Washington and Lee University

Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley


Washington's proclamation of neutrality—Lee's opinion on it—His letter to Washington—Death of Mrs. Lee—He wishes to take military service in France—His letter to Washington on the subject—Washington's answer.

NO act of Washington's administration has commanded more respect from the reflecting part of his countrymen, than his proclamation of neutrality on the breaking out of the war between England and revolutionary France. It is well understood now, that this act saved the country from endless embarrassments and perils. It is a curious fact, and one which is very decisive of the sound judgment of governor Lee in political affairs, that before receiving this proclamation, he wrote to Washington advising him to issue such a paper. In his letter he said, “The minds of the people of my acquaintance are much agitated by reports of privateers being fitted out in some of our ports. The considerate part of society hope for peace, which can only be obtained by strict neutrality. Do you not think your proclamation on this subject would be useful? Pardon the suggestion, and regard it only as my opinion; and you know how uninformed I must be on this subject.”

General Lee's wife died about this time; and he appears to have suffered the most intense affliction at her loss. In his distress he thought of action in the stirring life of the camp, as relief from afflictive thoughts and memories; and as no opportunity of indulging this wish, and returning to his old military pursuits, was presented in his own country, he had serious thoughts of offering his services to the government of France, where he could have received the appointment of Major General.

The following extract from a letter to Washington asking his advice, will fully explain this matter:

As soon after my hearing of your return to Mount Vernon as I could, I set out on a visit to you, but unfortunately your stay at home was so short, that I could not see you. I had reached Stafford Court-House, when I accidentally learned that you had departed on the previous Sunday; and on knowing this I instantly turned back from whence I came. This disappointment would have always been mortifying to me, as it deprived me of the pleasure of seeing you; but it was uncommonly so then, as I had vast solicitude to obtain your opinion on a subject highly interesting to me personally.

Bred to arms, I have always since my domestic calamity wished for a return to my profession, as the best resort for my mind in its affliction. Finding the serious turn which the French affairs took last year, I interposed with the Marquis to obtain me a commission in their army, and at the same time made the same application in another way. The Marquis, about the time he got my letter, took the part, which issued so unfortunately to .him. From him I had no reply. But from the other source I am informed, that a major-general's commission will be given to me on my appearance in Paris, and that probably it would be sent to me. I have detailed this to you, merely that your mind might be fully informed, inasmuch as the step I may take will be to me all-important. I am consequently solicitous for the best advice, and this I am persuaded you can give. Should it be improper on your part, much as I want it, I must relinquish the hope. But as your opinion to me will never be known but to myself, and as I ask your counsel in your private character, I feel a presumption in favor of my wishes.

If fair war on terms of honor, with certainty of sustenance to the troops, and certainty of concert among citizens, will and can be supported by France, I will embark. If the reverse in any part is probable, to go would be the completion of my lot of misery. You see my situation; you have experienced my secrecy in my younger days, and you know the inviolable affection I bear towards you. Apprehend no improper effects of your free opinion to me.—Richmond, April 29th, 1793.

Washington in a letter, dated May 1793, returns the following wise, and friendly answer to Lee's inquiries, which appears to have extinguished Lee's aspirations for distinction in a foreign service. Washington, after touching on other matters, wrote as follows:[note 1]

I come now to a more difficult part of your letter. As a public character, I can say nothing on the subject of it. As a private man, I am unwilling to say much. Give advice I shall not. All I can do, then, towards complying with your request is to declare, that, if the case which you have suggested were mine, I should ponder well before I resolved; not only for private considerations, but on public grounds. The latter, because, being the first magistrate of a respectable State, much speculation would be excited by such a measure, and the consequences thereof not seen into at the first glance. As it might respect myself only, because it would appear a boundless ocean I was about to embark on, from whence no land is to be seen. In other words, because the affairs of [France] would seem to me to be in the highest paroxysm of disorder; not so much from the pressure of foreign enemies, for in the cause of liberty this ought to be fuel to the fire of a patriot soldier, and to increase his ardor, but because those in whose hands the government is intrusted are ready to tear each other to pieces, and will more than probably prove the worst foes the country has. To all which may be added the probability of the scarcity of bread, from the peculiar circumstances of the contending parties, which, if it should happen, would accelerate a crisis of sad confusion, and possibly of entire change in the political system.

The enclosed came under cover to me by one of the late arrivals. If the date of it is as old as the one to me, which accompanied it, it can contain nothing new. Although no name will appear to this letter, I beg it may be committed to the flames as soon as it is read. I need not add, because you must know it, that I am always yours.