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Colonial and State Records of North Carolina
Letter from Hugh Williamson to Alexander Martin
Martin, Alexander, 1740-1807
March 19, 1784
Volume 17, Pages 21-28

[From Executive Letter Book.]

Annapolis, 19th March, 1784.


On the 26th of September last the Delegates had the honor of explain'g to your Excellency some of the reasons that induced Congress

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to recommend certain measures to the several States in the Union, and expressed their hope that North Carolina would not be among the last in adopting the proposed impost in particular, which would not only be of all taxes the least burthensome to the Citizens but must strongly operate in favour of our State.

For the general detail of occurrences during the last year, or for the particular explanatation of any matters referred to in that or any other of our joint letters, I shall now take the liberty of referring you to my worthy friend & honorable colleague Mr. Hawkins who has served during the whole of the last year with so much reputation to himself and advantage to the nation.

Your Excellency and the State may wish to be informed of the circumstances of the ratification of the definitive Treaty and the consequent recommendations which are sent to the States, and of such other important matters as are yet pending before Congress. From the papers which are forwarded by our Secretary you will learn that the definitive Treaty was not ratified before the 14th of January; by a series of neglects and accidents it had long been coming to our hands and some weeks afterwards elapsed before we had nine States present. The officers whom we sent in different Vessels with the ratification were both so long detained by the ice and bad weather, that we have reason to fear lest they should not arrive in Paris before the 3d of March the last day allowed for the exchange of ratifications. Apprehending that an accident of this sort might occur, and that other terms less palatable might be offered us in case the Treaty was lost by our laches, the most pressing measures were attempted to bring forward a full representation. The Journals for the 23d of December will explain some of the steps that were taken. After waiting some days longer, I confess that I was one of those who would have submitted to the risque of ratifying by seven States rather than lose the Treaty. Our reasons are contained in the paper annexed No. 1 which was for some days the subject of debate, at length an officer whom we had dispatched for the purpose brought Members enough to make nine States. Our opinion was, that the ratification by seven States was good on the behalf of the United States; and Great Britain who is not to judge of our constitution must have received it as good, but we might have incured the displeasure and censure of our constituents on the supposition

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that we had violated the spirit of the confederation. We conceived however that on great and pressing occasions the man who is honored with the dearest concerns of his Country would ill deserve that honor if he was not willing to risque his political existence or even his temporal existence in order to preserve the peace and happiness of his country.

With respect to the recommendations which are sent to the States in consequence of the Treaty, you will be pleased to observe that Congress had many reasons for defering them to this late hour. They have indeed been zealously pressed by the commander in chief of the British forces in America to make these recommendations immediately after the preliminary articles came to hand, and it was alleged that in the terms of the articles we were bound so to do. We alleged however that the period was not arrived at which the recommendation ought to go forth. We apprehended that some of the measures recommended might not be very acceptable to the States, and their refusing to comply might be explained by the British Court as a breach of Treaty; and while they had an army in the Country there was much reason to believe that they were watching for an excuse to recover part of what they had lost by the Treaty. For these reasons we referred the recommendations to the accomplishment of the definitive and not the preliminary Treaty. In the mean while the British Troops have been withdrawn from the Country and the hour has arrived when we are in good faith bound to recommend. It will certainly be admitted that the spirit of violence which prevailed in the last year in some of the States had a great tendency to make strangers think ill of our Government; that spirit seems now to subside, and the Laws have their due effect. You will observe that British debts and the refugees are the two subjects of recommendation. The term real British subjects used in the 5th Article was clearly understood by the British Ministers as well as by ours to mean neither Tories or Loyalists; it is applicable to those who had never incurred any blame, as they had never owed any duty to the States. That you may clearly understand what are the ideas and expectations of Congress on the subject of British Debts I must refer you to the annexed paper No. 2 which is a part of a representation made by our Ministers to the British Minister on the subject of forbearance and interest.

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Was a Mercer to sell you a piece of cloath and on the next day employ a thief to steal half of it from you, he would certainly come with a bad grace at the end of twelve months to demand payment for the whole piece and 6 per Cent for his indulgence.

The stipulations concerning refugees were the first that were attempted and the last agreed on in the Treaty. The British Court at first demanded the General return of the refugees, and the restitution of all their property. The reply of our Ministers might be comprehended in a few words viz., that Congress neither had the power nor inclination to agree to such terms. You will find some of their reasonings on this subject in the paper No. 3; after much time being spent a proposition was made by our Ministers to this import viz., Tho' the refugees could not be suffered to return, yet a faithful inventory should be taken of all the Property which they had forfeited; a faithful inventory should also be taken of all the property belonging to the Citizens of the United States, which had been destroyed or carried off by tories or other adherents of Great Britain. If the tories on settling the acct. had suffered the most, the balance should be paid them by the United States, but on the contrary, if our Citizens had suffered most the difference should be paid by the British Nation. The recommendation of Congress to the several States to cause an account of their losses to be taken was put into the hands of the British Ministers as a proof that we were collecting materials, that we might be ready to settle such accts. From that hour no further demands were made of the restitution of tory property and a long negotiation terminated as you have it in the 5th, 6th and 7th Articles. The proposition I have referred to is annexed to No. 41 our Ministers in their joint Letter say “It “is much to be wished that the Legislatures may not involve all the “tories in banishment & ruin but that such discriminations may be “made as to entitle their decisions to the approbation disinterested men.” It gives much pleasure to cool dispassionate observers to see that the Legislature of North Carolina has not gone into the banishment of that numerous class of misguided people who continued lurking in the State, though in the eye of Justice they might have forfeited both property and life. Though there have been times in which it was necessary to cut off a limb in order to save the

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body politic, we are now happy in having arrived at that period in which, to imitate the author of our beings, offenders who are not of the worst class may be suffered to repent and return to their duty.

On the last summer the Delegates received a Letter from H. E. McCulloch who seems to be fully persuaded that his estate will be restored to him. I believe that we were quite as well persuaded that his estate will not be restored to him, however that may be, the Letter is enclosed.

In our Letter of the 26th of September we took the liberty to represent to your Excellency the fatal mistake of many of our Merchants in pushing their Vessels into British ports and the more fatal mistake of some of the States in opening their ports to the British Vessels without waiting for advice or giving Congress time to negotiate a Treaty, which at that period Great Britain would have acceded to on very desirable terms. By these errors our trade is destroyed and experience has taught those Merchants, so covetous of British connections that they were mistaken. Certainly experience keeps a dear school though we daily see people who will not learn in any other. By the annexed papers No. 5 you will see what prospects we had of a favorable Commerce before it was known in England that our ports were open to their Vessels. By the paper No. 6 (separate) you will observe that many of the States are now convinced that it is necessary to vest Congress with the power of protecting Commerce by merchantile Treaties. Great Britain has presumed that in the hour of Peace the States would not support one another. On this supposition her proclamation was issued for cutting off our trade with the West Indies. The spirit that is now rising in the States will be apt to convince her that she has been mistaken, as on many former occasions, when she counted on our want of union. From the good sense of the Legislature of No. Carolina & their uniform desire to support federal measure I am not to doubt what part they will take on this occasion.

Congress are now engaged in preparing instructions for their ministers abroad for negotiating Treaties with the several Commercial powers in Europe with whom we have none at present.

Virginia has compleated her Cession of Territory to the United States, by which we may be enabled to pay off no small part of the National Debt. I have taken some pains by comparing the most

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accurate maps with observations of Gentlemen who have been in the Western Countries, to estimate the quantity and value of the territory now belonging to the United States on the West of the Ohio. There are somewhat more than 186 millions of acres, of this aquntity 44 millions of acres are to the Northward of latitude 45°. This Country being neither very fertile nor well timbered will not for ages be of much use except for hunting ground. Between the latitude 45° and 42° there are above 44 millions of acres. This Country is in general fertile & well timbered but the Indians will expect the exclusive use of it for a considerable time. Between the parallel of 42 degrees Latitude and the river Ohio, extended between the State of Pennsylvania and the river Mississippi there are about 85 millions of acres. In this country the Lands are extremely fertile and there is hardly any part of America so little broken by mountains. I presume that it may be sold for at twenty five Dollars for the hundred acres, by which a debt of twenty Millions may be paid off after 5 Millions of acres have been deducted, which is more than sufficient for paying our late Army the lands due them. An object which holds out the prospect of sinking near half of our national debt certainly claims the most serious attention. In pursuance of this object the next thing to be attempted is a treaty with the Indians who are daily soliciting that they should enter into such treaty. We have reason to expect that they will yield us a considerable tract in consequence of the outrages they have committed during the late War, and we propose buying as much more as they can be prevailed on to sell. Congress are desirous of being ready to treat whenever the Summer approaches. In whatever light from time and habit we may view a large nation in debt, it is certainly a chain of slavery. It will constantly be found that “the borrower is a servant to the lender” and these debts which on the necessary cause of taxation must prove the necessary source of grief. For these reasons I presume it is our duty to leave no honest measures unattempted by which we may pay off the national debt.

As the Citizens of our State have little foreign commerce, have little intercourse with strangers and have not so many opportunities of receiving information concerning national & foreign occurrences as are presented to people in large Commercial Cities, I have the rather thought it my duty to trouble you with so long a letter and to

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forward so many extracts. The State has an undoubted right to expect information from its servants, not only of what they have done, but of their general views and principles of conduct. And in case where like the present it is necessary that the State should take a part, it is certainly our duty to furnish her with all necessary information that has been presented to us. As some of the Letters to which I have referred, have treated the subject much better than I can pretend to do, I certainly should have given larger extracts, but you will readily believe that considering the necessary attendance and duties of Congress, I have already written as much as may consist with regard to health. I fear that I have written more than will consist with your patience.

I have the honor to be &c,

P.S.—You observe that the business which now presses for dispatch is very important. No part of it can be done by less than nine States. During the whole winter we have not had nine States except for three or four days. I had fully expected to return to the State by the first of April, but as I see no prospect of being relieved at that time or before it, I conceive that it will be a duty that I owe to the State and to the Union to continue until the adjournment for a vacation or at least while I am in the delegation, as we now have a sufficient Congress for the dispatch of business. It would be cruel to withdraw a State 'til the business is finished and it might happen that by the absence of the representation of our State the most important national concerns would not only be postponed and deferred for a considerable time, but some of the opportunities must be forever lost. I flatter myself that any national misfortune will never pass to the acct. of the Delegates from our State. Whether we have suffered any personal inconveniences from our attendance during the last 12 months is a question that Mr. Hawkins will be able to explain. If several Gentlemen had not shrank from such inconvenience we should have had a larger representation for the last eight months and our business might now have been finished, by which means our finances would have been greatly improved and our national honor placed in a favorable point of light.

It is now expected that Congress will be ready to adjourn by the end of May. The federal year begins on the first Monday in November;

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wherefore we cannot adjourn over that period. It is expected from that time forward while Heaven is pleased to give us peace, Congress will never have occasion to sit except on the winter season. A Committee to consist of one Member from every State, is to sit during the recess of Congress. If Mr. Spaight should be continued in the delegation, as he has not been long from home, I presume it will be convenient for him to be on the Committee; for though I have no claim to any other merit than that of a fervent desire to serve the State accompanied by the most speedy attention to my duty, in hopes of serving them the more effectually, yet I flatter myself that I shall not be considered as ungrateful or inattentive to their interest when I express my wish of being at home the next summer.

H. W.

N. B. No. 72 is an extract of the last letter received from one of our Ministers, and contains an undubitable truth which should be regarded with the most vigilant attention.


1 Vide Mr. Spaight's reference above.

2 See Mr. Spaight's Letter.