Primary tabs

General Lee to Patrick Henry


Williamsburgh, May 7, 1776.

DEAR SIR: If I had not the highest opinion of your character and liberal way of thinking, I should not venture to address myself to you. And if I were not equally persuaded of the great weight and influence which the transcendent abilities you possess must naturally confer, I should not give myself the trouble of writing, nor you the trouble of reading this long letter. Since our conversation yesterday, my thoughts have been solely employed on the great question, whether Independence ought or ought not to be immediately


declared. Having weighed the argument on both sides, I am clearly of the opinion that we must, as we value the liberties of America, or even her existence, without a moment' s delay declare for Independence. If my reasons appear weak, you will excuse them for the disinterestedness of the author, as I may venture to affirm, that no man on this Continent will sacrifice more than myself by the separation. But if I have the good fortune to offer any arguments which have escaped your understanding, and they should make the desired impression, I think I shall have rendered the greatest service to the community.

The objection you made yesterday, if I understood you rightly, to an immediate Declaration, was, by many degrees, the most specious; indeed it is the only tolerable one that I have yet heard. You say, and with great justice, that we ought previously to have felt the pulse of France and Spain. I more than believe, I am almost confident, that it has been done; at least I can assert, upon recollection, that some of the Committee of Secrecy have assured me that the sentiments of both these Courts, or their agents, had been sounded, and were found to be as favourable as could be wished. But, admitting that we are utter strangers to their sentiments on the subject, and that we run some risk of this Declaration being coldly received by these Powers, such is our situation that the risk must be ventured.

On one side there are the most probable chances of our success, founded on the certain advantages which must manifest themselves to French understandings by a treaty of alliance with America. The strength and weakness, the opulence and poverty of every State are estimated in the scale of comparison with her immediate rival. The superior commerce and marine force of England were evidently established on the monopoly of her American trade. The inferiority of France, in these two capital points, consequently had its source in the same origin. Any deduction from this monopoly must bring down her rival in proportion to this deduction.

The French are, and always have been, sensible of these great truths. Your idea, that they may be diverted from a line of policy which assures them such immense and permanent advantages by an offer of partition from Great Britain, appears to me, if you will excuse the phrase, an absolute chimera. They must be wretched politicians, indeed, if they would prefer the uncertain acquisition, and the precarious, expensive possession of one or two Provinces, to the greater part of the commerce of the whole. Besides, were not the advantages from the latter so manifestly greater than those that would accrue from the imagined partition scheme, it is notorious that acquisition of territory, or even Colonial possessions, which require either men or money to retain them, are entirely repugnant to the spirit and principles of the present French Court. It is so repugnant, indeed, that it is most certain they have lately entertained thoughts of abandoning their West-India Islands. Le commerce et l' economie are the cry, down from the King to the lowest Minister. From these considerations, I am convinced that they will immediately and essentially assist us if Independence is declared.

But allowing that there can be no certainty, but mere


chances, in our favour; I do insist upon it, that these chances render it our duty to adopt the measure, as, by procrastination, our ruin is inevitable. Should it now be determined to wait the result of a previous formal negotiation with France, a whole year must pass over our heads before we can be acquainted with the result. In the mean time we are to struggle through a campaign, without arms, ammunition, or any one necessary of war. Disgrace and defeat will infallibly ensue; the soldiers and officers will become so disappointed that they will abandon their colours, and probably never be persuaded to make another effort.

But there is another consideration still more cogent. I can assure you that the spirit of the people cries out for this Declaration; the military, in particular, men and officers, are outrageous on the subject; and a man of your excellent discernment need not be told how dangerous it would be in our present circumstances, to dally with the spirit, or disappoint the expectations of the bulk of the people. May not despair, anarchy, and finally submission, be the bitter fruits? I am firmly persuaded that they will; and, in this persuasion, I most devoutly pray that you may not merely recommend, but positively lay injunctions, on your, servants in Congress to embrace a measure so necessary to our salvation.

Yours, most sincerely,