New York, June 27, 1790

Dear Doctor,

—I have duly received your favor of May 21 and thank you for the details it contains. Congressional proceedings go on rather heavily. The question for assuming the state debts, has created greater animosities than I ever yet saw take place on any occasion. There are three ways in which it may yet terminate. 1. A rejection of the measure which will prevent their funding any part of the public debt, and will be something very like a dissolution of the government. 2. A bargain between the Eastern members who have it so much at heart, & the middle members who are indifferent about it, to adopt those debts without any modification on condition of removing the seat of government to Philadelphia or Baltimore. 3. An adoption of them with this modification that the whole sum to be assumed shall be divided among the states in proportion to their census; so that each shall receive as much as they are to pay; & perhaps this might bring about so much good humour as to induce them to give the temporary seat of government to Philadelphia, & then to Georgetown permanently. It is evident that this last is the least bad of all the turns the thing can take. The only objection to it will be that Congress will then have to lay & collect taxes to pay these debts, which could much better have been laid & collected by the state governments. This, tho’ an evil, is a less one than any of the others in which it may issue, and will probably give us the seat of government at a day not very distant, which will vivify our agriculture & commerce by circulating thro’ our state an additional sum every year of half a million of dollars. When the last packet left England there was a great appearance of an immediate rupture with Spain. Should that take place, France will become a party. I hope peace & profit will be our share. Present my best esteem to Mrs. Gilmer & my enquiring neighbors.


New York, June 22, 1790

Dear Sir,—

The pressure of business as the session approaches its term, the earlier hour at which the House of Representatives has for some time met, and the necessity of devoting a part of the interval to exercise, after so long a confinement, have obliged me to deny myself the pleasure of communicating regularly with my friends. I regret much that this violation of my wishes has unavoidably extended itself to the correspondences on which I set the greatest value, and which, I need not add, include yours. The regret is the greater, as I fear it will not be in my power to atone for past omissions by more punctuality during the residue of the session. In your goodness alone I must consequently look for my title to indulgence.

The funding and Revenue systems are reduced by the discord of opinions into a very critical state. Out of this extremity, however, some effective provision must, I think, still emerge. The affair of the State debts has been the great source of delay and embarrassment, and, from the zeal and perseverance of its patrons, threatens a very unhappy issue to the session, unless some scheme of accommodation should be devised. The business of the seat of Government is become a labyrinth, for which the votes printed furnish no clue, and which it is impossible in a letter to explain to you. We are endeavoring to keep the pretensions of the Potowmac in view, and to give to all the circumstances that occur a turn favorable to it. If any arrangement should be made that will answer our wishes, it will be the effect of a coincidence of causes as fortuitous as it will be propitious. You will see by the papers inclosed that Great Britain is itching for war. I do not see how one can be avoided, unless Spain should be frightened into concessions. The consequences of such an event must have an important relation to the affairs of the United States. I had not the pleasure of seeing Col. Hoomes during his momentary stay in New York, but had that of hearing that he gave a very favorable account of your health.

New York, June 20, 1790

Dear Sir,

—An attack of a periodical headach, which tho violent for a few days only, yet kept me long in a lingering state, has hitherto prevented my sooner acknowledging the receipt of your favor of May 26. I hope the uneasiness of Mrs. Monroe & yourself has been removed by the re-establishment of your daughter. We have been in hopes of seeing her here, and fear at length some change in her arrangements for that purpose.

Congress has been long embarrassed by two of the most irritating questions that ever can be raised among them, 1. the funding the public debt, and 2. the fixing on a more central residence. After exhausting their arguments & patience on these subjects, they have for some time been resting on their oars, unable to get along as to these businesses, and indisposed to attend to anything else till they are settled. And in fine it has become probable that unless they can be reconciled by some plan of compromise, there will be no funding bill agreed to, our credit (raised by late prospects to be the first on the exchange at Amsterdam, where our paper is above par) will burst and vanish, and the states separate to take care every one of itself. This prospect appears probable to some well informed and well-disposed minds. Endeavours are therefore using to bring about a disposition to some mutual sacrifices. The assumption of state debts has appeared as revolting to several states as their non-assumption to others. It is proposed to strip the proposition of the injustice it would have done by leaving the states who have redeemed much of their debts on no better footing than those who have redeemed none; on the contrary it is recommended to assume a fixed sum, allotting a portion of it to every State in proportion to it’s census. Consequently every one will receive exactly what they will have to pay, or they will be exonerated so far by the general government’s taking their creditors off their hands. There will be no injustice then. But there will be the objection still that Congress must then lay taxes for these debts which would have been much better laid & collected by the state governments. And this is the objection on which the accommodation now hangs with the non-assumptioners, many of whom committed themselves in their advocation of the new constitution by arguments drawn from the improbability that Congress would ever lay taxes where the states could do it separately. These gentlemen feel the reproaches which will be levelled at them personally. I have been, & still am of their opinion that Congress should always prefer letting the States raise money in their own way where it can be done. But in the present instance I see the necessity of yielding for this time to the cries of the creditors in certain parts of the union, for the sake of union, and to save us from the greatest of all calamities, the total extinction of our credit in Europe. On the other subject it is proposed to pass an act fixing the temporary residence of 12. or 15. years at Philadelphia, and that at the end of that time it shall stand ipso facto & without further declaration transferred to Georgetown. In this way, there will be something to displease & something to soothe every part of the Union, but New York, which must be contented with what she has had. If this plan of compromise does not take place, I fear one infinitely worse, an unqualified assumption, & the perpetual residence on the Delaware. The Pennsylvania & Virginia delegations have conducted themselves honorably & unexceptionably on the question of residence. Without descending to talk about bargains they have seen that their true interests lay in not listening to insidious propositions made to divide & defect them, and we have seen them at times voting against their respective wishes rather than separate.

I flatter myself with being in Virginia in the autumn. The particular time depends on too many contingencies to be now fixed. I shall hope the pleasure of seeing yourself & Mrs. Monroe either in Albemarle or wherever else our routes may cross each other. Present me affectionately to her and to my good neighbors generally, and be assured of the great & sincere esteem of, Dear Sir, Your affectionate friend & humble servt.


New York, June 17, 1790

Dear Sir,—

You will find in the inclosed papers some account of the proceedings on the question relating to the seat of Government. The Senate have hung up the vote for Baltimore, which, as you may suppose, could not have been seriously meant by many who joined in it. It is not improbable that the permanent seat may be coupled with the temporary one. The Potowmac stands a bad chance, and yet it is not impossible that in the vicissitudes of the business it may turn up in some form or other.

The assumption still hangs over us. The negative of the measure has benumbed the whole revenue business. I suspect that it will yet be unavoidable to admit the evil in some qualified shape. The funding bill is before the Senate, who are making very free with the plan of the Secretary. A committee of that body have reported that the alternatives be struck out, the interest reduced absolutely to 4 per cent., and, as I am informed, the indents be not included in the provision for the principal.

New York, June 13, 1790

Dear Sir,

—I have deferred acknowleging the receipt of your favor of Mar 16, expecting daily that the business of the consulships would have been finished. But this was delayed by the President’s illness & a very long one of my own, so that it is not till within these two or three days that it has been settled. That of Bordeaux is given to Mr. Fenwick according to your desire. The commission is making out and will be signed to-morrow or next day.

I intended fully to have had the pleasure of seeing you at Gunstan hall on my way here, but the roads being so bad that I was obliged to leave my own carriage to get along as it could, & to take my passage in the stage, I could not deviate from the stage road. I should have been happy in a conversation with you on the subject of our new government, of which, tho’ I approve of the mass, I would wish to see some amendments, further than those which have been proposed, and fixing it more surely on a republican basis. I have great hopes that pressing forward with constancy to these amendments, they will be obtained before the want of them will do any harm. To secure the ground we gain, & gain what more we can, is I think the wisest course. I think much has been gained by the late constitution; for the former one was terminating in anarchy, as necessarily consequent to inefficiency. The House of representatives have voted to remove to Baltimore by a majority of 53. against 6. This was not the effect of choice, but of the confusion into which they had been brought by the event of other questions, & their being hampered with the rules of the house. It is not certain what will be the vote of the Senate. Some hope an opening will be given to convert it into a vote of the temporary seat at Philadelphia, & the permanent one at Georgetown. The question of the assumption will be brought on again, & it’s event is doubtful. Perhaps it’s opponents would be wiser to be less confident in their success, & to compromise by agreeing to assume the state debts still due to individuals, on condition of assuming to the states at the same time what they have paid to individuals, so as to put the states in the shoes of those of their creditors whom they have paid off. Great objections lie to this, but not so great as to an assumption of the unpaid debts only. My duties preventing me from mingling in these questions, I do not pretend to be very competent to their decision. In general I think it necessary to give as well as take in a government like ours. I have some hope of visiting Virginia in the fall, in which case I shall still flatter myself with the pleasure of seeing you; in the meantime, I am with unchanged esteem & respect my dear Sir Your most obedient friend & servt.


New York, June 11, 1790

Dear Sir,

—Your uncle mr Garland informs me, that, your education being finished, you are desirous of obtaining some clerkship or something else under government whereby you may turn your talents to some account for yourself and he had supposed it might be in my power to provide you with some such office. His commendations of you are such as to induce me to wish sincerely to be of service to you. But there is not, and has not been, a single vacant office at my disposal. Nor would I, as your friend, ever think of putting you into the petty clerkships in the several offices, where you would have to drudge through life for a miserable pittance, without a hope of bettering your situation. But he tells me you are also disposed to the study of the law. This therefore brings it more within my power to serve you. It will be necessary for you in that case to go and live somewhere in my neighborhood in Albemarle. The inclosed letter to Colo. Lewis near Charlottesville will show you what I have supposed could be best done for you there. It is a general practice to study the law in the office of some lawyer. This indeed gives to the student the advantage of his instruction. But I have ever seen that the services expected in return have been more than the instructions have been worth. All that is necessary for a student is access to a library, and directions in what order the books are to be read. This I will take the liberty of suggesting to you, observing previously that as other branches of science, and especially history, are necessary to form a lawyer, these must be carried on together. I will arrange the books to be read into three columns, and propose that you should read those in the first column till 12. oclock every day: those in the 2d. from 12. to 2. those in the 3d. after candlelight, leaving all the afternoon for exercise and recreation, which are as necessary as reading: I will rather say more necessary, because health is worth more than learning.

Coke on Littleton
Coke's 2d. 3d. & 4th. institutes.
Coke's reports.
Vaughan's do
Ld. Raymond's
Kaim's Principles of equity.
Vernon's reports.
Peere Williams.
Precendents in Chancery.
Tracy Atheyns.
Hawkin's Pleas of the crown.
Virginia laws.

Dalrymple's feudal system.
Hale's history of the Com. law.
Gilbert on Devises
Sayer's law of costs.
Lambard's circonantia.
Bacon. voce Pleas & Pleadings
Cunningham's law of bills.
Molloy de jure maritimo
Locke on government.
Montesquieu's Spirit of law.
Smith's wealth of nations.
Kaim's moral essays.
Vattel's law of nations.

Mallet's North antiquit'.
History of England in 3. vols folio
Ludlow's memoirs
Burnet's history.
Ld. Orrery's history.
Burke's George III.
Robertson's hist. of Scotl'd
Robertson's hist. of America.
Other American histories.
Voltaire's historical works

Should there be any little intervals in the day not otherwise occupied fill them up by reading Lowthe’s grammar, Blair’s lectures on rhetoric, Mason on poetic & prosaic numbers, Bolingbroke’s works for the sake of the stile, which is declamatory & elegant, the English poets for the sake of style also.

As mr Peter Carr in Goochland is engaged in a course of law reading, and has my books for that purpose, it will be necessary for you to go to mrs Carr’s, and to receive such as he shall be then done with, and settle with him a plan of receiving from him regular [ly] the before mentioned books as fast as he shall get through them. The losses I have sustained by lending my books will be my apology to you for asking your particular attention to the replacing them in the presses as fast as you finish them, and not to lend them to any body else, nor suffer anybody to have a book out of the Study under cover of your name. You will find, when you get there, that I have had reason to ask this exactness.

I would have you determine beforehand to make yourself a thorough lawyer, & not be contented with a mere smattering. It is superiority of knowledge which can alone lift you above the heads of your competitors, and ensure you success. I think therefore you must calculate on devoting between two & three years to this course of reading, before you think of commencing practice. Whenever that begins, there is an end of reading.

I shall be glad to hear from you from time to time, and shall hope to see you in the fall in Albemarle, to which place I propose a visit in that season. In the mean time wishing you all the industry of patient perseverance which this course of reading will require I am with great esteem Dear Sir Your most obedient friend & servant.


June 3, 1790

Opinion in favor of the resolutions of May 21st, 1790, directing that, in all cases where payment had not been already made, the debts due to the soldiers of Virginia and North Carolina, should be paid to the original claimants or their attorneys, and not to their assignees.

The accounts of the soldiers of Virginia and North Carolina, having been examined by the proper officer of government, the balances due to each individual ascertained, and a list of these balances made out, this list became known to certain persons before the soldiers themselves had information of it, and those persons, by unfair means, as is said, and for very inadequate considerations, obtained assignments from many of the soldiers of whatever sum should be due to them from the public, without specifying the amount.

The legislature, to defeat this fraud, passed resolutions on the 21st of May, 1790, directing that where payment had not been made to the original claimant in person or his representatives, it shall be made to him or them personally, or to their attorney, producing a power for that purpose, attested by two justices of the county where he resides, and specifying the certain sum he is to receive.

It has been objected to these resolutions that they annul transfers of property which were good by the laws under which they were made; that they take from the assignees their lawful property; are contrary to the principles of the constitution, which condemn retrospective laws; and are, therefore, not worthy of the President’s approbation.

I agree in an almost unlimited condemnation of retrospective laws. The few instances of wrong which they redress are so overweighed by the insecurity they draw over all property and even over life itself, and by the atrocious violations of both to which they lead that it is better to live under the evil than the remedy.

The only question I shall make is, whether these resolutions annul acts which were valid when they were done?

This question respects the laws of Virginia and North Carolina only. On the latter I am not qualified to decide, and therefore beg leave to confine myself to the former.

By the common law of England (adopted in Virginia) the conveyance of a right to a debt or other thing whereof the party is not in possession, is not only void, but severely punishable under the names of Maintenance and Champerty. The Law-merchants, however, which is permitted to have course between merchants, allows the assignment of a bill of exchange for the convenience of commerce. This, therefore, forms one exception to the general rule, that a mere right or thing in action is not assignable. A second exception has been formed by an English statute (copied into the laws of Virginia) permitting promisory notes to be assigned. The laws of Virginia have gone yet further than the statute, and have allowed, as a third exception, that a bond should be assigned, which cannot be done even at this day in England. So that, in Virginia, when a debt has been settled between the parties and put into the form of a bill of exchange, promisory note or bond, the law admits it to be transferred by assignment. In all other cases the assignment of a debt is void.

The debts from the United States to the soldiers of Virginia, not having been put into either of these forms, the assignments of them were void in law.

A creditor may give an order on his debtor in favor of another, but if the debtor does not accept it, he must be sued in the creditor’s name; which shows that the order does not transfer the property of the debts. The creditor may appoint another to be his attorney to receive and recover his debt, and he may covenant that when received the attorney may apply it to his own use. But he must sue as attorney to the original proprietor, and not in his own right.

This proves that a power of attorney, with such a covenant, does not transfer the property of the debt. A further proof in both cases is, that the original creditor may at any time before payment or acceptance revoke either his order or his power of attorney.

In that event the person in whose favor they were given has recourse to a court of equity. If he finds his transaction has been a fair one, he gives him aid. If he finds it has been otherwise, not permitting his court to be made a handmaid to fraud, he leaves him without remedy in equity as he was in law. The assignments in the present case, therefore, if unfairly obtained, as seems to be admitted, are void in equity as they are in law. And they derive their nullity from the laws under which they were made, not from the new resolutions of Congress. These are not retrospective. They only direct their treasurer not to give validity to an assignment which had it not before, by payments to the assignee until he in whom the legal property still is, shall order it in such a form as to show he is apprized of the sum he is to part with, and its readiness to be paid into his or any other hands, and that he chooses, notwithstanding, to acquiesce under the fraud which has been practised on him. In that case he had only to execute before two justices a power of attorney to the same person, expressing the specific sum of his demand, and it is to be complied with. Actual payment, in this case, is an important act. If made to the assignee, it would put the burthen of proof and process on the original owner. If made to that owner, it puts it on the assignee, who must then come forward and show that his transaction has been that of an honest man.

Government seems to be doing in this what every individual, I think, would feel himself bound to do in the case of his own debt. For, being free in the law, to pay to one or the other, he would certainly give the advantage to the party who has suffered wrong rather than to him who has committed it.

It is not honorable to embrace a salutary principle of law when a relinquishment of it is solicited only to support a fraud.

I think the resolutions, therefore, merit approbation. I have before professed my incompetence to say what are the laws of North Carolina on this subject. They, like Virginia, adopted the English laws in the gross. These laws forbid in general the buying and selling of debts, and their policy in this is so wise that I presume they had not changed it till the contrary be shown.


New York, June 1, 1790

Dear Sir

Your favor of the 19th of May has been duly received. The information relating to your little daughter has been communicated as you desired. I hope she is by this time entirely recovered. Your friends in Broadway were well two evenings ago.

I have paid the money to Taylor, and hope you will take the time you intimate for replacing my advances on your account.

The assumption has been revived and is still depending. I do not believe it will take place, but the event may possibly be governed by circumstances not at present fully in view. The funding bill for the proper debt of the U. S. is engrossed for the last reading. It conforms in substance to the plan of the Secretary of the Treasy. You will have seen by late papers that an experiment for navigation and commercial purposes has been introduced. It has powerful friends, and from the present aspect of the H. of Reps will suceed there by a great majority. In the Senate its success is not improbable if I am rightly informed. You will see by the inclosed paper that a removal from this place has been voted by a large majority of our House. The other is pretty nearly balanced. The Senators of the 3 Southern States are disposed to couple the permanent with the temporary question. If they do I think it will end in either an abortion of both or in a decision of the former in favour of the Delaware. I have good reason to believe that there is no serious purpose in the Northern States to prefer the Potowmac, and that if supplied with a pretext for a very hasty decision, they will indulge their secret wishes for a permanent establishment on the Delaware. As R. I. is again in the Union & will probably be in the Senate in a day or two, The Potowmac has the less to hope & the more to fear from this quarter. Our friend Col: Bland was a victim this morning to the influenza united with the effects & remains of previous indisposition. His mind was not right for several days before he died. The President has been at the point of death but is recovered. Mr Jefferson has had a tedious spell of the head-ache. It has not latterly been very severe, but is still not absolutely removed. My best respects to Mrs Monroe. With sincere regard I am Dear Sir.

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