Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley
War with France—Army to be raised provisionally—Washington names Lee as one of the Major Generals—Lee elected to Congress —Death of Washington announced—Lee writes the resolutions moved in Congress by General Marshall—Appointed by Congress to deliver the Funeral Eulogy on Washington—Serves in Congress during Adams's administration—Retires to private life.
GENERAL LEE continued to serve as governor of Virginia for three years. It was during the last of these years, 1795, that he led the army against the insurgents of Pennsylvania. He now retired to private life.
In 1798, the insults of the revolutionary government of France, and the depredations of French cruisers on the commerce of the United States, roused the whole country to indignation. The attempt of Talleyrand to obtain money from our ambassadors as the price of peace, received the reply of one of their number, General Pinckney, which has since become so celebrated: “Millions for defence, but not a cent for tribute.” These words became the war cry of the nation; and preparations for hostilities were entered upon with lively zeal.
An army was ordered to be raised provisionally for the emergency which was supposed to be approaching, and the President, John Adams, appointed General Washington Lieutenant General and Commander-in-chief. In selecting the other officers, the name of General Lee was placed on the list as one of the Major Generals by Washington. The arrangements with regard to the organization of the Provisional Army occupied the attention of Washington during the remainder of his life; and we learn from his correspondence that he had recourse to the advice of General Lee with respect to the appointment of officers for the different corps of the army.
These preparations, doubtless, had their influence in convincing the French government that the government of the United States was not to be trifled with, and the terms of peace being arranged, the Provisional Army was never called into active service. But peace was not restored till after the decease of General Washington.
In 1799, General Lee was elected a member of Congress, from Virginia. On the second of December the session of Congress commenced. On the eighteenth of the same month, General John Marshall, the future biographer of Washington, and then a member of the House of Representatives, with much emotion, “in a voice,” says the record, “that bespoke the anguish of his mind, and a countenance expressive of the deepest regret,” rose, and delivered himself as follows:
Mr. Speaker: Information has just been received, that our illustrious fellow-citizen, the Commander-in-Chief of the American Army, and the late President of the United States, is no more!
Though this distressing intelligence is not certain, there is too much reason to believe its truth. After receiving information of this national calamity, so heavy and so afflicting, the House of Representatives can be but ill fitted for public business. I move you, therefore, they adjourn.
The motion was unanimously agreed to; and then the House adjourned till to-morrow morning, 11 o'clock.
On the next day, (December 19th,) Mr. Marshall addressed the Chair as follows:
Mr. Speaker: The melancholy event which was yesterday announced with doubt, has been rendered but too certain. Our Washington is no more! The Hero, the Sage, the Patriot of America—the man on whom in times of danger every eye was turned and all hopes were placed—lives now only in his own great actions, and in the hearts of an affectionate and afflicted people.
If, sir, it had even not been usual openly to testify respect for the memory of those whom Heaven had selected as its instruments for dispensing good to men, yet such has been the uncommon worth, and such the extraordinary incidents which have marked the life of him whose loss we all deplore, that the whole American nation, impelled by the same feelings, would call with one voice for a public manifestation of that sorrow which is so deep and so universal.
More than any other individual, and as much as to any one individual was possible, has he contributed to found this our wide-spreading empire, and to give to the Western world its independence and its freedom.
Having effected the great object for which he was placed at the head of our armies, we have seen him converting the sword into the ploughshare, and voluntarily sinking the soldier in the citizen.
When the debility of our federal system had become manifest, and the bonds which connected the parts of this vast continent were dissolving, we have seen him the Chief of those patriots who formed for us a constitution, which, by preserving the Union, will, I trust, substantiate and perpetuate those blessings our Revolution had promised to bestow.
In obedience to the general voice of his country, calling on him to preside over a great people, we have seen him once more quit the retirement he loved, and in a season more stormy and tempestuous than war itself, with calm and wise determination, pursue the true interests of the nation, and contribute, more than any other could contribute, to the establishment of that system of policy which will, I trust, yet preserve our peace, our honor, and our independence.
Having been twice unanimously chosen the Chief Magistrate of a free people, we see him at a time when his re-election, with the universal suffrage, could not have been doubted, affording to the world a rare instance of moderation, by withdrawing from his high station to the peaceful walks of private life.
However the public confidence may change, and the public affections fluctuate with respect to others, yet with respect to him they have, in war and in peace, in public and in private life, been as steady as his own firm mind, and as constant as his own exalted virtues.
Let us then, Mr. Speaker, pay the last tribute of respect and affection to our departed friend—let the Grand Council of the nation display those sentiments which the nation feels.
For this purpose I hold in my hand some resolutions, which I will take the liberty to offer to the House.
Mr. Marshall having handed them in at the table, they were read, and unanimously agreed to by the House, in the words following, to wit:
The House of Representatives of the United States, having received intelligence of the death of their highly valued fellow-citizen George Washington, General of the Armies of the United States, and sharing the universal grief this distressing event must produce, unanimously resolve:
1. That this House will wait on the President of the United States, in condolence of this national calamity.
2. That the Speaker's chair be shrouded with black, and that the members and officers of the House wear mourning, during the session.
3. That a joint committee of both Houses be appointed to report measures suitable to the occasion, and expressive of the profound sorrow with which Congress is penetrated, on the loss of a citizen, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.
4. That when this House adjourn, it will adjourn until Monday next.
Ordered, That Mr. Marshall and Mr. Smith be appointed a commmittee to wait on the President of the United States, to know when and where he will receive this House for the purpose expressed in the first resolution.
Ordered, That Mr. Marshall, Mr. Craik, Mr. Henry Lee, Mr. Eggleston, Mr. Smith, Mr. Stone, Mr. Rutledge, Mr. Abiel Foster, Mr. Muhlenburg, Mr. Van Cortlandt, Mr. Dwight Foster, Mr. Franklin Davenport, Mr. Claiborne, Mr. Morris, Mr John Brown, and Mr. Taliaferro, be a committee, jointly with such committee as may be appointed on the part of the Senate, for the purpose expressed in the third resolution.
The reader will observe that the expression, since so often quoted, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” occurs in the resolutions proposed by General Marshall on this mournful occasion; but General Marshall, in his life of Washington, is careful to inform his readers that the resolutions were prepared by General Lee, who, happening not to be in his place when the melancholy intelligence was received and first mentioned in the House, placed them in the hands of General Marshall who proposed them for adoption the next day.
General Lee was appointed to deliver Washington's Eulogy at the public Funeral. The proceedings are thus noted on the record:
THURSDAY, December 26.
This being the day appointed by the resolution of Congress for the funeral procession in honor of the memory of George Washington, late General of the Armies of the United States, the House proceeded to the German Lutheran Church, where they attended the funeral oration, prepared and delivered on the occasion by Major General Lee, one of the members of this House for the State of Virginia.
The House, having returned, adjourned until to-morrow morning.
A part of the record of proceedings on the 30th of December, is as follows:
The Speaker informed the House that, in pursuance of the resolution of Friday last, he had addressed to Major General Henry Lee, one of the members for the State of Virginia, the following letter:
PHILADELPHIA, Dec. 27, 1799.
DEAR SIR:—The enclosed resolutions, which unanimously passed the House of Representatives this day, will make known to you how highly they have been gratified with the manner in which you have performed the service assigned to you, in preparing and delivering a funeral oration on the death of General Washington. That our constituents may participate in the gratification we have received, from your having so well expressed those sentiments of respect for the character, of gratitude for the services, and of grief for the death of that illustrious personage, I flatter myself you will not hesitate to comply with the request of the House, by furnishing a copy of your oration, to be taken for publication.
Allow me, while performing this pleasing task of official duty in communicating an act of the Representatives of the people, so just to you and so honorable to themselves, to embrace the opportunity to declare that I am, personally, with great esteem and sincere regard, dear sir, your friend and obedient servant,
The Hon. Maj. Gen. LEE.
To which Mr. Lee had replied as follows:
FRANKLIN COURT, Dec. 28, 1799.
DEAR SIR:—I owe to the goodness of the House of Representatives the honor which their resolutions confer on my humble efforts to execute their wish.
I can never disobey their will, and therefore will furnish a copy of the oration delivered on the late afflicting occasion, much as I had flattered myself with a different disposition of it.
Sincerely reciprocating the personal considerations with which you honor me, I am, very respectfully, sir, your friend and obedient servant,
The Speaker of the House of Rep's.
General Lee, thus prominently brought forward on his first appearance in Congress under the new Constitution, subsequently took an active part in the debates, and continued to serve until the close of Mr. Adams's administration, when he retired to private life. After this period he never held any conspicuous public office.