<br /> Lee Letter: b260

Washington and Lee University

Sender: Richard Henry Lee
Recipient: James Monroe

Dear Sir,

I have duly received the letter that you were pleased to favor me with on the 16th. of december last, and I am very sensible of your kind sentiments respecting my health. I am indeed restored beyond my expectations, but yet very far from being so circumstanced as to promise hopes of being soon in a state to venture again on the stormy sea of politics & public business. Few, I believe, feel more sensibly than myself, how much our unhappy country suffers, and is likely to suffer from the want of those qualities, and such conduct as is certainly indispensable, to the success and wellbeing of Society. It would seem that such feelings are natural to a man who has the misfortune to see his country likely to loose those blessings of liberty that he has so long and so strenuously labored to secure for it. You do me much honor in asking my poor opinion concerning the great Congressional questions that are stated. They are of much consequence no doubt, and I heartily wish that they may finally receive proper determinations. You are perfectly right Sir in your observation concerning the consequence of a standing army – that it has constantly terminated in the destruction of liberty – It has not only been constantly so, but I think it clear from the construction of human nature, that it will always be – And it is realy unfortunate for human freedom, safety, and happiness, that so many plausible arguments are ever at hand to support a system which both reason & experience prove to be productive of the greatest human evils, Slavery – But it may well be questioned, why, to avoid possible ills, should we adopt measures which in their nature produce the highest evil? The spirit of the 4th. section of the 6th. article of the Confederation plainly discourages the idea of standing army, by the special injunctions concerning a well regulated militia, which is indeed the best defence, and only proper security for a free people to venture upon. To guard our frontiers from Indian invasion, to prevent irregular settlements, and to secure the possessions of foreign powers from the encroachments of our people which may provoke foreign or indian wars; seem to be the reasons assigned for the adoption of this mischief working system, a standing military force. But surely it is the business of other powers to secure their own possessions and punish the violators of them – And it would be as new as it would be improper to keep a standing army to prevent the encroachments of our own citizens upon foreign states – it will ever be sufficient to disavow such proceedings and to give the Culprits up to justice, or punish them ourselves. As to the protection of our own frontiers, it would seem best to leave it to the people themselves, as hath ever been the case, and if at any time the frontier men should be too hard pressed, they may be assisted by the midland militia. This will always secure to us a hardy set of men on the frontiers, used to arms, and ready to assist against invasions on other parts. Whereas, if they are protected by regulars, security will necessarily produce inattention to arms, and the whole of our people becoming disused to War, render the Curse of a standing army Necessary. In this light the Indians may be considered as a useful people, as it is surely fortunate for a free community to be under some necessity of keeping the whole body acquainted with the use of Arms.

Should the fear of Indians in some measure check the settlement of that country, in [it] can be no inconvenience to a people already inhabiting much too thinly the land they possess. Irregular Settlers, I think may be kept away by timely and judicious proclamations of Congress forbidding such settlements and declaring that no Titles shall ever be given to such settlers. and perhaps also, by having a few persons near the Scene authorised to give notice of this to all Goers there upon their first appearance. If at last the horrid evil of a standing army must be encounterd, it is clear to me that such forces had better be placed in fortifications judiciously chosen to give protection to our own commerce & that of foreigners. But I must confess that I would infinitely rather see this last valuable purpose effected by the more safe, and more effectual measure of a Navy, which I sincerely hope will be the constant unremitting object of Congressional attention. And both the building and manning of this Navy, should be, as much as possible, diffused throughout the 13 States. With respect to Trade its combinations are so many and so various, that it is not easy to say much with propriety on that subject hastily – One sentiment respecting it admits not of much doubt – it is, that the free nature & genius of commerce abhors and shuns restraint, and that in young commercial States, to embarrass Trade with heavy imposts or other clogs, is effectually to demolish it. How grieviously do I lament that this is fully & fatally the case in our unfortunate country. In our actual circumstances it is difficult to meet and check effectually the illiberal commercial conduct of European States, which seems to be by counter and similar restraints – but the want of men and vessels for the purpose of our own transportation renders this difficult if not impossible at present. A wise attention to the raising of Seamen and building of Ships may in time cause those States to repent their selfish policy. It appears to me that Congress would do well to recommend strongly to the different Legislatures the adoption of every legal means and encouragement for raising Seamen – It is a most important object, and much, too much neglected. Do you not think that it would be well for Congress to regulate and bring to uniformity the business of weights and measures throughout the U. States, and also to establish a uniformity in the value of Coins of all sorts? Our country in particular is suffering great loss for want of the latter regulation. My respects, if you please, to your Colleague Mr. Hardy and tell him that I shall be very happy to receive a line from him now & then when his leisure permits – I will thank you much for procuring for me the Constitutions of the respective States as they are collected & published in one pocket Volume. I am dear Sir, with much esteem and regard,

your most obedient & very humble Servant.

Richard Henry Lee

P.S. If the Danes & Dutch have not gone upon the plans of England & France to prohibit our bringing W. India produce home in our own bottoms – Will it not be well to try if these more liberal States can be prevailed with to establish Free ports in their Islands, thro which the trade both with the British & French Isles may be carried on to the entire defeating of their Selfish policy?


Monroe CorrespondenceLibrary of Congress

Printed in James Curtis Ballagh, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, Volume 2, 1779 – 1794, pp. 286 – 90. A variant copy is printed in R. H. Lee, Memoir of Richard Henry Lee, 2:222