Writings of James Madison, Volume 3

Author: James Madison

To General La Fayette.


I did not receive, my dear friend, your favor of July 1 till a few weeks ago. It came through the post office from N. York. Of Dr. Barba I have not heard a word. I shall keep in mind the title your recommendation gives to any marks of my attention for which opportunities may be afforded.

I have read, with great pleasure, your opinion occasioned by the Budget. Sentiments so noble, in language so piercing, cannot be without effect. The deafness to them within doors will not prevent their being heard and felt without, and the present atmosphere of Europe is favorable to an echo of them every where. The toleration of such bold and severe truths is a proof that, although the time may not be arrived for their compleat triumph, it is approaching, and will be accelerated by such appeals to honest hearts and reflecting minds. Go on, my friend, in your consistent and magnanimous career; and may you live to witness and enjoy the success of a cause the most truly glorious that can animate the breast of man; that of elevating and meliorating the condition of his race. Representative and responsible Governments are so congenial with the rights and the feelings of all nations, that their progress cannot be arrested. Sooner or later they must expel despotism from the civilized world. Their forms will improve as experiments shall be multiplied. The experiment here cannot fail to add new lights on the science of constitutions.

We have seen with regret, and not without some disappointment, the Emperor Alexander throwing himself into the breach in defence of arbitrary power against national reforms. His language at Laybach, his conduct towards Naples, and his unparalleled armaments, furnishing to some the motives, to others the pretexts, to follow the opposite example, forfeit his pretensions to be regarded as a patron of the liberal ideas of the age; as a guardian of the independence of Nations; and as a friend to the relief which peace ought to give the people from military burdens. How account, too, for his having no scruples to interfere in the domestic struggles of Naples in favor of a vitiated monarchy, and his pleading them against an interference in behalf of the Christian Greeks, struggling against the compound and horrible despotism at Constantinople? His apostasy, if he was ever sincere, is a conspicuous proof of the necessity of Constitutional barriers against the corrupting influence of unbridled power.

I have lately been looking over De Pradt’s Europe in 1819. He has taken many instructive views of its nations, with their mutual relations and prospects. His prophetic conjectures seem, however, to ascribe too much permanency to the gigantic growth of Russia on the land, and to the ascendency of G. Britain on the ocean. Without a civilization of the numerous hordes, spread over so many latitudes and longitudes, at present nominal rather than real subjects, the Russian power cannot be measured by the extent of her territory; and in the event of a civilization and consequent multiplicatibn of these barriers, her Empire, like that of all overgrown ones, must fall to pieces. Those of Alexander, of Rome, of Charlemagne, of Charles V, all experienced this fate, after the personal talents or temporary causes which held the parts together had ceased. Napoleon would have furnished another example if his fortune had equalled his ambition. His successor would have found a physical and moral impossibility of wielding either a sceptre or sword of more than a given length. The vast power of G. Britain rests on a basis too artificial to be permanent. She owes it not to the extent of her natural resources, but to the prosperity of her manufactures, her commerce, and her navigation. As other nations infuse salutary principles into their forms of Government, and extend the policy they are adopting, of doing for themselves what G. Britain has been permitted to do for them, her power, like that of the Dutch, who once enjoyed an artificial ascendency on the same element, will be reduced to the limits prescribed by nature. These are, undoubtedly, consistent with the rank of a great and important member of the society of nations. Nor will Russia fail to continue a great Power; though without the overwhelming accumulation of means assigned [ascribed?] to her destiny.

Will you indulge my partiality as an American in remarking, that, in looking forward to the comparative resources for naval ascendency, the trident will ultimately belong not to the Eastern but to the Western Hemisphere? Naval power depends on ships and seamen; and these on the materials for constructing the former, and the bulky and coveted products for loading them. On which side will there be the greatest and most durable abundance for both purposes? And can it be supposed that there will be less disposition on this than there has been on the other side of the Atlantic to take, at least, a fair advantage of the fortunate lot? I hope and pray that the trans-At-lantic example may not be followed beyond that limit.

The negro slavery is, as you justly complain, a sad blot on our free country, though a very ungracious subject of reproaches from the quarter which has been most lavish of them. No satisfactory plan has yet been devised for taking out the stain. If an asylum could be found in Africa, that would be the appropriate destination for the unhappy race among us. Some are sanguine that the efforts of an existing Colonization Society will accomplish such a provision; but a very partial success seems the most that can be expected. Some other region must, therefore, be found for them as they become free and willing to emigrate. The repugnance of the whites to their continuance among them is founded on prejudices, themselves founded on physical distinctions, which are not likely soon, if ever, to be eradicated. Even in States, Massachusetts for example, which displayed most sympathy with the people of colour on the Missouri question, prohibitions are taking place against their becoming residents. They are every where regarded as a nuisance, and must really be such as long as they are under the degradation which public sentiment inflicts on them. They are at the same time rapidly increasing from manumissions and from off-springs, and of course lessening the general disproportion between the slaves and the whites. This tendency is favorable to the cause of a universal emancipation.

The state of our Country is, in other respects, highly flattering. There have been pecuniary difficulties in the Government, and still more among the people; but they are curing themselves. Little eddies also occasionally arise, which, for a moment, ruffle the political surface, but they gradually sink into the general calm. Every thing, as yet, favors the principle of self-Government on which our destinies are staked.

I am glad to find you retain so feelingly all your American recollections, even the little itinerant scenes in which we were associated; and that you cherish the idea of giving your friends here an opportunity of once more embracing you. God forbid that your visit should result from one of the causes you glance at! Happen it how it may, you will find that they have forgotten nothing of what always endeared you to their best feelings; and that this is more true of no one than of your cordial and steadfast friend.


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Chicago: James Madison Jr., "To General La Fayette.," Writings of James Madison, Volume 3 in James Madison, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, 4 Vols. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.), Pp.237-240 Original Sources, accessed August 17, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PWE64RMDLNUYTCS.

MLA: Madison, James, Jr. "To General La Fayette." Writings of James Madison, Volume 3, in James Madison, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, 4 Vols. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.), Pp.237-240, Original Sources. 17 Aug. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PWE64RMDLNUYTCS.

Harvard: Madison, J, 'To General La Fayette.' 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.237-240. Original Sources, retrieved 17 August 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PWE64RMDLNUYTCS.