<br /> Lee Letter: b371

Washington and Lee University

Sender: Richard Henry Lee
Recipient: James Gordon, Jr.

Dear Sir,

Captain Merry delivered me the letter that you were pleased to write me, on the 11th instant, in which I find you propose the following questions, relative to the new constitution, proposed by the late general convention, and request my answer to them:

First. Whether the United States had not better receive than reject the said constitution?

Secondly. Whether it would not injure our credit in the European world, if we were to dissent therefrom; and whether our country would not thereby be endangered, as there are large demands in Europe against us?

Thirdly. Whether every objection to the plan may not, by instructions from the different states, be made as soon as the said Congress may be assembled?

Fourthly. Whether ruin would await us, unless we are consolidated in one general plan of government?

To the first question, namely, “Whether the United States,” &c. I answer, that this question implies a necessity of either adopting or rejecting. But I know of no power on earth that has, or ever had, a right to propose such a question of extremity to the people, or any part of the people, of the United States. The happiness or misery of mankind depends so essentially upon government, that, when this is to be established by the people for themselves and their posterity, the right of the people cannot be questioned, of so acting with plans proposed, as to adopt them, reject them, or propose amendments to them.

To the second query, “Whether it would not injure,” &c. I reply, that this second question is much founded on the first; and, so far as it is, may receive the same answer. It is divisible into two parts; the first, shall our credit be injured in Europe by dissenting from the proposed plan? It is presumable, that credit abroad depends much upon union and happiness at home, as it must always greatly do upon that industry and real strength which grows out of the possession of civil liberty. Those, therefore, who contend for the new plan, by propounding such a question, should prove, in the first place, that the adoption of this constitution will secure union and happiness at home, and those valuable consequences that flow from the possession of civil liberty; and this is the more necessary, as there are such numbers who think that the proffered plan, if admitted without amendments, will empower the administrators of the new government to destroy civil liberty. The second part of this question is, “whether our country will not be endangered by a dissent, as there are large demands against us in Europe.” I presume that foreigners have no business with the nature of our government. Payment of their debts they are entitled to, but no possible reason can be assigned, why these debts may not as well be paid if the proposed constitution was to be so amended, as to secure the just rights and liberties of the people from violation, by a proper bill of rights; to retain the trial by jury in all cases, civil as well as criminal, as directed by the common law; to secure the rights of conscience, and freedom of the press. Will France, Holland, or Spain, be disturbed at our retaining these valuable privileges? or, will they quarrel with us for so amending this new plan, as to put it out of the power of the new rulers to carry every citizen of the state, by way of appeal, to be tried for every suit for debt, brought by all others than our own state citizens, in the supreme federal court, where distance and expense may ruin multitudes? Have foreigners any thing to do with our amending the proposed constitution, so as to put it out of the power of the rulers under it, to garble elections, by ordering all the elections of any state to be held at any place they shall choose – at Cape Henry, for instance, if they so please at any time. See section fourth, article first, where they have power over time, place, and manner of holding elections for choosing representatives, without restraint or limitation.

To the third query, “Whether every objection,” &c. I answer, that the constitution containing these objections, is made by the people of the United States; and the removal of them by the Congress, would only be a common act of legislation, which may be revoked and repealed by every subsequent meeting of the Congress. So that the power of oppressing will be founded on the strong and lasting ground of a constitution made by the people of the United States, and the remedies (if the new rulers should ever please to declare any,) will rest on feeble and changeable acts of a common legislature. Can it be safe or prudent to suffer this? As for instructions, it is to be remarked, that the senators are chosen by the legislature of the states, and the representatives by all the freeholders – to instruct one, and not both branches of the new legislature, would be doing nothing; and to render instructions of use, the general assembly, and the freeholders of the community, must unite. The almost impossibility of procuring such a union from the majority of the United States, is too obvious, not to show the very little dependence that should be put on such instructions. And, after all, the result could only be a legislative and mutable act against a fixed constitution. But how absurd would it be for the people to agree to a constitutional evil to-day, and tomorrow call for a legislative redress of that evil!

The fourth and last question, “Whether ruin would await us,” &c. I am clearly of opinion, that our greater strength, safety, and happiness, depends on our union; but 1 am as clear that this union had infinitely better be on principles that give security to the just rights and liberties of mankind, than on such principles as permit rulers to destroy them. Thus, sir, I hope that I have fully, and to your satisfaction, answered you several questions: so that you may think yourself warranted, if not bound to be a friend to amendments that should be constitutional. To trust to future events for remedy of evils that we have ourselves once created, is like choosing to be sick, because a doctor may possibly cure us! A very capital defect in this new project is, that the executive and legislative powers are so blended and united, as to remove all chance for responsibility; and to possess man with very great powers, without making him easily answerable for an abuse of these powers, is, in my opinion, neither safe nor wise. I am glad to hear that Colonel Barbour stands for the convention. It is many years ago since I saw his conduct in the legislature, and observed it to be both sensible and honest. I have been obliged to write in haste, so that you may be sure this letter is not intended for the press. I am, &c.

Richard Henry Lee



Printed in R. H. Lee Memoir of Richard Henry Lee, 2:84. Printed also in James Curtis Ballagh, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, Volume 2, 1779 – 1794, pp. 460 – 63.