<br /> Lee Letter: n816

Washington and Lee University

Sender: Richard Henry Lee
Recipient: John Adams

My dear Sir,

I received your letter by your Son with the pleasure that will always
attend such communications from an old and much esteemed
friend.1 But on this occasion I have been
the more happy as it furnished me with an opportunity of shewing
civilities to the Son of my friend. I have had as much of his company
as our mutual affairs would permit because I have had the satisfaction
to lodge him in my House. Your plan for his education I cannot but
approve, since it is the very one that I had chosen for my own Son. It
may be admitted as a truth little to be doubted that Merchants are
generally keen to discern and ready to persue their true interest. This
perhaps may be as good a rule as any by which to judge of the propriety
of giving time for payment of the debts due from the U.S. to G.B.
previous to the War. Now it is certain that the most knowing Merchants
Creditors upon that ground here, have expressed the greatest
willingness to consent to receive payment by regular instalments,
allowing reasonable time between – the reverse of this, & a rigorous
demand of payment as quickly as law pursuits would enable them to
recover, they are well aware would be much less conducive to their
interest than the first method that I have stated – And this seems to be
the plan generally agreed upon, by instalments I mean. Permit me Sir to
animadvert a little upon the strange objection taken up in G. Britain
by some ill informed writers, whose mistakes appear to have affected
even Government itself. It is, that Congress have not power to make
effecient Treaties of Commerce. You know Sir that the Confederation has
obtained the solemn legal sanction of every Legislature in the U.
States; and is therefore a compact as binding as can exist among Men.
What then does the Confederation say? By the 9th Article Congress have
a clear right to make whatever treaties of Commerce they shall judge
proper, subject only to two limitations. One, that foreigners may be
compelled to pay as high duties & imposts as the people of any
state pay. The 2d that any State may in Toto prohibit the export or
import of any particular species of Goods. With respect to the first
limitation, is it not one that all states upon earth ought to possess
& do actually (I believe exercise). And can a British Minister be
serious in refusing to make a Commercial Treaty with Congress because
they have not power to permit the Subjects of G.B. to Trade with the
U.S. under less oppressions than the Citizens of the States pay? Or Can
it be supposed that if Congress possessed this power that so unequal a
system would ever be agreed to by Congress. It is not a supposable
case, & therefore this limitation can be no true or just ground of
objection. The second & only remaining one, seems to have no little
force, because a State must be evidently insane that will in toto
prohibit any species of export or import unless its very existence
depends upon such prohibition. And in that case, the power and the
exercise of it is indispensable, and reaching to Self preservation must
for ever & will for ever be exercised. ‘Tis evident that the
interest of States will effectually prevent any such total prohibition
unless in the extremity above stated – And interest is the surest
principle for judging how Men & States will Act. Now then, I say
again, that these two limitations excepted (which for the reasons
already assigned are no just objections to the making a treaty of
Commerce with Congress for want of power) Congress have a clear &
unquestioned right to make any treaty the[y] choose. And it is
remarkable that except some factious writers in G. Britain, the
objection exists not. You know that very discerning Nations have
treated with us under perfect knowledge of our Confederation, without
producing any objection of this kind. When therefore the people here
are informed of such an objection from G.B. they conclude universally
that the objection is too feeble to be real, & that the true cause
is something else. That something they are not at a loss to discover,
and therefore the general outcry now is, let such regulations be
instituted as will put the Trade of G.B. with us under such restraints
as may satisfy them that they are mistaken in the supposition that
their share of our Commerce will be large as they please, &
therefore that no Treaty is necessary. Let us give decided preferences
to the Ships not only of our own country, but to those of the nations
with whom we have Commercial Treaties. It is very evident that these
measures will take effect if Britain does not soon depart from her
present System, and take up one more liberal. To be sure, the
consequence least prejudicial to them, but which is yet very important,
must inevitably take place under their present plan – to wit, a very
contracted use of British Manufactures, because their regulations
prevent the means of paying for them & of course will greatly limit
the use & the purchase of them.

I lately wrote to you concerning my friend Mr. Thomas Steptoe in
India2 – have you received my letters, and
have you had it in your power to do any thing for him? I wish much to

Congress have taken measures for exposing to Sale Several Millions of Acres
on the N.W. side of the river Ohio, a part of the late cession from
Virginia, for the purpose of paying off a considerable part of our
domestic debt. The Soil & Climate of that Country is incomparably
fine, and I have no doubt will be greedily purchased with the public
Securities. If this plan succeeds, our debt will soon be removed.

Be so kind as present my respectful compliments to Doctor Price, and tell
him that I received his packet of pamphlets3
distributed them among the Members of Congress who received them very
thankfully, and with the respect due to so great & able a defender
of the liberties of Mankind and rights of human nature.

I shall always be happy to hear from you, and am,

with the highest esteem
and most affectionate regard Yours,

Richard Henry Lee.


Receiver’s copy, Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

1 For Adams’ April 29 letter as well as his September 6 reply to this letter,
see Richard H. Lee, Memoir of the Life of Richard Henry Lee, 2 vols.
(Philadelphia: H. C. Carey and I. Lea, 1825), 2:140 – 41, 143 – 44.

2 See Lee to Adams, May 28, note 3.

3 See Lee to Washington, January 16, note 2.