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The Lee Family Digital Archive is the largest online source for primary source materials concerning the Lee family of Virginia. It contains published and unpublished items, some well known to historians, others that are rare or have never before been put online. We are always looking for new letters, diaries, and books to add to our website. Do you have a rare item that you would like to donate or share with us? If so, please contact our editor, Colin Woodward, at  (804) 493-1940, about how you can contribute to this historic project.


 

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Paris 24th August 1833

 

I owe you many thanks, my dear Sir, for your letter of the 9th June; In counting on your friendship, I was not wrong: absence, calumny, and misfortune that made some persecute and others desert me, seem only to have strengthened your attachment, which like a well formed bow is the more elastick, the more it is bent. I am not surprised to learn you were the author of the Address to the President, and should offer my acknowledgements to you and the gentlemen who concurred with you, did I not feel that for such manly & liberal conduct, your satisfaction was the best reward. Allow me to say however while I suppress the expression of my gratitude that this verdict of my countrymen, which as the President said, was “honourable to me and consoling to him,” is impressed with a greater moral force, & sinks deeper in the heart even than a decree of the Senate. Although your letter to Mr. Tyler might have been more explicit as to my object in leaving with you the Mayo correspondence, it is agreeable to me, and seems to have been acceptable to him: with his to you I wish I could feel satisfied.

In the first place, I am surprised he should suppose I asserted a right of interrogating him as to the reasons or motives of his vote. As well as I recollect, the import of my laconick note, was an apprehension that he had acted on a misconception of my conduct & my belief that if such was the fact, he would admit it. It was concluded I think in terms like these: “which is all that I require & the most that I expect.” Does this look like bearding a senator with a challenge of the reasons or motives of his vote? does it not rather evince a desire to keep them out of sight? The reasons or motives of a vote like the one in question, must of necessity arise from a sense of publick duty or from some other cause: in the first case they are pure, in the second, impure; consequently to question a senator’s reasons or motives, is neither more nor less than asking him if he is an honest man or not. To be suspected of such grossness & absurdity as this and by a person of Gov Tyler’s character & station, is, you will admit, enough to excite one’s impatience. But however pure & unquestionable the motives of a Senator may be, his impressions as to matters of fact may be erroneous & his conduct involuntarily unjust. To offer him the means of correcting these impressions, instead of being an encroachment on his privileges or an interrogation of his motives, is in my humble judgment an evidence of respect for both & I had the simplicity to hope would be so considered by Gov. Tyler. But Senators it seems, see things in a different light from that in which they appear to common people. 

In the second place, I must express my regret that in protesting against this unattempted violation of his dignity. Gov: T: should have taken the trouble to say anything about his motives, in as much as he has accompanied his allusion to them by a most unsparing reflection upon me. Had he merely answered: “I did not give credit to the misrepresentations to which you allude, nor did I do more than vote against the nomination of Major Lee:”--he would have done, “all that I or you required.” But he has voluntarily gone further, & for your edification & my relief! declares by implication that my conduct was so atrocious, that notwithstanding the pain he experienced at disappointing & damning an old schoolmate, he felt constrained by a sense of duty to the publick to vote against my nomination. This language which is the substance of his statement is harsh & being uncalled for, is, I think cruel: it is like the Indian who after knocking down an unarmed man proceeds to scalp him. As I also recollect our College acquaintance, tho’ I do not remember being Mr. Tyler’s senior,1 I will not remind him that the professions of a patriot are often considered to be not more sincere than those of a prude: nor will I dispute his declarations anymore than I question his motives. It is in fact because I believe his expressions sincere, that I think they deserve notice.

It is then Gov Tyler’s opinion that a man who has committed adultery with his wife’s sister is unworthy of an appointment under our government. This opinion, if reduced to practice, must be a general rule of action in order to be just, and must import that Gov: Tyler would not sanction the bestowed of office on any man who had committed adultery or any other transgression equally immoral. Now, however atrocious the adultery of parties between whom no instinct of blood is interposed & who are thrown into a state of the most unguarded intimacy, may be, it is not the worst offence in the catalogue of crimes. That this is the case will hardly be denied by any man but especially by one who remembers the debate in the Virginia Assembly on a bill introduced. I believe, by the present Judge Upshur, about ten years ago, for declaring such parties in the event of the wife’s death marriageable & thus taking them out of the false position, in which, as he contended, the law of Virga. contrary to the practice of most other civilized countries placed them. He & the large & respectable minority who agreed with him as I understood maintained that the law created inducements to this sort of adultery & implied of course that it was not an unpalliatable crime. It was alleged at the same time & not contradicted that the few cases of adultery which had occurred in the respectable families in Virginia were mostly of this description & it was admitted on all sides that extenuating circumstances did exist: so that after the Legislature of Virginia pronounced this sort of adultery a mitigated offence, Gov: Tyler, their agent or envoy and an earnest assertor of their sovereignty, acted on the opinion that it was unpardonable & concurred in punishing it, at the expence as he affirms of his own deep mortification!

But not to insist on these palliating considerations or on the peculiar violence with which my offence has been chastised, let us in order to ascertain the disqualifying effect of the breach of continence with which I am reproached, compare it with others which have been known to occur in Virginia & its consequences with theirs. In that commonwealth, which we all so fondly venerate, married gentlemen have occasionally procreated with their own slaves; in the words of a living but immortal poet, “they dream of freedom in their slave’s embrace.”2 Yet this crime though attended by the consequence of entailing bondage & disgrace on their own children, has not been deemed an insuperable objection to the father’s political preferment. I need not specify or I might refer to the well known example of Mr. Jefferson, the sage, the patriot the light of philosophy, the friend of freedom, the apostle of liberty, the Redeemer of the Republick! Around the shady sides of Monticello, his offspring wander with skins as tawny as the soil & eyes bright with hereditary lust. But the name of this pure & exemplary Republican suggests another comparison, which will probably better illustrate the degree of disqualification under which, in the compassionate mind of Gov: Tyler, I was judged. The following details are well known in Virginia & probably as familiar to you as Gov. Tyler. But they must be recapitulated in order to determine whether the opinion expressed by Gov: Tyler respecting my unfitness for office has been adhered to by him as a general rule of action & consequently whether it is Just. While Mr. Jefferson was yet a lad he lost his father, who left Dr. Wilson3 of Albermarle guardian of his son & executor of his estate; young Jefferson lived in the house of his guardian, was educated with his children and at College was the classmate of his eldest son John W:--their age was about the same, their intimacy that of brothers: so that when Mr. Jno: W___ was married, Mr. Jefferson attended as his groomsman. Upon this event taking place, the father of Mr W: gave him part of his estate and established him comfortably upon it & Mr. Jefferson being yet a batchelor became a willing & a welcome inmate of his friends’ house. About eighteen months after Mr W’s marriage he was appointed secretary to a commission which was sent by Virginia & some of her sister Colonies to treat with certain nations of Indians at Fort Stanwix, where the town of Rome in N. York now stands. In those days a journey from Albemarle to Fort Stanwix to meet a body of savages was deemed more toilsome and perilous than a voyage round the world is in these. Therefore Mr. W before setting off made his will & with a heart divided between the tenderness of a husband & the confidence of a friend left Mr J: his executor, the master of his house, the protector of his wife during his absence and the guardian of their child in case of his death. The grief of parting had not subsided, before Mr Jefferson began to mingle attentions of gallantry with those of consolation in his deportment to Mrs W: and inflamed rather than discouraged by her timid surprise and beautiful confusion soon ventured on an ardent declaration of love. This was repulsed with indignation and grief; but Mr. Jefferson deeming these emotions the effect of ignorance rather than the fruit of virtue, addressed an instructive letter to Mrs W: tending to nullify the sanctity of connubial faith and to magnify the joys of promiscuous love. This essay as soon as its purport was discovered was returned indignantly to its author. However being determined to propagate his philosophy, if nothing else, Mr. Jefferson divided the substance of this “rejected address” into a number of light amatory billets and placing one secretly under her pillow, dropping another into her bonnet, & slipping a third into her glove, rendered it impossible she should remain altogether unacquainted with the merit of his seductive compositions. But the virtue of this excellent lady remained proof against this slow engineering, as it had stood firm against the sudden assault of the salacious sage, until at length with the return of her husband, the beseiging [sic] assiduities of Mr. Jefferson were intermitted. They were only intermitted, for as Mrs. W: was as gentle as she was chaste and loved her husband beyond everything but her honour, she determined not to expose him to distress and as she thought to danger by revealing the treachery of his fraternal friend. Of this amiable weakness Mr Jefferson carefully encouraging it, took full advantage and continuing his intimacy with Mr. W: perservered in endeavouring to dishonour his bed for a period exceeding twelve years, long after he himself became a husband and a father. During this protracted term, Mr W: observed with pain evidences of reserve & even aversion in the treatment of his wife to his dearest friend; but this he fondly attributed to that excessive affection which could not bear “a brother near the throne” of his own heart. He noticed too, that on reading that clause of his Will, in which Mr. Jefferson was named guardian of their child, Mrs. W: burst into tears: this again he thought the effect of grief at contemplating the possibility of his own death. In process of time, Mr. Jefferson discovering that perseverance was not always a virtue, gave up the pursuit of an object, the attainment of which was to be the destruction of his friends peace, and was subsequently sent to employ his diplomatick talents more laudably in France. As soon as he had sailed, Mrs. W: relieved of all apprehension of danger, communicated the particulars above mentioned, with other details to her astonished husband & insisted on an immediate alteration of the Will. Mr W: of course wrote to Mr. Jefferson reproaching and denouncing him in terms appropriate to the occasion and being resolved to hold no further intercourse with a person so perfidious and offensive, transmitted an account for money advanced by his father for Mr. Jefferson’s education, which account he held as legatee and had hitherto kept back with the understanding and for the convenience of his friend. In 1789, Mr. Jefferson returned from France and to the surprise of their mutual acquaintances never visited Mr. W: Finding it necessary to account for this unexpected non-intercourse, he privately informed those who enquired about it, that Mr. W: as legatee of his father had trumped up such an unfair account against him that he had determined to dissolve their acquaintance; thus slandering the character & abusing the generosity of a friend whose confidence he had already betrayed, whose wife he had endeavoured to debauch and whose child to dishonour. During the political contentions which attended Mr. Jefferson’s election to the Presidency, he was charged with this attempt upon Mrs. W: by some of the Federal papers. Editors who espoused his cause, particularly Jones of the Examiner, gave what may be called a french history of it, intimating that Mrs. W: had too much taste to be insensible to the fame and accomplishments of Mr. Jefferson, and he too much gallantry to permit so charming a lady to sigh in rain. It is not certain that this slander, though it squares so nicely with that invented in regard to Mr. W’s account was dictated by Mr. Jefferson, but it is certain that he did not contradict it, until after repeated refusals, he was compelled to do so. Mr. Wilson Walker, the most sensitive and delicate of men [who was so unwilling to have the name of his wife pronounced in the same breath with a word of dishonour, that he had suppressed all mention of Mr. Jefferson’s disgraceful conduct except to some of his most intimate connexions] was agonized in the extremest degree by this taunting and outrageous calumny. He sent at one time by Judge Prentis, at another by Judge Tucker [colleagues of Mr. Tyler’s father] messages to Mr. Jefferson requiring of him an immediate and positive contradiction of these slanders; these pacifick efforts were both unavailing. He then engaged the assistance of my father who was allied to him by affinity as well as friendship, and who had had, it is believed, the management of a previous important controversy with Mr. Jefferson. To General Lee he committed a history of his wrongs in the shape of a descriptive list, on Mrs. W’s authority of Mr. Jefferson’s philosophical experiments upon the happiness of a friend, the chastity of a wife and the honour of a mother, and charged him with an open note to Mr. Jefferson, demanding either a written acknowledgement of Mrs. W’s purity and truth or that satisfaction, usually required by gentlemen in similar cases. After much difficulty General Lee obtained from Mr. Jefferson a satisfactory acknowledgement on both points, which as Mr. Jefferson deprecated its publication and silenced his editors was not published: but was by agreement shown to Mr. Madison and attested by him as well as General Lee. This was not all that General Lee did; so unwilling was he that Mr. Jefferson should “be pursued with unrelenting ferocity” for this and other acts of “human passion,”—so little did he feel that “obligation to the publick” which weighed so painfully on my quondam fellow student and our present Senator, that he proposed to Mr. W:-- as Mr. Jefferson’s acknowledgment was satisfactory both in regard to the innocence of Mrs. W: and the truth of her statements, that they should meet and renew their acquaintance though they could not renovate their intimacy and thereby bury in silence transgressions which could not be mentioned without unnecessary pain to both parties. Under his persuasion, the meeting took place at Mr. Madison’s, where it was observed at the time that General Lee’s address and liberality were exerted and not in vain to render the position of Mr. Jefferson tolerable. Soon after this Mr. and Mrs. W: both fell sick of those diseases which terminated their most honourable and most amiable lives at periods of no long separation. Owing to the adjustment which General Lee effected. Mr. Jefferson had the consolation of contributing to the relief of persons whom he had so deeply injured and by whom he had so freely been forgiven. He sent them from Washington and Monticello various little refreshments at different times which were kindly accepted. I remember well seeing them delivered. For this mode of concluding such a controversy, with the spirit of which I have hitherto conformed, one would have supposed General Lee had secured Mr. Jefferson’s gratitude; he provoked however a very different sentiment, the exciting cause of which, as it would adorn nor illustrate the character of Mr. Jefferson and has not a direct connexion with the present subject, I will not fatigue you nor Mr. Tyler by explaining, though I will say its effects have not been unfelt by General Lee’s descendants.

It may be proper to add that in case Gov: Tyler should doubt any of the statements found in this letter. I beg to refer him to Mr. Madison; that truly eminent person may decline confirming my account, but I defy him to contradict it, as I can exhibit it in the handwriting of Mr. Jefferson and General Lee in a shape more circumstantial and in colours much more glaring.

Now if the history of my affair and this of Mr. Jefferson’s, attested by Mrs. W: and after various equivocations admitted by himself, were placed in parallel columns, I think it would puzzle even Gov. Tyler to convince any impartial man that the preponderance of guilt was on my side. If he could urge that I was made guardian by the red-nosed justices of a County Court, he would have to admit that Mr. Jefferson was entrusted with a similar charge by the bleeding heart of a bosom friend. Should he contend that my misconduct involved the extinction of a maiden’s honour and the anguish of my wife, he would be obliged to confess that Mr. Jefferson’s pursuit went to destroy the chastity of a matron, to tarnish the name of an infant to blast the felicity of an adopted brother and to embitter the existence of his wife. If I succeeded evidently in less than three years and he failed confessedly after a perserverance of more than twelve, unless Mr. Tyler should argue, the more resistance, the less guilt, he would have to infer that Mr. Jefferson was the worse man or the worse philosopher of the two,--either of which conclusions ought to bow down the Senator with admiration and homage at the mention of my name. For be it remembered, Mr. Tyler not only worshipped Mr. Jefferson while living, but when Governor of Virginia deified him after his death in a rhapsody of pious praise, in the composition of which, although the affair of Mrs. W:--must have been known to the Eulogist, not a single grain of imperfection was admitted!

Besides even if Mr. Jefferson’s merit was of that peculiar sort which springs from the failure of one’s best endeavours, it has been already observed that his confidential editor and leading advocate put a bar to this plea by adopting a line of defence inconsistent with it: that is, by urging success as the very best palliation of his conduct, which the wide field of fiction could supply. Again—it has never been proved, nor as far as I know, even asserted in my case, that elaborate essays or fugitive billets were employed to relax the principles or—stimulate the passions of the weaker party, that she found notes of seduction in her glove—or her bonnet, as she wandered in the wooing shades of evening,--or under her pillow at “that more propitious season” when the cheek of beauty may be supposed to be flushed with the rapture of morning dreams.

It was not my intention to question the propriety of Gov: Tyler’s role or of the conduct of the body of which he is a member, making a matter of domestick jurisdiction the subject of political penalty; thus punishing the same offence twice and offending that publick morality whose delicacy they affected to vindicate. Gov: Tyler is responsible not to me, but to his conscience and his constituents. Still I feel myself authorized without abandoning my own dignity or encroaching upon his, to declare that I do consider it impossible to justify both his idolatry of Mr. Jefferson and his damnation of me. Admitting that the moral sense of our body politick would have been shocked at an appointment recommended by such men as Andrew Jackson, John Marshall, John McLean and Martin Van Buren and putting out of sight the fact that my taking such an appointment was of itself evidence of anything but impenitence; it will still be difficult to prove that in a country where all citizens stand equal before the law and its administrators I should be considered unfit for an unconsiderable office, while another citizen with equal if not greater demerits is pronounced worthy not only of the most exalted station but of unqualified praise. Had Gov: Tyler taken this fair and natural view of the subject; had he while he recollected the circumstances of our former acquaintance, reflected on the materials of his Jefferson idolatry, I think he would have been able to spare himself the pain which he says, his vote occasioned him, and me, the chagrin of learning in a distant land that a Senator from my native State, could cooperate in a course of persecution against me for misconduct, which when more flagrant in another citizen, he considered no abatement from perfection, no impediment to promotion, no objection to confidence and no obstruction to eulogy.

Although this letter has run to an unexpected length and rambled over unpremeditated topicks, it has not touched upon many that present themselves; and though it may be tedious, I hope it will not be offensive. You will perceive it is intended for Gov: Tyler’s perusal and therefore I beg you to send him a full and faithful copy of it on my behalf. Allow me to ask you also to send me a copy of his Oration on the death of Mr Jefferson. It was published in the Enquirer and I think republished in a volume containing a number of harangues on the same subject. I should prefer the volume as the greater curiosity.

I will here add that I do not agree in the opinion Gov: Tyler seems to have formed respecting Dr: Mayo. His motives I think were as pure as men’s usually are in cases of unequal fortune and his conduct the result of peculiarly of character. Such was my opinion at the time and subsequent observation did not change it. I will also add that by drawing a parallel between my conduct and that of the sage of Monticello. I hope not to be understood as intending to screen the former from just and appropriate censure: no man can fairly condemn it more severely than I do, as no man can so bitterly lament it. Never have I complained of the reprobation which pure and elevated minds have mingled with their regret on account of it; but I do feel indignant at being made the object of peculiar persecution, whether that be directed by the hand of a stupid barbarian like Robinson4 or of an august body like the Senate of the U.S. And if I know myself I can venture to affirm that had I been in Mr. Tyler’s situation and he in mine, my conduct would have been very different from what his has been. I should have censured and lamented his offence, --censured it because it was wrong and mischievous and lamented it because I should have supposed it was lamented by himself and all his connexions:--but its punishment I should have left to the sure but silent operation of family resentments and domestick feeling; the only tribunals in this world, which while punishing the transgressions can reclaim the culprit.

I hope for your sake as well as mine, I may never have to recur to this subject, though it is possible that hope may be disappointed. Therefore send Gov: Tyler an exact copy of this letter and me a copy of his oration. Believe me to be truly your friend and humble servant:

Henry Lee

 

 

Source: Copy of original by William H. Tiernan of "Windsor" in Westmoreland County, not far from Stratford. Tiernan died 1863 March 18. Papers of the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation, Box 11, Letterbook, pp. 14-28, Jessie Ball duPont Library, Stratford Hall

 

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2016 August 10    

    

1. Henry Lee's footnote: "I cannot see why this comparison of ages was introduced into Gov: Tyler’s letter, unless for the purpose of suggesting a contrast of situations, between the senior & junior student: the latter as Senator kicking the former out of his poor little place of Barbary Consul, however edifying this might be as a pendant to Hogarth’s 'Prentices,' it seems quite out of place in the Senator’s letter."

2. Line from a poem by Thomas Moore (1779-1852), an Irish poet. The line was written in reference to Thomas Jefferson, whom Moore did not like. Moore visited the United States in the early 1800s and met Jefferson at the White House.

3. “Walker” written above it in pencil.

4. William Robinson, the uncle of Betsey McCarty, with whom Lee had had an affair. Robinson had helped Lee's enemies in their attempt to deny his appointement as consul to Algiers

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