Writings of James Madison, Volume 3

Author: James Madison

To Joseph C. Cabell.

MONTPELLIER, October 30, 1828.

DEAR SIR,—In my letter of September 18, I stated briefly the grounds on which I rested my opinion, that a power to impose duties and restrictions on imports with a view to encourage domestic productions was constitutionally lodged in Congress. In the observations then made was involved the opinion, also, that the power was properly there lodged. As this last opinion necessarily implies that there are cases in which the power may be usefully exercised by Congress, the only body within our political system capable of exercising it with effect, you may think it incumbent on me to point out cases of that description.

I will premise that I concur in the opinion, that, as a general rule, individuals ought to be deemed the best judges of the best application of their industry and resources.

I am ready to admit, also, that there is no country in which the application may with more safety be left to the intelligence and enterprise of individuals than the United States.

Finally, I shall not deny that, in all doubtful cases, it becomes every Government to lean rather to a confidence in the judgment of individuals, than to interpositions controlling the free exercise of it.

With all these concessions, I think it can be satisfactorily shown that there are exceptions to the general rule now expressed by the phrase "let us alone," forming cases which call for interpositions of the competent authority, and which are not inconsistent with the generality of the rule.

1. The theory of "let us alone" supposes that all nations concur in a perfect freedom of commercial intercourse. Were this the case, they would, in a commercial view, be but one nation, as much as the several districts composing a particular nation; and the theory would be as applicable to the former as to the latter. But this golden age of free trade has not yet arrived; nor is there a single nation that has set the example. No nation can, indeed, safely do so, until a reciprocity at least be ensured to it. Take, for a proof, the familiar case of the navigation employed in a foreign commerce. If a nation, adhering to the rule of never interposing a countervailing protection of its vessels, admits foreign vessels into its ports free of duty, while its own vessels are subject to a duty in foreign ports, the ruinous effect is so obvious that the warmest advocate for the theory in question must shrink from a universal application of it.

A nation leaving its foreign trade in all cases to regulate itself, might soon find it regulated by other nations into a subserviency to a foreign interest. In the interval between the peace of 1783 and the establishment of the present Constitution of the United States, the want of a general authority to regulate trade is known to have had this consequence. And have not the pretensions and policy latterly exhibited by Great Britain given warning of a like result from a renunciation of all countervailing regulations on the part of the United States? Were she permitted, by conferring on certain portions of her domain the name of Colonies, to open from these a trade for herself to foreign countries, and to exclude at the same time a reciprocal trade to such Colonies by foreign countries, the use to be made of the monopoly needs not be traced. Its character will be placed in a just relief by supposing that one of the Colonial islands, instead of its present distance, happened to be in the vicinity of Great Britain; or that one of the islands in that vicinity should receive the name and be regarded in the light of a Colony, with the peculiar privileges claimed for Colonies. Is it not manifest that in this case the favoured island might be made the sole medium of the commercial intercourse with foreign nations, and the parent country thence enjoy every essential advantage, as to the terms of it, which would flow from an unreciprocal trade from her other ports with other nations?

Fortunately, the British claims, however speciously coloured or adroitly managed, were repelled at the commencement of our commercial career as an independent people, and at successive epochs under the existing Constitution both in legislative discussions and in diplomatic negotiations. The claims were repelled on the solid ground that the Colonial trade, as a rightful monopoly, was limited to the intercourse between the parent country and its Colonies, and between one Colony and another; the whole being strictly in the nature of a coasting trade from one to another port of the same nation; a trade with which no other nation has a right to interfere. It follows of necessity, that the parent country, whenever it opens a Colonial port for a direct trade to a foreign country, departs itself from the principle of Colonial monopoly, and entitles the foreign country to the same reciprocity in every respect as in its intercourse with any other ports of the nation.

This is common sense and common right. It is still more, if more could be required; it is in conformity with the established usage of all nations, other than Great Britain, which have Colonies. Some of those nations are known to adhere to the monopoly of their Colonial trade with all the rigour and constancy which circumstances permit. But it is also known, that whenever, and from whatever cause, it has been found necessary or expedient to open their Colonial ports to a foreign trade, the rule of reciprocity in favour of the foreign party was not refused, nor, as is believed, a right to refuse it pretended.

It cannot be said that the reciprocity was dictated by a deficiency of the commercial marine. France at least could not be, in every instance, governed by that consideration; and Holland still less; to say nothing of the navigating States of Sweden and Denmark, which have rarely, if ever, enforced a Colonial monopoly. The remark is indeed obvious, that the shipping liberated from the usual conveyance of supplies from the parent country to the Colonies might be employed in the new channels opened for them in supplies from abroad.

Reciprocity, or an equivalent for it, is the only rule of intercourse among independent communities; and no nation ought to admit a doctrine, or adopt an invariable policy, which would preclude the counteracting measures necessary to enforce the rule.

2. The theory supposes, moreover, a perpetual peace; a supposition, it is to be feared, not less chimerical than a universal freedom of commerce.

The effect of war among the commercial and manufacturing nations of the world, in raising the wages of labour and the cost of its products, with a like effect on the charges of freight and insurance, needs neither proof nor explanation. In order to determine, therefore, a question of economy between depending on foreign supplies and encouraging domestic substitutes, it is necessary to compare the probable periods of war with the probable periods of peace; and the cost of the domestic encouragement in times of peace with the cost added to foreign articles in times of war.

During the last century, the periods of war and peace have been nearly equal. The effect of a state of war in raising the price of imported articles cannot be estimated with exactness. It is certain, however, that the increased price of particular articles may make it cheaper to manufacture them at home.

Taking, for the sake of illustration, an equality in the two periods, and the cost of an imported yard of cloth in time of war to be nine and a half dollars, and in time of peace to be seven dollars, while the same could at all times be manufactured at home for eight dollars, it is evident that a tariff of one dollar and a quarter on the imported yard would protect the home manufacture in time of peace, and avoid a tax of one and a half dollars imposed by a state of war.

It cannot be said that the manufactories which could not support themselves against foreign competition in periods of peace would spring up of themselves at the recurrence of war prices. It must be obvious to every one, that, apart from the difficulty of great and sudden changes of employment, no prudent capitalists would engage in expensive establishments of any sort at the commencement of a war of uncertain duration, with a certainty of having them crushed by the return of peace.

The strictest economy, therefore, suggests, as exceptions to the general rule, an estimate in every given case, of war and peace periods and prices, with inferences therefrom, of the amount of a tariff which might be afforded during peace, in order to avoid the tax resulting from war. And it will occur at once that the inferences will be strengthened by adding to the supposition, of wars wholly foreign, that of wars in which our own country might be a party.

3. It is an opinion in which all must agree, that no nation ought to be unnecessarily dependent on others for the munitions of public defence, or for the materials essential to a naval force, where the nation has a maritime frontier or a foreign commerce to protect. To this class of exceptions to the theory may be added the instruments of agriculture and of mechanic arts, which supply the other primary wants of the community. The time has been when many of these were derived from a foreign source, and some of them might relapse into that dependence were the encouragement to the fabrication of them at home withdrawn. But, as all foreign sources must be liable to interruptions too inconvenient to be hazarded, a provident policy would favour an internal and independent source as a reasonable exception to the general rule of consulting cheapness alone.

4. There are cases where a nation may be so far advanced in the pre-requisites for a particular branch of manufactures, that this, if once brought into existence, would support itself; and yet, unless aided in its nascent and infant state by public encouragement and a confidence in public protection, might remain, if not altogether, for a long time unattempted, or attempted without success. Is not our cotton manufacture a fair example? However favoured by an advantageous command of the raw material, and a machinery which dispenses in so extraordinary a proportion with manual labour, it is quite probable that, without the impulse given by a war cutting off foreign supplies and the patronage of an early tariff, it might not even yet have established itself; and pretty certain that it would be far short of the prosperous condition which enables it to face, in foreign markets, the fabrics of a nation that defies all other competitors. The number must be small that would now pronounce this manufacturing boon not to have been cheaply purchased by the tariff which nursed it into its present maturity.

5. Should it happen, as has been suspected, to be an object, though not of a foreign Government itself, of its great manufacturing capitalists, to strangle in the cradle the infant manufactures of an extensive customer or an anticipated rival, it would surely, in such a case, be incumbent on the suffering party so far to make an exception to the "let alone" policy as to parry the evil by opposite regulations of its foreign commerce.

6. It is a common objection to the public encouragement of particular branches of industry, that it calls off labourers from other branches found to be more profitable; and the objection is, in general, a weighty one. But it loses that character in proportion to the effect of the encouragement in attracting skilful labourers from abroad. Something of this sort has already taken place among ourselves, and much more of it is in prospect; and as far as it has taken or may take place, it forms an exception to the general policy in question.

The history of manufactures in Great Britain, the greatest manufacturing nation in the world, informs us, that the woollen branch, till of late her greatest branch, owed both its original and subsequent growths to persecuted exiles from the Netherlands; and that her silk manufactures, now a flourishing and favourite branch, were not less indebted to emigrants flying from the persecuting edicts of France. [Anderson’s History of Commerce.]

It appears, indeed, from the general history of manufacturing industry, that the prompt and successful introduction of it into new situations has been the result of emigrations from countries in which manufactures had gradually grown up to a prosperous state; as into Italy, on the fall of the Greek Empire; from Italy into Spain and Flanders, on the loss of liberty in Florence and other cities; and from Flanders and France into England, as above noticed. [Franklin’s Canadian Pamphlet.]

In the selection of cases here made, as exceptions to the "let alone" theory, none have been included which were deemed controvertible; and if I have viewed them, or a part of them only, in their true light, they show what was to be shown, that the power granted to Congress to encourage domestic products by regulations of foreign trade was properly granted, inasmuch as the power is, in effect, confined to that body, and may, when exercised with a sound legislative discretion, provide the better for the safety and prosperity of the nation.


It does not appear that any of the strictures on the letters from J. Madison to J. C. Cabell have in the least invalidated the constitutionality of the power in Congress to favour domestic manufactures by regulating the commerce with foreign nations.

1. That this regulating power embraces the object remains fully sustained by the uncontested fact that it has been so understood and exercised by all commercial and manufacturing nations, particularly by Great Britain; nor is it any objection to the inference from it, that those nations, unlike the Congress of the United States, had all other powers of legislation as well as the power of regulating foreign commerce, since this was the particular and appropriate power by which the encouragement of manufactures was effected.

2. It is equally a fact that it was generally understood among the States previous to the establishment of the present Constitution of the United States, that the encouragement of domestic manufactures by regulations of foreign commerce, particularly by duties and restrictions on foreign manufactures, was a legitimate and ordinary exercise of the power over foreign commerce; and that, in transferring this power to the Legislature of the United States, it was anticipated that it would be exercised more effectually than it could be by the States individually. [See Lloyd’s Debates and other publications of the period.]

It cannot be denied that a right to vindicate its commercial, manufacturing, and agricultural interests against unfriendly and unreciprocal policy of other nations, belongs to every nation; that it has belonged at all times to the United States as a nation; that, previous to the present Federal Constitution, the right existed in the governments of the individual States, not in the Federal Government; that the want of such an authority in the Federal Government was deeply felt and deplored; that a supply of this want was generally and anxiously desired; and that the authority has, by the substituted Constitution of the Federal Government, been expressly or virtually taken from the individual States; so that, if not transferred to the existing Federal Government, it is lost and annihilated for the United States as a nation. Is not the presumption irresistible, that it must have been the intention of those who framed and ratified the Constitution, to vest the authority in question in the substituted Government? and does not every just rule of reasoning allow to a presumption so violent a proportional weight in deciding on a question of such a power in Congress, not as a source of power distinct from and additional to the constitutional source, but as a source of light and evidence as to the true meaning of the Constitution?

3. It is again a fact, that the power was so exercised by the first session of the first Congress, and by every succeeding Congress, with the sanction of every other branch of the Federal Government, and with universal acquiescence, till a very late date. [See the Messages of the Presidents and the Reports and Letters of Mr. Jefferson.]

4. That the surest and most recognised evidence of the meaning of the Constitution, as of a law, is furnished by the evils which were to be cured or the benefits to be obtained; and by the immediate and long-continued application of the meaning to these ends. This species of evidence supports the power in question in a degree which cannot be resisted without destroying all stability in social institutions, and all the advantages of known and certain rules of conduct in the intercourse of life.

5. Although it might be too much to say that no case could arise of a character overruling the highest evidence of precedents and practice in expounding a constitution, it may be safely affirmed that no case which is not of a character far more exorbitant and ruinous than any now existing or that has occurred, can authorize a disregard of the precedents and practice which sanction the constitutional power of Congress to encourage domestic manufactures by regulations of foreign commerce.

The importance of the question concerning the authority of precedents, in expounding a constitution as well as a law, will justify a more full and exact view of it.*

It has been objected to the encouragement of domestic manufactures by a tariff on imported ones, that duties and imposts are in the clause specifying the sources of revenue, and therefore cannot be applied to the encouragement of manufactures when not a source of revenue.

But, 1. It does not follow from the applicability of duties and imposts under one clause for one usual purpose, that they are excluded from an applicability under another clause to another purpose, also requiring them, and to which they have also been usually applied. 2. A history of that clause, as traced in the printed journal of the Federal Convention, will throw light on the subject.*

It appears that the clause, as it originally stood, simply expressed "a power to lay taxes, duties, imposts, and excises," without pointing out the objects; and, of course, leaving them applicable in carrying into effect the other specified powers. It appears, farther, that a solicitude to prevent any constructive danger to the validity of public debts contracted under the superseded form of government, led to the addition of the words "to pay the debts."

This phraseology having the appearance of an appropriation limited to the payment of debts, an express appropriation was added "for the expenses of the Government," &c.

But even this was considered as short of the objects for which taxes, duties, imposts, and excises might be required; and the more comprehensive provision was made by substituting "for expenses of Government" the terms of the old Confederation, viz.: and provide for the common defence and general welfare, making duties and imposts, as well as taxes and excises, applicable not only to payment of debts, but to the common defence and general welfare.

The question then is, What is the import of that phrase, common defence and general welfare, in its actual connexion? The import which Virginia has always asserted, and still contends for, is, that they are explained and limited to the enumerated objects subjoined to them, among which objects is the regulation of foreign commerce; as far, therefore, as a tariff of duties is necessary and proper in regulating foreign commerce for any of the usual purposes of such regulations, it may be imposed by Congress, and, consequently, for the purpose of encouraging manufactures, which is a well-known purpose for which duties and imposts have been usually employed. This view of the clause providing for revenue, instead of interfering with or excluding the power of regulating foreign trade, corroborates the rightful exercise of power for the encouragement of domestic manufactures.

It may be thought that the Constitution might easily have been made more explicit and precise in its meaning. But the same remark might be made on so many other parts of the instrument, and, indeed, on so many parts of every instrument of a complex character, that, if completely obviated, it would swell every paragraph into a page, and every page into a volume; and, in so doing, have the effect of multiplying topics for criticism and controversy.

The best reason to be assigned, in this case, for not having made the Constitution more free from a charge of uncertainty in its meaning, is believed to be, that it was not suspected that any such charge would ever take place; and it appears that no such charge did take place, during the early period of the Constitution, when the meaning of its authors could be best ascertained, nor until many of the contemporary lights had in the lapse of time been extinguished. How often does it happen, that a notoriety of intention diminishes the caution against its being misunderstood or doubted! What would be the effect of the Declaration of Independence, or of the Virginia Bill of Rights, if not expounded with a reference to that view of their meaning?

Those who assert that the encouragement of manufactures is not within the scope of the power to regulate foreign commerce, and that a tariff is exclusively appropriated to revenue, feel the difficulty of finding authority for objects which they cannot admit to be unprovided for by the Constitution; such as ensuring internal supplies of necessary articles of defence, the counter-vailing of regulations of foreign countries, &c., unjust and injurious to our navigation or to our agricultural products. To bring these objects within the constitutional power of Congress, they are obliged to give to the power "to regulate foreign commerce" an extent that at the same time necessarily embraces the encouragement of manufactures; and how, indeed, is it possible to suppose that a tariff is applicable to the extorting from foreign Powers of a reciprocity of privileges, and not applicable to the encouragement of manufactures, an object to which it has been far more frequently applied?

* See letter of J. M. to C. J. Ingersoll, June 25, 1831, on the subject of the bank, IV. 183.

* See letter of J. M., to Andrew Stevenson, November 27, 1830, IV. 121.


Related Resources

James Madison

Download Options

Title: Writings of James Madison, Volume 3

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Writings of James Madison, Volume 3

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: James Madison Jr., "To Joseph C. Cabell.," Writings of James Madison, Volume 3 in James Madison, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, 4 Vols. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.), Pp.648-658 Original Sources, accessed December 10, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=48M2V8AXTNAM371.

MLA: Madison, James, Jr. "To Joseph C. Cabell." Writings of James Madison, Volume 3, in James Madison, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, 4 Vols. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.), Pp.648-658, Original Sources. 10 Dec. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=48M2V8AXTNAM371.

Harvard: Madison, J, 'To Joseph C. Cabell.' in Writings of James Madison, Volume 3. cited in , James Madison, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, 4 Vols. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.), Pp.648-658. Original Sources, retrieved 10 December 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=48M2V8AXTNAM371.