelerate the great object of their convening; which, under the peculiar circumstances of my case, would place me in a more disagreeable situation than any other member would stand in. As I have yielded, however, to what appeared to be the earnest wishes of my friends, I will hope for the best.”—Washington to Edmund Randolph, 9 April, 1787.