As the election of the same delegate to Congress for consecutive sessions was then forbidden by the law of Virginia, Mr. Madison was not returned to that body in 1784. For a brief interval of three months he made good use of his time, we are told, by continuing his law studies, till in the spring of that year he was chosen to represent his county in the Virginia Assembly.
It may be that "the sentiments and manners of the parent nation," which he lamented seven years before, had passed away, and nobody now insisted upon the privilege of getting drunk at the candidate's expense before voting for him. But it is more likely that the electors had not changed. The difference was in the candidate; they did not need to be allured to give their votes to a man whom they were proud to call upon to represent the county. Mr. Madison's reputation was already made by his three years in Congress, and he now easily took a place among the political leaders of his own State.
The position was hardly less conspicuous or less influential than that which he had held in the national Congress. What each State might do was of quite as much importance as anything the federal government might or could do. Congress could neither open nor close a single port in Virginia to commerce, whether domestic or foreign, without the consent of the State; it could not levy a tax of a penny on anything, whether goods coming in or products going out, if the State objected. As a member of Congress, Mr. Madison might propose or oppose any of these things; as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, he might, if his influence was strong enough, carry or forbid any or all of them, whatever might be the wishes of Congress. It was in the power of Virginia to influence largely the welfare of her neighbors, so far as it depended upon commerce, and indirectly that of every State in the Union.
In the Assembly, as in Congress, Mr. Madison's aim was to increase the powers of the federal government, for want of which it was rapidly sinking into imbecility and contempt. "I acceded," he says, "to the desire of my fellow-citizens of the county that I should be one of its representatives in the legislature," to bring about "a rescue of the Union and the blessings of liberty staked on it from an impending catastrophe." Early in the session the Assembly assented to the amendment to the Articles of Confederation proposed at the late session of Congress, which substituted population for a land valuation as the basis of representation and of taxation. The Assembly also asserted that all requisitions upon the States for the support of the general government and to provide for the public debt should be complied with, and payment of balances on old accounts should be enforced; and it assented to the recommendation of Congress that that body should have power for a limited period to control the trade with foreign nations having no treaty with the United States, in order that it might retaliate upon Great Britain for excluding American ships from her West India colonies. All these measures were designed for "the rescue of the Union," and they had, of course, Madison's hearty support. For it was absolutely essential, as he believed, that something should be done if the Union was to be saved, or to be made worth saving. But there were obstacles on all sides. The commercial States were reluctant to surrender the control over trade to Congress; in the planting States there was hardly any trade that could be surrendered. In Virginia the tobacco planter still clung to the old ways. He liked to have the English ship take his tobacco from the river bank of his own plantation, and to receive from the same vessel such coarse goods as were needed to clothe his slaves, with the more expensive luxuries for his own family,--dry goods for his wife and daughter; the pipe of madeira, the coats and breeches, the hats, boots, and saddles for himself and his sons. He knew that this year's crop went to pay--if it did pay--for last year's goods, and that he was always in debt. But the debt was on running account, and did not matter. The London factor was skillful in charges for interest and commissions, and the account for this year was always a lien on next year's crop. He knew, and the planter knew, that the tobacco could be sold at a higher price in New York or Philadelphia than the factor got, or seemed to get, for it in London; that the goods sent out in exchange were charged at a higher price than they could be bought for in the Northern towns. Nevertheless, the planter liked to see his own hogsheads rolled on board ship by his own negroes at his own wharf, and receive in return his own boxes and bales shipped direct from London at his own order, let it cost what it might. It was a shiftless and ruinous system; but the average Virginia planter was not over-quick at figures, nor even at reading and writing. He was proud of being lord of a thousand or two acres, and one or two hundred negroes, and fancied that this was to rule over, as Mr. Rives called it, "a mimic commonwealth, with its foreign and domestic relations, and its regular administrative hierarchy." He did not comprehend that the isolated life of a slave plantation was ordinarily only a kind of perpetual barbecue, with its rough sports and vacuous leisure, where the roasted ox was largely wasted and not always pleasant to look at. There was a rude hospitality, where food, provided by unpaid labor, was cheap and abundant, and where the host was always glad to welcome any guest who would relieve him of his own tediousness; but there was little luxury and no refinement where there was almost no culture. Of course there were a few homes and families of another order, where the women were refined and the men educated; but these were the exceptions. Society generally, with its bluff, loud, self-confident but ignorant planters, its numerous poor whites destitute of lands and of slaves, and its mass of slaves whose aim in life was to avoid work and escape the whip, was necessarily only one remove from semi-civilization.
It was not easy to indoctrinate such a people, more arrogant than intelligent, with new ideas. By the same token it might be possible to lead them into new ways before they would find out whither they were going. Mr. Madison hoped to change the wretched system of plantation commerce by a port bill, which he brought into the Assembly. Imposts require custom-houses, and obviously there could not be custom-houses nor even custom-officers on every plantation in the State. The bill proposed to leave open two ports of entry for all foreign ships. It would greatly simplify matters if all the foreign trade of the State could be limited to these two ports only. It would then be easy enough to enforce imposts, and the State would have something to surrender to the federal government to help it to a revenue, if, happily, the time should ever come when all the States should assent to that measure of salvation for the Union. Not that this was the primary object of those who favored this port law; but the question of commerce was the question on which everything hinged, and its regulation in each State must needs have an influence, one way or the other, upon the possibility of strengthening, even of preserving, the Union. Everything depended upon reconciling these state interests by mutual concessions. The South was jealous of the North, because trade flourished at the North and did not flourish at the South. It seemed as if this was at the expense of the South, and so, in a certain sense, it was. The problem was to find where the difficulty lay, and to apply the remedy.
If commerce flourished at the North, where each of the States had one or two ports of entry only, why should it not flourish in Virginia if regulated in the same way? If those centres of trade bred a race of merchants, who built their own ships, bought and sold, did their own carrying, competed with and stimulated each other, and encroached upon the trade of the South, why should not similar results follow in Virginia if she should confine her trade to two or three ports? If the buyer and the seller, the importer and the consumer, went to a common place of exchange in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, and prosperity followed as a consequence, why should they not do the same thing at Norfolk? This was what Madison aimed to bring about by the port bill. But it was impossible to get it through the legislature till three more ports were added to the two which the bill at first proposed. When the planters came to understand that such a law would take away their cherished privilege of trade along the banks of the rivers, wherever anybody chose to run out a little jetty, the opposition was persistent. At every succeeding session, till the new federal Constitution was adopted, an attempt was made to repeal the act; and though that was not successful, each year new ports of entry were added. It did not, indeed, matter much whether the open ports of Virginia were two or whether they were twenty. There was a factor in the problem which neither Mr. Madison nor anybody else would take into the account. It was possible, of course, if force enough were used, to break up the traffic with English ships on the banks of the rivers; but when that was done, commerce would follow its own laws, in spite of the acts of the legislature, and flow into channels of its own choosing. It was not possible to transmute a planting State, where labor was enslaved, into a commercial State, where labor must be free.
However desirous Mr. Madison might be to transfer the power over commerce to the federal government, he was compelled, as a member of the Virginia legislature, to care first for the trade of his own State. No State could afford to neglect its own commercial interests so long as the thirteen States remained thirteen commercial rivals. It was becoming plainer and plainer every day that, while that relation continued, the less chance there was that thirteen petty, independent States could unite into one great nation. No foreign power would make a treaty with a government which could not enforce that treaty among its own people. Neither could any separate portion of that people make a treaty, as any other portion, the other side of an imaginary line, need not hold it in respect. What good was there in revenue laws, or, indeed, in any other laws in Massachusetts which Connecticut and Rhode Island disregarded? or in New York, if New Jersey and Pennsylvania laughed at them? or in Virginia, if Maryland held them in contempt?
But Mr. Madison felt that, if he could bring about a healthful state of things in the trade of his own State, there was at least so much done towards bringing about a healthful state of things in the commerce of the whole country. There came up a practical, local question which, when the time came, he was quick to see had a logical bearing upon the general question. The Potomac was the boundary line between Virginia and Maryland; but Lord Baltimore's charter gave to Maryland jurisdiction over the river to the Virginia bank; and this right Virginia had recognized, claiming only for herself the free navigation of the Potomac and the Pocomoke. Of course the laws of neither State were regarded when it was worth while to evade them; and nothing was easier than to evade them, since to the average human mind there is no privilege so precious as a facility for smuggling. Nobody, at any rate, seems to have thought anything about the matter till it came under Madison's observation after his return home from Congress. To him it meant something more than mere evasion of state laws and frauds on the state revenue. The subject fell into line with his reflections upon the looseness of the bonds that held the States together, and how unlikely it was that they would ever grow into a respectable or prosperous nation while their present relations continued. Virtually there was no maritime law on the Potomac, and hardly even the pretense of any. What could be more absurd than to provide ports of entry on one bank of a river, while on the other bank, from the source to the sea, the whole country was free to all comers? If the laws of either State were to be regarded on the opposite bank, a treaty was as necessary between them as between any two contiguous states in Europe.
Madison wrote to Jefferson, who was now a delegate in Congress, pointing out this anomalous condition of things on the Potomac, and suggesting that he should confer with the Maryland delegates upon the subject. The proposal met with Jefferson's approbation; he sought an interview with Mr. Stone, a delegate from Maryland, and, as he wrote to Madison, "finding him of the same opinion, [I] have told him I would, by letters, bring the subject forward on our part. They will consider it, therefore, as originated by this conversation." Why "they" should not have been permitted to "consider it as originated" from Madison's suggestion that Jefferson should have such a conversation is not quite plain; for it was Madison, not Jefferson, who had discovered that here was a wrong that ought to be righted, and who had proposed that each State should appoint commissioners to look into the matter and apply a remedy. So, also, so far as subsequent negotiation on this subject had any influence in bringing about the Constitutional Convention of 1787, it was only because Mr. Madison, having suggested the first practical step in the one case, seized an opportune moment in that negotiation to suggest a similar practical step in the other case. As it is so often said that the Annapolis Convention of 1786 was the direct result of the discussion of the Potomac question, it is worth while to explain what they really had to do with each other.
The Virginia commissioners were appointed early in the session on Mr. Madison's motion. Maryland moved more slowly, and it was not till the spring of 1785 that the commissioners met. They soon found that any efficient jurisdiction over the Potomac involved more interests than they, or those who appointed them, had considered. Existing difficulties might be disposed of by agreeing upon uniform duties in the two States, and this the commissioners recommended. But when the subject came before the Maryland legislature it took a wider range.
The Potomac Company, of which Washington was president, had been chartered only a few months before. The work it proposed to do was to make the upper Potomac navigable, and to connect it by a good road with the Ohio River. This was to encourage the settlement of Western lands. Another company was chartered about the same time to connect the Potomac and Delaware by a canal, where interstate traffic would be more immediate. Pennsylvania and Delaware must necessarily have a deep interest in both these projects, and the Maryland legislature proposed that those States be invited to appoint commissioners to act with those whom Maryland and Virginia had already appointed to settle the conflict between them upon the question of jurisdiction on the Potomac. Then it occurred to somebody: if four States can confer, why should not thirteen? The Maryland legislature thereupon suggested that all the States be invited to send delegates to a convention to take up the whole question of American commerce.
While this was going on in Maryland, the Virginia legislature was considering petitions from the principal ports of the State praying that some remedy might be devised for the commercial evils from which they were all suffering. The port bill had manifestly proved a failure. It was only a few weeks before that Madison had complained, in a letter to a friend, that "the trade of the country is in a most deplorable condition;" that the most "shameful frauds" were committed by the English merchants upon those in Virginia, as well as upon the planters who shipped their own tobacco; that the difference in the price of tobacco at Philadelphia and in Virginia was from eleven shillings to fourteen shillings in favor of the Northern ports; and that "the price of merchandise here is, at least, as much above, as that of tobacco is below, the Northern standard." He was only the more confirmed in his opinion that there was no cure for these radical evils except to surrender to the confederate government complete control over commerce. The debate upon these petitions was hot and long. It brought out the strongest men on both sides, Madison leading those who wished to give to Congress the power to regulate trade with foreign countries when no treaty existed; to make uniform commercial laws for all the States; and to levy an impost of five per cent. on imported merchandise, as a provision for the public debt and for the support of the federal government generally. A committee, of which he was a member, at length reported instructions to the delegates of the State in Congress to labor for the consent of all the States to these propositions. But in Committee of the Whole the resolutions were so changed and qualified--especially in limiting to thirteen years the period for which Congress was to be intrusted with a power so essential to the existence of the government--that the measure was given up by its friends as hopeless.
But before the report was disposed of Mr. Madison prepared a resolution, to be offered as a substitute, with the hope of reaching the same end in another way. This resolution provided for the appointment of five commissioners,--Madison to be one of them,--"who, or any three of whom, shall meet such commissioners as may be appointed in the other States of the Union, at a time and place to be agreed on, to take into consideration the trade of the United States; to examine the relative situations and trade of said States; to consider how far a uniform system in their commercial regulations may be necessary to their common interest and their permanent harmony; and to report to the several States such an act, relative to this great object, as, when unanimously ratified by them, will enable the United States, in Congress, effectually to provide for the same." This he was careful not to offer himself, but, as he says, it was "introduced by Mr. Tyler, an influential member, who, having never served in Congress, had more the ear of the House than those whose services there exposed them to an imputable bias." He adds that "it was so little acceptable that it was not then persisted in."
About the same time the action of the Maryland legislature on the Potomac question, and the report of the Potomac commissioners, came up for consideration. Mr. Madison said afterward that, as Maryland thought the concurrence of Pennsylvania and Delaware were necessary to the regulation of trade on that river, so those States would, probably, wish to ask for the concurrence of their neighbors in any proposed arrangement. "So apt and forcible an illustration," he adds, "of the necessity of an uniformity throughout all the States could not but favor the passage of a resolution which proposed a convention having that for its object."
As one of the Potomac commissioners, he knew, of course, what was coming from Maryland, and "how apt and forcible an illustration" it would seem, when it did come, of that resolution which he had written and had induced Mr. Tyler to offer. It did not matter that the resolution had been at the moment "so little acceptable," and therefore "not then persisted in." It was where it was sure, in the political slang of our day, to do the most good. And so it came about. All that Maryland had proposed, growing out of the consideration of the Potomac question, the Virginia legislature acceded to. Then, on the last day of the session, the Madison-Tyler resolution was taken from the table, where it had lain quietly for nearly two months, and passed. If some, who had been contending all winter against any action which should lead to a possibility of strengthening the federal government, failed to see how important a step they had taken to that very end; if any, who were fearful of federal usurpation and tenacious of state rights, were blind to the fact that the resolution had pushed aside the Potomac question and put the Union question in its place, Mr. Madison, we may be sure, was not one of that number. He had gained that for which he had been striving for years.
The commissioners appointed by the resolution soon came together. They appointed Annapolis as the place, and the second Monday of the following September (1786) as the time, of the proposed national convention; and they sent to all the other States an invitation to send delegates to that convention.
On September 11 commissioners from Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York assembled at Annapolis. Others had been appointed by North Carolina, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, but they were not present. Georgia, South Carolina, Maryland, and Connecticut had taken no action upon the subject. As five States only were represented, the commissioners "did not conceive it advisable to proceed on the business of their mission," but they adopted an address, written by Alexander Hamilton, to be sent to all the States.
All the represented States, the address said, had authorized their commissioners "to take into consideration the trade and commerce of the United States; to consider how far an uniform system in their commercial intercourse and regulations might be necessary to their common interest and permanent harmony." But New Jersey had gone farther than this; her delegates were instructed "to consider how far an uniform system in their commercial regulations _and other important matters_ might be necessary to the common interest and permanent harmony of the several States." This, the commissioners present thought, "was an improvement on the original plan, and will deserve to be incorporated into that of a future convention." They gave their reasons at length for this opinion, and, in conclusion, urged that commissioners from all the States be appointed to meet in convention at Philadelphia on the second Monday of the following May (1787), "to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the Constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the Union."
In the course of the winter delegates to this convention were chosen by the several States. Virginia was the first to choose her delegates; Madison was among them, and at their head was George Washington.