James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Henry Lee, 3 April 1790

From Henry Lee

Berry hill1 April 3d. 1790.

Dear Sir

I am induced to address you on a subject which violates the rule I had lately prescribed to myself with respect to our public affairs.

A youth the son of Mr. Thomas L. Lee to whom I beleive you was intimately known met me this morning on the road.2

Bred to the mercantile line in one of the most respectable houses in our country & cut off from his expectations there, by the death of his principal Mr. Ritchie who was killed the other day in a duel,3 he is anxious to obtain a place in some of the departments of the genl. govt. He is very humble in his wishes & is most solicitous to procure a birth under a character from whose example he will derive instruction & on whose patronage he can rely. He mentioned Mr. Jefferson & said that his deceased father & Mr J he understood had been very friendly from an early acquaintance. I promised to write to Mr. J on the subject which I have accordingly done & will thank you if you will remind him of the matter, provided you can do it consistently with your mode of conduct. If the government should continue to exist, which by the bye is more & more eventful, the introduction of the southern youth as clerks in the high departments of the nation seems to me to be a sure tho slow means of Aiding the southern influence. They become as it were from their official education owners of the ministerial functions if their conduct & talents correspond with their prospective stations.

I wish our southern gentlemen would in due time attend to this material truth—if they do not a monopoly will take place from the northern hives in this, as in every thing else in their power.

On the score of propriety & repose I had determined to suppress my anxious attention to the prosperity of the national Govt., for I really know not what conduct I may feel myself bound to observe in consequence of the mad policy which seems to direct the doings of Congress.

Therefore for the sake of propriety I wish to be done with govt. On the score of tranquility & peace I am also desirous to be quiet, for every day adds new testimony of the growing ill will of the people here to the govt. To risk repose when good can result from it & the object in view is clearly right, I hold to be the indispensable duty of every good citizen, nor will I ever disobey the sacred injunction, but to do it in reverse circumstances is pursuing the commands of temerity & folly. Henry already is considered as a prophet, his predictions are daily verifying. His declaration with respect to the division of interest which would exist under the constitution & predominate in all the doings of the govt. already has been undeniably proved.

But we are committed & we cannot be releived I fear only by disunion. To disunite is dreadful to my mind, but dreadful as it is, I consider it a lesser evil than union on the present conditions.

I had rather myself submit to all the hazards of war & risk the loss of every thing dear to me in life, than to live under the rule of a fixed insolent northern majority. At present this is the case, nor do I see any prospect of alteration or alleviation.

Change of the seat of govt. to the territorial center, direct taxation & the abolition of gambling systems of finance might & would effect a material change. But these suggestions are vain & idle. No policy will be adopted by Congress which does not more or less tend to depress the south & exalt the north. I have heard it asserted that your vice president should say the southern people were formed by nature to subserve the convenience & interests of the north—or in plain words to be slaves to the north. Very soon will his assertion be thoroughly exemplified. How do you feel, what do you think, is your love for the constitution so ardent, as to induce you to adhere to it tho it should produce ruin to your native country. I hope not, I believe not. However I will be done, for it is disagreable to utter unpleasant opinions. Yours always—

H. Lee

RC (DLC). Docketed by JM.

1The Stafford County residence of Thomas Ludwell Lee (1730–1778), on the north side of Potomac Creek, near Potomac Church (George H. S. King, comp., The Register of Overwharton Parish, Stafford County, Virginia, 1723–1758 [Fredericksburg, Va., 1961], p. 206).

2Thomas Ludwell Lee (d. 1807), son of Thomas Ludwell Lee, married Fanny Carter, daughter of Robert W. Carter of Sabine Hall. He later resided at Coton, Loudoun County, near Leesburg (Edmund Jennings Lee, Lee of Virginia, 1642–1892 [Philadelphia, 1895], pp. 313–18).

3The duel between Robert Ritchie and William Glassell took place sometime between 27 Mar., when Ritchie drew up his will, and 31 Mar., when a special session of the Spotsylvania Court unanimously acquitted Glassell of a murder charge (Spotsylvania County, Will Book E, 1772–1798, pp. 1006–7, 1040–41, and Order Book, 1787–1792, p. 372 [microfilm, Vi]; Dawson to JM, 13 Apr. 1790). Information concerning Ritchie and Glassell and their fatal encounter at Alum Spring Rock on Hazel Run, near Fredericksburg, is scanty and unreliable. The only known account of the duel is found in the autobiography of Robert Reid Howison (1820–1906), a Fredericksburg lawyer, clergyman, and historian. Portions of the autobiography have been published in WMQ description begins William and Mary Quarterly. description ends , 2d ser., II (1922), 221–38; IV (1924), 217–44. As recounted by Howison, the duel arose from an incident at a Freemason’s ball. Glassell challenged Ritchie after the latter refused to apologize for insulting a young lady whom Glassell had escorted to the ball. Although his narrative is based on statements furnished by a Glassell descendant, Howison could not fix the date of the Ritchie-Glassell duel—he guessed that it occurred around 1815; nor was he able to discover Ritchie’s given name (ibid., IV [1924], 228–31).

Ritchie and Glassell were Fredericksburg merchants—other than that little is known of the two principals. A detailed genealogy of the family contains but one mention of a William Glassell of this period. He was apparently a nephew of John Glassell (1734–1806) of Scotland, who had been a successful merchant in Fredericksburg before the Revolution, and of Andrew Glassell (1738–1827), who resided in that part of Culpeper County that became Madison County in 1792 (Hayden, Virginia Genealogies, pp. 3–7). Further evidence linking William Glassell with John Glassell of Scotland appears in Crozier, Virginia County Records: Spotsylvania County, pp. 451, 494. The younger Glassell married Sarah Buck (d. 1806), sister of Anthony Buck of Fredericksburg; they had no children. His will was probated on 26 Sept. 1801 (Fredericksburg Va. Herald, 15 Aug. 1806; Fredericksburg City, Hustings Court, Will Book A, 1782–1817, pp. 267–68 [microfilm, Vi]).

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