Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley


WE have already seen that governor Lee was a firm supporter of Washington’s system of neutrality towards the belligerent powers of Europe. The following letter to General Washington shows that he continued to follow this course; that he endeavored to prevent the French minister Genet from endeavoring to disturb the state of neutrality, and that he foresaw the pernicious and unprincipled course of conduct which Genet would adopt—exciting the citizens of the United States to resist their own government, and endeavoring to involve this country in the war between France and England.

The letter from Lee to Washington, dated Richmond, June 14, 1793, is as follows:

MY DEAR SIR:—Plain and evident as is the wise policy of neutrality on the part of the United States during the present European war, I find that the papers teem with publications reprobating this system.

If I am to judge of the feelings and disposition of the people of the United States, from what I believe to be the temper of Virginia on this question, I cannot doubt, that nine tenths of America applaud the policy adopted, and feel increased gratitude and love for the man, who has declared the same as the rule of conduct for his fellow citizens. There are in all societies, at all times, a set of men anxious for change in the political machine, and fond of confusion. This disposition results in part from love of novelty, from ruined private circumstances, and disappointments in political stations. This class of men receive the aid of the wicked and abandoned of every description, and therefore in free countries are considered more numerous than they really are, because they are noisy, clamorous, and impudent.

But when their weight in society is taken, they will be found as light as straw. So it is here at present. If a stranger were asked his opinion of the wishes of the people of this country with respect to war, he would probably declare the same to be universally favorable; for he would gather his information from the conversations he had heard at taverns, where this order of men abound, gambling and drinking all night, and all day abusing men and measures however respectable, however proper.

I returned yesterday from a visit to our arsenal at the Point of Fork, and took occasion during my journey to talk freely with the planters respecting your proclamation. I found every person regarding it as highly wise, duly timed, and all expressed a confidence in your adhering invariably to its purport.

To my mind these communications were not unexpected, and, yet I professs I derived great satisfaction from them, because, from the clamor issuing out of the towns and promulgated in the papers, I began to fear that the golden prospects of felicity before us would be lost by our country, in spite of the wisdom and firmness of our government; and I have been induced to give to you my observations thereon, as in your situation at this crisis the happiness of the people requires you should be well acquainted with their opinions.

When M. Genet was here, we conversed very freely with respect to the neutrality of the United States. I attempted to convince him, and I thought with some effect, that, from the superiority of the enemy’s fleet, it was the only way we could take, which promised to France those provisions which we had, and which she might want; and concluded the argument I held on this subject by asserting, that, had you determined to prefer the interests of France to every other consideration, you could not have acted more effectually than you did, when you issued your proclamation, and that happily on this occasion, while you did the greatest good to the United States, you did all the good possible to their ally; that we had no fleet, no army, no money to authorize us to take a part in the war with effect, and to do it pitifully was to risk our own destruction, without the consolation of affording material aid to our friends.

He seemed to acquiesce in my reasoning, but insinuated, that, in case the royal government was reëstablished in France, the kings of Europe would combine to destroy liberty here, and that our existence as a nation depended upon the success of the republican system, and that we might conveniently make important diversions in her favor on our southern and northern neighbors.

To this I opposed our infant situation as a people, our love of peace, the heavy debt which oppresses us in consequence of the last war, the probable futility of such vast enterprises, and the certainty that France would derive more benefit from holding within her own bosom all her means of men and money, than she possibly could by such Quixotic adventures. I augured ill of their late efforts against Belgium, (which have turned out since as I presumed,) and contended that the sure way to effect their object was to be content with defending their own country.

The impressions, which he seemed to entertain when we parted, induced me to hope that he would never attempt to disturb the system of neutrality adopted.

But opinions of moderation and wisdom can scarcely be held long by any man in his situation, when our citizens seem to take an active part in commending very opposite conduct. I judge by what I read in the Philadelphia papers, then, that his mind will be soon turned from those proper sentiments, which he possessed when here, and that our only route to national prosperity may experience new obstructions.

But, Sir, let whatever may happen or be effected, in your firmness we all rest thoroughly convinced, that you can never be brought to depart from that line of conduct, which in your judgment best promotes the public good. With best wishes for your health and happiness, I am ever your most affectionate friend and humble servant.


Washington’s answer was as follows:

The communications in your letter were pleasing and grateful; for, although I have done no public act with which my mind upbraids me, yet it is highly satisfactory to learn, that the things which I do, of an interesting tendency to the peace and happiness of this country, are generally approved by my fellow citizens. But, were the case otherwise, I should not be less inclined to know the sense of the people upon every matter of great public concern; for, as I have no wish superior to that of promoting the happiness and welfare of this country, so, consequently, it is only for me to know the means to accomplish the end, if it be within the compass of my powers.

That there are in this, as well as in all other countries, discontented characters, I well know; as also that these characters are actuated by very different views; some good, from an opinion that the measures of the general government are impure; some bad, and, if I might be allowed to use so harsh an expression, diabolical, inasmuch as they are not only meant to impede the measures of that government generally; but more especially, as a great means towards the accomplishment of it, to destroy the confidence, which it is necessary for the people to place, until they have unequivocal proof of demerit, in their public servants. In this light I consider myself, whilst I am an occupant of office; and, if they were to go further and call me their slave, during this period I would not dispute the point.

But in what will this abuse terminate? For the result, as it respects’ myself, I care not; for I have a consolation within, that no earthly efforts can deprive me of, and that is, that neither ambitious nor interested motives have influenced my conduct. The arrows of malevolence, therefore, however barbed and well pointed, never can reach the most vulnerable part of me; though, whilst I am up as a mark, they will be continually aimed. The publications in Freneau’s and Bache’s papers are outrages on common decency; and they progress in that style, in proportion as their pieces are treated with contempt, and are passed by in silence, by those at whom they are aimed. The tendency of them, however, is too obvious to be mistaken by men of cool and dispassionate minds, and, in my opinion, ought to alarm them; because it is difficult to prescribe bounds to the effect.

The light in which you endeavored to place the views and conduct of this country to M. Genet, and the sound policy thereof, as it respected his own, was unquestionably the true one, and such as a man of penetration, left to himself, would most certainly have viewed them in; but mum on this head. Time may unfold more than prudence ought to disclose at present.

Some further correspondence took place between Washington and Lee, respecting the proceedings of Genet, and the fashion of Jacobin Clubs which he introduced into this country, for the purpose of involving it in such scenes of bloody anarchy as had been enacted in France under the auspices of the original Jacobin Club of Paris. It appears by the correspondence of Washington and Lee, and indeed it is a well known fact of history, that the Democratic Societies, as these clubs were called, supported the opposers of government in the famous Whiskey Insurrection in Pennsylvania.

One of the measures of Washington’s administration for raising revenue for the support of the government, and paying the interest on the national debt, was an excise duty on whiskey of domestic manufacture. This was openly resisted by the people of the western counties of Pennsylvania, and the officers of government were prevented from performing their duty by force of arms. Conciliatory measures, far from terminating, only increased the evil. The insurgents, misled by the Democratic Societies and other opponents of the government, gathered strength from the supposed weakness of a government which tried conciliation with them, and the insurrection assumed a very formidable aspect.

It was impossible for Washington to tolerate such a state of things as this, and he determined to put down the insurrection by military force.

An army of fifteen thousand men was speedily raised, consisting of militia from the States of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, and a large number of volunteers from these states. So determined were the people to sustain the laws that men of the highest standing and influence in the community, shouldered their muskets, and took their places in the ranks as private soldiers.

Washington appointed Governor Lee commander-in-chief of this force, with the rank of Major General; and when a portion of the army was assembled at Bedford, he went to that place in person to superintend the arrangements for their march to the revolted counties. The following is his letter of instructions to General Lee before returning to Philadelphia, where his presence was required in consequence of the approaching session of Congress.



BEDFORD, 20th October, 1794.

SIR:—Being about to return to the seat of government, I cannot take my departure, without conveying through you to the army under your command, the very high sense I entertain of the enlightened and patriotic zeal for the constitution and the laws, which has led them cheerfully to quit their families, homes, and the comforts of private life, to undertake and thus far to perform a long and fatiguing march, and to encounter and endure the hardships and privations of a military life. Their conduct hitherto affords a full assurance, that their perseverance will be equal to their zeal, and that they will continue to perform with alacrity whatever the full accomplishment of the object of their march shall render necessary:

No citizens of the United States can ever be engaged in a service more important to their country. It is nothing less than to consolidate and to preserve the blessings of that revolution, which, at much expense of blood and treasure, constituted us a free and independent nation. It is to give the world an illustrious example, of the utmost consequence to the cause of mankind. I experience a heart-felt satisfaction in the conviction, that the conduct of the troops throughout will be in every respect answerable to the goodness of the cause and the magnitude of the stake.

There is but one other point on which I think it proper to add a special recommendation; it is, that every officer and soldier will constantly bear in mind, that he comes to support the laws, and that it would be peculiarly unbecoming in him to be in any way the infractor of them; that the essential principles of a free government confine the province of the military, when called forth on such occasions, to these two objects, first, to combat and subdue all who may be found in arms in opposition to the national will and authority, secondly, to aid and support the civil magistrates in bringing offenders to justice. The dispensation of this justice belongs to the civil magistrate; and let it ever be our pride and our glory to leave the sacred deposit there inviolate. Convey to my fellow-citizens in arms my warm acknowledgments for the readiness, with which they have hitherto seconded me in the most delicate and momentous duty the chief magistrate of a free people can have to perform, and add my affectionate wishes for their health, comfort, and success. Could my further with them have been necessary, or compatible with my civil duties at a period when the approaching commencement of a session of Congress particularly calls me to return to the seat of government, it would not have been withheld. In leaving them I have the less regret, as I know I commit them to an able and faithful direction, and that this direction will be ably and faithfully seconded by all. I am, &c.

Bedford was the rendezvous of the troops from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and Cumberland on the Potomac for those of Maryland and Virginia. The governors of New Jersey and Pennsylvania commanded the militia of their respective states and acted under the orders of Lee.

From Cumberland and Bedford, the army marched in two divisions into the country of the insurgents. The greatness of the force prevented the effusion of blood. The disaffected did not venture to assemble in arms. Several of the leaders, who had refused to give assurances of future submission to the laws, were seized, and some of them detained for legal prosecution.

But although no direct and open opposition was made, the spirit of insurrection was not subdued. A sour and malignant temper displayed itself, which indicated, but too plainly, that the disposition to resist had only sunk under the pressure of the great military force brought into the country, but would rise again should that force be withdrawn. It was, therefore, thought advisable to station for the winter, a detachment to be commanded by Major General Morgan, in the centre of the disaffected country.

Thus, without shedding a drop of blood, did the prudent vigor of the executive terminate an insurrection, which, at one time, threatened to shake the government of the United States to its foundation.[note 1]