James Madison Papers

Report of Committee on Letter of Arthur Lee, [1 December] 1780

Report of Committee on Letter of Arthur Lee

MS (NA: PCC, No. 19, III, 511). The report is in the hand of Thomas Bee of South Carolina.

[1 December 1780]

The Committee to whom were referred the Letter from Arthur Lee Esqr.1 &c submit the following report.

Arthur Lee Esqr. having deposited with the President of Congress a Picture of the King of France set with Diamonds presented to him by the Minister of that Monarch on his taking leave of the Court of Versailles as a Mark of his Majesty’s esteem, and intimated, that as the Picture was presented to him in consequence of his having been a Commissioner of Congress at that Court, it did not become him to retain the same without the express approbation of Congress, Resolved that he be informed that Congress approve of his retaining the Picture2

Resolved That Mr. Lee be further informed in Answer to his Letter that there is no particular charge against him before Congress properly supported. That Congress are sensible of his zealous & faithful Exertions to discharge the great public trust reposed in him; and that he be assured his recall was not intended to fix any kind of censure on his Character or Conduct abroad3 but appeared at the time a necessary measure to put a stop to differences subsisting among their Commissioners in Europe greatly detrimental to the Interest of the United States, the particular grounds of which differences, it was not then in the power of Congress fully to Investigate.

The Committee also report That the Sum mentioned in his accounts to have been paid for Intelligence appears a reasonable charge & ought to be allowed.4

That the same allowance be made to his secretary, as was made to Mr Stockton who acted in that capacity to the Honble Willm. Lee Esqr.5 and that the other Articles stated in his accounts with the Vouchers produced, be referred to the Board of Treasury for liquidation.

1Lee’s letter of 17 October, after being spread on the journal of Congress two days later, was then referred for report to a committee of which JM was chairman (Jones to JM, 2 October, n. 10; Lee to JM, Bee, and Clark, 21 and 27 October 1780, n. 2; JM to Pendleton, 7 November 1780, n. 4). The committee’s recommendations reached Congress on 30 October (Journals of the Continental Congress, XVIII, 994), but it delayed action upon them for about one month.

2Arthur Lee had been a commissioner of the United States at the court of Louis XVI. Lee informed Congress that his fellow commissioner, Silas Deane, had misused public funds. Although each man had staunch supporters in Congress, its members unanimously agreed on 10 June 1779 that, since Deane was back in the United States, Lee should also “repair forthwith” to Philadelphia to attend a congressional inquiry into the truth of his charges (ibid., XIV, 712, 714). Lee knew of this action by mid-September (Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, D.C., 1889). description ends , III, 329), but he delayed his return because he was also the agent of the United States to the Spanish court. On 25 December 1779 he heard that Congress had vacated this commission on 13 October, or about two weeks after it had appointed John Jay as minister plenipotentiary to Spain. Lee thereupon wrote to Congress that he would come home as soon as Jay arrived (ibid., III, 447; Journals of the Continental Congress, XV, 1113, 1166). About mid-January 1780, or some ten days before Jay reached Cadiz, the Comte de Vergennes, on behalf of his sovereign, presented Lee “with a gold enamelled snuff-box, containing the picture of the king of France, set with diamonds” (Richard Henry Lee, Life of Arthur Lee, LL.D.… [2 vols.; Boston, 1829], I, 168; Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, D.C., 1889). description ends , III, 462). After a long delay before taking ship from France, Lee finally arrived in Philadelphia in early October 1780 (ibid., IV, 85).

3Congress struck out the remaining lines of this paragraph before adopting the report (Journals of the Continental Congress, XVIII, 1115). This pallid sort of vindication, unaccompanied by a blanket approval of Lee’s expense accounts, naturally failed to placate him or to end his controversy with Deane and the Board of Treasury.

4According to the printed journal (ibid.), the report of the committee ended with this sentence. The manuscript of the resolutions, however, includes the next paragraph also. It, too, was adopted by Congress.

5William Lee, a brother of Arthur Lee, served as commissioner of Congress at the courts of Berlin and Vienna. Between May 1778 and December 1779 his secretary was Samuel Witham Stockton (ca. 1747–1794), who also held many offices in New Jersey, including those of secretary of the convention to ratify the Federal Constitution and secretary of state in 1794. On 14 October 1780 Congress and Stockton arrived at a settlement of his account (ibid., XVII, 454–55; XVIII, 926–27; New Jersey Archives description begins William A. Whitehead et al., eds., Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New Jersey (1st ser., 42 vols.; Newark, Trenton, Paterson, 1880–1949). description ends , XXV, 470 n.).

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