<br /> Lee Letter: n279

Washington and Lee University

Sender: Richard Henry Lee
Recipient: Patrick Henry

Dear Sir,

Having done myself the pleasure of writing to you by General Lee, I must
now refer you to that letter,1 and at
present invite your attention to the most important concern of our
approaching Convention.2 Ages yet unborn,
and millions existing at present, may rue or bless that Assembly, on
which their happiness or misery will so eminently depend. Virginia has
hitherto taken the lead in great affairs, and many now look to her with
anxious expectation, hoping that the spirit, wisdom, and energy of her
councils, will rouse America from the fatal lethargy into which the
feebleness, folly, and interested views of the Proprietary governments,
with the aid of Tory machinations, have thrown her most unhappily. The
12 years experience we have had of the perfidy and despotic intentions
of the British Court, is still further demonstrated by the Kings
speech, by the express declaration of every Ministerial Man in both
houses of Parliament, by their infamous retrospective robbery Act, and
by the intercepted letter from the Secretary of State to Governor Eden.
All join in proving the design of the British Court to subdue at every
event, and to enslave America after having destroyed its best Members.
The Act of Parliament has to every legal intent and purpose dissolved
our government, uncommissioned every magistrate, and placed us in the
high road to Anarchy. In Virginia, we have certainly no Magistrate
lawfully qualified to hang a Murderer, or any other Villain offending
ever so attrociously against the State. We cannot be Rebels excluded
from the Kings protection, and Magistrates acting under his authority
at the same time. This proves the indispensable necessity of our taking
up government immediately, for the preservation of Society, to effect
the purpose of applying with vigor the strength of the Country to its
present critical state; and above all, to set an example which N.
Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and N. York will most assuredly, in
my opinion, follow; and which will effectually remove the baneful
influence of Proprietary interests from the councils of America. When
this is done, give peremptory instructions to your Delegates to take
every effectual step to secure America from the despotic aims of the
British Court by Treaties of Alliance with foreign States, or by any
means that shall be thought most conducive to that end. A slight
attention to the late proceedings of many European Courts will
sufficiently evince the spirit of partition, and the assumed right of
disposing of Men & Countries like live Stock on a Farm, that
distinguishes this corrupt age. St. Domingo, Louisiana, Corsica, &
Poland indisputably prove this. Now Sir, I leave it with you to judge,
whether, whilst we are hesitating about forming Alliance, Great Britain
may not, and probably will not, seal our ruin by signing a Treaty of
partition with two or three ambitious powers that may aid in conquering
us3 – Upon principles of interest and revenge
they surely will. When G.B. finds she cannot conquer us alone, and
that the whole must be lost, will she not rather choose a part than
have none, certainly she will, and to gain the necessary aid give up a
part, and thus involve us, unaided, unassisted, in a very unequal
destructive contest with three or 4 of the
greatest States in Europe. Nothing in this world is more certain than
that the present Court of London wd. rather rule despotically a single
rod of earth, than govern the World under legal limitations. All this
danger however, may be prevented by a timely alliance with proper and
willing powers in Europe. Indeed we are a singular instance in Modern
times, of a people engaged in war with a powerful Nation, without
taking any steps to secure the friendship or even neutrality of foreign
States – Leaving to our enemies the full opportunity of ingaging all. And
we know with certainty that every maritime State in Europe has been
interceeded with not to supply us with military Stores, and many States
have been applied to for Troops to destroy us, as Russia, Hesse,
Hanover & Holland. Is it not the most dreadful infatuation in us to
remain quiet in this way and stir not until it is too late – But no
State in Europe will either Treat or Trade with us so long as we
consider ourselves Subjects of G.B. Honor, dignity, and the custom of
States forbid them until we take rank as an independant people. The war
cannot long be prosecuted without Trade, nor can Taxes be paid until we
are enabled to sell our produce! which cannot be the case, without the
help of foreign Ships, whilst our enemies Navy is so superior to ours.
A contraband Sloop or so may come from foreign parts, but no authorized
& consequently sufficiently extensive Trade will be carried on with
us whilst we remain in our present undefined unmeaning condition. Our
clearest interest therefore, our very existance as freemen requires
that we take decisive steps now, whilst we may, for the security of
America. It is most fortunate for us that the present quitrent revenue,
with the impost on Tobo. & Tonnage will do more than defray all our
expences of Civil government witht. fresh Taxes on the people, and the
unappropriated lands will pay the expences of the war. The inclosed
pamphlet on Government is the production of our friend John Adams.4 It
is sensible and shews the virtue of the Man, at the same time that it
proves the business of framing government not to be so diflficult a
thing as most people imagine. The small scheme printed in hand bill I
had written before I saw this work of Mr.
Adams,5 and he agrees that the Council of
State had better be a distinct body from the Upper house of Assembly,
meaning the Upper house, their duration indeed may be too long, but it
should be for a longer term than the lower house, in order to answer
the purpose of an independant middle power. The sheriffs had better I
think be appointed as now in Virginia, as by choice of the freeholders
in each County.

The recommendation of Congress about taking Government is, as you see, of
old date,6 and therefore it is said during
the continuance of the present disputes. But it matters not much, for
the Government taken up ought to be the best, whither it be for this,
that, or another term of years. This I take to be the time & thing
meant by Shakespeare when he says “There is a Tide in the Affairs of
Men which taken at the Flood leads on to fortune – That omitted, we are
ever after bound in Shallows” &c. Let us therefore, quitting every
other consideration heartily unit in leading our countrymen to embrace
the7 present flowing tide, which promises
fair to waft us into the harbor of safety, happiness, liberty and

Perhaps some may endeavour to injure you on account of your concurrence in
opinion with Mr. Glyn and others, relative to the right derived to the
company of Wharton and others from their Indian grant of lands within
the colony; but as I consider it meant only to say, that unappropriated
lands had better be purchased from the Indians or prime occupants, not
denying the propriety of paying dues accustomed to the colony in which
such lands lie, and complying with its laws: the objection against such
an opinion loses its force.

I am well pleased to hear that you are going into Convention, and I hope
your powers will be fully exerted in securing the peace and happiness
of our country, by the adoption of a wise and free government. I shall
be impatient to know your thoughts on these great subjects, and hope
you will inform me as early as possible.

Excuse the length of this letter, And believe me sincerely Yours,


Lee PapersLibrary of Virginia

Printed in James Curtis Ballagh, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, Volume 1, 1762 – 1778, pp. 176 – 80. Printed also in William Wirt Henry, Patrick Henry, 1:378; Printed also in the 26 September 1804 issue of the Richmond Enquire.

1 Not found.

2 Henry represented Hanover County at the Virginia Convention that convened
at Williamsburg on 6 May.

3 Similar arguments, perhaps the product of Lee’s pen, were set forth in
“Serious Questions addressed to the Congress, and all other
Legislative Bodies in America,” published in the Pennsylvania Evening
16 April, and reprinted in the Virginia Gazette (Diaxon and
Hunter), 11 May 1776. For a discussion of the possible effect fear
of a partition treaty had on the timing of a formal declaration of
independence, see James H. Hutson, “The Partition Treaty and the
Declaration of American Independence,” Journal of American History 58
(March 1972): 877 – 96.

4 Thoughts on Government. See John Adams to John Penn, March 19 – c.27 1776.

5 Lee’s “small scheme” has not been found.

6 The resolutions of December 4, 1775. JCC, 3 :403 – 4.

7 Remainder of letter supplied from Tr. 566, 20 April 1776