George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Charles Lee, 29 October 1788

From Charles Lee

Richmond 29th October 1788


For a few days past the Assembly has been engaged upon the subject of the federal constitution: The house of delegates in committee has come to several resolutions with respect to putting it into operation. One of them distributes the commonwealth into ten districts each of which is to choose a representative in Congress, and another appoints that there shall be twelve districts each of which is to choose an Elector of the President, and every free man is at this election to have a vote. These matters were introduced by Mr Corbin who seems to me not to have the confidence even of those who are friends to the fair trial of the new government and as they have made but small progress, I cannot tell what will become of them.1 For Mr Henry to day took occasion to declare that he should oppose every measure tending to the organization of the government unless accompanied with measures for the amendment of the Constitution for which purpose he proposes that another General Convention of deputies from the different states shall be held as soon as practicable. He offered to the Committee of the whole house several resolutions to be agreed to upon this point, one of them that the Legislature of Virginia should apply to the new Congress expressive of the desire of this state that another General Convention be immediately held to amend the constitution—The language of this resolution contains a direct and indecent censure on all those who have befriended the new constitution holding them forth as the betrayers of the dearest rights of the people—Applying to the constitution these words are used “whereby the most precious rights of the people if not cancelled are rendered insecure.” With some difficulty and after much entreaty Mr Henry conceded (I use his expression) to suffer the resolution to lie on the table for consideration till tomorrow. Mr Corbin who spoke several times but never against the resolution concluded with saying that the resolution as proposed was unobjectionable and Zach. Johnson was the only member who declared his disapprobation in positive terms.2 If Mr Henry pleases he will carry the resolution in its present terms, than which none in my opinion can be more exceptionable or inflamatory, though as he is sometimes kind and condescending, he may perhaps be induced to alter it.3 The other resolution proposed that a committee should be appointed, to answer the circular letter of New York and in conformity with the object of that letter, to address the assemblies of the other states.4

I am told Mr Henry has publickly said that no person who wishes the constitution to be amended should vote for Mr Madison to be in the senate, and there is much reason to fear he will not be elected. Col. R.H. Lee is considered as certain—and Col. Grayson is expected to be the choice of the Senate.5

Mr Mayo has completed his bridge, & the greater part is strong and substantial; and this is now the common passage for waggons chariots &c. across the river 6—you will please to pardon the abrupt manner of my communication as I have been much fatigued with the business of the court, and have been much chagrined with the conduct of the federalists in the assembly who seem in general to stand in fear of their opponents. I remain with every consideration of respect and esteem sir your most obed. hble sert

Charles Lee


Charles Lee (1758–1815), a brother of Col. Henry (Lighthorse Harry) Lee, practiced law in Alexandria after the Revolution and handled a considerable portion of GW’s legal work. He was also naval officer of the South Potomac District, and in 1789 GW appointed him collector of customs at Alexandria.

1See Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia; Begun and Holden in the City of Richmond . . . on Monday, the Twentieth Day of October, in the Year of Our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Eighty-Eight (Richmond, 1828), 18, Microfilm Collection of Early State Records description begins Microfilm Collection of Early State Records prepared by the Library of Congress in association with the University of North Carolina, 1949. description ends . The resolutions of the committee of the whole were not formally presented in the assembly until 31 October. Francis Corbin (1759–1821) was a delegate to the assembly from Middlesex and a member of the Virginia Ratifying Convention. “These Resolutions,” Corbin wrote Madison on 12 Nov., “you will perceive are drawn, not so much in Conformity perhaps to the Spirit of the new Constitution as in Conformity to the Genius, the habits & Prejudices of the people of Virginia. The Division of the Country into Districts, the Exclusion of the ’three fifths of all other persons,’ and the Requisition of Residence are the principles on which they are founded” (Rutland, Madison Papers, description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds. The Papers of James Madison, Congressional Series. 17 vols. Chicago and Charlottesville, Va., 1962–91. description ends 11:341–43).

2Zachariah Johnston (1742–1800), a supporter of the Constitution in the Virginia Ratifying Convention, was a delegate from Augusta County.

3The resolutions of the committee of the whole introduced on 30 Oct. left Henry’s language virtually intact: the “great essential and unalienable rights, liberties and privileges of freemen . . . if not cancelled, are rendered insecure under the said constitution until the same shall be altered and amended.” The resolutions further stated that it was the opinion of the committee that in order to prevent “those disorders which must arise under a government not founded in the confidence of the people, application be made to the Congress of the United States, so soon as they shall assemble under the said constitution, to call a Convention for proposing amendments to the same, according to the mode therein directed” (Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia . . . 1788, 16).

4For the circular letter from New York, see Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., to GW, 28 Oct. 1788, n.2.

5William Grayson (c.1736–1790) served in the Continental Congress, 1785–87, as a commissioner of the Board of War, and as a member of the Virginia Ratifying Convention and was elected to the First Congress. Both Grayson and Richard Henry Lee were vociferous opponents of the new Constitution.

6John Mayo had recently constructed a toll bridge between Richmond and Manchester. Shortly after this letter was written, David Humphreys wrote Jefferson in Paris that “Mayo’s bridge has been completed, and by a great storm, within a few weeks afterwards, was carried away. It was so productive, while in use, that he received an offer for his property in it, from a company, of £1000 in hand, of having it kept in repair and of having half the annual income of the Toll forever” (Humphreys to Jefferson, 29 Nov. 1788, in Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 14:300–304).

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