<br /> Lee Letter: n39

Washington and Lee University

Sender: George Washington
Recipient: Richard Henry Lee

Dear Sir:

I have been favored with two or three letters from you lately.
The last that came to hand was without date, but contained an extract
from Doctor Lee’s letter to the Secret Committee, and the French
general’s ideas of the measures necessary for us to pursue in
prosecuting the war with Great Britain;1 for
both of which I sincerely thank you, as the communication of such
matters cannot fail of having a proper tendency. That Great Britain
will exert every nerve to carry her tyrannical designs into execution,
I have not the smallest doubt; her very existence as a nation depends
now upon her success: for should America rise triumphant in her
struggle for independence she must fall. It is not to be wondered at
therefore, after she had departed from that line of justice which ought
to characterize a virtuous people, that she should descend to such low
arts, and dirty tricks, as will forever remain a reproach to her; none
of which has she practised with more success, and I fear with more
dangerous consequences to our cause, than her endeavours to depreciate
the continental bills of credit. Nothing therefore has a greater claim
to the close attention of Congress, than the counteraction of this part
of her diabolical Scheme; every thing depends upon it.

The complexion of affairs in Europe seems to indicate an approaching storm;
but where, when, or on whom it may break, is not quite so clear, and
ought not, in my judgment, to occasion the smallest relaxation in our
preparations; for I profess myself to be of that class, who never built
sanguinely upon the assistance of France, further than her winking at
our supplies from thence for the benefits derived from our trade; and
how far the measures and offers of Great Britain may contravene this,
time only can discover, and is somewhat to be feared. The plan drawn by
the French general is of such a nature, that it is impracticable to
carry it into execution this campaign. It may, however, be kept in
view, and the whole or such parts of it adopted, as our circumstances,
upon a full consideration of the matter, may hereafter admit. The great
delay in appointing the general officers, the resignation of some of
them, the non-acceptance of others, and I might add the unfitness of a
few, joined to the amazing delay in assembling the troops, and the
abuses which I am satisfied have been committed by the recruiting
officers, (both of which being consequences of the want of officers in
that line to superintend those duties in the respective States) have
distressed me and the service exceedingly; and they will amply prove,
what I foretold to Congress, that the pay of these officers (for I
could account for the delay of appointing them on no other principle)
would be an ill-timed saving. Convinced I am, that thousands of pounds
would have been saved to the public, if the measure had been adopted
upon my first recommendation of it, But the extra expense is the
smallest part of the evil. The backwardness in assembling the troops is
truly alarming; this, however, is not a singular instance of our
suffering by delay in the adoption of measures, which were early

You are not aware of the evil consequences, that would follow a general
exemption of all persons concerned in iron-works from military duty;
they are very numerous, and in this part of the country form a great
majority of the people. Besides, why should the ironmaster carry on his
trade without restriction, when the farmer, equally useful for the
support of the war, the shoemaker, and other manufacturers, absolutely
necessary to the equipment of an army, may have their servants and
apprentices taken from them at pleasure? One thing I have ever done,
and it has, I believe, answered the end proposed by you; whenever an
iron-work has been employed for the public, I
have desired the owner to give me a return of the number of men, and
the names of those necessarily employed therein, and have exempted them
from the duties of militia-men in this State. This I have found
necessary on two accounts; first, to secure such articles of
manufacture as the army wanted; and, next, to prevent numbers under
this pretext from withholding their services in the military line,
there being, in this county (Morris) alone, between eighty and a
hundred iron-works, large and small. Doctor Lee’s opinion on the
propriety of attacking the enemy upon their first arrival, under a
supposition of their being raw and undisciplined, is certainly well
founded, if our own circumstances will admit of it; but the Doctor
little apprehended, I believe, that we ourselves should have an army to
raise, at this late hour, of men equally raw, and officers probably
much more so. Please to make a tender of my compliments to your brother
and other delegates from Virginia.

I have the honor to be, &c.2


1 Richard Henry Lee’s letter (assigned date of Apr. 16, 1777) does not name
the general, and his memoir is not found in the
Washington Papers. Arthur Lee, in Bordeaux,
France, had received a letter from a confidential correspondent, who
assured him that “Boston was certainly to be attacked in the spring,
and that Burgoyne was to command.” This intelligence Lee sent to the
Secret Committee of Congress, and was by them transmitted to
Washington and the Legislature of Massachusetts. This embarrassed the
Commander in Chief as to the designs of the enemy and alarmed the
people of Massachusetts, who turned their thoughts to the raising of
forces for their own protection, when the best interests of the cause
required them to contribute all the strength in their power to the
main army. The intelligence was false. Sparks thinks it was probably
communicated by a finesse of the British Government with the view of
distracting the attention of the Americans, in regard to the real
objects of the approaching campaign, Lee’s letter is in the
Washington Papers.

2 The text is from Memoir of the Life of Richard Henry Lee
and His Correspondence