<br /> Lee Letter: b369

Washington and Lee University

Sender: Richard Henry Lee
Recipient: Samuel Adams

My dear friend,

Our mutual friend Mr. Gerry furnishes me with an opportunity of writing to you without danger of my letter being stopt on its passage, as I have some reason to apprehend has been the case with letters written by me and sent by Post – Under this impression it is, that I send you herewith a Copy of my letter to you of the 5th. of this month. Major Sergeant delivered me the letter that you were pleased to write me on the 8th. instant, by which I see that you supposed me to have been a Member of the late Convention. I did early decline being a Member of that Body, because I was a member of Congress and the proposed plan stated, that Congress should revew, & if they approved, transmit the proposed amendments to the Confederation, (for that was the Idea, and indeed the only idea that the reposed federal plan admits of, or that the powers delegated to the Convention countenanced) to the 13 States for approbation and ratification. In this view of the business, it appeared to me an inconsistency that the same Men should in N. York review their own doings at Philadelphia. And this opinion was fully verefied when the Members of Convention came to Congress in such numbers with their own plan, that the Votes of 3 States were Convention Votes, 2 others divided by Conventioners, and Conventioners mingled with many other States. It is Sir most obvious, that the Constitution proposed by the Convention could not have a dispassionate and impartial consideration in Congress – And indeed it had not. In my letter to you of the 5th. instant, I sent you the amendments that I proposed in Congress; if they, with my letter should have miscarried, our friend Mr. Gerry can furnish you with them. Mr. Wilson of Phila. has appeared in print with the Convention reasons in support of their proffered plan – How he has succeeded Mr. Gerry will inform you. The Press has produced such Manly and well reasoned refutations of him and his System, that both have lost ground amazingly in the public estimation. His principle Sophism is, that bills of rights were necessary in the State Constitution because every thing not reserved was given to the State Legislatures, but in the Federal government, everything was reserved that was not given to the federal Legislature. This is clearly a distinction without a difference. Because Independent States are in the same relation to each other as Individuals are with respect to uncreated government. So that if reservations were necessary in one case, they are equally necessary in the other. But the, futility of this distinction appears from the conduct of the Convention itself, for they have made several reservations – every one of which proves the Rule in Conventional idea, to be, that what was not reserved was given – For example, they have reserved from their Legislature a power to prevent the importation of Slaves for 20 years, and also from Creating Titles. But they have no reservation in favor of the Press, Rights of Conscience, Trial by Jury in Civil cases, or Common Law securities.

As if these were of less importance to the happiness of Mankind than the making of Lords, or the importations of Slaves! The essential defects in the construction of the Legislature, and the dangerous blending of the Legislative and Executive powers, so as to prevent all Responsibility, are such radical objections, as render this plan inadmissible, in my opinion, without amendments. The Baron Montesquieu says “that the English is the only nation in the world, where political or civil liberty is the direct end of its constitution.” I once thought that our free governments were entitled to the same praise. But the System under consideration, seems to have reversed the above idea – The acquisition of power unlimited, not the security of Civil liberty appears to be the object. Arbitrary government is indeed so carefully intrenched and barricaded against democratic influences, that I am very much mistaken if Civil Liberty does not expire under its operation. The friends of just Liberty here are astonished at the Occlusion of the Press in Boston at a season so momentous to Mankind. It is thought to augur ill of the New Government proposed, that on its being first ushered into the world, its should destroy the great Palladium of human rights – And at Boston too, where first the Presses pointed America to resist attempts upon her liberty & rights; there to find the great Organ of free communication stopped, when that was under consideration, which of all sublunary things demands the freest and fullest discussion: Government, upon the goodness or badness of which, almost depends, whether we shall rank among Men or Beasts! When you are pleased to write to me, your letter, by being enclosed to our friend Mr. Osgood of the Treasury here, will be forwarded safely to me in Virginia, for which place I shall set out from hence on the 4th. of next month –

My best respects to your Lady, & I pray to be remember’d to Gen. Warren, Mr. Lovell, & Doct. Holten. I am dear Sir most sincerely and affectionately

your 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. 456 – 58. A variant copy is printed in R. H. Lee, Memoir of Richard Henry Lee, 2:81.