<br /> Lee Letter: n384

Washington and Lee University

Sender: Richard Henry Lee
Recipient: Samuel Adams

My dear Sir,

I need not make an apology for my paper because you know our choice of
things here is confined within narrow bounds, as little occasion is
there to excuse the slovenly manner in which this letter may be
written, since you well know how seldom it is that we can command time
in this busy scene. I had the pleasure of writing you lately by Capt.
Romane, a young gentleman of worth who passes thro Boston in his return
to his own Country.1 Since that letter was
written we have lost fort Mifflin, which our brave garrison was obliged
to abandon after a most gallant defence, in which all their guns were
dismounted but two, and all the works beaten away to about a rod and a
half. The enemy brought up their cutdown Indiaman between Province
& Mud Islands and lay within Musket shot of the Fort upon which
they discharged a most furious cannonade with 24 & 32 pounders, and
from Cohorns and Musketry in their Tops, drove the Men from their guns.
’Tis said the Gallies did not do their duty. Notwithstanding this, it
is the opinion of many that the enemy will not be able to get their
fleet up to the City, unless they can get red bank, which, with the
Gallies may yet prevent their raising the Chevaux de Frize. To remove
this obstruction, we hear they have passed 3000 men over at Coopers
ferry, and Cornwallis has crossed from Chester with 1500 more. Our
force to oppose him is Brigadier Varnum’s brigade of 1200, 4 regiments
in Red Bank fort with the Garrison of Fort Mifflin, and Huntingtons
Brigade lately sent over. We understand that the Army has moved down
upon the enemies lines in consequence of their weakness by these
powerful detachments. Thus we daily expect some interesting event. The
confederation is not yet returned from press but we expect it will in a
day or two when it will be sent forward, and with it will come this
letter. We have strongly pressed the speedy consideration and return of
the Confederation and we have urged the necessity of immediate and
extensive Taxation, regulation of prices, and other measures of
finance, ceconomy, and effectual recruiting the
army.2 I know my friend Mr. John Adams will
say the regulation of prices wont do. I agree it will not singly answer
and I know that Taxation with (Economy are the radical cures. But I
also know that the best Physicians sometimes attend to Symptons, apply
palliatives, and under favor of the Truce thus obtained, introduce
(radical cures) cause removing Medicines. Let us for a moment check the
enormity of the evil by this method, whilst the other more sure, but
more slow methods secure us against a return of the mischief. The
middle & southern States (particularly the insatiable avarice of
Pennsylvania) having refused to join in the plan formerly, rendered the
experiment on your part inconclusive and partial; therefore I do not
think Mr. Adams’s argument drawn from that trial quite decisive against
the measure. I incline to think that the necessity of the case will now
procure its adoption universally, and then we shall see what great
things may be effected by common consent. The American conduct has
already shattered and overset the conclusions of the best Theorists,
and I hope this will be another instance. Two days ago I moved the
immediate recall of Mr. Deane, which was agreed without dissent, and
tomorrow is appointed for choosing a Commissioner in his
place.3 Our friends Mr. John Adams & Mr.
Denny4 are in Nomination, with some others.
This appointment was strongly pressed on me in Congress, but my dear
friend, rigid as you are in these matters,

I am sure you would have admitted my apology. I feel the obligations of
public duty very powerfully, but when these duties can be better
discharged by others, why may not the private ones be suffered to
prevail? Why may not chari liberi have their weight, when such a
sacrifice is not necessary for the public service. I remember that in
some points our opinion differed respecting Mr. Deane, but I feel
myself obliged to think that he has pursued his best judgment for the
good of his Country when he made those distressing contracts, and
perhaps his peculiar situation compelled him to carry them further than
he might otherwise have done. Be this as it may, after Congress had so
strongly determined concerning these, it would have been out of all
character to have continued him. Yet this is a matter of great delicacy
and I am not well satisfied with the whole of it. If our friend Mr.
Adams should be chosen, I have earnest hopes that he will accept. The
loss of time that will attend his refusal, independant of other
considerations, renders it of much consequence that he should not
refuse. Yesterday evening brought us a letter from Mr. Bingham covering
one from Mr. Carmichael dated Paris June the 25 which containes the
following passages. “Mr. Lee writes me he is on his return from Berlin
having finished his business successfully. If our enemies are not
successful they mean to close with us on the best terms they can,
sensible that if this great effort does not succeed, they have little
to hope in future. This is an animating reason for us to preserve in
the glorious contest. The English have compleated their loan amongst
themselves. No foreigners have assisted them, altho the terms to the
Lender are better than any ever yet offered by that Nation except once.
Foreigners know that they have yet several millions to fund for which
they must offer still better terms. The Spaniards have refused the
mediation of France & England in their dispute with Portugal, being
determined to prosecute the war until Portugal makes reparation and
demands peace. They have taken the important Island of St. Catharine on
the coast of Brazil without loss & mean vigorously to prosecute
their operations on the Brazils. This I have from undoubted authority,
one of the family Ministers. An account prevails that the Indians of
the east have fallen on their Oppressors & have taken Madrass.
India Stock has fallen in consequence of this. Both France & Spain
continue their Armaments, as if preparing for some great event. This
obliges England to do the same. Of course all their Naval & Army
Contracts are for years and they employ as
many Work men in the Dock yards as they did in the last War. From this
circumstance you may judge, however different their declarations may be
in Parliament, they have real apprehensions from this Court & that
of Spain. It would render our negotiations with Prussia more
successful, if a Tobacco Ship could by any means be pushed into Embden,
which Ship might make her returns in Manufactures necessary for us at
15 or 20 per cent cheaper than we can have them here. Capts. Weeks,
Johnson, & Nicholson have just destroyed 16 Vessels on the English
& Irish coasts. I am dispatching Conynghame from hence on the same
business. I begin to think War unavoidable.” Signed Carmichael

Mr. Binghams letter covering the above is dated Octr. 13th and contains the
following important intelligence. “The General received a few days ago
by a packet from Rochelle 4th Septr. the following intelligence. That a
Courier had been dispatched with instructions to the French Ambassador
in London to claim all French Vessels captured (without the limits
settled by treaty to bound the approach of French Vessels to the coast
of British America) by the English, which have been regularly cleared
out for any French Ports, which requisition if not complied with, is to
be the signal for leaving the British Court. The General has received
orders to put every thing in readiness for war and to lay an Embargo on
all Ships destined for Europe to prevent their falling into the enemies
hands. The Minister informs the General that Transports are already
engaged at Havre, Nants, & Bourdeaux for the transportation of 5000
additional troops to Martinique and Guadaloupe. At Brest, Rochford, and
Toulon they work night and day, & the greatest preparations are
making for the immediate commencement of hostilities. The Generals plan
is immediately to attack the English Islands, as his success depends on
conducting his operations with such rapidity as to hinder any relief
from being thrown in. The restitution of the Ship Seine & her Cargo
is loudly demanded by the Court of Versailles. I mentioned in a former
letter that Portugal had detached herself from the interests of Great
Britain & had entered into the family Compact. Authentic advices
mention that the King of Prussia has opened his Ports to the Americas.”
Wm. Bingham

The union of Portugal with the Bourbon compact is a most injurious affair
for England, to which that wealthy Kingdom was a kind of Colony. This
event has, I presume, been brought about by the success of the Spanish
Arms in South America, by the death of the King of Portugal, and by the
incapacity of England to assist her Ally. The above intelligence makes
immediate war extremely probable in Europe. But the meanness of the
Court of London will stoop to every thing rather than endanger success
in trampling upon the liberties of North America. Perhaps the British
Ministry begin to see the necessity of setting Europe on fire, that the
Smoke may conceal them from the eyes of their injured Country. Gen.
Mifflin has been here, and he urges strongly the necessity of having
Gen. Gates to be President of the New Board of War. He thinks the
Military knowledge and the Authority of Gates necessary to procure the
indispensable changes in our Army.5 I believe he is right. The capital
business of Congress for this winter is now over, and my ill state of
health calls loudly for rest. I shall therefore withdraw in 8 or 10
days until the last of winter. I hope you will not forget to favor me
frequently with the intelligence of your place. Where I am going is in
absolute retirement, and will render more agreeable the news of the
world. Your situation is one of the best and most frequent information
I have now written you a long letter, one that might perhaps be
construed trespass by any but a friend, I shall therefore conclude with
assurances of my affectionate regard.

Richard Henry Lee

P.S. I formerly desired you might direct for me to the care of James Hunter Esqr. near Fredericksburg, but for the future the following will answer better: R. H. Lee of Chantilly, to the care of the Post Master at Leeds Town, King George County, Virginia.

My best respects to Mr. J. Adams. Be extremely glad to hear from him.


Receiver’s copy, New York Public Library. Printed in James Curtis Ballagh, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, Volume 1, 1762 – 1778, pp. 353 – 59.

1 See Lee to Adams, 15 November 1777.

2 For these resolves of 22, 26, and 27 November, see JCC, 9:953 – 58, 968 – 71.

3 Congress voted to recall Silas Deane on 21 November and appointed John Adams to replace him on the 28th. JCC, 9:946 47, 975.

4 Francis Dana.

5 Thomas Mifflin had recently articulated his hope that Gates would come to Pennsylvania in a 17 November letter to Gates that he had written from Reading, where he had gone to join his family after the British capture of Philadelphia. Distressed at Washington’s ineffectual defense against General Howe and at Pennsylvania’s political collapse, Mifflin had submitted his resignation as major general and quartermaster general on 8 October, but Congress accepted only his resignation as quartermaster general and on 7 November appointed him
to the reorganized Board of War. At the time Lee wrote this letter to
Adams, Mifflin was in York consulting with the Board of War, which
reported the results of their conference with Mifflin the following
day. See JCC, 9:792, 874, 936, 959 – 60: Henry Laurens to Mifflin,
8 November 1777; and Kenneth R. Rossman, Thomas Mifflin and the
Politics of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 1952), pp. 106 – 15.

“You have savd our Northern Hemisphere,” Mifflin had written to Gates on the 17th, “and in Spite of our consummate & repeated Blundering you have changd the Constitution of the Southern Campaign on the part of the Enemy from Offensive to Defensive.

“If you had remained with the Army we might have opposd but could not have counteracted the deep rooted System of Favoritism which began to shoot forth at New York & which has now arrivd to its full Growth & maturity. Repeated Slights & unjustifiable Arrogance combind with other Causes to drive from the Army those who would not worship the Image & pay an undeservd Tribute of Praise & Flattery to the great & powerful. The List of our disgusted
patriots is long and formidable – their Resentments keen against the reigning Cabal and their powers of Opposition not despicable. The Campaign here must soon close. If no brilliant Action takes Place
before it ends – if our Troops are oblgd to retire to Lancaster, Reading, Bethlehem &c for Winter Quarters – & the Country below
is left open to the Enemys flying parties – great & very general
will be the Murmur – so great & so general that nothing inferior to
a Commander in Chief will be able to resist the mighty Torrent of
public Clamour & public Vengeance.

“We have had a noble Army melted down by illjudgd Marches – Marches that
disgrace their Authors & Directors – & which have occasiond the
severest & most just Sarcasm & Contempt of our Enemies. How
much are you to be envied my dear General? How different your Conduct
& your Fortune!

“A Letter from Col Mifflin receivd at the Writing of the last paragraph
gives me the disagreeable Intelligence of the Loss of our Fort on
Delaware. You must know the Consequence – Loss of the River, Boats,
Gallies, Ships of War &c. – good winter Quarters to the Enemy
& a general Retreat or illjudgd blind Attempt on our part to save
a gone Character.

“Conway, Spotswood, Connor, Ross, Col J. Mifflin resignd and many other
brave & good Officers preparing their Letters to Congress on the
same Subject. In Short this Army will be totally lost unless you come
down & collect the virtuous Band, who wish to fight under your
Banner, & with their Aid save the southern Hemisphere. Prepare
yourself for a Jaunt to this Place. Congress must send for you. I
have ten thousand things to tell.” Gates Papers, NHi,

Mifflin’s letter is of special interest to students of this critical period
of Washington’s declining prestige and Gates’ rising influence, for
it has heretofore been identified as a letter written by James
Lovell. Properly seen as coming from Mifflin’s pen, it sheds
additional light on the relationships that were formed among those
who yearned to replace Washington during the winter of 1777 – 78, for a
discussion of which see James Lovell to Horatio Gates, 27 November 1777, note 1. It also provides the “firm proof of [Mifflin’s] active
direction of the campaign to displace Washington” which Washington’s
most thorough biographer regretted being unable to find when he
appraised Mifflin’s role in this affair. See Freeman, Washington,