<br /> Lee Letter: b295

Washington and Lee University

Sender: Richard Henry Lee
Recipient: Patrick Henry

Dear Sir,

Your favor of December 29th, has just now been put into my hands, together with the printed papers that you were pleased to send me, but I have not yet had the pleasure of finding Colonel Grayson here. I do sincerely wish to see my country flourish and be happy, so that if by any means in my power, I can contribute to this most desirable end, I shall certainly exert myself. No time or circumstance can ever force from my mind, the sincere affections that I entertain for the original friends to the just rights of America, whose wise and firm perseverance has secured to the United States at last the blessings, without which there is little difference between men and brutes. The ill state of health that I contracted at Richmond in May 1783, still afflicts me, which, added to the business and the ceremony of my present office afflicts me much, and must necessarily prevent me from such frequent communications as otherwise I should undoubtedly make. With respect to official intelligence from Europe, we have none of great consequence; Mr. Adams thinks, that the negotiations of this winter will properly accommodate the difference between the emperor and the United Netherlands, and our charge des affairs at Madrid, informs us that the court of Spain has appointed Mr. Gardoque to come here as their minister, and we expect him daily. His purpose is to treat of commerce, and territorial limits. Our ministers at Paris are generally proposing treaties of amity and commerce with all the European commercial powers, and they receive answers very civil, but as yet no treaties formed, except such as you have seen notified from Congress. As you have been pleased to desire my reflections upon the state of affairs, I will give them freely, as they appear to me. The courts with which we are most immediately concerned, are Spain, England, France and Holland; the two first because we border on them, and because we have with each most pressing difficulty; the two last, because we are indebted to them both on the score of money lent, and friendship in other ways conferred. Spain is proud, and extremely jealous of our approximation to her South American territory, and fearing the example of our ascendency upon that country, is grasping forever at more territory, by way of security; and hoping to derive benefit to her system, from our want of system, our discord and inattention. Hence we may expect from Mr. Gardoque, an a parent firm demand of the exclusive navigation of the Mississippi, with some tempting commercial offers to procure our assent to the loss of this very valuable navigation. But probably the apprehension of a quarrel with us, and the effect of it upon their South American possessions, may secure to us, if we are wise and firm, the free navigation to be finally agreed to by Spain. With Great Britain, our difficulties will be greater; equally proud with Spain, and much more powerful, with fewer reasons to fear a rupture with us, and more to hope from a successful one; she remains sullen after defeat and seeming to wish for just provocation to renew the combat. The passions of states and of individuals are not very different; for what are the former, but a compound of individuals, and of course carrying into the composition those leading principles that characterize the parts. In private life a wise and fortunate victor, over great strength, would, in all his conduct with the vanquished show a respectful civility, avoiding every display of supposed superiority, and carefully shunning every appearance of giving cause for fresh offence. It seems to me that if the conduct of America had been founded on such principles, our magnanimity must have been confessed, and that the seeds of future discord would not have been so effectually sown as I fear they are. Both countries have been to blame, and transgressions against the terms of peace were on each side coeval, so that whilst we charged them with removing the slaves from New York, they pointed to the violence with which their friends were every where treated, with the detention of their debts, and with actions here brought against those who possessed houses in this city whilst it was in their power by the fortune of war. This again is followed by their detention of the western posts, by their encroachments on our north-eastern boundary about St Croix, and by their unfriendly interruption of our commerce, and lately by arresting in London a merchant of Philadelphia for debt, because his privateer had taken during the war a vessel belonging to the complainant. This is an unpleasant state of things, and if temper and wisdom are not employed on both sides, it is not difficult to foresee a renewed rupture ere long. The principles of republics being virtuous, and their conduct therefore squaring with justice, they rather negotiate difficulties than fight them. Monarchies depend too much upon the ultima ratio regum. When we have acted fully up to our principle, we shall be upon strong ground to combat theirs. But the cause of virtue, without proper means to support it, must often fail. These considerations lead me to wish most sincerely that my country may quickly cease to give the smallest cause for just offence, and that our rulers would engrave upon their minds the wisdom of the inscription upon the arsenal of Berne in Switzerland – “That people happy are, who, during peace, prepare the necessary stores for war.”

It is in vain for us to expect this from the United States – to be secure each state must provide amply for itself; and whenever Great Britain shall find us just, temperate and prepared, she will be extremely cautious of hostile aggressions, or of unjust treatment of us. If this reasoning be right, how will your excellency’s administration be marked for wisdom, if effectual attention be paid to the collection and preservation of military stores. I have here been informed, by an officer of rank in the continental artillery at the surrender of York, that several pieces of our artillery were retaken from the enemy, and that they are now at Philadelphia; it deserves to be considered, whether these are not subject to be returned to us upon demand of the State; there were also several pieces of our artillery thrown into Pamunkey river, near New Castle, in 1781, and some other pieces fixed in the ground and in vain attempted to be destroyed by the enemy. Baron Steuben lately sent us the enclosed letter, which I have now the honour to transmit; his published plan is only an outline, but the details by which that plan is to be executed he professes himself willing to communicate, when the state of Virginia shall call upon him, for them. The sum of this, (I fear, too long digression, upon our relative situation with Great Britain,) is, that being secure of having done right, we should be fully prepared to meet aggressions from that quarter; a sentiment founded upon an attentive consideration of the correspondence between the British generals, during the late war, by which it is not difficult to discover that experience had instructed them in this truth, that a war against the United States had better be pushed in full force at first against Virginia. I have before observed to your Excellency, that Mr. Adams thought we might expect a compromise between Holland and. the Emperor, from the negotiations of this winter; it is certain that every influence of France will be used to effect the compromise for reasons very obvious; but, whilst the Emperor demands as preliminary, that the Scheldt shall be opened, and Holland as peremtorily says, that it must not, it remains possible, but not probable, that an accommodation may take place: if it does not, the powers on the continent will be engaged in a most expensive war, whilst, as it seems, Great Britain will remain neuter, and by peace, preparing herself for war, render her hostile views more dangerous to us. The apprehension of this difficulty on the part of our friends, has probably produced the strong intimations that we must be exact in the payment of our interest upon the foreign loans; and the same reason does indeed call upon the United States, in the strongest sense, to be punctual in their payments, that those who have assisted us in the day of our distress, may not suffer for their generosity.

The attention of Congress, has been applied to our western concerns, as your Excellency will see by the treaties made with the Six Nations, and the Western Indians. In the latter, the Shawanese are not included, but their being prevented by some active British emissary, from coming to the latter treaty, will probably not be attended with ill consequences, as they much under the control of the Six Nations, and of the Wyandots, their powerful neighbours. The spring will open further treaties with the more southern tribes north-west of the Ohio, and also on the south-eastern side, upon ours, and the frontiers of North and South Carolina and Georgia.

Judging from myself, I suppose your excellency will be tired with the length of this letter, an dif you will pardon it, I promise you that I will not again transgress in the same manner. I have the honour to be, with sentiments of esteem, respect, and regard, sir,

your Excellency’s most obt serv’t,

Richard Henry Lee



Printed in William Wirt Henry, Patrick Henry, 3:277. Printed also in James Curtis Ballagh, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, Volume 2, 1779 – 1794, pp. 331 – 36. A variant copy is printed in R. H. Lee, Memoir of Richard Henry Lee, 2:56.