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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 It contains published and unpublished items, some well known to historians, others that are rare or have never before been put online.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 curator, Colin Woodward, about how you can contribute to this historic project.



1821 Novr 20

From H. Lee to Dr. Mayo (fr: original)

Dear Sir,

            That you should be shocked at the tissue of error and infatuation described in my last letter is not surprising. Even I who have been exposed to such tempests of the soul, shuddered with unusual horrour at the recital of Mrs. Lee, and felt at first inclined to conceal, or but half to reveal the circumstances to you. This inclination though was short lived. The generous & indeed romantic confidence you had placed in me required a better return than even the most venial duplicity could make and I thought demanded perfect transparecny in all my thoughts and measures on this subject, in so far as you were concerned.  “Upon this hint I spake”1 – and upon this I think myself authorized to express the regret indeed the anguish I should experience were you to relinquish, in this early and not unfavorable stage, the prosecution of an enterprise, founded, as I sincerely believe, on the most liberal & benevolent sensibility to beauty & misfortune, and fraught with the most consoling & felicitous consequences (as far as my conjectures can foresee) to yourself and to its object. I am aware of the perilous delicacy of my situation in this business. & I almost tremble at the dangerous imputations that beset me – they will doubtless arise to your mind in part and at least are too fearful to be described by me. A well enlightened conscience is the best and only guide in the case, & I have spared no exertion to inform mine by diligent reflection and earnest consultation with the only person whose advice I may require in this regard.

            Forbearing to advert to the unpleasant situation in which I shall be left by your retreat, as well as Mrs. Lee’s unpleasant responsibility, let me lead your attention to the consequences, that the extinction of a hope in the interesting subject may (if such a sentiment was excited) have on the mind of a being of conscious merit & unparalleled misfortune.

            I can hardly imagine to a mind of half the benevolence I believe yours endued with, an object of more touching regret for its reflection, than the apprehension of having excited even the softest sigh of distress in the bosom of youth, of loveliness & sorrow; or of having torn the young tendril of hope from the dejected flower, which under the dew of expected support & protection was perhaps just spreading its lovely branches to the breeze & unfolding its glowing beauties again to the sun.

            This consideration is not urged with the view of producing any additional or extraneous interest in you on the subject, but for the purpose of helping to sustain under the effects of their disclosure, those prospects & wishes which you have since our first acquaintance so freely & so fervently declared existed in your breast. The disclosure which as your friend and confidant, I authorized Mrs. L. to make I am far from thinking (as you denominate it) unfortunate unless you shd make it so by a causeless panic and a precipitate retreat. I was acquainted with the strength of the fortress & with the perplexing obstinancy of the garrison. & I assured you at the first that your first approach wd probably be received by a violent sally. As to this then you have no reason for disappointment. & indeed you may rather bless yourself that we had the friendly temerity to act as your forlorn hope; and you may expect less annoyance in [the] future I believe. I am not altogether satisfied with the choice I have made of the word “temerity” as I am yet of opinion the mode & occasion of the disclosure were judicious & favorable, & that this explosion of what you term illiberal suspicion and bigotry will have no tendency to diminish their proper effect. This consideration will, a portion defend me from the charges of officiousness, even of the confiding earnestness of your letters in relation to the institution of an interchange of intelligence on the subject  were not to be interpreted into full power & direct instruction to me.

            I will now proceed to request you to adhere to your original purpose from which I hardly think you can swerve without unnecessary injury at least to me – & as I believe in your sincerity, to your own heart – besides the possibility of producing other & far worse deprecated distress. Nor will your conduct be exempt from the culpability of making this painful & diversified sacrifice to the most causeless if not contemptible suspicion & persecuting folly.

            I will not disguise from you that the manner in which you engaged me in this business, although my implication may have the effect of subjecting me to augmented odium & distress, rung so clearly upon the metal of my heart, that it could but re echo with the liveliest devotion to your service. That there was something strange if not eccentric in your selecting me for your confidant, I am willing to admit, yet I felt it as far more spirited & generous. And I should deem myself far more unworthy than the worst view of my previous conduct could make me appear, if I had shrunk from such manly frankness, & defrauded of a warm requitat what appeared to me to be the loftiest liberality.

            It will be a source of endless & unspeakable regret to me, if by any act of mine, I should occasion any further pain or disappointment to you; and you must therefore bear it in mind that I have not the smallest conjectural information or constructive authority from the other side. & that even were I desirous to obtain either, the attempt to do so wd be utterly hopeless, every avenue to any possible communication being hermetically sealed. In fine let me beg you to comply with the recommendations of my last letter. & to repair to this place or neighborhood immediately. We shall be very glad to see you & I have a literary project upon which I wish to consult you.

Yrs. Sincerely,

H. Lee

20th Nov. 1821



            Dr. Mayo


Source: The Archives of the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation, Papers of the Lee Family, Box 7, M2009.149

Transcribed by Caitlin Connelly, 2016 June 23


1. Othello, Act 1, Scene 3

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