<br /> Lee Letter: b005

Washington and Lee University

Sender: Richard Henry Lee
Recipient: A Gentleman in London

My Dear Sir,

At a time when universal selfishness prevails, and when (did not a very few instances evince the contrary) one would be apt to conclude that friendship, with Astrea, had fled this degenerate world, how greatly happy must be the man who can boast of having a friend. That this happiness is mine, the whole tenor of my life s correspondence with you proves most clearly.

Many late determinations of the great, on your side of the water, seem to prove a resolution, to oppress North America with the iron hand of power, unrestrained by any sentiment, drawn from reason, the liberty of mankind, or the genius of their own government. ’Tis said the House of Commons readily resolved, that it had “a right to tax the subject here, without the consent of his representative;” and that, in consequence of this, they had proceeded to levy on us a considerable annual sum, for the support of a body of troops to be kept up in this quarter. Can it be supposed that those brave adventurous Britons, who originally conquered and settled these countries, through great dangers to themselves and benefit to the mother country, meant thereby to deprive themselves of the blessings of that free government of which they were members, and to which they had an unquestionable right? or can it be imagined that those they left behind them in Britain, regarded those worthy adventurers, by whose distress and enterprise they saw their country so much enlarged in territory, and increased in wealth, as aliens to their society, and meriting to be enslaved by their superior power? No, my dear sir, neither one nor the other of these can be true, because reason, justice, and the particular nature of the British constitution, nay, of all government, cry out against such opinions! Surely no reasonable being would, at the apparent hazard of his life, quit liberty for slavery; nor could it be just in the benefited, to repay their benefactors with chains instead of the most grateful acknowledgments. And as certain it is, that “the free possession of property, the right to be governed by laws made by our representatives, and the illegality of taxation without consent,” are such essential principles of the British constitution, that it is a matter of wonder how men, who have almost imbibed them in their mother’s milk, whose very atmosphere is charged with them, should be of opinion that the people of America were to be taxed without consulting their representatives! It will not avail to say that these restrictions on the right of taxation, are meant to restrain only the sovereign, and not Parliament. The intention of the constitution is apparent, to prevent unreasonable impositions on the people; and no method is so likely to do that, as making their own consent necessary, for the establishment of such impositions. But if no such consent is allowed in our case, it will still be an aggravation of our misfortune to be the slaves of five hundred masters instead of one. It would seem, indeed, to be unquestionably true, that before a part of any community can be justly deprived of the rights and privileges, to which they are entitled by the constitution and laws, there must have been some great and palpable injury offered by them to the society of which they are a part. But did this happen in the case of the first settlers of America? or did they, by any treasonable combination against, or by any violation offered to, the laws of their country, make it proper, in their country, to deprive them of their birth right? It remains, therefore, that we cannot be deprived of English liberty, though it may appear expedient that we should be despoiled of it. But after all, my dear friend, the ways of Heaven are inscrutable; and frequently, the most unlooked-for events have arisen from seemingly the most inadequate causes. Possibly this step of the mother country, though intended to oppress and keep us low, in order to secure our dependence, may be subversive of this end. Poverty and oppression, among those whose minds are filled with ideas of British liberty, may introduce a virtuous industry, with a train of generous and manly sentiments, which, when in future they become supported by numbers, may produce a fatal resentment of parental care being converted into tyrannical usurpation. I hope you will pardon so much on this subject. My mind has been warmed, and I hardly know where to stop.* *


Printed in James Curtis Ballagh, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, Volume I, 1762 – 1778, pp. 5 – 6. Original transcription taken from R. H. Lee, Memoir of the Life of Richard Henry Lee and his Correspondence, 1:27.