George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Richard Henry Lee, 18 May 1776

To Richard Henry Lee

New York May 18th 1776

My dear Sir

In great haste I write you a few lines to cover the Inclosed—they came in the manner you see them, and as explaind in Captn Langdens Letter to me—I hesitated sometime in determining whether I could, with propriety, select them from the rest considering in what manner they came to my hands, but as there are somethings in each which may serve to irritate I concluded it best to send not only the one directed to you but the other also (to Doctr Franklin) under cover to you as you may communicate, and secrete such parts as you like,1 I have no time to add—the necessity of vigorous exertions are too obvious to need any Stimulus from me. adieu my Dr Sir. I am most Affectionately Yr Obt

Go: Washington

P.S. Upon second thoughts, knowing that Doctr Franklin is in Canada, I send you a Copy only of the Letter to him (which I take to be from Doctr Lee) and the Original to the Doctro.2


1GW is referring to the unsigned letters which Richard Henry Lee’s brother Arthur Lee sent from London in the packet of documents that George Merchant brought to headquarters on this date (see John Langdon to GW, 10 May 1776, n.2, and GW to Hancock, this date). No letter from Arthur Lee to Richard Henry Lee can be found among those letters now in DNA:PCC, but they include Arthur Lee’s brief letter to Benjamin Franklin of 13 Feb. 1776, which covered a longer letter of that date addressed to Cadwallader Colden containing detailed information about British military plans. “The intelligence you shd observe & take measures accordingly,” Lee wrote Franklin. “A fund for necessary expences shd be fix’d here, in such hands as can be confided in. You know who is to be trusted. From Experience I can say (tho’ without any connection or commerce with them,) the New England Men are fittest to be trusted in any dangerous or important enterprize. Show this, only to R.H.L. of Virginia, & he will guess from whence it comes. The Intelligence if it gets to hand in time, shd be communicated as soon as possible to every part of America, that she may be prepared” (DNA:PCC, item 83).

The missing letter to Richard Henry Lee probably was a similar short note covering Arthur Lee’s letter of 14 Feb. 1776 addressed to Colden, which also conveys military intelligence. Both of the letters addressed to Colden apparently were intended for Richard Henry Lee. They are in DNA:PCC, item 83.

In forwarding Arthur Lee’s letters, GW found himself in something of a quandary because each of the letters addressed to Colden include, in addition to military news, a paragraph in which Lee bluntly declares his mistrust of two of the five members on Congress’s committee of secret correspondence to which he had been recently asked to send regular intelligence reports. Although Lee does not name the two, he clearly implies that he means Franklin and John Jay. “If I am to commit myself into an unreserved correspondence,” Lee says in the Colden letter of 13 Feb., “they must be left out, & the L[ee]s or the A[damse]s, put into their places” (DNA:PCC, item 83). So illogical is it for Lee to have enclosed that letter to one of the men whom he so roundly condemns in it that the editors of the Franklin Papers have concluded that the letter of 13 Feb. addressed to Franklin was not meant for his eyes (Willcox, Franklin Papers description begins William B. Willcox et al., eds. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. 40 vols. to date. New Haven, 1959–. description ends , 22:345–47; see also Wharton, Diplomatic Correspondence description begins Francis Wharton, ed. The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States. 6 vols. Washington, D.C., 1889. description ends , 2:71–78). Lee’s intentions in this matter are as perplexing to historians as they were to GW.

2Franklin did not receive this letter until a few weeks after he returned from his mission to Canada. See GW to Franklin, 20 May, 17 June, and Franklin to GW, 21 June 1776.

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