George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Patrick Henry, 20 February 1778

From Patrick Henry

Wmsburgh [Va.] Feb. 20th 1778

Dear Sir

you will no Doubt be surprized at seeing the inclosed Letter, in which the Encomiums bestowed on me are as undeserved, as the Censures aimed at you are unjust.1 I am sorry there should be one man who counts himself my Friend, who is not yours.

Perhaps I give you needless Trouble in handing you this paper. The Writer of it may be too insignificant to deserve any Notice. If I knew this to be the Case, I should not have intruded on your Time which is so precious. But there may possibly be some scheme or party forming to your prejudice. The inclosed leads to such a Suspicion. Believe me Sir I have too high a Sense of the obligations America has to you to abet or countenance so unworthy a proceeding. The most exalted merit hath ever been found to attract Envy. But I please my self with the Hope, that the same Fortitude & greatness of Mind which have hitherto braved all the Difficultys & Dangers inseparable from your Station, will rise superiour to every Attempt of the envious partisan.

I really cannot tell who is the writer of this Letter, which not a little perplexes me. The Handwriting is altogether strange to me.

To give you the Trouble of this, gives me pain. It would suit my Inclination better to give you some Assistance in the great Business of the War. But I will not conceal any thing from you, by which you may be affected. For I really think your personal Welfare & the Happiness of america are intimately connected. I beg you will be assured of that high Regard & Esteem with which I ever am Dear Sir your affectionate Friend & very humble Servant

P. Henry

ALS, PHi: Dreer Collection. On the cover of the letter is a note in GW’s hand: “The Superscription on the Back (from its Similarity) proves that Doctr Rush was the Author of the Letter to Govr Henry and for that purpose is filed with it.”

1The enclosed unsigned letter to Henry, dated 12 Jan. from York, Pa., reads: “The common danger of our country first brought you and me together. I recollect with pleasure the influence of your conversation & eloquence upon the opinions of this country in the beginning of the present controversy. You first taught us to shake off our idolatrous Attachment to Royalty, and to oppose its incroachments upon our liberties with our very lives. By these means you saved us from ruin. The Independance of america is the Offspring of that liberal Spirit of thinking, and acting which followed the destruction of the Spectres of kings and the mighty power of Great Britain.

“But Sir we have only passed the Red Sea. A dreary wilderness is still before us, and Unless a moses or a Joshua are raised up in our behalf, we must perish before we reach the promised land. we have nothing to fear from our enemies on the way. Genl Howe, it is true, has taken Philada; but he has only changed his prison. His dominions are bounded on all sides by his outcentries. america can only be undone by herself. She looks up to her counsels, and Arms, for protection, but alas! what are they? Her representation in Congress dwindled to only twenty-one members—Her Adams—Her Wilson—her Henry, are no more among them. Her counsels weak—and partial remedies applied constantly for universal diseases. Her army—what is it? A major genl belonging to it called it a few days ago in my hearing a Mob. Discipline unknown, or wholly neglected—The Quarter master’s & commissaries’ departments filled with idleness, ignorance & peculation—Our hospitals crowded with 6000 sick, but half provided with necessaries or Accommodations, and more dying in them in One month, than perished in the field during the whole of the last campaign. The money depr[e]ciating without any effectual measures being taken to raise it—The country distracted with the Don Quixotte Attempts to regulate the prices of provisions—an artificial famine created by it, & a real one dreaded from it. The Spirit of the people failing thro’ a more intimate Acquaintance with the causes of our misfortunes—many submitting daily to genl Howe, and more wishing to do it, only to avoid the calamities which threaten our country. But.

“Is our case desperate? By no means. We have wisdom, Virtue—& strength eno’ to save us if they could be called into Action. The Northern Army has Shewn us what Americans are capable of doing with a General at their head. The Spirit of the Southern Army is no ways inferior to the Spirit of the northern. A Gates—a Lee, or a Conway would, in a few weeks render them an irresistable body of men. The last of the Above Officers has accepted of the new Office of Inspector general of our Army, in order to reform Abuses—But the remedy is only a palliative one. In one of his letters to a friend he says, “A great & good God hath desired America to be free—or the [ ] and weak counsellors would have ruined her long ago.” You may rest asured of each of the facts related in this letter. The Author of it is one of your Philada friends. a hint of his name if found out by the hand writing, must not be mentioned to your most ⟨mutilated⟩ate friend. Even the letter must be thrown in the fire. But some of its contents ought to be made public in order to awaken enlighten—& alarm our country. I rely upon your prudence & am Dr Sir with my usual Attachment to you & to our beloved independence yours sincerely” (PHi).

GW took this letter seriously despite Henry’s apology that “The Writer of it may be too insignificant to deserve any Notice.” His suspicion, expressed in his letters to Henry of 27 and 28 Mar., was that Benjamin Rush was the author of the anonymous letter. GW received confirmation from William Gordon, who wrote and signed a note on the cover of the letter while at Mount Vernon on 18 June 1784: “Before perusing the letter, I can take upon me to declare, that, From the knowledge I have of Dr Rush’s handwriting, I have not the least doubt but what it was written by him.”

GW remembered the incident for the rest of his life. He expressed his feeling of gratitude toward Patrick Henry in a letter of 26 Aug. 1794 to Henry Lee, Jr.: “I have conceived myself under obligations to him for the friendly manner in which he transmitted to me some insiduous anonymous writings that were sent to him in the close of the year 1777, with a view to embark him in the opposition that was forming against me at that time” (ALS [letterpress copy], DLC:GW; see also GW’s letter to Archibald Blair of 24 June 1799). He underwent a limited rapprochement with Rush, however, inviting him to dine at headquarters at least once in 1779–80 (an undated invitation is in NcD-MC), visiting Rush’s Philadelphia home while attending the Constitutional Convention in July 1787, and receiving a gift of seeds from Rush in April 1788 (see Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 5:178; Rush to GW, 26 April 1788). For an examination of Rush’s motivations in writing the anonymous letter to Henry and a discussion of his relations with GW, see Butterfield, Rush Letters description begins L. H. Butterfield, ed. Letters of Benjamin Rush. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J., 1951. description ends , 1:182–85, 2:1197–1208.

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