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Letter from General Lee to General Burgoyne



Camp on Prospect Hill, December 1, 1775.

DEAR SIR: As I am just informed you are ready to embark for England, I cannot refrain from once more trespassing on your patience. An opportunity is now presented of immortalizing yourself as the saviour of your country. The whole British Empire stands tottering on the brink of ruin, and you have it in your power to prevent the fatal catastrophe; but it will admit of no delay. For Heaven' s sake avail yourself of the precious moment; put an end to the delusion; exert the voice of a brave, virtuous citizen, and tell the people at home they must immediately rescind all the impolitick, iniquitous, tyrannical, murderous acts; that they must overturn the whole frantic system, or that they are undone. You ask me, in your letter, if it is independence at which the Americans aim? I answer, no; the idea never entered a single American' s head until a most intolerable oppression forced it upon them. All they required was to remain masters of their own property, and be governed by the same equitable laws which they had enjoyed from the first formation of the Colonies. The ties of connection which bound them to their parent country were so dear to them, that he who would have ventured to have touched them, would have been considered as the most impious of mortals; but these sacred ties the same men who have violated or baffled the most precious laws and rights of the people at home, dissipated or refused to account for their treasures, tarnished the glory, and annihilated the importance of the nation — these sacred ties, I say, so dear to every American, Bute and his tory administration are now rending asunder.

You ask whether it is the weight of taxes of which they complain? I answer, no; it is the principle they combat; and they would be guilty in the eyes of God and men, of the present world and all posterity, did they not reject it; for if it were admitted, they would have nothing that they could call their own. They would be in a worse condition than the wretched slaves in the West-India Islands, whose little peculium has ever been esteemed inviolate. But wherefore should I dwell on this? Is not the case of Ireland the same with theirs? They are subordinate to the British Empire, they are subordinate to the Parliament of Great Britain, but they tax themselves. Why, as the case is similar, do not you begin with them? But you know, Mr˙ Burgoyne, audacious as the Ministry are, they dare not attempt it. There is one part of your letter which I confess I do not thoroughly understand. If I recollect right, (for I unfortunately have not the letter by me,) you say that if the privilege of taxing themselves is what the Americans claim, the contest is at an end. You surely cannot allude to the propositions of North. It is impossible that you should not think with me, and all mankind, that these propositions are no more or less than adding to a most abominable oppression a more abominable insult. But to recur to the question of America' s aiming at independence.


Do any instructions of any one of the Provinces to their Representatives or Delegates, furnish the least ground for this suspicion? On the contrary, do they not all breathe the strongest attachment and filial piety for their parent country? But if she discards all the natural tenderness of a mother, and acts the part of a cruel step-dame, it must naturally be expected that their affections cease; the Ministry leave them no alternative — out servire, out alienari jubent. It is in human nature — it is a moral obligation, to adopt the latter. But the fatal separation has not yet taken place, and yourself, your single self, my friend, may perhaps prevent it. Upon the Ministry I am afraid you can make no impression. To repeat a hackneyed quotation,
"They are in blood,
Steep' d in so far, that should they wade no more,
To return would be as tedious as to go o' er."
But if you will at once break off all connections with these pernicious men — If you will waive all consideration but the salvation of your country, Great Britain may stand as much indebted to General Burgoyne as Rome was to her Camillus. Do not, I entreat you, my dear sir, think this the mad rhapsody of an enthusiast, nor the cant of a factious, designing man, for in these colours I am told I am frequently painted. I swear by all that' s sacred, as I hope for comfort and honour in this world, and to avoid misery in the next, that I most earnestly and devoutly love my native country; that I wish the same happy relation to subsist for ages, betwixt her and her children, which has raised the wide arch of her empire to so stupendous and enviable a height; but at the same time I avow, that if the Parliament and people should be depraved enough to support any longer the present Ministry in their infernal scheme, my zeal and reverence for the rights of humanity are so much greater than my fondness for any particular spot, even the place of my nativity, that had I any influence in the councils of America, I would advise not to hesitate a single instant, but decisively to cut the Gordian knot now besmeared with civil blood.

This, I know, is strong, emphatick language, and might pass, with men who are strangers to the flame which the love of liberty is capable of lighting up in the human breast, for a proof of my insanity; but you, sir, you, unless I have mistaken you from the beginning, well conceive that a man in his sober senses may possess such feelings. In my sober senses, therefore, permit me, once more, most earnestly to entreat and conjure you to exert your whole force, energy, and talents, to stop the Ministry in this their headlong career. If you labour in vain, (as I must repeat I think will be the case,) address yourself to the people at large. By adopting this method, I am so sanguine as to assure myself of your success; and your publick character will be as illustrious as your personal qualities are amiable, to all who intimately know you. By your means, the Colonists will long continue the farmers, planters, and shipwrights of Great Britain; but if the present course is persisted in, an eternal divorce must inevitably take place. As to the idea of subduing them into servitude, and indemnifying yourselves for the expense, you must be convinced, long before this, of its absurdity.

I should not, perhaps, be extravagant, if I advanced that all the ships of the world would be too few to transport force sufficient to conquer three millions of people, unanimously determined to sacrifice every thing to liberty. But if it were possible, the victory would be not less ruinous than the defeat. You would only destroy your own strength. No revenue can possibly be extracted out of this country. The army of placemen might be increased, but her circuitous commerce, founded on perfect freedom, which alone can furnish riches to the metropolis, would fall to the grounch. But the dignity of Great Britain, it seems, is at stake! Would you, sir, if in the heat of passion you had struck a simple drummer of your regiment, and afterwards discovered that you had done it unjustly, think it any forfeiture of your dignity to acknowledge the wrong? No, (I am well acquainted with your disposition,) you would ask him pardon at the head of your regiment.

I shall now conclude (if you will excuse the pedantry) with a sentence of Latin: "Justum est bellum quibus necessarium, et pia arma quibus nulla, nisi in armis, relinquitur spes."


I most sincerely wish you a quick and prosperous voyage, and that your happiness and glory may be equal to the idea I have of your merits, as I am, with the greatest truth and affection, yours, &c˙,


To General Burgoyne.