George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Lee, Jr., 18 November 1784

From Henry Lee, Jr.

Alexand[ri]a [Va.] Novr 18th 84.

My dear Genl

I did myself the pleasure of writing to you on the 15th Since which the meeting have concluded their business.1 they determined to send the petition to the representatives of this county, I beleive, & to trouble you with their bill for perusal, & then to place it in proper hands. However the express who will deliver this, is sent purposely by the meeting with our papers, & will bear a letr to you from the chairman.2 Thus you will receive the matter fully explained. This would have superceded the necessity of any communication from me, did I not think it proper to suggest to you two changes in the bill which appear to many, unsurmountable objections—if they strike you so, it would be well to communicate them, that they may be altered—the one is, the taxing the company with recompensing individuals for all new damages which may arise from or by means of the canal locks &c.—the 2d is the authorizing the company to purchase & erect mill seats water works &c.—the first of these will prevent subscriptions—the 2d permits monopoly, which is disgusting—as the tolls are in the first of the bills decided to be adequate compensation for the expence & in accomplishing the object, it appears mercenary to pray the addition of extra privileges—However the changes will speak for themselves.3

The hurry which attended the whole business subjects the bill to many grammatical errors & omissions—this can easily be amended by the gentlemen to whom it may be entrusted. I hope it may strike the assembly in the same manner, the inhabitants of this country view it, & that success may attend the plan in every stage of it. I am my dear Genl with unalterable respect & affection Your friend & ob. servt

Henry Lee Junr


Henry Lee (1756–1818), known as Light-Horse Harry, was deeply interested in the Potowmack Company from its inception. In 1782, Lee married Matilda Lee, the heiress to Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County where he at this time was living.

1Lee’s letter written on 15 Nov., which was the day interested gentlemen from Maryland and Virginia met at Alexandria to lay plans for forming a company to improve the navigation of the Potomac (see GW to Jacob Read, 3 Nov., n.4), has not been found. See also the editorial note in GW to Benjamin Harrison, 10 October. The following report of the meeting appeared in the Alexandria newspaper on 25 Nov.: “On Monday the 15th Instant, at a very numerous and respectable Meeting of the Gentlemen of this State and Maryland, convened by public Advertisement at Mr Lomax’s Tavern, to deliberate and consult on the vast, great, political and commercial Object, the rendering navigable the River Potomack from Tide Water—It was unanimously Resolved, That every possible Effort ought to be exerted to render these waters navigable to their utmost Sources. In consequence Petitions to the respective Honorable Assemblies were prepared, praying to form a Company, with such Immunities as might seem meet to them to grant. The Patriotism and Zeal of the Meeting, make it a Matter of little Doubt, but that the respective Honorable Assemblies will most cheerfully grant the Prayer of the Petitions, and render every possible Assistance to complete so great a national Concern.

“The opening of the Navigation of Potomack is, perhaps, a Work of more political than commercial Consequence, as it will be one of the grandest Chains for preserving the federal Union, the Western world will have free Access to us, and we shall be one and the same People, whatever System of European Politics may be adopted.—In short, it is a Work so big, that the intellectual Faculties cannot take it at a View.

“The Company in their Plan, have engaged to accomplish the Navigation from the Source to the Upper Falls in Three Years, about Two Hundred Miles from us, and to make it complete to Tide-Water in Ten Years.—The Commerce and Riches that must of Necessity pour down upon us, are too obvious to mention” (Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser). More or less the same account appeared in the Virginia Gazette, or, the American Advertiser (Richmond) on 4 December.

2GW went from Mount Vernon to Richmond shortly before the meeting was held in Alexandria, arriving in the capital on Sunday, 14 Nov., and remaining there until he and Lafayette departed for Mount Vernon about a week later. One of the Fairfax County representatives, Thomas West, did not take his seat in the house of delegates in Richmond until 10 Nov., and he had left by 6 Dec; the other delegate, Alexander Henderson, did not arrive at the capitol until 18 December. Most of the important decisions regarding the proposed Potowmack Company were made when neither of these men were present. The draft of the bill for creating a Potomac River company with a covering letter and probably a copy of the petition of the Alexandria meeting to the two state legislatures did not reach GW until after his return to Mount Vernon from Richmond. He at that time, on 28 Nov., forwarded the documents to James Madison (see GW to Madison, 28 Nov.).

3One may infer from Lee’s discussion here of the original draft of the Potomac River bill, as is in any case most likely, that GW had already been made familiar with the bill’s contents, or even participated in its drafting, before he left for Richmond.

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