<br /> Lee Letter: n482

Washington and Lee University

Sender: Richard Henry Lee’s
Recipient: North Carolina Delegates

Gentlemen,

I have read your joint letter to the Delegates of South Carolina & its
inclosure2 with all the attention that they
deserve, nor will you suppose I read them without such emotions as they
are well calculated to produce.

I presume it will not be denied, that the interest of each state in the
Union is essentially involved in the interest, safety, and prosperity
of the whole. As little do I suppose it will be contested that the
safety and security of the whole depends greatly upon Marine force,
that this force cannot be obtained without Seamen, and that the North
American fisheries furnish the United States their principal Nursery of
Seamen. The importance of this object to maritime and commercial
nations is so well understood, that it has been the fertile source of
great contention between France and Britain, nations removed three
thousand miles from these fisheries, and who besides their other
numerous resources for Seamen, possess valuable fisheries near their
own Coasts. How infinitely more important must this object be to these
United States from its contiguity to their Shores, and from its being
the capital source from whence we are to supply our future Navy. The
acknowledgement of our Independency by Great Britain is one thing, and
the secure possession of that independency is another. The former may
result from the present distress of our Enemies and the accumulated
force opposed to them. But the latter must be maintained by the proper
strength of the United States.

If when Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, and the
Jersies were invaded by such force as threatened the ruin of these
States, they had offered to treat with the common enemy, in terms
injurious to the interests of our States, or to the Union, we should
not have thought such local and selfish considerations however
powerfully pressed, a sufficient justification for a perfidious
desertion of the Union, by offering to withdraw their aid from an
opposition to the Common foe. Having considered this important subject
in all the lights my judgement could place it, I agreed with the
proposition for stating it as an Ultimatum “that the right of fishing
on the Coasts and Banks of North America be reserved to the United
States as fully as they enjoyed the same when subject to Great Britain,
excepting always what shall have been excepted by the treaty of Paris
between France and the United States – The whole to be explained by the
Treaties of Utrecht and of Paris with Great Britain, and of Paris with
the United States.”

I have yet heard no reason to change my opinion and I hope gentlemen you
will not imagine that a Mind resting on the strong ground of reason and
public utility can be shaken by arguments in terrorem however highly
colored.

But I will proceed to consider such parts of your letter as you seem
principally to rely on for justifying what I cannot avoid esteeming a
very strange and unusual proceedure. I call it strange and unusual for
the Delegates of one State to attempt depriving those of another of
their free right of voting in Congress by arguments drawn from threats
of yielding their Country a prey to the enemy if they shall differ in
opinion upon questions of great and general concern. You have thought
proper to write the Delegates of S.C. that the questions above stated
and on which I voted in the affirmative involves “a right which we deem
more extensive than can with justice be insisted on, and which our
Allies by their engagements are not bound to assist us in contending
for, and which the Minister Plenipotentiary of France assures us his
Court cannot agree to continue the war for.” The first of this
paragraph is matter of opinion on your part, which a Majority in
Congress have already determined against, and the latter part of the
same paragraph I will take leave to contrast with the following
authentic documents.

1st. The 8th article of the Treaty of Alliance.

“Neither of the two parties shall conclude either Truce or Peace with Great
Britain, without the formal consent of the other f irst obtained, and
they mutually engage not to lay down their arms, until the Independence
of the United States shall have been formally or tacitly assured, by
the treaties that shall terminate the war.”

2dly. The sense of Congress on this subject expressed in their resolution
of Jany. 14. 1779.3

Whereas &c &c.

3dly. The written official declaration of the Minister Plenipotentiary of
France to Congress on the 9th of February last. “The King my Master on
his part, is invariably determnined not to seperate his interest from
those of America and to support the cause of the United States as his
own.”4

When therefore, the most public and the most authentic records oppose
themselves to your reasons, the world, and our Constituents will judge
between us, whenever you incline Gentlemen to make the appeal.

As a Member of Congress, am I to found my opinion upon the open official
declarations of the Minister to Congress, or disregarding these, to
rest upon the opinions of particular gentlemen drawn from private
conversations, where the expressions may be mistaken, or not rightly
remembered? I can have, I ought to have, no hesitation in a case of
this sort.

Upon the whole gentlemen I think your letter to the Governor of North
Carolina contains matter very improper to be sent for many reasons, but
if you should Continue to think otherwise and conclude to send it, I
trust to the wisdom of the Gentleman to whom it is addressed, and to
the justice of the State at the head of which he is so deservedly
placed, that they will forbear to withdraw their aid from a Sister
State invaded, for reasons on one side of the question only adduced to
them, and because among others it is supposed that as I have given my
opinion in favor of a question that appears to me to involve the most
essential interest of the U. States, that therefore I have discovered
resources in South Carolina which enable her to wage war with her
single strength against the power of Great Britain?

I am &c.

Notes:

Henry Laurens PapersSouth Carolina Historical Society

1 This document appears to be the draft of a letter intended for the North
Carolina delegates from Henry Laurens in response to their letter to
him of 2 April. But as it is the work of Richard Henry Lee – i.e.,
numerous deletions and interlined insertions clearly indicate that
this text was actually composed by Lee – one can only conjecture how he
came to be involved in Laurens’ correspondence with the North
Carolina delegates over the fisheries issue. It is clear from
numerous other documents that the two men frequently collaborated on
foreign policy issues, particularly those involving Arthur Lee, for
the Laurens Papers contain many letters from Arthur Lee to Richard
Henry as well as transcripts by Richard Henry of other documents
related to the Deane-Lee controversy. And transcripts – in the hand of
Laurens’ secretary Moses Young – of five documents (dated 3 and 4 April) relating to Laurens’ controversy with the North Carolina delegates
at this time are in the Lee Family Papers, ViU. It therefore seems
obvious that when Laurens received a letter from the North Carolina
delegates threatening to withhold aid from South Carolina because of
his support of New England claims to the northern fisheries, he
consulted Richard Henry for advice in preparing a response.

Interestingly enough, Lee’s draft is much more detailed than Laurens’ reply
and rehearses a number of issues ignored by the latter in the letter
he actually returned to the North Carolina delegates, for which see
the preceding entry.

2 See North Carolina Delegates to Henry Laurens, 2 April 1779 (not in
printed text).

3 JCC, 13:62 – 63.

4 See Wharton, Diplomatic Correspondence, 3:40; and PCC, item 94, fols.
109 – 10.