<br /> Lee Letter: n399

Washington and Lee University

Sender: William Duer
Recipient: Francis Lightfoot Lee

My dear sir,

You will be much surprised to hear of me from Reading, where I have been
detain’d three or four Days in Expectation of receiving a Letter from
York Town, the Substance of which is (I am told) a very Extraordinary
Conversation betwixt the Marquis de la Fayette, and Genl. Conway, of
which I had the Honor of being the Topic.1
In the Course of a Discussion betwixt these Officers of the Expedition against
Canada,2 the Marquis Exprest his
Astonishment, that I should be trusted to go on it, as he had been
inform’d that my political Character was that of a
Tory.3 Risum teneatis, Amici,? if you can,
your risible Muscles are not so flexible, as I take them to be. I think
it is no difficult Matter to guess at the Quarter, whence this
Insinuation comes, or the Purpose for which it is design’d. I am happy,
however, to learn it in Time, for however I despise the Insinuation it
will furnish me with this Useful Lesson not to risque my own
Reputation, and Ease of Mind by troubling the Young Telemachus with the
Presence of a Person, whom he cannot consider as a Mentor. Before I was
informd of this Matter my Imagination suggested to me that the
Pleasure, which the Marquis Exprest of my going with him as a Volunteer
appeard more the Result of French Politisse than of Inclination; yet,
as I was of Opinion my Presence might be useful to the Public, I was
willing to sacrifice my own feelings to a more important Consideration.
To persist in this Resolution at present would be a Breach of Self
Duty, as I must in such Case sacrifice my own Ease, and (possibly) my
Reputation, without the Hope of possessing with the Marquis that
Influence, which might be necessary for Effecting Purposes beneficial
to the public Weal. I have thought it my Duty to communicate this
Matter to you in order that you may mention it to the Board of
War4 and to Congress, who probably depend on
my going into Canada, and may thereby be prevented from taking such
Measures with respect to that Expedition, as Policy may suggest. I
think a Committee of Congress ought without Delay to be sent into
Canada should our Troops oblige the Enemy to retire to Quebec; and
though I owe too much to my own Feelings to Volunteer it, where I am
lookd upon in a Suspicious Point of View, I will if Congress think
proper, act as one of such a Committee, provided Mr. Law of Connecticut
whose Probity and good Sense must be well known in Congress be
appointed to act with me. Should Congress think proper to take any
Measures on this Subject, they will be pleasd to communicate it to me
as early as possible, directing their Letter to the Care of Genl.
Schuyler. I shall now proceed from myself to the Public.

In my last Letter5 I inform’d you that I should
endeavor to prevail on Genl. Mifflin to join the Board of War without
delay. I accordingly explain’d to him the Manner in which the
Resolution respecting his Settlement of the public Accts. had
past,6 and gave my Opinion, that it ought
not to be consider’d in the rigorous Sense which at first View it
appears to Convey. All my Endeavors, I am sorry to say, have proved
fruitless, his Feelings appear to me greatly wounded, and what has
tended to aggravate them is the Return of Mr. Butler from York Town
without a Farthing of Cash; although the Department is in a most
Miserable Condition for Want of that Article. I have taken much Pain to
make myself acquainted with the State of the Department, and am fully
convinced, that unless active and Experienc’d Officers are immediately
appointed to conduct the different Branches of it, and be properly
Supplied with Cash, in order to enter into the immediate Execution of
the Business, that We shall not be able to take the Feild ’till very
late next Year, for Want of Waggons, Camp-Equipage &ca. Nay, I
doubt whether this will be the Worse. The Supply of the Army depending
upon an Active and judicious Discharge of this Office, a Defect in this
Point, added to other Causes, will I fear occasion the Dissolution of
the Fragments of a once Powerful Army.

Your Zeal, my dear sir, for the Cause we are engaged in, will I trust
engage you to rouse Congress from their Languour, and not to cease
urging them on this Point, ’till Matters are put in a proper Train. So
much Time has elapsed without any thing being done with respect to this
Matter, that I doubt whether the Exertions of any Person whom Congress
can at present appoint will atone for what has past. But should they
appoint Persons of Ordinary Talents, or even Persons of Ability, but
living at a Distance (whence great Delays must necessarily accrue in
their Entering into the Execution of their Office) the most fatal
Consequences must Ensue. Some of the Principal Misfortunes in the
Commissary’s Department were derived last year from this Source.
Considering the present critical Situation of Affairs the Persons to
conduct this Business ought in my Opinion to be Appointed either out of
the Army, or amongst Persons in this State and that of Jersey, who have
had some Experience in the Department. There are two Persons in Pena.
who in my Opinion are well calculated to conduct two of the Branches
respecting the furnishing Waggons and Forage. I mean Mr. Mark Bird and
Colo. R. L. Hooper. The former is a Man of great Influence, and
Property, and brought up from his Youth in a Business, which from its
Nature, is capable of furnishing good Quartermasters, namely the Iron
Factory; the second, you know from the Accounts and repeated
Testimonies we have received is undoubtedly a Man of Business. To this
it may be added that they have already been Employ’d in that Business,
which must necessarily give them an Advantage over Persons, whatever
their Talent may be, who have not yet applied them in this Channel.

From Principles of public Duty, I am induced to mention these Persons; but
I must observe that in my Opinion nothing can Effect a radical Cure to
the Mischiefs which prevail in that System, and introduce Vigor, and
OEconomy, not only in that, but in the other military Departments, but
the ordering Genl. Schuyler to the Army, and prevailing on him to
accept of the Qu. Ma. Department; and in Conjunction with the Comrs. of
the War Office to model it, as they shall deem Expedient. I trust you
know me too well to think I have so often urged this from any
Considerations of personal Friendship. Were I to consult his Peace of
Mind, I should be against his Accepting it; because I know the
Opposition he would meet with from many who make their Harvest, by
destroying all Order in the Administration of public Affairs. My Mind
is imprest with the Strongest Conviction of the Necessity of calling
forth his Talents for the public Service; and Congress will I am afraid
be obliged to acknowledge it when it may be too late to remedy the
Evils which accrue from the Cruel and unjust State of Suspense he is at
present kept in.7

Shall I beg your Attention whilst I enter into some Minutiae with Respect
to this Department, which have come to my Knowledge.

  • 1st. There is not at present at Camp Sufficient Strength of Teams
    and Horses to move the Artillery and Baggage of the Army, should
    the Movements of the Enemy render a Retreat necessary.
  • 2. Were more Horses and Teams supplied at this Time for Want of a
    proper Supply of Forage, a judicious Mode of Feeding, and a proper
    Discipline in the Arrangement and Care of the Teams, they would
    before the month of April is past be in as miserable a Condition as
    they are at present.
  • 3d. Upwards of two thousand horses have been Expended in the course
    of the last Campaign in the Q.M. Department; and from what I can
    learn few (if any) of the Harness belonging to these Horses have
    been preserved.
  • 4. Through Want of proper Management and Care of the Tents, few if
    any of them can be made Serviceable for the next Campaign.
  • 5. No Magazines of Forage from what I can learn is as yet laid up
    for the Spring Service.

This is a faint Sketch of the State of this Department. I leave it to
yourself to draw the Inferences. I shall only observe that it is
lamentable to consider that we, whose Resources in this and the Comys.
Department are in many Respects much preferable to those of the Enemy,
should be in danger of having our Army disbanded from a Want of these
Branches being conducted with Spirit and Skill, at a Time when the
Enemy are making every Preparation for opening the Campaign early, and
profiting by our Want of Attention, and the Exercise of a false
humanity (it deserves the Name of Treason!) which induces us to leave
in their Power as much Forage, and as many horses, as are necessary for
enabling them to act with Vigor in carrying on this wicked, and Cruel

Another Object, which demands your immediate Attention and in which a Delay
must be fatal, is the Supplying the Comrs.8
with Cash for forming the Magazines. I have conferred with Colo.
Hooper, and the other Gentn. in this Quarter on the Subject, and am
convinced, that if they are immediately supplied, nothwithstanding the

Time which has been lost they will answer the Expectation of Congress; if
not, all Prospect of forming Magazines in Time on this Side the
Susquehanna must be given up. I trust therefore that they will be
Supplied immediately with Money. I believe the Treasury Board are
alarmed at the large Sums daily demanded for the public Service, but,
when they consider that almost all the Articles in the Comys., Quarter
Masters, and Cloathing Department, exceed on an Average four Times the
Price at which they were purchased not twelve months Since, and that
this is Season, in all Wars, where the largest Expenditures are
necessary, their Wonder on this Point must cease. However painful the
Reflection, more Money (and that a very large Sum must be immediately
emitted) but this is like giving Water to a dropsical Man: a ruinous
Expedient. It will give Ease for a short Time-but unless our Finances
are better managed, than they have been, (or indeed ever can be by a
Committee of Congress) the Sinews of War must fail and Congress lose
Entirely the Opinion the public once formed of their Wisdom. Less than
a Year must, I am confident, exhaust our narrow System of temporary
Expedients, and Contracted Measures. The State of the public Debt, and
the critical Situation of Affairs call loudly for the Care of Men of
Superior Abilities, of Capacity, to form some great comprehensive Plans
for our Relief-Men, who will not be biassed by a Consideration to
particular States, much less Individuals; or content themselves with a
languid Official Execution of their Duty; but apply to the important
Business of our Finances with a Steadiness arising from a Conviction of
their own Talents, and Integrity, and with the Zeal of Men, who are
passionate for their Purpose. Such Men it is the Duty of Congress in my
Opinion to find out as quick as possible, to entrust the Super
Intendence of the Treasury to them, and to Support them in the
Execution of their Office, and in the Plans they may Suggest for
introducing public CEconomy, and supplying our Funds. I know it has
been a Doctrine pretty generally received as Orthodox in Congress that
the Treasury should only be entrusted to the Management of the Members
of Congress, and my Colleague Mr. Duane (who to do him justice attended
faithfully to it, and managed it with Reputation) is a Sanguine
Partizan for this Opinion; yet, whoever considers how few Members of
Congress could ever pretend to the Character of Financiers, the Evils,
which flow from a constant Fluctuation of Members of the Treasury, and
the Partiality in public Advances too often shewn to particular States,
and individuals, from a political Complaisance which the Members are
inclined to shew to each other, and the Impossibility there is of
Members of Congress giving up Sufficient Time to the Board, to make
themselves Masters of the Business, and to enable them to conduct it
with Advantage to the Public, and with Satisfaction to Individuals,
whoever, I say, considers these Points, must be of Opinion that the
Evils arising from the present mode of Conducting the Treasury
infinitely overballance any Advantage, which can result from its being
under the Management of Members of
Congress.9 The only Advantage, which I ever
heard mention’d as attending the present Mode, was its being a powerful
check against Frauds, and improper Application for public Money. But,
Surely, there is no magical Influence in the Name of a Committee of
Congress, which can of itself produce these valuable Ends. These must
be effected by Strict Integrity, Knowledge of Business, and close
Attention in the Committee who Super Intend the Treasury – and the same
Qualities may be found in Commissioners to be appointed by Congress for
this Purpose, at least in equal, and so far as it respects Attention,
and Skill, in a Superior Degree. I wish therefore that the Treasury
Department, as well as every other Executive Department of Congress was
thrown under Commissioners. Every possible Precaution ought certainly
to be taken that these Persons should not only be well qualified by
their abilities, but, by an unsuspected Integrity of Character, for the
Exercise of a Trust, of such high Moment – but if no one was to be
appointed to it, but after being a certain Space of Time in Nomination,
and by the Voice of nine States, the public would have every Security
for a faithful Discharge of this trust which could be expected. An
additional one (if deem’d necessary) might still be added; and that is
a Committee of Congress to be appointed by the Ballot of nine States,
whose Business it should be to inspect monthly the Proceedings of the
Commrs. and to report to Congress their Opinion of the Mode in which
the Treasury Business has been conducted. Should you agree with me in
this Opinion (which I trust you will in a great Measure) you will ask
perhaps where are the Men to be procur’d who are fit for this Business,
and who are willing to execute it. I must confess that I do not think
there are many Men in America, who can be considered as Financiers, our
contracted dependant System of Government not affording Scope for
Abilities of this Species. Yet some undoubtedly might be found whose
Genius fits them in a peculiar Manner for such a Line of Business. Two
occur to me at present Mr. R. Morris of this State, and my Colleague
Govr. Morris. With respect to the former, you know him so well, that it
is unnecessary to enlarge upon his Character – the latter, tho’ Young,
has turned his thoughts and Course of Reading much to the Subject of
Money as a Science, and from his Genius would I am convinced make an
Useful, and Shining Member in such a Department. Some others in the
different States might be fix’d on, with whom I am not acquainted.
Whether or no if Congress thought proper to make such an Establishment
these Persons would accept, I cannot tell; but this I am certain
of – that they ought to do it, as the Situation of public Affairs calls
for the Talents of every Person in that Line, where he can be most
Useful to his Country. My Mind is so strongly oppressed with these and
Several other Matters relating to our public Matters that I cannot find
ease till I unbosom myself, and I know no one to whom I can do it with
greater Frankness than yourself. A long Experience of you in the Course
of last Year had convinced me of your Abilities to judge, and of your
Determination to persue what is Right. I am interrupted from proceeding
further by a Messenger who brings an account from the Army, which I
have Daily expected. I have obtained a Copy of the Letter concerning
the Situation of our Army, which I transmit to
you.10 If Congress has not received the
Acct. make such Use of it as your Prudence may Suggest. For my own
Part, when I consider the Character of our present Councils, and that
of the principal Leaders in our Army, I am induced to prepare My Mind
for an Event (which unless a Miracle interposes) will certainly happen,
the Dissolution of the Army. Whether or no this may prove Eventually
for the Worse, I am at a Loss to determine. Some great public Calamity
may call forth the Spirit of Enquiry into the Causes of our
misfortunes, rouse all our public Bodies from their Languour, compell
the Prejudices of States and Individuals to bend to the public Good,
and call forth those Spirited and determined Whigs both in our
Councils, and in our Armies, by whose means only this Revolution dike
all others which have ever happend) will be brought to an Issue.

You may perhaps think me too Sanguine in harbouring such an Idea, but when
you Consider the Justice of this War, and take a retrospective View of
the Extraordinary Events which have happen’d in it, and the Instruments
with which we have labour’d you will be induced to cry out as a good
Catholic, Non nobis Domine.

Dr. Potts is kind enough to take charge of this Letter, I flatter myself
from the necessary Changes which will be made in our Medical System,
and from the Harmony which (I trust) will subsist betwixt himself and
Dr. Shippen the most beneficial Consequences will be derived in the
Management of our Hospitals.11

I beg you to tender my Respects to Mrs. Lee, and to remember me to the
Members of the Board, particularly our Fellow Labourer in the Vinyard
Dick Peters. Tell him I meditate writing him in Folio the next Attack I
have of the Cacoethes Scrib.

You will oblige me in making my Compliments to Mr.
Arnet12 and Mr. Penn, and Mr. Langworthy,
and Mr. Wood, my old Mess mates.

As I have some Matters which I propose communicating to you from this Place
I shall stay here till I have finished another Letter to you. Since I
have been out of the Vortex of Confusion in York Town Two Matters have
suggested themselves to me, the one an Expeditious, and Cheap Mode, of
procuring a Body of Horse for the next

Campaign, the other, in my Opinion as certain Mode of recovering the
Navigation of the Delaware, and thereby obliging the Enemy either to
Surrender, or to hazard a Retreat through the Jerseys with the Loss of
their Shipping. Twenty five thousand Men with good Generals to conduct
the different Divisions of the Army, will I think be Sufficient.

However you and the Board of War will judge of both when I communicate the
matter fully.

God bless you, and Yours!

Wm. Duer

P.S. I have particular Reasons for wishing that Congress was immediately
furn[ishe]d with an Exact Muster of the Conl. Army, particularly the
Main Army. It is high Time we should know the Worst of Matters and
prepare against it as Wise, as Brave men ought.


Receiver’s copy, University of Virginia Library. For a more elaborate
discussion of this letter, see Louis Gottschalk and Josephine
Fennell, eds., “Duer and the ‘Conway Cabal,’ ” American Historical
Review 52 (October 1946): 87 – 96.

1 Gottschalk and Fennell doubted that such a “Conversation” took place,
pointing out that Gen. Thomas Conway had left York the day before
Lafayette arrived there on January 30, 1778, to receive instructions
from the Board of War for the fortheoming Canadian expedition. Ibid.,
p. 90n.9. Unfortunately, they were unaware of the fact that Lafayette
and Conway met at Lancaster on January 29 and conversed alone
together “for a considerable time,” a meeting discussed in “Extract
of a Report from Mr. Thomas Sandford” [January 1778], Washington
Papers, DLC. It was undoubtedly during this meeting that Lafayette
made the unflattering remarks about Duer described in the present

2 For a discussion of this abortive expedition, see Henry Laurens to the
marquis de Lafayette, January 22, 1778, note 2.

3 Lafayette detested Duer because of Duer’s critical attitude toward the
marquis’ cherished friend Washington. In a January 27, 1778, letter
to President Laurens, Lafayette had called Duer and Gen. Thomas
Conway “the two greatest ennemys and most insolent calumniators of my
friends” and had singled out Duer in particular as one who “has the
reputation in the country, to be a tory, and you’ll know by several
instances that he is a rascall.” Lafayette, Papers (Idzerda), 1:260.
See also ibid., pp. 285 – 87.

4 Of which both Duer and Lee were members.

5 Not found.

6 See Henry Laurens to Thomas Mifflin, February 10, 1778.

7 General Schuyler was under investigation by Congress for his role in the
evacuation of Ticonderoga and Mount Independence in July 1777. For a
discussion of this investigation, see John Hancock to Arthur St.
Clair and Philip Schuyler, August 5, 1777, note.

8 Commissioners.

9 Although Duer was not the only delegate who was in favor of entrusting the
administration of the treasury department to nonmembers of Congress,
it was not until April 15 that the Board of Treasury submitted such a
plan to Congress. See JCC, 10:349 – 51.

10 Possibly Washington’s comprehensive January 29 report to the Committee at
Camp. Because Duer later mentioned “the former letter I sent you from
Genl. Washington,” it seems likely that the enclosure was a letter
from the general, but it is not perfectly clear from Washington’s
surviving correspondence which letter Duer actually sent to Lee. See
Washington, Writings (Fitzpatrick), 10:362 – 403; and Duer to Francis
Lightfoot Lee, February 19, 1778.

11 Dr. Jonathan Potts had been appointed “deputy director general” of the
medical department “in the middle district” on February 6 and was
therefore subordinate to Dr. William Shippen, Jr., director general
of the entire medical department. JCC, 10:131.

12 Cornelius Harnett.