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To George Washington from Richard Henry Lee, 20–22 November 1777

From Richard Henry Lee

York [Pa.] 20th[–22] November 1777

Dear Sir,

I have no doubt of being excused by you for not sooner answering your favor of the 24th last,1 when you are informed that my ill state of health has prevented me from attending as I ought, to the important matter it contains. I gave Mr Jones the letter, that he might inform Congress of such parts as it imported the public they should be acquainted with. As it appeared by the letters of Gen. Mifflin that he objected only to serve in the Quartermasters department, that his health was returning, and that he was willing to continue his aid to the public cause, Congress appointed him one of the Commissioners of the new Board, because he is competent to the right discharge of its duties, because that would best suit his valetudinary state, and as shewing a just sense of his uniform, vigorous, and well founded patriotism.2 I have strong hopes, that by the skill and industry of this new Board, and from the right execution of business in that important department, you will in future find great relief. Gen. Conway has not lately been mentioned in Congress, nor’ has there been much talk of an Adjutant General, since it is not certainly known whether Colo. Pickering will accept ⟨h⟩is new appointment. Mr Flemmings character stands very fair, and so far as I am able to judge, would answer well in this commission. You will see in the inclosed what Mr Sergeant says of him.3 General Mifflin has proposed a plan for the Quartermaster department that appears judicious, and well fitted to answer the purpose of good service and œconomy at the same time. He would divide this department into its military and civil branches, the former to be filled by a person well qualified to discharge its duties, and the latter, again to be divided into Commissaries of Teams, of Forage, of Tents &c. &c. to be governed in their purchases by estimates from the Quarter Master general who is to touch no money but a moderate tho sufficient salary.4

It [is] unfortunately too true, that our enemies pay little regard to good faith, or any obligations of justice and humanity; which renders the convention of Saratoga a matter of great moment, and it is also, as you justly observe, an affair of infinite delicacy. The undoubted advantage they will take, even of the appearance of infraction on our part, and the American Character, which is concerned in preserving its faith inviolate, covers this affair with difficulties, and proves the disadvantage we are under in conducting war against an old, corrupt, and powerful people who having much credit and influence in the world will venture on things that would totally ru⟨in⟩ the reputation of young and rising communities like ours. The English however, were not to blame in the business of Closter Seven. That convention was left incomplete by the Commanders who made it. Twas stipulated particularly that the Court of Versailles must ratify, and that within a certain time, which was not done until long after the time was elapsed, and before which ratification the Troops of Hanover had returned to arms. Upon this occasion the good faith of England is not impeached. It is greatly to be regretted that the situation of your Army unfits it for vigorous action, because it is very obvious that the enemies possession of Philadelphia this winter and the ensuing spring may produce consequences extensively injurious. You well know Sir, how weak and divided the people of this State are from various causes. Those of Delaware are still worse. In this condition, with the infinite arts of our enemies, pushed up almost to the center of the above governments, and aided by the powerful means of supplying the wants fanciful and real of the people with all kinds of European goods and Salt, it will be no great matter of surprize if we were to find a total revolution in Pennsylvania and Delaware. Add to this, the ill condition of our finances which totter upon every seeming success of the enemy. It is not to be supposed, that where so much is at stake, G. Britain will fail to make most potent efforts to recover her honor and prevent her ruin. Upon this ground we may expect considerable reinforcements, and early as possible in the spring. With an Army much strengthened, Gen. Howe may effect purposes dangerous to America. It happens too, unluckily for us, that in order to support the credit of our money, the several States must of necessity impose large and immediate Taxes. This is the most delicate and difficult of all government operations even in old and undisturbed States. Yet it is unavoidable, and Congress have pressingly requested that it may be quickly and extensively entered upon.

It was most evident to discerning men that the change in the Commissariate, at the time it was adopted would produce most mischievous consequences, yet such was the rage of reformation that no endeavors to prevent the evil could avail, and now I feel the most anxious solicitude for fear the consequences may disperse our army even in face of the enemy. A Committee is appointed to confer with the Commissary general and to try what can be done to avert the evil.5 I wish they may be fortunate enough to hit upon a remedy. That there should be a want of flour amazes me and proves great want of attention in the Commissary Gen. because I well know that any quantity might have been got in Virginia at a reasonable price.6 By our last dispatches from the West Indies,7 it would seem as if a war between France & England was inevitable, unless the meanness of the latter should restore all her Captures made from the former without the limits prescribed by treaty, and which have been made under authority of an Act of Parliament. But the royal spleen against America is such, that every consideration falls before the wish to Subjugate this free country. Yet Mr Bingham mentions that the ministerial writings are calculated to rouse the national resentment against France. If so, tis evident they want to set Europe on fire that the smoke may cover them from the eyes of their injured country. Mr Carmichael writes that Dr Lee was returning to Paris from Berlin, having finished his business successfully at the Prussian Court, & Mr Bingham says ’tis certain that the King of Prussia has opened his Ports to the United States, and that Portugal has deserted the interest of England, and acceeded to the family compact. This is all good news, and will I hope furnish employment quickly for our unprincipled enemies.8

My ill state of health will compel me to return home in a few days, where I shall continue ardently to pray for your health and success. I am dear Sir affectionately yours

Richard Henry Lee

ALS, DLC:GW; ADf (fragment), ViU. The text in angle brackets is mutilated. The last two paragraphs of this letter, in which Lee apparently was responding to GW’s letter of 18 Nov., could not have been written before the evening of 22 Nov., since Lee discusses matters occurring on that day (see notes 5 and 7).

1Lee is referring to GW’s letter to him of 28 October.

2Thomas Mifflin, who had resigned as quartermaster general on 8 Oct., Timothy Pickering, and Robert Hanson Harrison were elected to constitute the Board of War on 7 Nov. (see Henry Laurens to GW, 7 Nov., and note 4).

3Lee enclosed Jonathan D. Sergeant’s letter to him from Lancaster, Pa., of 12 Nov.: “Mr S. Adams desired me to write You on the Subject of an Adjutant General; as Col: [Edward] Fleming, he tells me, has been mentioned & is very little known.

“I have seen him, once only, on some Business committed to him by the Jersey Assembly, of which he is a Member; but have heard a very advantageous Character of his Abilities, Industry & Skill, particularly in that Line. I think my Informants were persons of some Judgment in Military Matters, especially the parson-Militant, [James] Caldwell, of whose Fame, I presume, You must have heard.

“I have only to add that what, I believe, struck the Fancy of Mr Adams was that he has a religious Character; & that, I understood Col: Fleming once looked for this Appointment & thought himself ill-treated when he was neglected. His Appearance and Manner are much in his favour, which is all I know personally” (DLC:GW).

4Lee presumably is summarizing the contents of Thomas Mifflin’s letter to him of 6 Nov., which was laid before Congress on 19 Nov. and referred to the Board of War (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 9:941), but which has not been identified.

5Congress had reorganized the commissary department in June 1777 (see John Hancock to GW, 20 June). On 22 Nov., in response to a letter of the previous day from Commissary Gen. of Purchases William Buchanan complaining about the impossibility of buying wheat at reasonable prices, Congress appointed William Duer, Elbridge Gerry, and Daniel Roberdeau to a committee to attend to the problem. The minute of the appointment in Congress’s journal initially listed Lee as a member of the committee, but his name was struck out (see DNA:PCC, item 78, and JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 9:948).

6Beginning at this place in the text Lee is replying to GW’s letter to him of 18 November.

7Lee is referring to William Bingham’s letter to Congress’s foreign affairs committee, written at St. Pierre, Martinique, on 13 Oct. (DNA:PCC, item 90), which enclosed William Carmichael’s letter to Bingham of 25 June–6 July from Paris (DNA:PCC, item 88). The letters arrived on 22 Nov. (see James Lovell to John Adams, that date, and Richard Henry Lee to Roger Sherman, 24 Nov., in Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 8:305–6, 318–20).

8Arthur Lee set off from Paris on 15 May 1777 to try to negotiate a commercial treaty with Frederick the Great, and he arrived at Berlin on 4 June 1777. Lee left Berlin on 9 July, having accomplished nothing (see Lee to the chairman of the secret committee, 11 June and 29 July 1777, DNA:PCC, items 83 and 103; see also Potts, Arthur Lee description begins Louis W. Potts. Arthur Lee: A Virtuous Revolutionary. Baton Rouge, La., and London, 1981. description ends , 174–77). William Carmichael (d. 1795) of Queen Anne’s County, Md., had acted as secretary to Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee in their commission to enlist French support for the American cause. In October 1776 he went to Berlin as Deane’s representative, empowered to negotiate on behalf of Congress, but nothing ever came of his mission, and he was in France at this time. Carmichael returned to America in February 1778 and was elected to the Continental Congress the following November. In 1780 he went to Spain as secretary to John Jay, whom Congress previously had sent to negotiate a treaty with that country, and he remained the American representative to the Spanish court after Jay’s departure, although he was not officially commissioned U.S. chargé d’affaires to Spain until April 1790. Carmichael was recalled in June 1794 in the wake of another unsuccessful treaty negotiation, but he died before he could return to America.

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