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James Madison Letter to George Washington

  • Letter of James Madison to George Washington, October 18, 1787
  • Letter of James Madison to George Washington, October 18, 1787
On October 18, 1787, James Madison wrote to George Washington to offer a critique of George Mason's Objections to the proposed U.S. Constitution.
Related documents:
  • Madison's Notes from the Federal Convention
    James Madison's Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention, May 25, 1787
  • United States Constitution
    United States Constitution, September 17, 1787
  • Mason's Objections
    George Mason's Objections, September 1787
  • James Madison, Federalist #10
    James Madison, Federalist #10, November 22, 1787
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Letter of James Madison to George Washington, October 18, 1787

James Madison was not entirely satisfied with the Constitution that the Convention of 1787 submitted to Congress and that Congress, in turn, submitted to the states for ratification, but he agreed with George Washington that it was essential for the survival of the new nation for the Constitution to be ratified. After receiving from Washington a copy of George Mason's objections to the proposed Constitution, Madison wrote Washington a long critique of Mason's objections, pointing out several instances in which he believed that Mason's list contradicted his known views and his votes during the convention. Madison also pointed out that the intemperate tone that Mason had begun to adopt in his criticisms of the Constitution was alarming. That, together with other strong criticisms that had begun to appear in some newspapers, led Madison to fear that the task of securing ratification of the Constitution would be difficult, especially if Patrick Henry came out in opposition, which he had not yet done when Madison wrote his letter to Washington.

For Educators

Questions

1. Where was James Madison when he wrote to George Washington?

2. What is the convention that Madison mentions in his first sentence?

Further Discussion

1. Read Mason's Objections to the proposed United States Constitution. Do you agree with James Madison's critique of Mason's points? Why or why not?

2. Write your own critique of three of Mason's Objections.

N. York Octr. 18. 1787.
Dear Sir
I have been this day honoured with your favor of the 10th instant, under the same cover with which is a copy of Col. Mason's objections to the Work of the Convention. As he persists in the temper which produced his dissent* it is no small satisfaction to find him reduced to such distress for a proper gloss on it; for no other consideration surely could have led him to dwell on an objection which he acknowledged to have been in some degree removed by the Convention themselves—;on the paltry right of the senate to propose alterations in money bills—on the appointment of the vice president— President of the Senate instead of making the President of the Senate the vice President, which seemed to be the alternative—and on the possibility, that the Congress may misconstrue their powers & betray their trust so far as to grant monopolies in trade &c. If I do not forget too some of his other reasons were either not at all or very faintly urged at the time when alone they ought to have been urged; such as the power of the Senate in the case of treaties, & of impeachments; and their duration in office. With respect to the latter point I recollect well that he more than once disclaimed opposition to it. My memory fails me also if he did not acquiesce in if not vote for, the term allowed for the further importation of slaves; and the prohibition of duties on exports by the States. What he means by the dangerous tendency of the Judiciary I am at some loss to comprehend. It never was intended, nor can it be supposed that on ordinary cases the inferior tribunals will not have final jurisdiction in order to prevent the evils of which he complains. The great mass of suits in every State lie between Citizen & Citizen, and relate to matters not of federal cognizance. Notwithstanding the stress laid on the necessity of a Council to the President I strongly suspect, tho I was a friend to the thing, that if such an one as Col. Mason proposed, had been established, and the power of the Senate in appointments to offices transferred to it, that as great a clamour would have been heard from some quarters which in general eccho his Objections. What can he mean by saying that the Common law is not secured by the new Constitution, though it has been adopted by the State Constitutions. The common law is nothing more than the unwritten law, and is left by all the constitutions equally liable to legislative alterations. I am not sure that any notice is particularly taken of it in the Constitutions of the States. If there is, nothing more is provided than a general declaration that it shall continue along with other branches of law to be in force till legally changed. The Constitution of Virga. drawn up by Col Mason himself, is absolutely silent on the subject. An ordinance passed during the same Session, declared the Common law as heretofore & all Statutes of prior date to the 4 of James I to be still the law of the land, merely to obviate pretexts that the separation from G. Britain threw us into a State of nature, and abolished all civil rights and obligations. Since the Revolution every State has made great inroads & with great propriety in many instances on this monarchical code. The "revisal of the laws" by a Committee of wch. Col. Mason was a member, though not an acting one, abounds with such innovations. The abolition of the right of primogeniture, which I am sure Col. Mason does not disapprove, falls under this head. What could the Convention have done? If they had in general terms declared the Common law to be in force, they would have broken in upon the legal Code of every State in the most material points: they wd. have done more, they would have brought over from G.B. a thousand heterogeneous & antirepublican doctrines, and even the ecclesiastical Hierarchy itself, for that is a part of the Common law. If they had undertaken a discrimination, they must have formed a digest of laws, instead of a Constitution. This objection surely was not brought forward in the Convention, or it wd. have been placed in such a light that a repetition of it out of doors would scarcely have been hazarded. Were it allowed the weight which Col. M. may suppose it deserves, it would remain to be decided whether it be candid to arraign the Convention for omissions which were never suggested to them—or prudent to vindicate the dissent by reasons which either were not previously thought of, or must have been wilfully concealed—But I am running into a comment as prolix, as it is out of place.
I find by a letter from the Chancellor (Mr. Pendleton) that he views the act of the Convention in its true light, and gives it his unequivocal approbation. His support will have great effect. The accounts we have here of some other respectable characters vary considerably. Much will depend on Mr. Henry, and I am glad to find by your letter that his favorable decision on the subject may yet be hoped for. The Newspapers here begin to teem with vehement & virulent calumniations of the proposed Govt. As they are cheifly borrowed from the Pensylvania papers, you see them of course. The reports however from different quarters continue to be rather flattering.

With the highest respect & sincerest attachment I remain Dear Sir
Yr. Obedt. & Affecte. Servant
JS. MADISON JR.


*Madison used the long or leading s, a character that looks similar to the letter "f" but is used as an "s," often as the first of a double s as in assign or address.