Memoir of the Life of Richard Henry Lee
Note: The following review essay of the two-volume The Memoir of the Life of Richard Henry Lee (Philadelphia: Carey and Lee, 1825), written by Lee's grandson Richard Henry Lee (1794–1865), appeared in the April 1826 issue of The North American Review (vol. 22; new ser., vol. 13, pp. 373–400).
IT has been said, that we of the North are prone to laud our own men and things. This is probably true, since, if we had not this disposition, we should form an exception to one of the most general laws of human society. Beginning with the first natural combination, the family (the only natural one according to Rousseau), and ascending to kingdoms and empires, a disposition to boast may always be traced, where it is not controlled by some stronger passion. In this country, our peculiar political organization has set two forms of this vanity in occasional opposition to each other. The disposition to laud certain things, which we might cherish simply as Americans, is controlled and modified by our State partialities. We are sometimes afraid to speak in unqualified terms of those, who are only our countrymen, lest we should do injustice to the paramount claims of those, whose reputation may be the pride of the individual State to which we belong.
For ourselves, we are not inclined to censure the operation of the latter feeling. We are disposed to be very indulgent, not only to New Englander, who derives all that there is valuable, in American institutions, from the principles of the Pilgrims, and to the Pennsylvanian, who proposes the founder of his commonwealth as the perfect model of a legislator; but also to the Virginian, who believes that but for Patrick Henry the spark of the Revolution would never have been struck out, and to the Bostonian, who is equally confident, that when James Otis made his argument against writs of assistance, American liberty began to be. We esteem all this both honorable and natural. If it be worth while to take any distinctions on this subject, as we shall probably not be suspected of any factious intention, we would say, that the State feeling is one of deeper growth in this country, than any which connects itself with our general existence, as a nation. Some of our politicians, as it has suited either their immediate interests, or has been dictated by their general views, have taught that the State feeling should be repressed as pernicious.* We doubt this extremely, either as possible or desirable. It is true, that our national existence is every day gaining in that veneration, which time alone confers; but it is equally true, that, at present, our strongest historic recollections belong to us as States; for when we boast of our great revolutionary characters, we boast of them, not so much as Americans, but as citizens of the commonwealth to which we belong. Destroy the local tie, which binds together the people of each State, and the Union would not survive a day. We repeat, that, in enthusiastic attachment to our happy Union, we are exceeded by none who enjoy its blessings. But so far is it from being true, as was urged in the ardor of debate, in the federal Convention, by the advocates of a more perfectly consolidated system, that the States are metaphysical, ideal existences, that we should rather maintain the contrary. The Union, comparatively speaking, is the metaphysical and theoretical thing. Like the illimitable city, where its central point is fixed, it yet looks raw and new. Its operation is occasionally sharp and harsh; it wants the feeling of age. But the States, at least the thirteen States, come home in a different way to the hearts of their citizens. They are not metaphysical, they are historical beings. The family feeling binds their parts together. The seat of power is in their bosom. Every village sends its representative to the council fire, which is thus connected by a living tie to the firesides of the people.
*“Every thing that tends to strengthen the peculiar and exclusive feelings of State pride and sectional prejudice inevitably weakens the bonds of the Union.”—Report of a Select Committee for Amending the Constitution, December 22, 1823.
But for the very reason, that the State feeling has this foundation in nature, it is becoming the philosophic patriot to be ready to apply the proper corrective to its excess. Nothing ought to be a more constant object of attention to him, than to promote with fond care, the harmonious action upon each other of the parts of that most curiously complicated machine, which is formed out of the combination of our State and national institutions, and which constitutes the most extraordinary phenomenon in the political history of man. For this reason, we esteem it the duty of every true friend of his country's welfare among us to be most prompt and cordial in doing justice to the reputation of the distinguished characters of every State in the confederacy. However natural and however commendable the zeal of bearing testimony to the worth of which our own State has been the cradle and the stage, we ought to study with delight the honorable annals of our sister communities, and pay a hearty tribute to all we find in them of heroism and wisdom, in the field and in the cabinet. This is the dictate not less of justice than of magnanimity; for, after all, the great deeds and the great men of earlier or later years, to which is the United States are indebted for their present prosperity, are not so confined to any one quarter, that the aid of all others could, in any degree, have been dispensed with.
In regard to revolutionary merits, a great and honorable controversy has been waged between Virginia and Massachusetts—now both of them somewhat declined from their former preeminence in numbers and power—then the leading States of the Union. But it ought, we think, to be conceded on both hands, that in the stern struggle for our liberties, the contest at the time was not so light and promising, that the voice or the arm of one of our champions could have been spared. Every man was essential. Every one, who served his country, did it precious service. There was no such superabundance of power, on our side, that it is fair to divide services into those, which were essential, and those which were subsidiary; into those, with which the cause could have dispensed, and those, without which it would have suffered shipwreck. The humble sexton, who lighted the lamps in Christ Church steeple, on the night of the eighteenth of April; and the honest rustics, who defeated the treacherous project for the surrender of West Point, may, in the series of events, have rendered services as important, as those of Brooks when he leaped the entrenchments at Saratoga, or Lafayette when be stormed the lines at Yorktown.
It is one of the characteristics of a crisis like our Revolution, that it produces an astonishing development of talent, and resource, among all classes of the community. It not only stimulates the energy of many cultivated minds, but it elevates out of common life innumerable individuals, who, in more tranquil periods, are lost to all but the duties and calls of physical existence. This is the admirable resource, with which Providence provides a family of its children, whom it designs to raise up into an independent and prosperous people. They are commonly doomed, through much tribulation, to enter into the heaven of liberty and right. An exceeding sharpness of oppression, either in principle or fact, must drive them to resistance; and strong agonies of privation, of effort, of perplexity, and of care must bind their wandering counsels and divided interests into a band of strength and fortitude. Their leaders must sacrifice all the calm enjoyments and safety of home, and embark on a most troubled ocean of affairs with the gibbet in view; the poor soldiers must march with bleeding feet over icebound fields of disaster; and all the ordinary paths of life must be shut up before the rising generations of both sexes. The great and almost fatal calamities of such state of things are no doubt the immediate cause of that astonishing developement of energy, both in deed and counsel, which marks a great political crisis, and which marked our revolutionary era more signally perhaps than any other in history. It certainly would not have been in the power of all the cabinets and armies of Europe, at that period, to show more business talent of the first order, than was displayed in these then insignificant colonies. The honorable testimony which Lord Chatham bore to the character of the state papers, which came from Philadelphia, was equally due to our military organization, considering the poverty of our means, and to our diplomatic negotiations, considering our political weakness. Neither is it fair to set all this down to the mere redeeming influence of the purity and disinterestedness of character of the men of those days. That generation, like this, was human, was frail. We had parties; we had narrow interests; we had traitors. And the revolution was brought about by the steady, businesslike efficiency of a host of able men, formed by the exigency of the times, seizing with wonderful aptness the right way of doing things; struggling against all kinds of obstacles, and finally conquering, not as the heroes of romance do, by the interposition of miraculous power, but by the superiority of wisdom, fortitude, and resource.
If, in this harvest of great men, all parts of the country were not equally productive, none was signally barren; and the just rights of none to the gratitude of posterity ought to be undervalued. Delicacy and generosity, moreover, require that the tribute of praise should be fully and handsomely bestowed, beyond the circle of State partialities, and that we should even exercise a patriotic curiosity in asking, who were great men in other States, that sat in council with our own fathers. The time is peculiarly appropriate for this exercise of liberality. The period of commemoration has now arrived; and every year is bringing forth some literary monument to distinguish revolutionary desert. Not to mention several less conspicuous works, the Life of Franklin by his Grandson, of Patrick Henry by Wirt; that of James Otis by Tudor, that of General Greene by Judge Johnson, that of Josiah Quincy Jun. by his Son, may all with various degrees of merit be named as most honorable memorials of the great men they respectively celebrate. Similar works, we understand, are in preparation to commemorate the character of Samuel Adams and his copatriot Gerry; and a life of Alexander Hamilton has long been impatiently looked for.
Among the works of this class, that which is now before us deserves very honorable mention; The Life of Richard Henry Lee by his Grandson. The short dedication of the work of itself establishes the right of the subject of it to immortality among men.
“To Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Charles Carroll, surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence, the Memoir of the Life of Richard Henry Lee, the Mover of the resolution in Congress, on the seventh of June, 1776, ‘That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States,’ is most respectfully dedicated.”
What a motion! And what a triumph of modern civilization, that a measure like this, a proposal to sever an empire, to erect an independent government over a vast region, on a continent where the word of independence had never been uttered, should have been calmly brought forward and deliberated in parliamentary rule, like an ordinary political question. Henceforward let us despair of nothing desirable for humanity, merely because it is unheard of, in the former history of man. Let us turn to the history of this motion, and hope for the time when all the great interests of nations shall be not only moved and suggested, but pursued, matured, and adjusted by negotiation and friendly compromise, without the barbarous resort to arms.
We cannot better fulfil the task of taking a proper notice of this work, than by compiling from it a brief account of the life and services, which it so ably commemorates.
Richard Henry Lee was the son of Thomas Lee, of Stratford, in the county of Westmoreland in Virginia, and was born on the twentieth day of January, 1732, being consequently about a month older than General Washington. His ancestors were among the first settlers of Virginia, one of them, Richard Lee, having emigrated from England in the reign of Charles the First. Thomas Lee, the father of Richard Henry, was one of the first of the leading men of the Atlantic colonies, who turned their attention to the extensive regions west of the Alleganies. Having emp1oyed an engineer of eminence from England to explore them, he, in conjunction with many others, under the name of the Ohio Company, took up an extensive tract of land on the Ohio river. The company never having obtained a patent from the Crown, their title was vacated at the Revolution. An anecdote related of the same person strongly illustrates his political foresight. He used to say, that he had no doubt America would declare herself independent of Great Britain, and that the seat of the new government would be near the little falls of the Potomac. So confident was he in this persuasion that he acquired possession of large tracts of land around these falls, which till lately were in the possession of his descendants.
Richard Henry Lee, like most of the young men of wealthy families, was sent “home,” as it was called, that is, to England, for his education, and was placed in the Academy of Wakefield in Yorkshire. No particular accounts are given of his progress at school; but the style of his eloquence, in after life, shows him to have been well grounded in classical and general literature. He returned to Virginia at about the nineteenth year of his age, two years after the decease of his father, and took up his abode with an elder brother. Though he did not devote himself to any professional pursuit, he passed his time in extending his acquaintance with the higher branches of political and moral science, and particularly in the study of the constitution and laws of England and America. For the pursuit of these dignified studies, his father's well stored library afforded him ample facilities.
Honorable and seductive as this leisure was, he stood ready to leave it, at the first call of his country. The inroads of the French and Indians on the western frontier, in the seven years' war, called aloud, and at length successfully, for the interposition of England. In 1755, General Braddock was sent with a body of troops from England, to protect the defenceless settlements on the west. Upon the arrival of the General at Alexandria, volunteer companies of militia, which had been raised in the lower parts of Virginia, offered their services to him, to join the regular army in this hazardous service. Lee, the captain of one of these companies, was among the number that hastened to Alexandria, and there had the mortification to be contemptuously refused permission to enter the service. The General would accept the aid of none of the provincial troops. General Washington, who had two years before been employed as a special agent by the Governor of Virginia on a mission to the French Governor in the west, was attached to General Braddock as an aiddecamp.
Lee inherited from his ancestors the habit of punctuality and despatch in business. He was very early solicited to act as guardian of the estates of the children of his friends, and at the age of twentyfive, in capacity of justice of the peace, he distinguished himself as an active and leading member of the county court, a tribunal at that period of extensive jurisdiction. So distinguished was his usefulness in this sphere, that a petition was addressed to the Governor and Council, by several of the magistrates of the county, praying that his commission might be so antedated, that he might act as president of the court. The same year he was elected a member for Westmoreland to the House of Burgesses, and from this time to his death, a period of thirtythree years, he scarcely ceased for a moment, to be in the active and public service of his country. During the first years of his service in the House of Burgesses, he had to struggle against a diffidence, which he began to despair of ever being able to conquer. It was long before he could trust himself to engage in extemporaneous discussion. It is probable that more than one session passed, before he took any part in the debates. His first speech, as far as can be ascertained, was on a motion “to lay so heavy a duty on the importation of slaves, as effectually to put an end to that iniquitous and disgraceful traffic, within the Colony of Virginia.” His speech on this subject was short and premeditated. It contains the strength of the argument against the slave trade, but does not appear to have produced a very decided conviction of the power of its author. This was yet to receive its developement.
Virginia was, at this period, like almost every other American Colony, divided into two political parties. The one consisted of the large landholders, the owners of large numbers of slaves; the latter of the substantial yeomanry. The former lived in great splendor and luxury, imitating the mode of life of the English aristocracy, and by natural association inclined to their principles. Between this and the lower orders, or the popular party, there was but little social intercourse. Lee, it scarcely needs to be said, was of the latter class. An incidental conflict between the two parties, in the House of Burgesses, was the first occasion, which called out, in all its strength, the talent of Lee. Shortly after this first display, Mr Lee took the lead in exposing the defalcation of the treasurer of the Colony, a leader and pillar of the aristocratic party; and from this period his fame was established as a popular champion.
Here we cannot but interrupt the thread of our narrative to remark, that one of the happiest circumstances attending the struggle for our independence, was the very gradual manner, in which it was brought on. Even in the earlier periods of our colonial history (in some of the Colonies, and particularly in Massachusetts, in the very earliest), the struggle, which subsisted between the popular and court parties, was an admirable school of political gymnastics. It taught the patriots the habit and the boldness of discussion. This they had already acquired, when the shallow policy of Mr Grenville was broached in 1764. The eleven years that elapsed between this period and the commencement of the war, was another apprenticeship of political wisdom, skill, and courage; so that when the crisis came, it did not take the patriots by surprise. The incalculable worth of this training may be seen by the calamitous consequences of a want of it, in other nations struggling for freedom. The French revolution miscarried for want of this gradual education in the school of liberty. The new states in America have been doomed to a generation of bloodshed and horror, partly in consequence of the errors committed for want of political experience; and poor Greece is now held up to the world a mangled, quivering victim, a sacrifice to her own inexperience, not less perhaps than to the excusable barbarity of her masters, and the infernal* policy of her Christian neighbors.
*When it is remembered, that without Austrian transports, the Turkish armies could neither be conveyed to Greece nor fed there, we do not think the word in the text will be held too strong.
On the passage of the act in 1764, declaratory of the right to tax America, Mr Lee expostulated on the illegality of this measure, in letters addressed to distinguished characters in England. His brother, Dr Arthur Lee, was at this time Colonial Agent of Massachusetts, residing in London; and from him the earliest intelligence of political movements was conveyed to Richard Henry, in America. On the motion of the latter in the House of Burgesses, and after great deliberation, a special committee was appointed to prepare an address to the King, a memorial to the House of Lords, and a remonstrance to the House of Commons against the policy which dictated the declaratory act. Mr Lee was placed on this committee, and the address to the King and the memorial to the Lords are still extant in his handwriting. On the passage of the Stamp Act the following year, Mr Lee was among the most active in the resistance, which it everywhere met in America. Under his auspices an association was formed to prevent the use of stamped paper; and it was in no small degree by his efforts and influence, that the same tone was given to Virginia, and through her to the South, which in Massachusetts was inspired by Samuel Adams and his associates. At this period commenced his acquaintance with his distinguished countryman, Patrick Henry; and to the strong sympathy and hearty cooperation of these kindred and mighty minds may, no doubt, in fairness, be ascribed a full proportion of the concert and energy with which the noble Virginian phalanx moved forward to the Revolution.
As early as 1768, Mr Lee is said to have conceived the idea of committees of correspondence between the legislatures and private associations of the different Colonies We do not know with what justice his biographer and grandson claims for him the honor of having first made this suggestion, and having thus laid the foundation of a measure, which afterwards became one of the main engines for bringing on the Revolution. It was not till four or five years after, that the measure was generally adopted, and then it was at the suggestion of the legislature of Massachusetts, moved thereto by Samuel Adams. The records of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, of which the same inflexible patriot was the leading member, are still in existence among those of his papers, which have come down in his family. On the whole, considering that a partial private correspondence is a thing, which was started and carried on at a very early period, by many of the ardent sons of liberty, and was in itself a suggestion too obvious to mark any particular foresight as to its adaptation for effecting great political measures; and as Samuel Adams was the unquestioned mover of the system of committees of correspondence, as it was actually organized, we are inclined to think that, without detracting from the merit of others, the praise of this suggestion may rightfully be given to him.*
*Mr Wirt says, in his Life of Patrick Henry, p. 87, that “this House [the House of Burgesses in Virginia] had the merit of originating that powerful engine of resistance, Corresponding Committees between the legislatures of the different Colonies; the measure was brought forward by Mr Dabney Carr, a new member from the county of Louisa, in a committee of the whole House, on the twelfth of March, 1773.” If by “originating” is meant the first legislative act, this statement of the case is no doubt correct; but that this system of committees of correspondence had been publicly adopted in Massachusetts some months before the Virginia resolutions, will appear, by the following extract from the Town Records of Boston. A town meeting was held on the second of November, 1772, when, on motion of Samuel Adams, a committee of correspondence was appointed, consisting of twentytwo persons. This committee was instructed, “To state the rights of the Colonists, and of this Province in particular, as men, as christians, and as subjects; to communicate and publish the same to the several towns in this Province and to the world, as the sense of this town, with the infringements and violations thereof that have been, and from time to time may be made; also requesting of each town a free communication of its sentiments on this subject.”
This committee of correspondence was thus publicly appointed and instructed on the second of November, but the Virginia resolutions were not brought forward till the twelfth of March following, that is, more than four months afterwards.
Gordon speaks of this event. “Governor Hutchinson and his adherents,” says Gordon (Vol. I. p. 312), “being used to represent the party in opposition, as only an uneasy, factious few in Boston, while the body of the people were quite contented, Mr Samuel Adams was thereby induced to visit Mr James Warren of Plymouth. After conversing upon the subject, the latter proposed to originate and establish committees of correspondence in the several towns of the Colony, in order to learn the strength of the friends to the rights of the continent, and to unite and increase their force. Mr Samuel Adams returned to Boston, pleased with the proposal, and communicated the same to his confidents. Some doubted whether the measure would prosper, and dreaded a disappointment, which might injure the cause of liberty. But it was concluded to proceed.” Gordon then goes on to give an account of the town meeting mentioned above, and of its proceedings.
This subject has been more fully discussed on a former occasion in this Journal. See Vol. vi. p. 310, for March, 1818.
On the destruction of the Gaspee sloop of war at Providence, and the consequent sensation throughout the Colonies, Mr Lee opened a correspondence with Samuel Adams, which was kept up till his death. Among the letters of many of the most distinguished patriots and statesmen of the revolutionary epoch, which form a considerable part of the work before us, those of Samuel Adams are the most interesting, and increase the desire, which is already so general, that the rich deposit of the papers of this great republican sage may before long be spread before the world. On the arrival of the Boston Port Bill, the Assembly of Virginia ordered a fast to be observed on the day when the port bill was to go into execution. The next day it was the intention of Mr Lee to propose a series of resolutions expressive, in very strong and indignant language, of the feelings, with which Virginia contemplated this outrage on her sister Colony. The Governor having dissolved the Assembly, it was impossible to bring forward these resolutions, and the other measures contemplated by the friends of liberty. It was Mr Lee's wish to summon an inofficial meeting of the House, but a majority preferred the publication of an address to their constituents, in which, after denouncing the Boston Port Bill, a general Congress was proposed, to consult on the state of the Colonies, and the suggestion is made of a prohibition of all exports from America to England. This address was from the pen of Mr Lee.
The measure of sending deputies to the Continental Congress, already determined on by Massachusetts (and this by a vote passed the seventeenth of June, 1774, as if in prophetic anticipation of a still more eventful futurity), was adopted by Virginia in the mouth of August. Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison, and Edmund Pendleton were designated as deputies. Mr Lee was one of the ablest and most energetic members of this body. The most important individual measure adopted at this Congress was perhaps the preparation of the Petition to the King, the Address to the People of England, and the Memorial to the People of British America. These were those “papers from Philadelphia,” which Lord Chatham compared to Demosthenes and Thucydides. They were drafted by a committee, consisting of Mr Lee, Mr Livingston, and Mr Jay. It is rendered highly probable that the Petition to the King and the Memorial to the People of British America were written by Mr Lee, and the Address to the People of England is admitted to have been the composition of Mr Jay. This last document may perhaps he regarded as the very ablest of the kind, which the Revolution produced. An unfavorable representation having been given of the part taken by Mr Lee in the composition of these papers, in Mr Wirt's Life of Henry the author of the work before us was induced to apply to Mr Jay, the surviving member of this committee, for accurate information on the subject. Mr Jayss interesting letter is given in the Appendix to the work; the inferences which it authorizes on this subject have already been stated.
On his return from Philadelphia, Mr Lee took his seat in the House of Burgesses, as the member for Westmoreland, and seconded the proposal of his friend Henry for arming the militia of the State, a measure, which he had also recommended at the general Congress. He was again designated as a member of that which was to assemble in May, 1775. Before that time arrived, the blow had been struck at Lexington, and the contest had assumed a decisive aspect. Among the first questions which presented themselves was one which arose on the application of Massachusetts for the advice of the Congress, as to “the taking up and exercising the powers of civil government.” Some light perhaps might be thrown on the new doctrines of State sovereignty, by a careful comparison of the nets and measures, by which the separate Colonies proceeded, in uniting their State governments. New we call them, for we are quite persuaded, that the patriots and statesmen of the Revolution never conceived of the States as independent sovereigns, in the same sense that England and France are independent of each other, which is now the cant, for it deserves no better name. We have seen, on this subject, some letters written by General Joseph Warren, in the last month of his glorious existence, and addressed to Samuel Adams, then in Philadelphia. We need scarcely say that Adams and Warren were not the men to abdicate the rights of their native State. But the controversy here, as in so many other cases, is one of words. If the parties would first decide what they mutually understand by sovereign, there might be no difference of opinion, how far that name was applicable either to the State or National Governments. It would appear that each of those governments possesses, and that each wants several of the attributes of simple, final sovereignty. All arguments, therefore, tending to enlarge the powers of the national government, because it is a sovereign, are fallacious; because, though the Constitution confers many sovereign powers on the national government, it does not confer all. On the other hand, all arguments tending to enlarge the independence of the States, as being sovereigns, are equally fallacious; because the people of the States have ceded some of the attributes of sovereignty to the Union. The use of the term, therefore, in either case proves nothing, and will infallibly be found, in the argument, to cover a sophism.
But we have wandered into the school of metaphysical politics; let us return to the days (happier in this), when such polities were unknown. In the councils and labors of the Congress at this eventful period, Mr Lee was conspicuous. When General Washington had been unanimously chosen commander in chief of the armies raised or to be raised for the defence of American liberty, a committee was appointed to draft his commission and instructions, of which Mr Lee was the chairman. The original draft of the commission, by which General Washington was constituted general and commander in chief of the American armies of the Revolution, with an indorsement of his name on the back of it, was long in the possession of Mr Lee's family.
It would be impossible to follow our author in all his interesting details, as to the agency of Mr Lee in the affairs of the Congress. But we ought not to omit the interesting chapter of the Declaration of Independence. On the seventeenth of May, 1776, the Virginia Convention unanimously resolved, “that the delegates appointed to represent this Colony in the general Congress, be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent states, absolved from all allegiance to or dependence upon the crown of Great Britain,” &c. In pursuance of this instruction, it is understood that the Virginia delegation requested Mr Lee to make a formal motion in Congress. This was done by him, in the following words, “That these United Colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states; and that all political connexion between them and the state of G eat Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved.” This notion was made on Friday, June the seventh. The delicacy of the subject, and the responsibility supposed to be incurred by the movers of such a resolution are, no doubt, the cause of its being entered in the Journal, without the name of the mover or seconder. The entry is in the following words: “Certain resolutions respecting independence being moved and seconded resolved, that the consideration of them be deferred till tomorrow morning; and that the members be enjoined to attend punctually at ten o'clock, in order to take the same into consideration.” The resolution was seconded by John Adams.
On the eighth, the Congress resolved itself into a committee of the whole, to take into consideration the resolutions, Mr Harrison of Virginia in the chair. On Monday, the tenth, the debate was renewed, and the resolutions were reported to the Congress. The following resolve was then passed, “That the consideration of the first resolution he postponed to the first Monday in July next, and in the mean while, that no time be lost, in case the Congress agree thereto, a committee be appointed to prepare a declaration to the effect of the first resolution,” which is in these words, “That these United Colonies,” &c.
On the evening of the tenth, the day on which this resolve was adopted, Mr Lee received information from Virginia, that Mrs Lee was dangerously ill. This circumstance requiring his presence at home, he was obliged to ask leave of absence for a short time; and he accordingly left Philadelphia on the eleventh. It was no doubt owing to this circumstance, that he was not a member of the committee appointed to draw up the Declaration of Independence. This committee consisted of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and R. R. Livingston.
The circumstances attending the preparation of this immortal state paper, by the committee appointed for that purpose, cannot be uninteresting even in their minutest detail. We accordingly make no apology for inserting here the following extract from a letter of Mr Adams to Mr Pickering, dated August the sixth, 1822, containing the most particular statement, we believe, that has been furnished on this subject.
“Mr Jefferson came into Congress in June 1775, and brought with him a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent at composition. Writings of his were handed about, remarkable for the peculiar felicity of expression. Though a silent member in Congress, he was so prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive upon committees, not even Samuel Adams was more so, that he soon seized upon my heart; and upon this occasion I gave him my vote, and did all in my power to procure the votes of others. I think he had one more vote than any other, and that placed him at the head of the committee. I had the next highest number, and that placed me the second. The committee met, discussed the subject, and then appointed Mr Jefferson and me to make the draft; I suppose, because we were the two highest on the list. The subcommittee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, “I will not, you shall do it.” [Then follows an amicable altercation on this point; but Mr Adams persisting in is refusal to make the draft], “Well,” said Jefferson, “if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.” “Very well, when you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.” A meeting we accordingly had, and conned the paper over. I was delighted with its high tone, and the flights of oratory with which it abounded, especially that concerning negro slavery; which, though I knew his southern brethren would never suffer to pass in Congress, I certainly never would oppose. There were other expressions which I would not have inserted if I had drawn it up; particularly that which called the king a tyrant. I thought this too personal; for I never believed George to be a tyrant in disposition and in nature; I always believed him to be deceived by his courtiers on both sides the Atlantic, and in his official capacity only cruel.
“I thought the expression too passionate and too much like scolding for so grave and solemn a document; but as Franklin and Sherman were to inspect it afterwards, I thought it would not become me to strike it out. I consented to report it; and do not now remember that I made or suggested a single alteration. We reported it to the Committee of Five. It was read; and I do not remember that Franklin or Sherman criticised anything. We were all in haste; Congress was impatient; and the instrument was reported, as I believe, in Jefferson's handwriting, as he first drew it. Congress cut off about a quarter part of it, as I expected they would; but they obliterated some of the best of it, and left all that was exceptionable, if anything in it was. I have long wondered that the original draft has not been published. I suppose the reason is, the vehement philippic against negro slavery. As you justly observe, there is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before. The substance of it is contained in the declaration of rights and the violation of those rights, in the Journals of Congress in 1774. Indeed the essence of it is contained in a pamphlet voted and printed by the town of Boston before the first Congress met; composed by James Otis, as I suppose, in one of his lucid intervals, and pruned and polished by Samuel Adams.”—Pickering's Review, second edition, pp. 131, 132.
On the first of July, in pursuance of the resolve of the tenth of June, which has already been mentioned, Congress went to a committee of the whole on Mr Lee's resolution, and reported it to the House. The further consideration of it was postponed P11 the next day, when it was finally adopted. The “declaration concerning independence” was also discussed during these days and the day succeeding, and was, after various amendments, adopted by Congress on the fourth of July. Four days after the adoption of the declaration, a copy of it, as originally reported, was sent by Mr Jefferson to Mr Lee, still in Virginia on account of the sickness of his wife. The document was preserved by Mr Lee, with the care which its origin and importance dictated, and is still in the possession of the author of the work before us.
The great interest attached to the minutest details on this subject have induced us to quote here, from Mr Pickering's Review, the declaration as reported and the declaration as adopted. Mr Pickering's copy of the original draft was taken from that sent by Jr Jefferson to Mr Lee, and corresponds with the one printed in the Appendix to the Memoir.
In the month of August, Mr Lee returned to his post at Philadelphia and was immediately recalled to numerous important labors in the hall of Congress and in the committee rooms. In the course of the following year his health suffered, and in consequence of insinuations unfriendly to his patriotism as an American and a Virginian, the House of Assembly of Virginia, in the month of May, 1777, superseded him as a deputy to the Continental Congress. Being reelected to the Virginia Assembly as the member for Westmoreland, he demanded an investigation into his conduct. This investigation was granted, and was carried on in the House, in the presence of the Senate. The result was honorable to the purity of his character, and the address of the venerable Wythe, in pronouncing his acquittal, does equal honor to both. It is stated by our author, that the Chancellor is reported to have shed tears while delivering it.
George Mason having in the course of the season resigned his seat in Congress, Mr Lee was elected in his place and returned to Philadelphia in August 1777; but was again compelled by the state of his health, enfeebled by his laborious occupation in the public business, to return to Virginia in the month of December; nor was it till the following spring, that he was able again to give his attention in Congress, of which body he continued to be a member till the year 1780, when the critical position of affairs in Virginia induced him to retain his seat in the Assembly of that State. During the same and the following year, the incursions of the enemy in those parts of the State, which lie on the large rivers, led Mr Lee to the active discharge of the duties, which devolved upon him, as commander of the militia of his county. In this service, he signalized his energy and skill, not less than he had done in the political councils of the country. In the two great questions, which at this time agitated the Assembly and the State of Virginia, that of making the depreciated paper money a legal tender and the obstructing of the payment of the British debts, it was the fortune of Mr Lee, who was on the negative of both these questions to be in direct collision with his colleague, Patrick Henry, who maintained the necessity and expediency of both these measures.
On the return of peace in 1783, Mr Lee resumed his seat in the Congress of the Confederation, and was chosen president of that body, of which he was for several years reelected a member. In 1787 he was one of the committee which reported the famous ordinance for the government of the territory north west of the Ohio. On the proposal of the Constitution in 1788, Mr Lee declared himself amongst the most decided opponents to its adoption. The arguments, which he employed to convince his friends of the dangerous character of this form of government, may he seen at large in the letters contained in the second volume, particularly in those addressed to Samuel Adams. Mr Lee shared the fears, which many of the soundest politicians and best patriots felt, that the National Government would prove too strong for the independence of the States. His reasonings deserve to be quoted, as part of the contemporaneous exposition of the Constitution, for it is only by comparing what was said against it with what was said for it, that we can arrive at certain knowledge of what the framers of the Constitution intended by its provisions.
The zeal and ardor, with which the friends of a strongly contested measure urge its adoption will always lead them to soften and disguise those features, which are particularly obnoxious; and on the other hand, the opponents of the measure as naturally strive to render these obnoxious traits as prominent as possible. When, therefore, we quote simply those passages from the Federalist, and from the debates in the various State conventions, in which the obnoxious features of the Constitution are attempted to be defended, we are in great danger of falling into error; as great at least, as if we adopted the opposite course, and judged of the Constitution, solely by what was said in disparagement of it. Still, however, neither of these sources of exposition must be rejected. As we have already remarked, the letters of Mr Lee will add valuable matter to the stock of these contemporaneous expositions.
We will quote a single passage, in reference to the provision in the Constitution, that Congress shall have power “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States.” It is maintained by one school of politicians, that this provision is, of itself, sufficient to authorize Congress to do all things not prohibited by the Constitution, which the common defence and general welfare prescribe. The other school maintains, that this provision gives no grant of powers, and seeks to sustain this position by various contemporaneous expositions. The following remark of Mr Lee, in a letter to Governor Randolph, will show his opinion of this clause.
“But what is the power given to this ill constructed body? [Congress.] To judge of what may be for the general welfare; and such judgment, when made that of Congress, is to be the supreme law of the land. This seems to be a power coextensive with every object of human legislation.” Vol. II. p. 79.
Mr Lee was a member of the Senate from Virginia in the first Congress, and exerted himself to procure the adoption of those amendments, which were thought so essential to guard the rights of the States. He was not, however, successful in carrying them through, as proposed by himself and friends. The tenth amendment, which was particularly urged by Mr Lee, was proposed by him in the following form, “The powers not expressly delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively.” In this amendment the word expressly was stricken out, before the adoption of the article; and on motion of Mr Ellsworth the words, “or to the people,” were added. This addition will probably be thought, on close scrutiny, to be exceedingly subtil.
Mr Lee remained in the Senate during two sessions of Congress, and became, like his friend Henry, a cordial supporter of President Washington's administration. The last act of his political life was a letter, which he wrote to the President, assuring him of his support, on occasion of a meeting of the inhabitants of Fredericksburgh to condemn the proclamation of neutrality. After the year 1792, when he was at the age of sixty, he filled no place in the government of Virginia, or of the United States. He died on the nineteenth of June 1794, at his seat in Chantilly, Westmoreland.
Many readers will esteem the second volume the most valuable of the two, of which this work consists. It contains the correspondence of Mr Lee with his distinguished contemporaries, Washington, Lafayette, the two Adamses, Henry, Jefferson, Madison, and many others of the statesmen and patriots of the day. The arrangement of this volume is defective, not being upon any fixed principle of order; and as no index or list of contents accompanies the work, it is very difficult to recur to any particular part, or gain a general survey of the whole. This may be mentioned as a little error of authorship, or rather as a slight deficiency in the art of bookmaking, an art of which even the most judicious writer, about to usher a book into the world, ought not to be wholly ignorant. The literary execution of the work is, upon the whole, highly respectable; and such as to render the work an honorable memorial to the great man who is the subject of it. Of the typographical execution little can be said in commendation. It is coarse and slovenly, and the doing up of the two volumes is disgraceful. It is high time that the opinion of the reading community was loudly expressed on this point. For ourselves, we cannot conceive how the publishers of this work, among the first publishing houses in America, can allow a book like this to go from their press, especially with such models as the Life of Quincy, and that of Otis, to show them what style of printing the public will bear, in works of this class. Prevented as we are by a most oppressive tariff from importing foreign books, it is a subject of loud and just complaint, that our own should at once be so meanly and so extravagantly printed. The work before us is in two volumes, averaging two hundred and fifty pages each, the first of them chiefly in a loose type. For this work we are obliged to pay two dollars a volume, while three dollars for the two would be a high price.
We perceive, by a paragraph in the papers, that Mr Lee, the author of this work, has deposited in the library at Philadelphia the manuscript correspondence of his grandfather. We honor this judicious disposition of such valuable historical records. It is now full time, that valuable collections of papers should be placed beyond the reach of the accidents, to which they are exposed in private hands. We doubt not almost all our readers have personal knowledge, within the circle of their acquaintance, of the gradual disappearance, absorption, annihilation of collections once large and precious. The history of our Revolution and constitutional organization is yet to be written. Nothing but materials have been published on this unparalleled theme. And many more materials must yet be given to the world, and perhaps another generation elapse, before the history can be written. The archives at Washington must be explored; those of the several states thoroughly searched; and the treasures, which are scattered about in the families of the revolutionary worthies, must be given to the world. The latter is quite as important a preliminary as either of the others. The history of the Revolution is in the letters of the great men who shone in it. It is from them alone that characters can be graduated, majorities sifted, parties unraveled, opinions historically deduced under changing names. Take for illustration the Journal of the Federal Convention. Meagre as it is at best, what would it have been without the contributions to it, furnished by General Bloomfield as executor to Mr Brearly, by Mr C. Pinckney, and by Mr Madison. Even the sketches of Chief Justice Yates, imperfect as they are, present us all that we as yet possess, in the nature of a Report of the discussions in that august body. Much more remains in manuscript, than has yet been given to the world from the papers of the revolutionary period. General Washington's have been carefully perused by Chief Justice Marshall, but a gleaning of them only appears in his work. President Adams's, Mr Jefferson's, Mr Madison's are still, and may they long so continue, in the hands of these venerable men. The hope has occasionally been indulged, that the last of them would be induced to employ a part of his honorable leisure, in arranging the materials for a history of those momentous periods of our political history, with which no man living is so well acquainted as himself. To General Hamilton's papers we have already alluded, and trust the time is not far distant, when they will be made to contribute to the general stock of the materials for our independent history.
Such a subject, as that which this history presents, is nowhere else in the range of ages to be pointed out. Beginning with the first steps of the new colonial policy of Britain toward America, in 1764, and brought down to the adoption of the Constitution, and organization of the government in 1790, it is a theme of epic unity and grandeur, it comprehends every kind of interest: politics alternate1y of the subtilest and of the most expansive school; the action and reaction upon each other of the mature political strength of the English Cabinet, and the adolescent energy of America. It is filled with characters, with incidents; the senate house rings with an eloquence, like that which was wont to be heard in the storms of the old commonwealths; strains of exhortation and resolute responses echo to each other across the Atlantic; in the shifting scenes of the war, all the races of man and the stages of civilization are mingled, the British veteran, the German mercenary, the gallant Chevaliers of Poland and France, the hardy American yeoman, the mountaineer, the painted savage. At one moment the mighty fleets of Europe are thundering in the Antilles; at the next, the blue eyed Brunswickers, the veterans of the Seven Years' War, are seen winding down from the Canadian frontier, under the command of an English Gentleman, to capitulate to the American militia; peace is made; thirteen republics stand side by side on the Continent, bleeding from the wounds of war, tremblingly alive for the independence, which their labors and agonies had gained them; the trial of war has been borne, that of peace succeeds; a Constitution is proposed, is discussed, is adopted; a new life is breathed by it into the exhausted channels of the nation, which starts from that moment in a career of prosperity so rapid, so resistless, so adventurous, that the reality every day puts our brightest visions to shame. And this astonishing drama of events was the work of our days; its theatre was our beloved country; its immortal actors were our fathers.
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