<br /> Lee Letter: n171

Washington and Lee University

Sender: George Washington
Recipient: Henry Lee

My Dr. Sir:

I am indebted to you for your several favors of the 1st. 11th.
and 17th. of this instt: and shall reply to them in the order of their
dates; but first let me thank you for the interesting communications
imparted by them.

The picture which you have exhibited, and the accounts which are published
of the commotions, and temper of numerous bodies in the Eastern States,
are equally to be lamented and deprecated. They exhibit a melancholy
proof of what our trans-Atlantic foe has predicted; and of another
thing perhaps, which is still more to be regretted, and is yet more
unaccountable, that mankind when left to themselves are unfit for their
own Government. I am mortified beyond expression when I view the clouds
that have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned upon any
Country. In a word, I am lost in amazement when I behold what intrigue,
the interested views of desperate characters, ignorance and jealousy of
the minor part, are capable of effecting, as a scourge on the major
part of our fellow Citizens of the Union; for it is hardly to be
supposed that the great body of the people, tho’ they will not act, can
be so shortsighted, or enveloped in darkness, as not to see rays of a
distant sun thro’ all this mist of intoxication and folly.

You talk, my good Sir, of employing influence to appease the present
tumults in Massachusetts. I know not where that influence is to be
found; and if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for the
disorders. Influence is no Government. Let us have one by which our
lives, liberties and properties will be secured; or let us know the
worst at once. Under these impressions, my humble opinion is, that
there is a call for decision. Know precisely what the insurgents aim
at. If they have real grievances, redress them
if possible; or acknowledge the justice of them, and your inability to
do it in the present moment. If they have not, employ the force of
government against them at once. If this is inadequate,
all will be convinced that the superstructure is
bad, or wants support. To be more exposed in the eyes of the world, and
more contemptible than we already are, is hardly possible. To delay one
or the other of these, is to exasperate on the one hand, or to give
confidence on the other, and will add to their numbers; for, like
snow-balls, such bodies increase by every movement, unless there is
something in the way to obstruct and crumble them before the weight is
too great and irresistible.

These are my sentiments. Precedents are dangerous things; let the reins of
government then be braced and held with a steady hand, and every
violation of the Constitution be reprehended: if defective, let it be
amended, but not suffered to be trampled upon whilst it has an
existence.

With respect to the navigation of the Mississippi, you already know my
sentiments thereon: they have been uniformly the same, and as I have
observed to you in a former letter, are controverted by one
consideration only of weight, and that is the
operation the occlusion of it may have on the minds of the western
settlers, who will not consider the subject in a relative point of view
or on a comprehensive scale, and may be influenced by the demagogues of
the country to acts of extravagance and desperation, under a popular
declamation that their interests are sacrificed. Colo. Mason, at
present, is in a fit of the gout; what [his] sentiments on the subject
are, I know not, nor whether he will be able to attend the Assembly
during the present Session. For some reasons, however, (which need not
be mentioned) I am inclined to believe he will advocate the navigation
of that river. But in all matters of great national moment, the only
true line of conduct, in my opinion, is, dispassionately to compare the
advantages and disadvantages of the measure proposed, and decide from
the balance. The lesser evil, where there is a choice of them, should
always yield to the greater. What benefits (more than we now enjoy) are
to be obtained by such a [Treaty as you have delineated with Spain, I
am not enough of a Commercial man to give any opinion on. The
China1 came to hand without much damage; and
I thank you for your attention in procuring and forwarding of it to me.

Mrs. Washington joins me in best wishes for Mrs. Lee and yourself and I
am &c.]2

Notes:

1 This was the well known “Cincinnati China,” in which each piece was marked
with the figure of Fame bearing the eagle emblem of the Society. Lee
purchased this set, of about 306 pieces, in New York City, for
Washington, at a cost of ?45: 5: 0.

2 From the “Letter Book” copy in the Washington
Papers
. The portion within brackets is from the original
fragment in the New York Public Library.