Washington and Lee University

Four Unpublished Letters of William Lee: 1779–1780
Milton Rubincam

Note: The following is taken from the January 1942 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 50), pp. 38–646.

Corresponding Secretary and Associate Editor, National Genealogical
Society, Washington, D.C.; Member, Historical Society of
Montgomery County, Pa., and the Bucks County
(Pa.) Historical Society.

Some day an industrious historian may assemble in one monumental work all of the letters, papers, memoranda, and other documents of the Virginia family of Lee. Such a collection, forming a vast Archives of the House of Lee, would constitute a valuable repository for original papers relating to early American history, from the colonial period down to and including the era of the War Between the States. John Adams once remarked that the family of Lee contained more men of merit than any other American family;1 and certainly names like Thomas Lee (President of Virginia), Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Arthur Lee, William Lee, Maj. Gen. “Light Horse Harry” Lee, and Gen. Robert E. Lee, have cast lustre not only on their native State of Virginia but also upon the nation they loved and served so well.

Conspicuous among the Revolutionary members of the family was William Lee, Alderman of London, who, in July 1777, was appointed American Commissioner to the Courts of Vienna and Berlin.2 His mission in Austria and Prussia was unsuccessful because the Emperor Joseph II and King Frederick II (the Great), each anxious to maintain friendly relations with Great Britain now that war for the succession to the vacant throne of the electorate of Bavaria had broken out, declined to see him.3

Frederick, indeed, unlike the proud Hapsburg monarch, was inclined to be sympathetic toward the struggling American colonists, but nevertheless he gave no encouragement to the newly created Commissioner. “The propositions of the American, William Lee, that, according to your report of yesterday, he made to you,” he wrote from Potsdam to his Minister of State, Baron von Schulenburg, on February 1, 1778, “are very good in themselves, and I am nothing less than moved4 to enter into the commercial plans he is able to present to me on behalf of his superiors. But he will himself perceive that present conditions are not yet favorable to begin a formal and open negotiation with the colonies, of the sort that you would know best how to make him understand the one and the other in reply to the letter that he has addressed to you.”5

Lee had an unhappy sojourn in Austria. The Prussian Chamberlain, Baron von Riedesel, writing from Vienna on May 27, 1778, informed King Frederick that the Austrian Chancellor, Prince Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz-Rietberg, “has received Mr. Lee, the American, very cooly, in order to please and flatter the English minister, at which the ambassador of France appears very displeased.”6

Lee departed from Vienna, and, as there was no indication that he would be accorded a more favorable reception at Berlin? retired to the historic city of Frankfurt-on-the-Main, to await further developments. Meanwhile, the Prussian sovereign had left his capital, from which von Schulenburg wrote to him on April 24, 1778: “A few days before the departure of Your Majesty, I had the honor of informing you that the American, William Lee, after France had recognized the independence of the American Colonies, had taken himself to Frankfort-on-the-Main, from which place he again requested permission to come here in order to treat of a commercial alliance between the two nations. I replied to this plenipotentiary that his coming here would not be agreeable under present circumstances, and that, in the absence of Your Majesty, his trip would be rendered useless; then I endeavored to amuse him by some vague proposals.”7

Frederick replied from Schönwalde on the 27th of April that even if he should recognize the independence of the colonies and enter into a commercial alliance with them, it would be a useless venture on his part, as he did not have a fleet that could protect their commerce.8

While he was thus preoccupied with troubled reflections concerning the complete international situation, Lee evolved a plan to swing Holland into the American orbit. The American Commission at the Court of France, headed by Benjamin Franklin, had previously approached the Republic of the United Provinces, whose people were interested in a proposed commercial alliance with the infant United States, but had been rebuffed principally because the Stadtholder, William V, Prince of Orange, hesitated to risk an open break with Great Britain, to whose reigning dynasty he was bound by ties of consanguinity and affection.9 The city of Amsterdam, the dominating power in the Republic, received Lee's advances favorably, and, instigated by the Pensionaris Engelbert François van Berckel, a leading Amsterdam merchant named Jean de Neufville, head of the business house of de Neufville & Son, held a conference at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) with William Lee and the latter's associate, Samuel Witham Stockton, of New Jersey. This was a momentous meeting of members of three prominent families, each important in its own particular territory, namely, the houses of de Neufville of Amsterdam, Lee of Virginia, and Stockton of New Jersey.10 On the 4th day of September, 1778, they drafted a plan of a treaty of commerce and amity which was not designed to go into effect immediately, but only when the independence of the American States had been officially recognized by the Dutch Government. It was not the intention of the rulers of Amsterdam to disregard the authority of the national government of the Netherlands; such a treaty, van Berckel was careful to point out in a letter to Charles G. F. Dumas, the Swiss agent in the American service, must receive the sanction of the Republic.11

A few days after his meeting with de Neufville, Lee forwarded a copy of the treaty to Franklin at Passy, near Paris, and was rewarded for his pains with a reprimand from the venerable statesman. Franklin reminded his Virginia colleague that Congress had entrusted to the American Commissioners in France “the authority of treating with all the States of Europe, excepting such as have a particular commission designated by Congress to treat with them,” but, as no particular Commission had been appointed to treat with the United Provinces, “we have already taken such measures as appeared to us suitable to accomplish so desirable a purpose.” “And we propose to continue our endeavours in every way consistent with the honor and interest of both,” Lee was pointedly informed.12

Although his attempts to effect an alliance with Holland were thus subjected to ridicule and censure, William Lee had the slight satisfaction, a few years later, to witness successful negotiations between the United Provinces and the United States, represented by John Adams, our first minister to the Netherlands, which culminated in a treaty of commerce and amity (October 8, 1782), based on the very document he and Stockton had drawn up with de Neufville.13 In 1783 he returned home to Virginia, where he passed his remaining years, dying in 1795 at the age of fifty-six.14

Many of William Lee's letters have been published in Spark's The Diplomatic Correspoundence of the American Revolution (6 vols., 1857), and in Wharton's The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols., 1889). In 1891 Dr. Worthington Chauncey Ford published a selection of his correspondence in his Letters of William Lee, 1766–1783, in three volumes. The following four unpublished letters of William Lee were found by the present writer when engaged in assembling materials for a biographical article on Samuel Witham Stockton.15 They are preserved in the National Archives at Washington, D.C, in a large envelope entitled: No. 38: Bound Volume of Diplomatic and Other Letters of W. Lee, B. Franklin, J. Adams, J. P. Jones, C. F. Dumas, &c. Holland. 1779–1781.


Mr Jean De Neufville—Amsterdam

Frankfort 29th Apl 1779


I wrote to your House16 the 22d Curt since which have seen the Memorial presented to the States Genl the 9th of this month by Sir Joseph Yorke,17 by which I perceive the insolence of the British Ministry has increased since the taking of Pondicherry.18 These people seem to have intirely taken up the Trade of the Piratical states of Barbary, therefore it is high time for all the maritime powers of Europe to unite in one general effort to curb their insolence & piratical conduct, & this seems to be the favorable moment for such an undertaking.—

We have seen that neither Justice, Treaties or the Rights of Nations have any influence over the British Ministry, or will prevent them from taking from their Neighbors what their Avarice or Ambition tells them that they want, provided they think they can do it with impunity; therefore it is imcumbent on the Dutch East India Company to send immediately a strong reinforcement of Ships of the Line & Land forces to the East Indias, & particularly to secure well the Cape of Good Hope. This being done & putting your Governors thus on their guard against the English, I will pawn my Life on the British Ministry complying directly with yr Just demands. I think yr East India Compy shou'd send an Express by Land to India, as well as two different ones by Sea to put yr people there on their guard. On this subject you had better converse with Mr Van B—l.19 I am with due Esteem & regard Sir Yr most Obedt & most Hble Servt



Mr John De Neufville at Amsterdam

Frankfort 2 May 1779


I had the pleasue of writing to you by last post giving my sentiments on the precautions that your East India Compy ought to take in the present situation of Affairs, not that I think you have any thing to fear from the English, on the contrary I am sure they dare not put in execution, the impudent threat contained in Sr Jo. Yorkes last memorial; However, 'tis very certain that the better you are prepared & the more you are on yr guard in all quarters, the less lyable you will be, to be insulted by the British Ministry Since my last I have had the honor of receiving a Letter from your House on the 27th Ulto & observe that yr plan for the Amn. Trade does not go on very fast. It seems to me that you will find some difficulty in getting ten Secret People to advance 24 M.fl. each. Wou'd it not be better to have more people concern'd & each Mans stock total ab1 12 M.flo. & let the trade go on always in the Name of St Eustatia,20 from whence as occasion suited they might run to N. Ama. By this time I hope Spain has taken a decided part in which case I hope the War will soon be at an end.21

When you have any news from the West Indias to depended on, I hope you will communicate it to me. & in the mean time you need not be uneasy about the exagerated accounts in the English News papers, which are trumpted still higher in the Hague Gazette, of the success of our Enemies in Georgia. You may be assured that the 13 United States of America will remain independent & come off triumphant at last. I am with great Esteem Gentlemen Yr most Obliged & Obedt Hble Servt

P.S. pray forward the inclosed Letter by the first Packet.—



Mess. John De Neufville & Sons Amsterdam


Bruxelles Feb. 23. 1780.

I have before me your esteem'd favor of the 10th Curt & shou'd have obeyed yr commands in presentg your respects to Mr Izard22 if he had been here, but that Gentleman was gone to Paris; as are my friends Messrs Brush & Wilkinson.

It is pleasant to hear that the City of Amstm continues firm; we shall soon see by the measures of their High Mightinesses, whether the P. of O.'s23 resentment at the high insult offer'd to him as well as to yr States by the English, is real or affected. Resolutions & Memorials alone will be of little use now—by spirited Actions insulted Honor & Independence must be vindicated. I do not know of what stuff the English think a Dutchman is composed.

They insult you on every occasion, plunder your property wherever they can find it & at the same moment insult you more grossly by insisting on assistance to enable them to continue the same treatment with more impunity.

When you are so good as to send me the prices Cur1 be pleased to say whether the figures mean Doights, Stivers or florins & if the article is sold p #24 or hundred weight.

Be pleased to inform me by the return of post what is the usual method of charging freight from St Eustatia to Amsterdam; for instance on Sugar Tobacco & Indigo. Whether the freight is charged on the gross weight of the article & Cask together, or whether the weight of the Cask & the allowance made to the buyer is first deducted.

We expect every day some important news from Cadiz where Dons Cordova & Gaston have united with 30 Ships of the Line. I have the Honor to be with all due regard Genl. Yr most Obliged & Obedt Hble Servt—



Bruxelles Oct. 23 1780

Dear Sir.25

I have been prevented by indisposition otherwise shou'd have written to you before on the subject of your favor of the 19th inst & also to Mr Van. Bls had I not conceived from what passed at Amstam last winter, that he neither wished for my acquaintance or correspondence.

First, there is no room to be under any apprehension abt Mr L—n's26 papers for I am well assured that none were taken that are of any public consequence.

Secondly, the Original of what we signed at Aix27 is still in my possession, & I have both the original & all the copies that were ever made, of the paper you bro't to me signed by Mr Van B.—I know too well the importance of such things to trust them on water; however I shall always rely on a continuance at least, if not an increase, of the same good dispositions on your part, that prevail'd when we transacted the business together & it seems to me that the time is now come when they may be openly avow'd, which might be done with perfect security, if proper measures are taken to engage your northern friends to join in the same measure.28 With high respect I have the Honor to be Sir Yr most Obliged & Obedt Hble Servt