Washington and Lee University

Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley

CHAPTER XXII.

Correspondence of Colonel Lee and General Washington on the subject of the latter accepting the office of President of the United States.

After the adoption of the Federal Constitution, it was referred to Congress to pass the acts necessary for carrying it into execution. Colonel Lee, being at this time a member of Congress, was able to appreciate all the difficulties which would attend the new government at its outset; and was strongly impressed with the absolute necessity of General Washington being placed at its head as President of the United States. At the same time he knew Washington's reluctance to enter public life again. With the cordial familiarity of an old friend, he wrote to Washington as follows:

HENRY LEE TO GEORGE WASHINGTON.

NEW YORK, 13 September, 1788.

MY DEAR GENERAL,—At length the new government has received the last act necessary to its existence. This day Congress passed the requisite previous arrrangements. The first Wednesday in January the ratifying States are to appoint electors; on the first Wednesday in February the President is to be chosen; and the first Wednesday in March is the time, and this city the place, for commencing proceedings.

Some delay has attended this business from a difference in opinion respecting the place of meeting, but this delay has not in the least affected the sooner or later operation of the constitution. The southern gentlemen did not accord in the place of temporary residence, from a discordance in sentiment of its effect on the establishment of the permanent seat of government. Some considered this city, others a more southern position, as the most favorable theatre to negotiate the determination of the ten miles square. Many plausible and some cogent reasons are adducible in support of either opinion, and time only can show which is founded in propriety.

The solemnity of the moment, and its application to yourself, has fixed my mind in contemplations of a public and a personal nature; and I feel an involuntary impulse, which I cannot resist, of communicating without reserve to you some of the reflections which the hour has produced. Solicitous for our common happiness as a people, and convinced, as I continue to be, that our peace and prosperity depend on the proper improvement of the present period, my anxiety is extreme that the new government may have an auspicious beginning. To effect this, and to perpetuate a nation formed under your auspices, it is certain that again you will be called forth.

The same principles of devotion to the good of mankind, which have invariably governed your conduct, will, no doubt, continue to rule your mind, however opposite their consequences maybe to your repose and happiness. It may be wrong, but I cannot suppress, in my wishes for national felicity, due regard to your personal fame and content.

If the same success should attend your efforts on this important occasion, which has distinguished you hitherto, then to be sure you will have spent a life, which Providence rarely, if ever, gave to the lot of one man. It is my belief, it is my anxious hope, that this will be the case, but all things are uncertain, and perhaps nothing more than political events. The new government, though about to commence its proceedings, and received by a large majority of the people with unprecedented unanimity and attachment, must encounter, from the nature of human affairs, many difficulties. These obstacles to its harmonious progress will receive additional weight and influence from the active and enterprising characters, who continue to inflame the passions and to systematize the measures of opposition. The circular letter from this State seems to be the standard to which the various minorities will repair, and, if they should succeed in bringing quickly into action the objects of that letter, new and serious difficulties must arise, which will cross and may destroy the government in its infancy.

Much will depend on the part which the Assembly of Virginia may adopt in this business, and from the complexion of that body, little is to be hoped. They appear to be generally opposed, and Mr. Henry with many other conventional coadjutors are members of the legislature. Madison will not be there, nor is there a friend to government in the Assembly of comparative ability. It would be fortunate if this gentleman could be introduced into that body, and I think it is practicable. Mr. Gordon, one of the Orange members, would readily vacate to let him in, and the county would certainly elect him. In my letter of this date to Dr. Stuart I have mentioned this suggestion.

It would certainly be unpleasant to you, and obnoxious to all who feel for your past fame, to see you at the head of a tumbling system. It is a sacrifice on your part, insupportable in any point of view. But, on the other hand, no alternative seems to be presented. Without you the government can have but little chance of success, and the people of that happiness which its prosperity must yield. In this dilemma it seems wise, that such previous measures be in time adopted, as most promise to allay the fury of opposition, to defer amendments till experience has shown defects, and to insure the appointment of able and honest men in the first Congress.

One of the best means to accomplish this seems to me, to bring into the Assembly of Virginia the aid before mentioned. Indeed I know of nothing so effective; for on the conduct of Virginia every thing will depend. Her example will be followed; and, if she supports with promptitude the system recommended by this State, confusion and anarchy may be the substitutes of order and good government.

With much freedom have I disclosed to you, and to you only, my sentiments on the present epoch, as it involves in it yourself. I am persuaded you will attribute my conduct to the motives which gave birth to it, zeal for the public prosperity and solicitude for your fame and happiness. In a few weeks I shall return to Virginia; if by land, I shall pay my respects to you at Mount Vernon, when it will be more in my power to explain fully my opinions. I have the honor to be, with unalterable attachment, yours truly,

HENRY LEE.

The following is Washington's answer, which strongly evinces the confidential terms of their friendship, and the respect which Washington entertained for the opinion of Lee.

TO HENRY LEE, IN CONGRESS.

MOUNT VERNON, 22 September, 1788.

DEAR SIR,—Your letter of the 13th instant was of so friendly and confidential a complexion, as to merit my early attention and cordial acknowledgments. I am glad Congress have at last decided upon an ordinance for carrying the new government into execution. In my mind the place for the meeting of the new Congress was not an object of such very important consequence; but I greatly fear, that the question entailed upon that body, respecting their permanent residence, will be pregnant with difficulty and danger. God grant that true patriotism and a spirit of moderation may exclude a narrow locality, and all ideas unfriendly to the Union, from every quarter.

Your observations on the solemnity of the crisis, and its application to myself, bring before me subjects of the most momentous and interesting nature. In our endeavour to establish a new general government, the contest, nationally considered, seems not to have been so much for glory as existence. It was for a long time doubtful whether we were to survive as an independent republic, or decline from our federal dignity into insignificant and wretched fragments of an empire. The adoption of the constitution so extensively, and with so liberal an acquiescence on the part of the minorities in general, promised the former; until lately the circular letter of New York carried, in my apprehension, an unfavorable if not an insidious tendency to a contrary policy. I still hope for the best; but, before you mentioned it, I could not help fearing it would serve as a standard to which the disaffected might resort. It is now evidently the part of all honest men, who are friends to the new constitution, to endeavor to give it a chance to disclose its merits and defects, by carrying it fairly into effect in the first instance. For it is to be apprehended, that, by an attempt to obtain amendments before the experiment has been candidly made, “more is meant than meets the ear,” that an intention is concealed to accomplish slily what could not have been done openly, to undo all that has been done.

If the fact so exists, that a kind of combination is forming to stifle the government in embryo, it is a happy circumstance that the design has become suspected. Preparations should be the sure attendant upon forewarning. Probably prudence, wisdom, and patriotism were never more essentially necessary, than at the present moment; and so far as it can be done in an irreproachably direct manner, no effort ought to be left unessayed to procure the election of the best possible characters to the new Congress. On their harmony, deliberation, and decision every thing will depend. I heartily wish Mr. Madison was in our Assembly, as I think with you it is of unspeakable importance that Virginia should set out with her federal measures under right auspices.

The principal topic of your letter is to me a point of great delicacy indeed, insomuch that I can scarcely without some impropriety touch upon it. In the first place, the event to which you allude may never happen; among other reasons, because, if the partiality of my fellow citizens conceive it to be a means by which the sinews of the new government are to be strengthened, it will of consequence be obnoxious to those, who are in opposition to it, many of whom unquestionably will be placed among the electors.

This consideration alone would supersede the expediency of announcing any definitive and irrevocable resolution. You are among the small number of those, who know my invincible attachment to domestic life, and that my sincerest wish is to continue in the enjoyment of it solely until my final hour. But the world would be neither so well instructed, nor so candidly disposed, as to believe me uninfluenced by sinister motives, in case any circumstance should render a deviation from the line of conduct I had prescribed to myself indispensable.

Should the contingency you suggest take place, and (for argument's sake alone let me say it) should my unfeigned reluctance to accept the office be overcome by a deference for the reasons and opinions of my friends, might I not, after the declarations I have made (and Heaven knows they were made in the sincerity of my heart), in the judgment of the impartial world and of posterity, be chargeable with levity and inconsistency, if not with rashness and ambition? Nay farther, would there not be some apparent foundation for the two former charges? Now justice to myself and tranquillity of conscience require, that I should act a part, if not above imputation, at least capable of vindication. Nor will you conceive me to be too solicitous for reputation. Though I prize as I ought the good opinion of my fellow citizens, yet, if I know myself, I would not seek or retain popularity at the expense of one social duty or moral virtue.

While doing what my conscience informed me was right, as it respected my God, my country, and myself, I could despise all the party clamor and unjust censure, which might be expected from some, whose personal enmity might be occasioned by their hostility to the government. I am conscious, that I fear alone to give any real occasion for obloquy, and that I do not dread to meet with uumerited [sic] reproach. And certain I am whensoever I shall be convinced the good of my country requires my reputation to be put in risk, regard for my own fame will not come in competition with an object of so much magnitude. If I declined the task, it would lie upon quite another principle. Notwithstanding my advanced season of life, my increasing fondness for agricultural amusements, and my growing love of retirement, augment and confirm my decided predilection for the character of a private citizen, yet it would be no one of these motives, nor the hazard to which my former reputation might be exposed, nor the terror of encountering new fatigues and troubles, that would deter me from an acceptance; but a belief, that some other person, who had less pretence and less inclination to be excused, could execute all the duties full as satisfactorily as myself. To say more would be indiscreet; as a disclosure of a refusal beforehand might incur the application of the fable in which the fox is represented as undervaluing the grapes he could not reach. You will perceive, my dear sir, by what is here observed, which you will be pleased to consider in the light of a confidential communication, that my inclinations will dispose and decide me to remain as I am, unless a clear and insurmountable conviction should be impressed on my mind, that some very disagreeable consequences must, in all human probability, result from the indulgence of my wishes.

If you return by land, I shall expect without failure the pleasure of your company. I am much indebted to you for your obliging offer of forwarding such articles as I might want from New York, though I shall not have occasion at this moment to avail myself of your goodness. With great regard and esteem,