<br /> Lee Letter: b160

Washington and Lee University

Sender: Richard Henry Lee
Recipient: George Mason

Dear Sir:

I am much obliged to you for your favor of the 4th, but greatly concerned for your state of health. The force of party and the power of fortune it seems to me, are leagued to distress if not to ruin America. There never was a rime when the fullest exertion of ability and integrity was more necessary to rescue us from impending ills. The inundation of money appears to have overflowed virtue, and I fear will bury the liberty of America in the same grave. Believe me, Sir, it is not from improper despondence that I think in this manner. Look around you, do you anywhere see wisdom and integrity, and industry prevail either in council or execution? The demon of avarice, extortion, and fortune-making seizes all ranks. And now, to get into office is another thing for getting into wealth on public funds and to the public injury. I well know that much of this will in all countries take place in time of war, but in America, unfortunately at this time, nothing else is attended to. And such is the state of things, so unequally is this mass of money distributed, that I assure you my apprehensions are great that this heavy tax will come with crushing weight on great numbers of honest, industrious men, whilst a number of others who have amassed thousands by illicit means will not feel the burthen. I hope some method will be fallen on to make the tax touch the speculators, monopolists, and those people concerned in staff departments of commissary, quartemaster, &c., &c. who have acquired vast wealth on very pernicious principles. In choosing the executive officers of government, integrity, ability, and industry must be attended to, or we are inevitably ruined. The millions we issue are with such profusion wasted, that they produce only heavy taxes without good to the community. This I apprehend arises from want of wisdom, diligence, or integrity somewhere. In truth there is so little attention paid to the expenditure of the public money, and the public accounts are so irregularly settled, or rather not settled at all, that it affords opportunities and gives temptation to men not truly moral to venture on bad practises in hopes of impunity. To me it appears of indispensable necessity that instructions be given to your delegates in Congress in terms peremptory and express that they move Congress, and never cease to urge it, that the most immediate and effectual settlement be made of all public accounts, calling to strict account all those who have been entrusted with public money, admitting not of evasive and dilatory pleas. That they have ready to lay before the Assembly, at its next meeting their proceedings herein, and if it is not done, the reasons why. I mean this latter part, in order to prevent those kind of put offs and go byes which I have seen so very often practised.

There is another point on which I think instructions greatly necessary, because I apprehend abuse has already taken place to considerable extent, and may, if not prevented, go much further. It is to prevent the practise of delegates from any State, and more particularly one delegate from any State, from obtaining from Congress money on the credit of the State he or they come from without the orders of that particular State. In time, when death or bankruptcy shall have removed delegates or incapacitated them, these grants may be refused by the States, or some of them, and public discord and confusion be the result. This practise began originally upon the necessity members were under of getting money due to them for wages to support their necessary expenses, and so far as that, strictly confined there, nothing ill would have resulted. But I have reason to think it has been carried much further. Your treasurer should be ordered to remit the wages of the delegates in due season, and the practise of taking money from the Continental treasury without express order be totally inhibited. If necessity compelled, why, then, there was no resisting the measure, but it does seem strange, that when the quantity of money in circulation has almost stopped its currency and introduced universal corruption of manners, which both obliged the laying of a most weighty tax, that our Assembly should order a million of pounds to be emitted. I greatly fear the effect of this, as well in reality, as from the operation it will have on the apprehensions of men in the other States!

It is, I think, to be feared, that the enemy’s late success in this State will encourage other visits, and behooves us both in the deliberative and executive departments, to be as well prepared in every respect as possible to prevent the like success on their part and injury on ours. The first thing is to remove temptation by never suffering stores of any kind to be collected in considerable quantities near where troops may be landed from vessels protected by ships of war. Where the enemy want provisions and wish to destroy our means of defence, surely magazines of provisions and of warlike stores ought to be places the most secure. It appears to me that expensive fortifications are not the thing. Mere batteries to protect vessels against small sea force is all of this kind that can for the present be attempted with propriety and success. Extreme mismanagement has, I suppose, alienated our minds from our true, just and natural defence by vessels of war. I think it may be demonstrated that eight gallies on our part and six on that of Maryland, well-manned, fitted and commanded, carrying thirty-two and twenty-four pounders, and constructed as were the Congress gallies built at Philadelphia, would with ease baffle the attempts of such a force as came here last. This is a kind of movable battery which proceeding with the enemy would disappoint them, whilst forts on land will be avoided when the foe is weak and always fall when they are strong. And these forts, under the idea of strength delude men to make collections which they otherwise would not, and which tempt an enemy to come for plunder where they would not otherwise visit.

On the subject of public accounts and public expenses, Dr. Lee in a late letter to Congress: “Indeed there has been hitherto such licentiousness suffered in the conduct of our affairs, that these gentlemen [meaning Ross, Williams, &c., &c., &c.] seem to think it both an affront and injustice to be called upon for a clear and unequivocal account of the expenditure of the public money. It seems clear to me that if all the millions expended are thus accounted for, the burthens and poverty of the public will increase with the opulence of individuals, and soon become intolerable.” This is a melancholy truth. Squire Lee will show you a copy of a letter to this very Ross, whom Braxton writes so prettily about, from the commissioners by which you may judge how he is going on. This man has had more than 400,000 livres of France advanced him by Deane, besides remittances from America. He is one of the commercial league on public funds.

As this is a safe opportunity, I enclose you the State papers you desired me to get, and at your leisure be pleased to let me have a copy as I have not had time to make one. I rejoice greatly at the news from South Carolina. God grant it may be true. If this should force the enemy to reason and to peace, would you give up the navigation of the Mississippi and our domestic fishery on the banks of Newfoundland? The former almost infinitely depreciating our back country and the latter totally destroying us as a maritime power. That is taking the name of independence without the means of supporting it. If you have any news and time to write it I pray you to do so, and excuse this long trespass on your patience and your business.

I am most affectionately yours,

Richard Henry Lee



Printed in Kate Mason Rowland, Life and Correspondence of George Mason, 1:330. Printed also in James Curtis Ballagh, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, Volume 2, 1779 – 1794, pp. 65 – 69.