<br /> Lee Letter: n785

Washington and Lee University

Sender: Richard Henry Lee
Recipient: Patrick Henry

Dear Sir.

Your favour of December 9th,1 has just now been
put into my hands, together with the printed papers that you were
pleased to send me, but I have not yet had the pleasure of finding
Colonel Grayson here.2 I do sincerely wish
to see my country flourish and be happy, so that if by any means in my
power, I can contribute to this most desirable end, I shall certainly
exert myself. No time or circumstance, can ever force from my mind, the
sincere affection that I entertain for the original friends, to the
just rights of America, whose wise and firm perseverance, has secured
to the United States at least the blessings, without which, there is
little difference between men and brutes. The ill state of health that
I contracted at Richmond in May 1783, still afflicts me, which, added
to the business and the ceremony of my present office afflicts me much,
and must, necessarily prevent me from such frequent communications, as
otherwise I should undoubtedly make. With respect to official
intelligence from Europe, we have none of great consequence; Mr. Adams
thinks, that the negotiations of this winter will probably accommodate
the difference between the emperor, and the United Netherlands, and our
charge des affairs at Madrid, informs us that the court of Spain has appointed Mr. Gardoque, to
come here as their minister and we expect him
daily.3 His purpose is to treat of commerce,
and territorial limits. Our ministers at Paris are generally proposing
treaties of amity and commerce, with all the European commercial
powers, and they receive answers very civil, but as yet no treaties
formed, except such as you have seen notified from Congress. As you
have been pleased to desire my reflections upon the state of affairs, I
will give them freely, as they appear to me. The courts with which we
are most immediately concerned, are Spain, England, France, and
Holland; the two first, because we border on them, and because we have
with each most pressing difficulty; the two last, because we are
indebted to them both on the score of money lent, and friendship in
other ways conferred. Spain is proud, and extremely jealous of our
approximation to her South American territory, and fearing the example
of our ascendency upon that country, is grasping forever at more
territory, by way of security; and hoping to derive benefit to her
system, from our want of system, our discord and inattention. Hence we
may expect from Mr. Gardoque, an apparent firm demand of the exclusive
navigation of the Mississippi, with some tempting commercial offers, to
procure our assent to the loss of this very valuable navigation. But
probably, the apprehension of a quarrel with us, and the effect of it
upon their South American possessions, may secure to us, if we are wise
and firm, the free navigation, to be finally agreed to by Spain; with
Great Britain, our difficulties will be greater; equally proud with
Spain, and much more powerful, with fewer reasons to fear a rupture
with us, and more to hope from a successful one; she remains sullen
after defeat, and seeming to wish for just provocation to renew the
combat. The passions of states, and of individuals, are not very
different; for what are the former, but a compound of individuals, and
of course carrying into the composition, those leading principles that
characterize the parts. In private life, a wise and fortunate victor,
over great strength, would, in all his conduct with the vanquished,
show a respectful civility, avoiding every display of supposed
superiority, and carefully shunning every appearance of giving cause
for fresh offence. It seems to me, that if the conduct of America, had
been founded on such principles our magnanimity must have been
confessed, and that the seeds of future discord, would not have been so
effectually sown as I fear they are. Both countries have been to blame,
and transgressions against the terms of peace were on each side coeval,
so that whilst we charged them with removing the slaves from New York,
they pointed to the violence with which their friends were everywhere
treated, with the detention of their debts, and with actions here
brought against those who possessed houses in this city, whilst it was
in their power by the fortune of war. This again is followed by their
detention of the western posts, by their encroachments on our
north-eastern boundary about St Croix, and by their unfriendly
interruption of our commerce, and lately by arresting in London a
merchant of Philadelphia for debt, because his privateer had taken,
during the war, a vessel belonging to the complainant. This is an
unpleasant state of things, and if temper and wisdom are not employed
on both sides, it is not difficult to foresee a renewed rupture ere
long. The principles of republics being virtuous, and their conduct
therefore squaring with justice, they rather negotiate differences than
fight them. Monarchies depend too much upon the ultima ratio regum.
When we have acted fully up to our principle, we shall be upon strong
ground to combat theirs. But the cause of virtue, without proper means
to support it, must often fail. These considerations lead me to wish
most sincerely that my country may quickly cease to give the smallest
cause for just offence, and that our rulers would engrave upon their
minds, the wisdom of the inscription upon the arsenal of Berne in
Switzerland – That people happy are, who, during peace, prepare the
necessary stores for war.

It is in vain for us to expect this from the United States – to be secure,
each state must provide amply for itself; and whenever Great Britain
shall find us just, temperate, and prepared, she will be extremely
cautious of hostile aggressions, or of unjust treatment of us. If this
reasoning is right, how will your excellency’s administration be marked
for wisdom, if effectual attention be paid to the collection and
preservation of military stores; I have here been informed, by an
officer of rank in the continental artillery, at the surrender of York,
that several pieces of our artillery were retaken from the enemy, and
that they are now at Philadelphia; it deserves to be considered,
whether these are not subject to be returned to us, upon demand of the
state: there were also several pieces of our artillery, thrown into
Pamunkey river, near New Castle, in 1781, and some other pieces fixed
in the ground, and in vain attempted to be destroyed by the enemy.
Baron Steuben lately sent us the enclosed letter, which I have now the
honour to transmit; his published plan, is only an outline, but the
details by which that plan is to be executed, he professes himself
willing to communicate, when the state of Virginia shall call upon him,
for them. The sum of this, (I fear, too long digression, upon our
relative situation with Great Britain), is, that being secure of having
done right, we should be fully prepared to meet aggressions from that
quarter; a sentiment founded upon an attentive consideration of the
correspondence, between the British generals, during the late war, by
which it is not difficult to discover, that experience had instructed
them in this truth, that a war against the United States, had better be
pushed in full force at first against Virginia. I have before observed
to your excellency, that Mr. Adams thought we might expect a compromise
between Holland and the emperor, from the negotiations of this winter;
it is certain, that every influence of France, will be used to effect
the compromise, for reasons very obvious: but, whilst the emperor
demands a preliminary, that the Scheldt shall be opened, and Holland as
peremtorily says, that it must not, it remains possible, but not
probable, that an accommodation may take place: if it does not, the
powers on the continent will be engaged in a most expensive war,
whilst, as it seems, Great Britain will remian neuter, and by peace,
preparing herself for war, render her hostile views, more dangerous to
us. The apprehension of this difficulty, on the part of our friends,
has probably produced the strong intimations that we must be exact in
the payment of our interest upon the foreign loans; and the same reason
does indeed call upon the United States, in the strongest sense, to be
punctual in their payments, that those who have assisted us, in the day
of our distres, may not suffer for their generosity.

The attention of Congress, has been applied to our western concerns, as
your excellency will see by the treaties made with the Six Nations, and
the western Indians;4 in the latter, the
Shawanese are not included, but their being prevented by some active
British emissary, from coming to the latter treaty, will probably not
be attended with ill consequences, as they are very much under the
control of the Six Nations, and of the Wyandots, their powerful
neighbours. The spring will open further treaties with the more
southern tribes, north-west of the Ohio, and also, on the south-eastern
side upon ours, and the frontiers of North and South Carolina, and

Judging from myself, I suppose your excellency will be tired with the
length of this letter, and if you will pardon it, I promise you, that I
will not again transgress in the same manner.

I have the honour to be,
with sentiments of esteem, respect, and regard, sir, your excellency’s
most ob’t serv’t,

Richard Henry Lee


MS not found; reprinted from Memoir of the Life of Richard Henry Lee,

1 Governor Henry’s letter of January 9, rather than December 9, is in Henry,
Patrick Henry, 3:265-67.

2 Henry explained that delegate William Grayson, who intended to leave
Richmond on January 10, had agreed to deliver the governor’s letter.
Grayson, however, did not present his credentials to Congress until
March 11. JCC, 28:135.

3 William Carmichael had notified Congress of the appointment of Don Diego de
Gardoqui as minister to the United States in a letter of October 12,
1784, which had been read on February 10. Its enclosures – copies of
Spanish foreign minister Floridablanca’s October 2 letter to Bernardo
de Gálvez and his October 7 letter to Carmichael – were referred to
John Jay for translation. The translations were read this day and all
three documents referred back to Jay who reported on the 15th a draft
of a letter to Carmichael instructing him to notify the Spanish court
that Gardoqui would be received “with all the Distinction and Respect
which the Dignity of his Sovereign and the Nature of his Commission
may demand; and that the great Business he is sent to negociate with
the United States, shall be conducted on their part with the greatest
Candor and Frankness.” Congress approved the letter immediately and
directed Jay “to take order.” See JCC, 28:55n, 64n, 67n; PCC, item
81, 1:13 – 16, item 88, fols. 388 – 93, item 97, fols. 17 – 21; and
Diplomatic Correspondence, 1783 – 89, 3:287 – 90, 292.

4 For the treaty negotiated with the Six Nations at Fort Stanwix in October
1784, see Richard Henry Lee to James Madison, November 20, note 1.
Two of the commissioners who negotiated that treaty – Richard Butler and Arthur Lee – were joined by George Rogers Clark in meeting with western tribes at Fort McIntosh on the Ohio River in December and
January. By January 21 they had reached an agreement with the
Wyandots, Delaware, Chippewas, and Ottawas which they enclosed in a
January 28 letter from Fort Pitt announcing that all Indian claims to
land “as far west as the great Miami on the Ohio, and the Miami or
Omi which empties into the lake Erie” had been extinguished. They
recommended, however, that they continue negotiations with the tribes
even farther to the west at Fort Vincennes in the spring. Congress
referred the letter and treaty this day to a committee consisting of
William Samuel Johnson, James McHenry, David Howell, James Monroe,
and Hugh Williamson which reported March 7 that such a treaty should
be held and recommended certain conditions and a meeting date of June
20. The report was issued as a broadside for the delegates’
consideration, amended on March 17, and adopted the 18th after Rhode
Island successfully blocked a move to refer the report to the
committee considering the ordinance for “ascertaining the Mode of
locating lands.” See JCC, 28:66n, 125 – 26, 169, 172 – 73, 178 – 81,
29:917; and PCC, item 30, fols. 271 – 76. See also Charles Thomson to
John Dickinson, March 26, note. Both the Treaty of Fort Stanwix and
the Treaty of Fort McIntosh were entered on the journals June 3. JCC,
28:423 – 26.

5 For the appointment of commissioners to negotiate with the southern
Indians, see South Carolina Delegates to Benjamin Guerard, January
25, note 8.