<br /> Lee Letter: n434

Washington and Lee University

Sender: Richard Henry Lee
Recipient: William Maxwell


I was yesterday favored with your letter of the 25th instant, for which be
pleased to accept my thanks. I do recollect that when my brother
practised physick in Virginia about ten or eleven years ago, I then
heared him sometimes mention a Doctor Berkenhout who had written a
pharmacopea which he esteemed, and that he had an acquaintance with and
regard for the Doctor.1 Beyond this my
knowledge of Doctor Berkenhout or his concerns extends not; having
never had a word concerning him from my brother since that time, nor
did I ever see the Doctor that I remember.

I have laid your letter before Congress,2 and
their sense seems to be, that you use your discretion in cases similar
to that of Doctor Berkenhout, governing yourself by the nature of the

I have the honor to be, with regard, Sir, your most obedient and very
humble servt,

Richard Henry Lee


Lee PapersUniversity of Virginia Archives

Printed in James Curtis Ballagh, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, Volume 1, 1762 – 1778, p. 432.

1 Brigadier General William Maxwell (c.1733 – 96) of the New Jersey Line, was at
this time stationed at Elizabethtown, New Jersey, guarding the coast
opposite Staten Island, where on 24 August Dr. John Berkenhout
appeared under a British flag of truce and applied for a pass to
proceed to Philadelphia. Although suspicious of Berkenhout, for news
of his trip to America had already been published in American
newspapers and many Americans correctly surmised that his visit was
more than coincidentally related to the mission of the Carlisle
commissioners, Maxwell had granted the doctor a pass largely on the
strength of his acquaintance of several years with Arthur Lee.
Reaching Philadelphia on the 27th and introducing himself to Richard
Henry Lee, Berkenhout was permitted to move about unmolested for a
few days, but the Executive Council of Pennsylvania ordered his
arrest on 3 September. Whereupon he wrote a letter to Congress
appealing for his release and thereby forced the delegates to inquire
closely into the purpose of his journey and possible connections with
the British government.

Those connections were real enough, for Berkenhout was, as described by one
historian who made a careful study of the journal he kept during his
American venture, “one of the propaganda agents selected to assist in
the work of the [Carlisle] commission.” That selection clearly rested
upon Berkenhout’s acquaintance with Arthur Lee, which dated from
their student days at Edinburgh in the 1760s and which provided the
excuse for his introduction to Richard Henry. Although the North
Ministry originally expected that he and Mr. and Mrs. John Temple
with whom he traveled would accompany the Carlisle commissioners to
America, Berkenhout and the Temples sailed several weeks later and
did not reach New York until early August, long after prospects for
the success of their mission had faded and notice of their “private
embassy to the Congress” had been printed in American newspapers.
Just two weeks after Pennsylvania authorities placed him under arrest
he was escorted back to Staten Island, having totally failed in his
aspiration to serve as an intermediary in the opening of serious
peace negotiations between Britain and America.

For discussion of Berkenhout’s mission, see Howard Peckham, “Dr.
Berkenhout’s Journal, 1778,” Pennsylvania Magazine History and Biography, 65 (January 1941): 79 – 92; and Carl
Van Doren, Secret History of the American Revolution (New York:
Viking Press, 1941), pp. 106 – 11. For his arrest and Congress’
response to this case, see Henry Laurens to William Maxwell,
5 September 1778.

2 There is no mention of Maxwell’s letter in the journals and it is not in