Washington's Second Letter to James Madison


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March 31, 1787. To James Madison.

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.*

* 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.

. . . 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 dispatch (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 everything 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 noncompliance 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. . . .

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.



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