EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is excerpted from Mike Maharrey’s ebook, The Jefferson Letters vol. 1: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. Download it for free at this link.
In this letter, James Madison brings Thomas Jefferson up to speed on the debate over the Virginia Report of 1800. It centers around two issues.
The first revolves around the concept of the states as parties to the Constitution. In the report, Madison argued the term “states’” has different meanings.
“It sometimes means the separate sections of territory occupied by the political societies within each; sometimes the particular governments, established by those societies; sometimes those societies as organized into those particular governments; and lastly, it means the people composing those political societies, in their highest sovereign capacity. “In the present instance the fact itself shews that the sense last mentioned, must be that intended by the General Assembly: because in that sense, the constitution was submitted to the ‘States.’”
The Virginia assembly amended this passage to read: “In the present instance whatever different constructions of the term ‘States,’ in the resolution may have been entertained, all will at least concur in that last mentioned; because in that sense, the Constitution was submitted to the ‘States’”
The second issue related to an opposition report that asserted the impropriety of the Virginia Resolutions of 1798. It declared that protests by the state against particular acts of Congress were “an unauthorized assumption of power.” This was ultimately defeated before passage of Madison’s report.
Richmond Jany. 4. 1800
My last covered a copy of the Report on the Resolutions of last year. I now inclose a copy of certain resolutions moved by Mr. Giles, to which he means to add an instruction on the subject of the intercource law which has been so injurious to the price of our Tobo. It is not improbable that the Resolutions when taken up, may undergo some mollifications in the spirit & air of them. The Report has been under debate for two days.
The attacks on it have turned chiefly on an alledged inconsistency between the comment now made, and the arguments of the last Session; and on the right of the Legislature to interfere in any manner with denunciations of the measures of the Genl. Govt. The first attack has been parried by an amendment admitting that different constructions may have been entertained of the term “States” as “parties” &c but that the sense relied on in the report must be concurred in by all. It is in fact concurred in by both parties.
On examination of the debates of the last Session, it appears that both were equally inaccurate & inconsistent in the grounds formerly taken by them. The attack on the right of the Legislature to interfere by declarations of opinion will form a material point in the discussion. It is not yet known how far the opposition to the Report will be carried into detail. The part relating to the Common law it is said will certainly be combated.
You will perceive from this view of the matter, that it is not possible to guess how long, we shall be employed on it. There will in the event be a Considerable majority for the Report in the House of Delegates, and a pretty sure one in the Senate.—Can you send me a copy of Priestly’s letters last published.