<br /> Lee Letter: n789

Washington and Lee University

Sender: Richard Henry Lee
Recipient: Samuel Adams

My dear Sir,

Your favors (for I am always favored when you are pleased to write to me)
by Mr Walker of the 9th, and by Captain Landais of the 10th of December
were duly delivered to me by those gentlemen, and without loss of time
I laid them before Congress. Their applications have been referred to
very good Committees,1 so that there is
reason to expect that these Gentlemen will receive just and
satisfactory determinations from Congress. Your very friendly and
sensible letter of the 23d of the same
month2 deserves my sincerest thanks and
approbation, which with great cordiality I present to you. My ill
health (with much business and the necessary attention to the
ceremonies of my office) prevents me from being so punctual a
correspondent as I wish to be – but I well know that your goodness will excuse me. It is the part of a friend to advise, and of a well disposed
mind to profit from good counsel. I shall certainly endeavor to benefit
from your judicious sentiments. Very much it is to be wished that all
who are in authority, discerned with you that the eyes of the world are
upon us, that great expectations are formed from great beginnings, and
that wisdom and virtue can alone satisfy such just expectations. It is
however much too correspondent with human nature to exult “beyond
measure,” and thereby to neglect those duties that better sentiments
ought to inspire. To this cause may perhaps be attributed much of the
inattention and violence that have too generally taken place since the
preliminary articles were made known to us. Whether in public or in
private life, it seems most becoming wise men in the time of victory
and success, to practice the virtues of Magnanimity and Justice, to
avoid the display of irascible passions, by effectually “burying the
hatchet” as our Aborigines express the idea. Without this philosophic
temper, what would become of mankind governed as they too generally are
by Tyrants whose caprice forceth Nations into War? Endless carnage and
evil without bounds must be the result. The philanthropy that I revere
and admire in your character must revolt at the contemplation of it.
And I think that the Christian philosophy, in tenderness for human
infirmities strongly inculcates principles of mutual forgiveness and
benevolence. These reflections have been created in my mind by that
kind of exultation “beyond measure” which you so wisely deprecate, and
which I have seen so much to prevail as to injure in my idea that
greatness of character, which had dignified America in her resistance
to British Tyranny. For I am not disposed to admit Revenge as a just
plea for such Extravagancies, altho’ a well judged system of measured
politics may be admissible. The selfishness and corruption of Europe I
have no doubt about, and therefore wish most sincerely that our free
Republics may not suffer themselves to be changed & wrongly wrought
upon by the corrupt maxims of policy that pervade European
Councils – where artful and refined plausibility is forever called in to
aid the most pernicious designs. It would seem as if there were a
general jealousy beyond the water, of the powerful effects to be
derived from Republican virtue here, and so we hear a constant cry from
thence, echoed & re-echoed here by all Expectants from the Treasury
of the United States – That Congress must have more power – That we
cannot be secure & happy until Congress command implicitly both
purse & sword. So that our confederation must be perpetually
changing to answer sinister views in the greater part, until every
fence is thrown down that was designed to protect & cover the
rights of Mankind. It is a melancholy consideration that many wise
& good men have, somehow or other, fallen in with these ruinous
opinions. I think Sir that the first maxim of a man who loves liberty
should be, never to grant to Rulers an atom of power that is not most
clearly & indispensably necessary for the safety and well being of
Society. To say that these Rulers are revocable, and holding their
places during pleasure may not be supposed to design evil for
self-aggrandizement, is affirming what I cannot easily admit. Look to
history and see how often the liberties of mankind have been oppressed
& ruined by the same delusive hopes & fallacious reasoning. The
fact is, that power poisons the mind of its possessor and aids him to
remove the shackles that restrain itself. To be sure, all things human
must partake of human infirmity, and therefore the Confederation should
not be presumptuously called an infallible system for all times and all
situations – but tho’ this is true, yet as it is a great and fundamental
system of Union & Security, no change should be admitted until
proved to be necessary by the fairest, fullest & most mature
experience. Upon these principles I have ever been opposed to the 5 Per
Cent impost. My idea is still that of the Confederation, Fix the sum,
apportion it, & let every State by its own means, and in its own
way faithfully & honestly make its payment. That the now fœderal
mode of apportionment is productive of delay, of great expence, and
still liable to frequent change, is certain. And therefore I see no
inconvenience in so far altering the Confederation as to make the Rule
of Apportionment lie upon the numbers as stated in the recommendation
of Congress upon that subject. But I can never agree that this Body
shall dictate the mode of Taxation, or that the collection shall in any
manner be subject to Congressional controul. It is said that this will
more effectually secure the Revenue – But how so? if a spirit prevails
to neglect a duty imposed by the Confederation, may not the same spirit
render abortive at any time Acts passed for granting the Impost?
Besides that we are depending for the payment of our debts upon
uncertainty, when the most certain revenues of the State ought to be
appropriated to that purpose. Whilst every good man wishes great
punctuality to prevail in the payment of debts, he must at the same
time condemn and discourage large importations which impoverish by
encreasing the balance of trade against us. So that from this system we
are to expect our greatest good from our greatest evil. A good
physician will tell you that contrary indications of cure threaten
danger to human life, and by a just parity of reason, contrary
indications threaten danger to the Political body. But happily for us,
our political disease admits of simple remedies for its cure, if
rightly judged of, and wisely practised upon. Let it therefore be the
effort of every Patriot to encourage a punctual payment of each State’s
quota of the fœderal demand, and let the money he found in ways most
agreable to the circumstances of every State. This is the plan of the
Confederation, and this I own will be mine, until more satisfactory
experience has proved its inefficacy.

A word more upon the point of our just wishes to be detached from European
politics, and European vices of course. I wish it most sincerely. But
unfortunately Great Britain is upon our Northern quarter and Spain upon
the Southern. We are therefore compelled to mix with their Councils in
order to be guarded against their ill designs. I am very happy to hear
from my friend Mr Lovell that you are in health and spirits, & that
you still delight to speak of politics. There is nothing in this life
that would give me more happiness than to see & converse with you
in Boston – but Alas! I fear that my poor state of health will deny me
this pleasure – yet at all times and in every place, I shall be dear

your most affecte friend,

Richard Henry Lee.


Receiver’s copy, Samuel Adams Papers, New York Public Library. In the hand
of Thomas Lee Shippen and signed by Richard Henry Lee.

1 Adams’ “favors” of December 9 and 10 have not been found, but the January
22 memorial of Thomas Walker, a Boston merchant formerly of Montreal,
requesting compensation for the burning of his store and goods and
his imprisonment at the hands of the British military as a
consequence of his American sympathies, was referred to Rufus King,
David Howell, and James Monroe who recommended on April 11 that he be
paid $1,500 and that his memorial be referred for further
consideration to the committee on Canadian applications, which
Congress approved on the 15th. See JCC, 28:17n, 245, 270; and PCC,
item 41, 10:665 – 68, item 185, 3:110, item 186, fol. 179. A February
10 memorial from Pierre Landais, late captain of the frigate
Alliance, embraced a series of requests for past expenses and
subsistence, back pay, a gratuity for transporting goods to North
America, and claims relating to prizes carried into France, Holland,
and Norway. It was referred on February 10 to a committee consisting
of King, John Beatty, and Samuel Hardy which was renewed on April 12
with Howell replacing Hardy. In their April 18 report, which was
issued as a broadside for the use of Congress, the committee
recommended that Landais receive a total of $6,312 5/10 for his
gratuity and “the balance of his account for pay, subsistence and
extra expences while in public service,” which Congress approved June
2. Action on his prize claims was deferred. See JCC, 28:55n, 257n,
276 – 77, 417 – 18, 29:921; and PCC, item 41, 5:361 – 76, item 185, 3:111,
item 190, fols. 9, 30.

2 Adams’ letter of December 23, 1784, is in Adams, Writings (Cushing),
4:308 – 12.