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Letter from General Lee to a Member of Congress



Charlestown, South Carolina, July 19, 1776.

MY DEAR FRIEND: I have received yours of the 28th of May, and did not think it possible that anything could come from your hand to give me so disagreeable sensations. You tell me a dark, mysterious story of a certain great General, of whom Prince Ferdinand has declared, si l' on vent un officier, &c. This great General in the clouds will, it seems, graciously condescend to serve America, on condition that Congress will give him assurances of stepping over the heads of every officer but one, and this he submits to, only on consideration of the confidence due to an American. You ask my opinion on this subject; but the palpable meaning of your letter is, to prepare me for a cession of my rank in favour of some impudent adventurer. Buckwith is the man, as you conjecture, from his known political principles and military abilities, which are so transcendent that I ought, for the publick interest, to make a second sacrifice. I am not, I believe, naturally proud; I do not think myself conceited of my talents; but to be put in competition, much more to be spurned aside, to make room for so despicable a character as Buckwith, a generally reputed coward, and a b—d sycophant, — I say, to be kicked out of my station for such a creature as this, would swell a man more humble than myself into a trumpeter of his own merits. Great God! is it come to this? I am not, it seems, an American; but am I not (if I may so express myself) Americanior ipsis Americanis? Have I not, such has been my zeal for your cause, once already waived my military claims in deference to the whim and partiality of some of your members? Did I not consent to serve under an old Churchwarden, of whom you had conceived a most extravagant and ridiculous opinion? Your eyes were at length opened, and Deacon Ward returned to his proper occupation; and would you now, a second time, (do you think it consistent with decency, I may say gratitude or common honesty,) load me with a similar disgrace? Have I betrayed any ignorance in my profession? Have I shown a deficiency in courage? Am I slackened in my zeal or industry? What have I done to merit such an indignity? What part of my conduct can justify your harbouring such an idea? Have not I staked my fortune, life, and reputation, in your cause? Is there a service in Europe, to speak proudly, (your injurious proposal forces me to it,) is there a service in Europe, where, with some small reputation and my powerful friends, I might not expect the same rank I now hold? Have I not made myself a voluntary slave for the insurances of American freedom? Have I, sleeping or waking, employed a single thought but for her welfare, glory, or advantage?

But enough of this. You ask my opinion, and I will freely, explicitly, and concisely give it to you. If the Congress supersede me, I will, I must obey; but I hope, in common justice, and for their own honour, that they will reestablish me, at least in part, in the easy fortune which I have forfeited, so as to enable me to retire from a service to which I am no longer thought adequate.


Before I conclude, let me once more repeat confidentially to you, that if Buckwith is the man in whose favour you meditate so gross a piece of injustice, you will make a very bad bargain, as he is certainly, unless fame belies him, neither possessed of courage, abilities, or integrity. In God' s name, if a real genius, or acknowledged hero, favoured by Heaven with a more than common portion of ethereal spirit, should present himself, (a la Lippe, or Braganza,) receive him with open arms, as an immediate present from God, and invest him with the command of the whole. No man loves, respects, and reverences another, more than I do General Washington. I esteem his virtues, private and publick; I know him to be a man of sense, courage, and firmness; but if a hero should start up, endowed with the attributes which, according to my persuasion, reside in the two I have mentioned, and who would charge himself with the mighty task of your political salvation, General Washington ought, and, I am convinced, would resign the truncheon. But that a little, paltry, impudent adventurer should sneakingly stipulate for the second rank, when, if his motives were pure, he could be equally serviceable in the third, fourth, fifth, or sixth, it is not to be endured, it is a gross imposition on common understanding, and a grosser attempt to rob an individual. I must beg and conjure you, my dear friend, for such I am sure you are, to consider the delicate, perhaps you will say false, notions in which soldiers are bred; and that you will be careful of putting to so severe a trial the sensibility of one, who is, most sincerely, devotedly, and affectionately, yours, CHARLES LEE.

To * * *.

P˙ S˙ I am extremely shocked with the pallid complexion of your publick councils. Is it possible that such a despicable group as the Maryland Convention should lay an embargo on the great vessel of the Commonwealth! Can you be so weak as to hunt for the chimera Absolute Unanimity! Why do you not advise the aggregate of the people to enfranchise themselves? Your idea of quitting Canada from want of specie is to me inconceivable, when you can or ought to command plate sufficient to purchase ten Canadas.