• The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia

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 It contains published and unpublished items, some well known to historians, others that are rare or have never before been put online.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.


  1. Govt


The fathers of the Fedal Constitution, intended by the Confederation of the states, to provide a common agent for the equal benefit of the Confederated parties, exercising no powers, except those derived from their consent, & relying upon the beneficence of its action towards them as its only guarantee. It was not supposed that the Union thus formed was to be maintained by force but being created for the common happiness of the family of states, in which each member continued only because he chose to do so, there would be no danger of a dissolution, as the just & mutual advantages secured to all, would insure the desire to continue in it. Such was the Federal Union during the life of its Founders, a government deeply seated in the affections of the people, & therefore strong, productive of wealth & happiness, weak in aggression against the rights of the citizens, yet powerful for their defence against external enemies. The peculiar point in its structure was intended to be that, being forbidden to enforce the strong hands its authority upon the parties to it, it would be compelled to foster the motive of Compliance by becoming a minister of good & not of evil. Thus did our patriotic fathers attempt to secure the freedom of the parts & yet give unity to the whole. Had the same public virtue which created the Union Continued in its members, & had all its obligations been faithfully kept, it might have well been perpetuated. It was contended that the colonies of Great Britain at the close of the Revolutionary War were distinct & sovereign commonwealths, or separate nations, allied together, & were recognized as such by European powers. After some years of existence, they voluntarily formed a covenant, called the constitution of the U. states, which created a Government, resting upon this compact for its existence, rights, & the creature of the sovereign states which formed it; that This Compact conformed certain powers & duties upon the Central Govt: for Common purposes & reserved & prohibited the exercise of all other powers, leaving the several states or commonwealths the entire controul of their own affairs. They did not sacrifice their nature as Sovereignties, by acceding to the Federal union, but they conceded some of the functions of an independent nation, which were expressly defined, & retained all the rest. These principles were always maintained by the Commonwealth of Va: at all times, being solemnly asserted when she joined the Fedal Union, & repeatedly reaffirmed to the present time. They were in fact embodied in the constitution itself, by a formal amendment after it went into operation & have been professed by the dominant political party since the election of Mr Jefferson to the Presidency of the U.S. & by every administration of whatever party.

It was also held, that the Govt: being the creation of the states, & originating in a Covenant of their formation, derived its whole authority from its Conformity to the terms of the Covenant; That if the covenant was destroyed, the Govt was destroyed & its rightful title to allegiance annihilated; & that the states themselves were the judges of the rupture of the covenant & of the necessity & nature of redress. This right they held to be inherent in the states as originally sovereign. The silence of the Fedal constitution concerning this inalienable right of the states, is as incapable of implying anything against as for its exercise, & upon the integrity of their powers, rested the civil civic life of the American people.

This Conception of the Govt: was believed to be true both by the closest deduction of reason & by wellknown facts. One was the framers of the constitution themselves purposely left the Fedl Govt unclothed with any powers of Coercion over the states. The proposal to give this power was made by one, & was rejected by the rest. It was agreed that to give such a power to the central Govt: was inconsistent with the nature of the Govt designed, it would make it odious to the states, & destructive to republican freedom. The constitution was therefore not only silent as to any such power, but it was expressly declared on the completion of the document, that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” Another fact was, that when the state of Virga gave her adhesion to the Fedal Union, she embodied in her act of acceptance of the Constitution the condition, that she should be free to retract her adhesion whenever she found the Union inconvenient, of which she was to be the sole judge: & to resume her separate independence unmolested. Nor was she the only state which made the same reservation. New York & Rhode Island, now the greatest & smallest states, accepted the union on the Same Conditions. Virginia has from time to time reaffirmed this Condition in the most formal manner up to the present time, & contended that the right of the states to retire from the Fedal Union, when the compact was broken, was an inherent right, which could not be taken away by the constitution. The claim which they have to their present position, is derived from the doctrine, that the people of a commonwealth are entitled to change their form of Govt: whenever they judge it necessary for their welfare. The colonies acquired their independence in this manner, by a separation from the British Empire & declared themselves the very judges of its necessity. The formation of the U. States under its preset Constitution, was an act of separation or secession from the Confederation previously existing. The articles of confederation had been but recently perfected, & accepted by all the states with express understanding that “the union shall be perpetual”. The Confederation did not dissolve, it did not grant its members leave to separate abandon it, but claimed perpetual existence. Yet one & another state left it to enter the new union when it saw fit, & one Rhode Island, did not transfer itself from the old to the new Compact for three years. It is absurd (erroneous) therefore to speak of a State Committing treason against the Govt of the U. States: The secession of a state from the union, is different from the separation of a Country from a state. No Country ever possessed sovereignty or independence, nor in the exercise of such powers ever entered into union. The only coercive force that could under the Constitution be brought to bear on the states, was moral force. The force of honour, covenan faith, affection, & self interest. The foundations of all free Govts. This was the strength its founders assigned it. If this failed it, then the fact was the evidence that it had ceased to fulfil the purposes of its creation & ought to perish. This species of Govt: perfect or imperfect, good or bad, was the


        2. Govt


one to which the states were actually bound. This & no other form, was what they had pledged themselves to obey. In this way had the obligations which they had voluntarily assumed been explained, & this explanation had been accepted by all parties Virga first declared it in the act by which she entered the Fedal Union, repeated it in the resolutions of 1798-99 & had never ceased to reiterate.



1. “Erroneous” is written over “absurd.” Lee intended it as a replacement, but did not strike out “absurd.”




Source: Checked against original document, Mary Custis Lee Papers, Mss1 L5144 a, Section 20, Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Richmond

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2019 March 1

Reference Shelf

Data Collections

About the Project

Website by Fresh Look Web Design
Copyright 2014 All Rights Reserved