<br /> Lee Letter: n179

Washington and Lee University

Sender: George Washington
Recipient: Henry Lee

Dear Sir:

Your letter of the 13th. instant was of so friendly and
confidential a complexion, as to merit my early attention and cordial
acknowledgments. I am glad Congress have at last decided upon an
Ordinance for carrying the new government into execution. In my mind
the place for the meeting of the new Congress was not an object of such
very important consequence; but I greatly fear that the question
entailed upon that body, respecting their permanent residence, will be
pregnant with difficulty and danger. God grant that true patriotism and
a spirit of moderation may exclude a narrow locality, and all ideas
unfriendly to the Union, from every quarter.

Your observations on the solemnity of the crisis and its application to
myself, bring before me subjects of the most momentous and interesting
nature. In our endeavors to establish a new general government, the
contest nationally considered, seems not to have been so much for
glory, as existence. It was for a long time doubtful whether we were to
survive as an independent Republic, or decline from our fœderal
dignity into insignificant and wretched Fragments of Empire. The
adoption of the Constitution so extensively, and with so liberal an
acquiescence on the part of the Minorities in general, promised the
former; until lately the circular letter of New York carried, in my
apprehension, an unfavorable if not an insidious tendency to a contrary
policy. I still hope for the best; but before you mentioned it, I could
not help fearing it would serve as a Standard to which the disaffected
might resort. It is now evidently the part of all honest men, who are
friends to the new Constitution, to endeavor to give it a chance to
disclose its merits and defects, by carrying it fairly into effect, in
the first instance. For it is to be apprehended, that by an attempt, to
obtain amendments before the experiment has been candidly made, “more
is meant than meets the ear” that an intention is concealed, to
accomplish slily, what could not have been done openly, to undo all
that has been done.

If the fact so exists, that a kind of combination is forming to stifle the
government in embrio; it is a happy circumstance that the design has
become suspected. Preparations should be the sure attendant upon
forewarning. Probably, prudence, wisdom, and patriotism were never more
essentially necessary than at the present moment; and so far as it can
be done in an irreproachably direct manner, no effort ought to be left
unessayed to procure the election of the best possible characters to
the new Congress. On their harmony, deliberation and decision every
thing will depend. I heartily wish Mr. Madison was in our Assembly, as
I think, with you, it is of unspeakable importance Virginia should set
out in her fœderal measures under right auspices.

The principal topic of your letter is, to me, a point of great delicacy
indeed; insomuch that I can scarcely, without some impropriety touch
upon it. In the first place, the event to which you allude may never
happen; among other reasons because, if the partiality of my fellow
citizens conceive it to be a means by which the sinews of the new
government would be strengthened, it will of consequence be obnoxious
to those who are in opposition to it, many of whom, unquestionably will
be placed among the Electors.

This consideration alone would supersede the expediency of announcing any
definite and irrevocable resolution. You are among the small number of
those who know my invincible attachment to domestic life, and that my
sincerest wish is to continue in the enjoyment of it, solely, until my
final hour. But the world would be neither so well instructed, nor so
candidly disposed as to believe me uninfluenced by sinister motives, in
case any circumstance should render a deviation from the line of
conduct I had prescribed to myself indispensable.

Should the contingency you suggest take place, and (for argument sake alone
let me say it) should my unfeigned reluctance to accept the office be
overcome by a deference for the reasons and opinions of my friends;
might I not, after the Declarations I have made (and Heaven knows they
were made in the sincerity of my heart) in the judgment of the
impartial World and of Posterity, be chargeable with levity and
inconsistency; if not with rashness and ambition? Nay farther would
there not even be some apparent foundation for the two former charges?
Now justice to myself and tranquillity of conscience require that I
should act a part, if not above imputation, at least capable of
vindication. Nor will you conceive me to be too solicitous for
reputation. Though I prize, as I ought, the good opinion of my fellow
citizens; yet, if I know myself, I would not seek Or retain popularity
at the expense of one social duty or moral virtue.

While doing what my conscience informed me was right, as it respected my
God, my Country and myself, I could despise all the party clamor and
unjust censure, which must be expected from some, whose personal enmity
might be occasioned by their hostility to the government. I am
conscious, that I fear alone to give any real occasion for obloquy, and
that I do not dread to meet with unmerited reproach. And certain I am,
whensoever I shall be convinced the good of my country requires my
reputation to be put in risque; regard for my own fame will not come in
competition with an object of so much magnitude. If I declined the
task, it would lie upon quite another principle. Notwithstanding my
advanced season of life, my encreasing fondness for agricultural
amusements and my growing love of retirement augment and confirm my
decided predilection for the character of a private citizen: yet it
would be no one of these motives, nor the hazard to which my former
reputation might be exposed, or the terror of encountering new fatigues
and troubles that would deter me from an acceptance; but a belief that
some other person, who had less pretence and less inclination to be
excused, could execute all the duties full as satisfactorily as myself.
To say more would be indiscreet; as a disclosure of a refusal
beforehand, might incur the application of the Fable, in which the Fox
is represented as undervaluing the grapes he could not reach. You will
perceive, my dear Sir, by what is here observed (and which you will be
pleased to consider in the light of a confidential communication) that
my inclinations will dispose and decide me to remain as I am; unless a
clear and insurmountable conviction should be impressed on my mind that
some very disagreeable consequences must in all human probability
result from the indulgence of my wishes.

If you return by land, I shall expect without failure the pleasure of your
company. I am much indebted to you for your obliging offer of
forwarding such articles as I might want from New York; though I shall
not have occasion at this moment to avail myself of your goodness. Mrs.
Washington offers her best Complts. to Mrs. Lee, with ardent wishes for
the re- establishment of her health which, joined with my own, will
conclude me.

With great regard etc.1

Notes:

1 From the “Letter Book” copy in the Washington
Papers
.