Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley


Colonel Lee chosen a member of the Convention of Virginia for ratifying the Constitution of the United States—His earnest support of the Constitution in the Convention—Colonel Lee chosen a member of the House of Delegates of Virginia—Offered a command in the army to act against the Indians—Declines—Chosen governor of Virginia—Proposed as commander of the army against the northwestern Indians—Correspondence with President Washington on this subject.

COLONEL LEE was chosen a member of the Convention of Virginia, which met in June, 1788, for the purpose of considering the propriety of adopting the new Constitution of the United States. He was one of the most strenuous and eloquent supporters of the Constitution, notwithstanding the opposition of some of the most influential men of the State, among whom was Patrick Henry.

None of the patriotic men who supported the Constitution was more gratified than Lee, when after long and earnest debates, the Convention of Virginia finally voted for ratification of the Constitution.

Lee was soon after chosen a member of the House of Delegates in Virginia.

In 1791, Colonel Lee was offered the command of a portion of the army raised by the government of the United States to chastise the Indians who were ravaging our northwestern frontier. This office he declined. The troops to act under his command were to consist of three battalions, to be raised in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.

In 1792 he retired from his seat in the House of Delegates, on being raised to the high and responsible office of governor of Virginia. He filled the chair of governor for the next three years.

After St. Clair’s defeat, Lee was proposed for the chief command of the army to act against the Indians (1792), and in a letter to General Washington he remarks that he might have been appointed. Washington was anxious that he should receive the appointment. Lee appears not to have desired to accept it.

He was not pleased, however, when assured by Colonel Darke that the Secretary of War, General Knox, had opposed the wishes of Washington in this matter.

The following letter from Lee to Washington shows Lee’s resentment against Knox; and at the same time evinces an unusual degree of moral courage in Lee. Scarce another man in the country would have dared to address so bold a remonstrance as this to Washington. But Lee was well assured of the good will and candour of his illustrious friend, and knew that his motives would not be misconstrued. The extracts from Lee’s letter and from Darke’s letter to Lee are as follows:[note 1]

From Governor Lee’s Letter.—“You cannot have forgotten a declaration, which you made at your own table just before your acceptance of the arduous station you enjoy, which then sunk deep into my heart, and never can be eradicated, namely, that a frank communication of the truth to you, respecting the public mind, would be ever received as the highest testimony of respect and attachment. Often have I wished to present you with evidences of my affection and devotion in conformity to the above declaration, since your return to public life: but, presuming that you might derive ample information from others, and distrusting my own inquiry and observations, I have heretofore silenced my desire. Nor indeed, for the same reasons, should I now commence the task, did it not appear to me indispensably necessary; for, if the information be accurate, you are deceived and abused by those in whom you place the highest confidence, and consequently your own character, as well as the public interest, may be submitted to derogation and injury. What one minister may have done on one occasion, may extend to all occasions and to all ministers.

“You cannot be a stranger to the extreme disgust, which the late appointment to the command of the army excited among all orders in this State. Whether the same be just or not, is immaterial at present; or whether taking into view all the circumstances of the case a better appointment could have been made, is by no means the object of my inquiry. The event was the subject of general conversation, during which period Colonel Darke visited Richmond, and of course became a party in the opinions and communications given on the occasion. What he said to me was in my judgment necessary to you, and I took the liberty to write to Colonel Darke, requesting him to commit to paper the conversation between us the previous day. This he did, and I enclose it for your perusal.

“I thought it proper to send you the original, although the handwriting is rather obscure, lest a copy might in any degree change the meaning of the communication. If Colonel Darke is right, it follows clearly, that, in a very important matter to yourself and the community, one of your officers exerted himself to increase certain difficulties, which obstructed the execution of your own wishes, instead of endeavoring to remove them; acting in obedience to his own desire, rather than following the decision of his superior. If your ministers dare thus to do, you must be subject to hourly impositions, and the national concerns will be regulated by their and not your judgment. I have not, nor shall I lisp a word of this communication to the gentlemen whom it concerns. For yourself only it is intended. It is not in my power to ascertain whether the same be true or not. You can readily distinguish this fact. Colonel Darke is a man of truth and honor, and he speaks positively. You will, I trust, be the event as it may, impute my conduct to the motives which produce it, respect and attachment to yourself. Personally I do not feel on the occasion, only that I cannot dissemble the gratification, which the opinion you were pleased to express of my talents afforded; and indeed I am candid to declare, that I prefer such a testimonial to the office itself, to which I might have been appointed.”—Richmond, June 15th.

From Colonel Darke’s Letter to Governor Lee.—“In answer to your letter, concerning the conversation I had the honor to have with the President, as it was not of a private nature as far as it related to you, I will give as good an account as my memory will allow, as it could not be the President’s desire that I should not. He mentioned you as commander-in-chief of the army, spoke much in favor of your abilities in so respectful a manner, that I thought you would certainly have been appointed. He indeed said something of your rank in the late Continental army, and asked me if I would serve, should you be appointed to the chief command; which question I did not answer, though I confess I think I should. But being so distressed in mind, for reasons that I need not mention to you, I did not give his Excellency an answer, but intended to do it before I left town, which I did not. Knowing he was much engaged in business of importance, I was in doubt he would think I intruded; at the same time was determined, if you had been appointed, to have gone with you and given you what little assistance I was capable of, or indeed any other of my acquaintance, that I thought equal to that great and important trust.

“The Secretary of War said something to me concerning my accepting of some appointment. I told him I first wanted to know who would command the army, and said something of you and some others. He let me understand some time after, that he thought I could not serve with you with propriety, honor, or words to that purpose, but that you would not be appointed. This I confess I thought General Knox might be mistaken in, as, from what I heard from the President, I had a right to expect you would.”—May 12th.

In the following extract from Washington’s answer to Lee, it will be observed that he exonerates General Knox, whom he designates by the letters G. K., from having exerted his influence against Lee, and assigns reasons for his not being appointed which any military man will see are decisive, although they involve no disparagement of Lee’s acknowledged courage and ability as a commander. In his answer to Lee, Washington says:[note 2]

I have no hesitation in declaring to you, that the bias of my inclination was strongly in your favor; but that the result of my inquiries, direct and indirect, of military and indeed of other characters, who were well disposed to see you in nomination, was, that, if you were appointed to the command, it would be vain to look for senior officers to act subordinately, or, if they consented, it would be so grudgingly as that more than probably the seeds of sedition would be coeval with the formation of the army, such being the nature of military pride. Admitting this, then, one of two things would inevitably have followed; either an army composed of discontented materials, or of junior characters. The first might be attended with fatal consequences; and as to the other, however excellent the officers might be, if any disaster should befall the army, it would instantly be ascribed to the inexperience of the principal officers in stations to which they had never been accustomed, thereby drawing a weight upon my shoulders too heavy to be borne. This was my own view of the subject, and the principle upon which I acted; not, be assured, because G.K. was of this or of that opinion. The fact, I sincerely believe, is, that he was as much puzzled as I was to fix on the first officer, under the circumstances that existed.

How far the appointment of G.W.[note 3] is a popular or an unpopular measure, is not for me to decide. It was not the determination of a moment, nor was it the effect of partiality or of influence; for no application (if that in any instance could have warped my judgment) was ever made in his behalf from any one, who could have thrown the weight of a feather into his scale, but because, under a full view of all circumstances, he appeared most eligible. To a person of your observation and intelligence it is unnecessary to remark, that an appointment, which may be unpopular in one place, and with one set of men, may not be so in another place, or with another set of men, and vice versâ; and that to attempt to please every body is the sure way to please nobody; because the attempt would be as idle, as the exertion would be impracticable. G.W. has many good points as an officer, and it is to be hoped, that time, reflection, good advice, and, above all, a due sense of the importance of the trust, which is committed to him, will correct his foibles, or cast a shade over them. With esteem and regard, I am, &c.