<br /> Lee Letter: n880

Washington and Lee University

Sender: Richard Henry Lee
Recipient: George Washington

Dear Sir,

I was unwilling to interrupt your attention to more important affairs at
Phila. by sending there an acknowledgement of the letter that you were
pleased to honor me with from that City;1
especially as this place afforded nothing worthy of your notice. We
have the pleasure to see the first Act of Congress for selling federal
lands N.W of Ohio becoming productive very fast. A large sum of public
securities being already paid in upon the first sales: and a new
Contract is ordered to be made with a company in N. Jersey for the
lands between the two Miamis that will rid us of at least 2 millions
more of the public debt.2 There is good
reason to suppose that by the next spring we shall have reduced the
domestic debt near six millions of dollars. And it seems clear that the
lands yet to be disposed of, if well managed, will sink the whole 30
Millions that are due.3 The assiduity with
which the Court of London is soliciting that of Spain for the
conclusion of a Commercial treaty between those powers, renders it a
signal misfortune that we have not been able to get a sufficient number
of the States together to produce a conclusion of the Spanish Treaty.
The state of Europe, with respect to the continuance of peace, still
hangs in doubtful ballance. The finance weakness of France and G.
Britain most strongly opposes war, yet the state of things is such as
renders it very questionable, whether even that difficulty, great as it
is, will secure the continuance of peace. It is under the strongest
impressions of your goodness and candor that I venture to make the
observations that follow in this letter, assuring you that I feel it
among the first distresses that have happen’d to me in my life, that I
find myself compelled by irresistible conviction of mind to doubt about
the new System for federal government recommended by the late

It is Sir, in consequence of long reflection upon the nature of Man and of
government, that I am led to fear the danger that will ensue to Civil
Liberty from the adoption of the new system in its present form. I am
fully sensible of the propriety of change in the present plan of
confederation, and altho there may be difficulties not inconsiderable,
in procuring an adoption of such amendments to the Convention System as
will give security to the just rights of human nature, and better
secure from injury the discordant interests of the different parts of
this Union; yet I hope that these difficulties are not insurmountable.
Because we are happily uninterrupted by external war, or by such
internal discords as can prevent peaceable and fair discussion, in
another Convention, of those objections that are fundamentally strong
against the new Constitution which abounds with useful regulations. As
there is so great a part of the business well done already, I think
that such alterations as must give very general content, could not long
employ another Convention when provided with the sense of the different
States upon those alterations.

I am much inclined to believe that the amendments generally thought to be
necessary, will be found to be of such a nature, as tho they do not
oppose the exercise of a very competent federal power; are yet such as
the best Theories on Government, and the best practise upon those
theories have found necessary. At the same time that they are such as
the opinions of our people have for ages been fixed on. It would be
unnecessary for me here to enumerate particulars as I expect the honor
of waiting on you at Mount Vernon in my way home early in
November.4 In the meantime I have only to
request that my best respects may be presented to your Lady and that I
may be remembered to the rest of the good family of Mount Vernon.

I have the honor to be dear Sir, with the most unfeigned respect, esteem,
and affection, Your most obedient and very humble servant,

Richard Henry Lee.

If the next Packets should bring us any important advices from
Europe I will communicate them to you immediately.


Receiver’s copy, Washington Papers, Library of Congress.

1 For Washington’s letter of July 19, see Washington, Writings, 29:249 – 50.

2 See William Grayson to James Madison, August 31, note 3.

3 This hope was articulated again a week later by an unidentified member of
Congress in the following extract which appeared in the December 5
issue of the Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, Mass.) under the caption
“Extract of a letter from a member of Congress to his friend in
Virginia, dated October 18.” “We have a good prospect of selling 8 or
9 millions of federal lands, for sinking the domestic debt; and now
it seems quite probable that the cession of Virginia alone will
extinguish the whole of that debt, great as it is – being thirty
millions of dollars.”

4 While Lee did not enclose a copy of his proposed amendments, he did visit
Washington at Mt. Vernon November 11 – 12. Washington, Diaries (Jackson
& Twohig), 5:214.