<br /> Lee Letter: n198

Washington and Lee University

Sender: George Washington
Recipient: Governor Henry Lee

Dear Sir:

Your favor of the 17th. came duly to hand, and I thank you for
its communications. As the Insurgents in the western counties of this
State are resolved (as far as we have yet been able to learn from the
Commissioners, who have been sent among them) to persevere in their
rebellious conduct untill what they call the excise Law is repealed,
and acts of oblivion and amnesty are passed; it gives me sincere
consolation amidst the regret with which I am filled, by such lawless
and outrageous conduct, to find by your letter above mentioned, that it
is held in general detestation by the good people of Virginia; and that
you are disposed to lend your personal aid to
subdue this spirit, and to bring those people to a proper sense of
their duty.

On this latter point I shall refer you to letters from the War office; and
to a private one from Colo. Hamilton (who in the absence of the
Secretary of War, superintends the military
duties of that department) for my sentiments on this occasion.

It is with equal pride and satisfaction I add, that as far as my
information extends, this insurrection is viewed with universal
indignation and abhorrence; except by those who have never missed an
opportunity by side blows, or otherwise, to aim their shafts at the
general government; and even among these there is not a Spirit hardy
enough, yet, openly to justify the daring
infractions of Law and order; but by palliatives are attempting to
suspend all proceedings against the insurgents until Congress shall
have decided on the case, thereby intending to gain time, and if
possible to make the evil more extensive, more formidable, and of
course more difficult to counteract and subdue.

I consider this insurrection as the first
fruit of the Democratic Societies; brought forth I
believe too prematurely for their own views, which may contribute to
the annihilation of them.

That these societies were instituted by the artful
and designing members (many of their body I have
no doubt mean well, but know little of the real plan,) primarily to sow
the seeds of jealousy and distrust among the people, of the government,
by destroying all confidence in the Administration of it; and that
these doctrines have been budding and blowing ever since, is not new to
any one, who is acquainted with the characters of their leaders, and
has been attentive to their manoeuvres. I early gave it as my opinion
to the confidential characters around me, that, if these Societies were
not counteracted (not by prosecutions, the ready way to make them grow
stronger) or did not fall into disesteem from the knowledge of their
origin, and the views with which they had been instituted by their
father, Genet, for purposes well known to the Government; that they
would shake the government to its foundation. Time and circumstances
have confirmed me in this opinion, and I deeply regret the probable
consequences, not as they will affect me personally, (for I have not
long to act on this theatre, and sure I am that not a man amongst them
can be more anxious to put me aside, than I am to sink into the
profoundest retirement) but because I see, under a display of popular
and fascinating guises, the most diabolical attempts to destroy the
best fabric of human government and happiness, that has ever been
presented for the acceptance of mankind.

A part of the plan for creating discord, is, I perceive, to make me say
things of others, and others of me, wch. have no foundation in truth.
The first, in many instances I know to be the
case; and the second I believe to be so; but truth or falsehood is
immaterial to them, provided their objects are promoted.

Under this head may be classed, I conceive, what it is reported I have said
of Mr. Henry, and what Mr. Jefferson is reported to have said of me; on
both of which, particularly the first, I mean to dilate a
little.1 With solemn truth then I can
declare, that I never expressed such sentiments of that Gentleman, as
from your letter, he has been led to believe. I had heard, it is true
that he retained his enmity to the Constitution; but with very peculiar
pleasure I learnt from Colo. Coles2 (who I am
sure will recollect it) that Mr. Henry was acquiescent in his conduct,
and that though he could not give up his opinions respecting the
Constitution, yet, unless he should be called upon by official duty, he
wd. express no sentiment unfriendly to the exercise of the powers of a
government, which had been chosen by a majority of the people; or words
to this effect.

Except intimating in this conversation (which to the best of my
recollection was introduced by Colo. Coles) that report had made Mr.
Henry speak a different language; and afterwards a Prince Edward Court
house, where I saw Mr. Venable,3 and finding
I was within eight or ten miles of Mr. Henry’s seat, and expressing my
regret at not seeing him, the conversation might be similar to that
held with Colo. Coles; I say, except in these two instances, I do not
recollect, nor do I believe, that it the course of the journey to and
from the Southward I ever mentioned Mr. Henrys name in conjunction with
the Constitution or the government. It is evident therefore, that
these, reports are propagated with evil intentions, to create personal
differences. On the question of the Constitution Mr. Henry and myself,
it is well known, have been of different opinions; but personally, I
have always respected and esteemed him; nay more, I have conceived
myself under obligations to him for the friendly manner in which he
transmitted to me some insidious anonymous writings that were sent to
him in the close of the year 1777, with a view to embark him in the
opposition that was forming against me at that

I well recollect the conversations you allude to in the winter preceeding
the last; and I recollect also, that difficulties occurred which you,
any more than myself, were not able to remove. 1st., though you
believed, yet you would not undertake to assert,
that Mr. Henry would be induced to accept any
under the General Government; in which case, and
supposing him to be inemical to it, the wound the government would
receive by his refusal, and the charge of attempting to silence his
opposition by a place, would be great; 2d., because you were of opinion
that no office which would make a residence at
the Seat of government essential would comport with his disposition, or
views; and 3dly., because if there was a vacancy in the supreme
Judiciary at that time (of which I am not at this time certain) it
could not be filled from Virginia without giving two Judges to that
State, which would have excited unpleasant sensations in other States.
Any thing short of one of the great Offices, it could not be presumed
he would have accepted; nor would there (under any opinion he might
entertain) have been propriety in offering it. What is it then, you
have in contemplation, that you conceive would be relished? and ought
there not to be a moral certainty of its acceptance? This being the
case, there wd. not be wanting a disposition on my part; but strong
inducements on public and private grounds, to invite Mr. Henry into any
employment under the General Government to which his inclination might
lead, and not opposed by those maxims which has been the invariable
rule of my conduct.

With respect to the words said to have been uttered by Mr. Jefferson, they
would be enigmatical to those who are acquainted with the characters
about me, unless supposed to be spoken ironically; and in that case
they are too injurious to me, and have too little foundation in truth,
to be ascribed to him. There could not be the trace of doubt on his
mind of predilection in mine, towards G. Britain or her politics,
unless (which I do not believe) he has set me down as one of the most
deceitful, and uncandid men living; because, not only in private
conversations between ourselves, on this subject; but in my meetings
with the confidential servants of the public, he has heard me often,
when occasions presented themselves, express very different sentiments
with an energy that could not be mistaken by any

Having determined, as far as lay within the power of the Executive, to keep
this country in a state of neutrality, I have made my public conduct
accord with the system; and whilst so acting as a public character,
consistency, and propriety as a private man, forbid those intemperate
expressions in favor of one Nation, or to the prejudice of another,
wch. many have indulged themselves in, and I will venture to add, to
the embarrassment of government, without producing any good to the

With very great esteem &c.


1 Lee had written (August 27): “I have talked very freely and confidentially
with that Gentleman [Henry]. I plainly perceive that he has credited
some information which he has received (from whom I know not which
induces him to believe that you consider him a factious seditious
character . . . He seems to be deeply and sorely effected. It is very
much to be regretted, for he is a man of positive virtue as well a of
transcendent talents, and were it not for his feelings above
expressed, I verily believe he would be found among the most active
supporters of your administration . . . very respectable gentleman told
me the other day that he was at Mr. Jeffersons, and among enquirys
which he made of that gentleman, he asked if it were possible that
you had attached yourself to G Britain and if it could be true that
you were governed, by British influence as was reported by many. He
was answered in the following words: “that there was no danger of
your being biassed by considerations of that sox so long as you were
influenced by the wise advisers, or advice, which you at present had.” I requested him to reflect and reconsider and to repeat again the
answer. He did, so and adhered to every word. Now as the conversation
astonished me and is inexplicable to my mind as well as derogatory to
your character, I consider it would be unworthy in me to withhold the
communication from you. To no other person will it ever be made.”
Lee’s letter is in the Washington Papers.

2 Isaac Coles, Representative from Virginia.

3 Abraham Bedford Venable, Representative from Virginia.

4 The Conway Cabal.