<br /> Lee Letter: b366

Washington and Lee University

Sender: Richard Henry Lee
Recipient: Samuel Adams

Having long toiled with you my dear friend in the Vineyard of liberty, I do with great pleasure submit to your wisdom and patriotism, the objections that prevail in my mind against the new Constitution proposed for federal goverment – which objections I did propose to Congress in form of amendments to be discussed, and that such as were approved might be forwarded to the States with the Convention system. You will have been informed by other hands why these amendments were not considered and do not appear on the Journal, and the reasons that influenced a bare transmission of the Convention plan, without a syllable of approbation or disapprobation on the part of Congress. I suppose my dear Sir, that the good people of the U. States in their late generous contest, contended for free government in the fullest, clearest, and strongest sense. That they had no idea of being brought under despotic rule under the notion of “Strong government,” or in form of elective despotism: Chains being still Chains, whether made of gold or iron.

The corrupting nature of power, and its insatiable appetite for increase, hath proved the necessity, and procured the adoption of the strongest and most express declarations of that Residuum of natural rights, which is not intended to be given up to Society; and which indeed is not necessary to be given for any good social purpose. In a government therefore, when the power of judging what shall be for the general welfare, which goes to every object of human legislation; and where the laws of such Judges shall be the supreme Law of the Land: it seems to be of the last consequence to declare in most explicit terms the reservations above alluded to. So much for the propriety of a Bill of Rights as a necessary bottom to this new system – It is in vain to say that the defects in this new Constitution may be remedied by the Legislature created by it. The remedy, as it may, so it may not be applied – And if it should a subsequent Assembly may repeal the Acts of its predecessor for the parliamentary doctrine is “quod leges posteriores priores contrarias abrogant” 4 Inst. 43. Surely this is not a ground upon which a wise and good man would choose to rest the dearest rights of human nature. Indeed, some capital defects are not within the compass of legislative redress – The Oligarchic tendency from the combination of President, V. President, & Senate, is a ruin not within legislative remedy. Nor is the partial right of voting in the Senate, or the defective numbers in the house of Representatives. It is of little consequence to say that the numbers in the last mentioned Assembly will increase with the population of these States, because what may happen in twenty fiver or 27 years hence is poor aleviation of the evil, that the immediate time is big with; for it often happens that abuse under the name of Use is rivetted upon Mankind. Nor can a good reason be assigned for establishing a bad, instead of a good government, in the first instance, because time may amend the bad – Men do not choose to be sick because it may happen that physic may cure them – Suppose that good men came first to the administration of this government; and that they should see, or thin[k] they see, a necessity for trying criminally a Man without giving him his Jury of the Vicinage; or that the freedom of the Press should be restrained because it disturbed the operations of the new government – the mutilation of the jury trial, and the restraint of the press would then follow for good purposes – it being certainly true that “Omnia mala exempla ex bonis orta sunt: sed ubi imperium ad ignaros aut minus bonos pervenit, novum illud exemplum ab dignis et idoneis ad indignos et non idoneos fertur.” In proof of this, we know that the wise and good Lord Holt, to support King William and Revolution principles, produced doctrines in a case of Libel (King against Bear) subversive both of law and sound sense; which his successor Lord Mansfield (in the case of Woodfall) would have availed himself of for the restraint of the Press and the ruin of liberty. It would appear therefore, that the consideration of human perversity renders it necessary for human safety that in the first place, power not requisite should not be given, and in the next place that necessary powers should be carefully guarded. How far this is done in the New Constitution I submit to your wise and attentive consideration. Whether, for the present, it may not be sufficient so to alter the Confederation as to allow Congress full liberty to make Treaties by removing the restraining clauses; by giving the Impost for a limited time, and the power of Regulating trade; is a question that deserves to be considered.

But I think the new Constitution (properly amended) as it contains many good regulations, may be admitted – And why not such indispensible amendments be proposed by the Conventions and returned With the new plan to Congress that a new general Convention may so weave them into the proffer’d system as that a Web may be produced fit for freemen to wear? If such amendments were proposed by a Capital state or two, & a willingness expressed to agree with the plan so amended; I cannot see why it may not be affected. It is a mere begging the question to suppose, as some do, that only this moment and this measure will do. But, Why so, there being no war external or internal to prevent due deliberation on this momentous business – The public papers will inform you what violence has been practised by the Agitators of this new System in Philadelphia to drive on to its immediate adoption as if the subject of Government were a business of passion, instead of cool, sober, and intense consideration. I shall not leave this place before the 4th. of November – in the mean time I shall be happy to hear from you – My best compliments are presented to Mrs. Adams, and I pray to be remembered to Gen. Warren, Mr. Lovell & the good Doctor Holten when you see him. I am, with sentiments of the truest esteem & regard dear Sir

your affectionate 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. 444 – 47. A variant copy is printed in R. H. Lee, Memoir of Richard Henry Lee, 2:74. Lee enclosed a draft of his Proposed Amendments to the Federal Constitution, c.1 October 1787.