<br /> Lee Letter: b300

Washington and Lee University

Sender: Richard Henry Lee
Recipient: Samuel Adams

My dear Sir,

Your favors (for I am always favored when you are pleased to write to me) by Mr Walker of the 9th, and by Captain Landais of the 10th of December were duly delivered to me by those gentlemen, and without loss of time I laid them before Congress – Their applications have been referred to very good Committees, so that there is reason to expect that these Gentlemen will receive just and satisfactory determinations from Congress. Your very friendly and sensible letter of the 23d. of the same month deserves my sincerest thanks and approbation, which with great cordiality I present to you. – My ill health (with much business and the necessary attention to the ceremonies of my office) prevents me from being so punctual a correspondent as I wish to be – but I well know that your goodness will excuse me – It is the part of a friend to advise, and of a well disposed mind to profit from good counsel. I shall certainly endeavor to benefit from your judicious sentiments. Very much it is to be wished that all who are in authority, discerned with you that the eyes of the world are upon us, that great expectations are formed from great beginings, and that wisdom and virtue can alone satisfy such just expectations. It is however much too correspondent with human nature to exult “beyond measure,” and thereby to neglect those duties that better sentiments ought to inspire. To this cause may perhaps be attributed much of the inattention and violence that have too generally taken place since the preliminary articles were made known to us. Whether in public or in private life it seems most becoming wise men in the time of victory and success, to practice the virtues of Magnanimity and Justice, to avoid the display of irascible passions, by effectually “burying the hatchet” as our Aborigines express the idea. Without this philosophic temper, what would become of mankind governed as they too generally are by Tyrants whose caprice forceth Nations into War? Endless carnage and evil without bounds must be the result. The philanthropy that I revere and admire in your character must revolt at the contemplation of it. And I think that the Christian philosophy, in tenderness for human infirmities strongly inculcates principles of mutual forgiveness and benevolence. These reflections have been created in my mind by that kind of exultation “beyond measure,” which you so wisely deprecate, and which I have seen so much to prevail as to injure in my idea that greatness of character, which had dignified America in her resistence to British Tyranny. For I am not disposed to admit Revenge as a just plea for such extravagancies, altho a well judged system of measured politics may be admissible. The selfishness and corruption of Europe I have no doubt about, and therefore wish most sincerely that our free Republics may not suffer themselves to be changed and wrongly wrought upon by the corrupt maxims of policy that pervade European Councils – where artful and refined plausibility is forever called in to aid the most pernicious designs. It would seem as if there were a general jealosy beyond the water, of the powerful effects to be derived from Republican virtue here, and so we hear a constant cry from thence, echoed & reechoed here by all Expectants from the Treasury of the United States – That Congress must have more power – That we cannot be secure & happy until Congress command implicitly both purse & sword. So that our confederation must be perpetually changing to answer sinister views in the greater part, until every fence is thrown down that was designed to protect & cover the rights of Mankind. It is a melancholy consideration that many wise & good men have, some how or other, fallen in with these ruinous opinions. I think Sir that the first maxim of a man who loves liberty should be, never to grant to Rulers an atom of power that is not most clearly & indispensably necessary for the safety and well being of Society. To say that these Rulers are revocable, and holding their places during pleasure may not be supposed to design evil for self-aggrandizement, is affirming what I cannot easily admit. Look to history and see how often the liberties of mankind have been opressed & ruined by the same delusive hopes & falacious reasoning. The fact is, that power poisons the mind of its possessor and aids him to remove the shackles that restrain itself. To be sure, all things human must partake of human infirmity, and therefore the Confederation should not be presumptuously called an infallible system for all times and all situations – but tho’ this is true, yet as it is a great and fundamental system of Union & Security, no change should be admitted until proved to be necessary by the fairest fullest & most mature experience. Upon these principles I have ever been opposed to the 5 P Cent imposts, My idea is still that of the Confederation, Fix the sum, apportion it & let every State by its own means, and in its own way faithfully & honestly make its payment. That the now federal mode of apportionment is productive of delay, of great expence, and still liable to frequent change, is certain. And therefore I see no inconvenience in so far altering the Confederation as to make the Rule of Apportionment lie upon the numbers as stated in the recommendation of Congress upon that Subject. But I can never agree that this Body shall dictate the mode of Taxation, or that the collection shall in any manner be subject to Congressional controul. It is said that this will more effectually secure the Revenue – But how so? if a spirit prevails to neglect a duty imposed by the Confederation, may not the same spirit render abortive at any time Acts passed for granting the Impost? Besides that we are depending for the payment of our debts upon uncertainty, when the most certain revenues of the State ought to be appropriated for that purpose. Whilst every good man wishes great punctuality to prevail in the payment of debts, he must at the same time condemn and discourage large importations which impoverish by increasing the balance of trade against us. So that from this system we are to expect our greatest good from our greatest evil. A good physician will tell you that contrary indications of cure threaten danger to human life, and by a just parity of reason, contrary indications threaten danger to the Political body. But happily for us, our political disease admits of simple remedies for its cure, if rightly judged of, and wisely practised upon. Let it therefore the effort of every Patriot to encourage a punctual payment of each State’s quota of the foederal demand, and let the money be found in ways most agreable to the circumstances of every State. This is the plan of the Confederation, and this I own will be mine, until more satisfactory experience has proved its inefficacy. –

A word more upon the point of our just wishes to be detached from European politics, and European vices. of course I wish it most sincerely. But unfortunately Great Britain is upon our Northern quarter and Spain upon the Southern. We are therefore compelled to mix with their Councils in order to be guarded against their ill designs. I am very happy to hear from my friend Mr Lovell that you are in health and spirits, and that you still deli ht to speak of politics. There is nothing in this li fe that would give me more happiness than to see & converse with you in Boston – but Alas! I fear that my poor state of health will deny me this pleasure – yet at all times and in every place, I shall be dear Sir

your most affecte friend.

Richard Henry Lee


Samuel Adams PapersNew York Public Library

Printed in James Curtis Ballagh, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, Volume 2, 1779 – 1794, pp. 341 – 42. A variant copy is printed in R. H. Lee, Memoir of Richard Henry Lee, 2:60.