George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Lee, 9 February 1789

From Henry Lee

Alexa. 9th Feby 1789

My dear Genl

Too often am I obliged to intrude on your time, which I assure you I very reluctantly do, as I well know how much the business of others avocate your attention from your own concerns.

But the importance of the business which I wish to receive your aid in, I hope will be deemed in some degree an apology.

Mr Madison & myself have determined to make sale of part of our joint property at the great falls in Europe, for the purpose of enabling us to gain possession & to improve the place comprehending & adjoining the canal.1

We find that the poverty of our own country will oppose any negotiations among ourselves, & it is important to us, that the present moment should not pass before improvements are made at the great falls.

As the value of the property and the success of vending it in Europe will greatly depend on the authenticity & respectability of the information which will accompany our overtures, we hope that we may receive a let. from you to Mr Jefferson stating from your own knowledge the extent the situation of the navigation of the potomac & the aptitude of the spot for water works & manufactory of all kinds.2

We conceive that no impropriety in any view of the subject can be possibly imputed to your compliance with our hopes, & we are sincere in our declaration that no advantage could entice us to wish or ask your aid if in your mind any objections may occur.

The ship by which we mean to transmit our papers will soon sail, so that the first leisure you may possess, will we trust enable you to furnish an answer.

I would have waited on you myself concerning this matter but prefer this method of communication, least you may view the subject in a different light from what it presents itself to us. I am my dear General with the highest respect always yours

Henry Lee

ALS, DLC:GW.

1In late 1788 Lee approached Madison concerning the possibility of joining him to purchase and offer to the public parcels of a tract at the Great Falls of the Potomac. See James Madison to GW, 5 Nov. 1788, and GW to Madison, 17 Nov. 1788.

2See GW to Jefferson, 13 Feb. 1789, and to Lee, 13 Feb. 1789. Lee wrote to Jefferson on 6 Mar. 1789, explaining the project: “The property specified is divided into equal shares, two of which your friend Mr. Madison has purchased, two of which I retain, one we mean to sell here, and the remaining three we wish to vend in Europe. Among the papers transmitted is a power of attorney in which your name has been necessarily inserted. It would give Mr. M and me pleasure, if Mr. [William] Short, Mr. G[ouverneur] Morris or any other of our countrymen willing to become an owner of one share would take on himself the execution of our views under your auspices. To such a partner or any other you may designate we would chearfully dispose of one share at the original cost. . . securing to him his right to one eight of the profits arising from sales here or in Europe” (Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 14:619–21). Lee enclosed in this letter a copy of Madison’s “Remarks on the Situation at Great Falls” (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 11:421 –23). Upon receiving Lee’s and GW’s letter on 20 April, Jefferson called on Gouverneur Morris, who had arrived in Paris in January 1789, relayed Lee’s suggestion, and proposed that he, Morris, and William Short should accept the proposal. Morris refused but was willing to approach other financiers on Jefferson’s behalf (Morris, Diary of the French Revolution, description begins Beatrix Cary Davenport, ed. A Diary of the French Revolution by Gouverneur Morris. 2 vols. Boston, 1939. description ends 1:58–59, 71, 76). In September 1789 Jefferson reported to Lee the failure of his efforts to interest French investors in the scheme but offered hope that American financier Daniel Parker, now in Europe, might be more successful. In October, shortly before his departure for the United States, Jefferson wrote Parker: “I cannot help recommending to you Colo. Henry Lee’s matter. . . . if you can procure partners in his plan, it will give me real pleasure. I have perfect confidence in it because I see that Mr. Madison is a sharer, and this proves that his judgment has approved of it on the spot. General Washington’s letter is an illustration and proof of it’s advantages. I think therefore if either in London or Amsterdam you can find persons disposed to employ money on our side the water, they cannot do it more advantageously” (Jefferson to Lee, 11 Sept. 1789, and to Parker, 20 Oct. 1789, both in Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 15:415–16, 526). In November 1789 Short reported there was very little hope of interesting foreign investors in the scheme; by the end of 1791 Madison had withdrawn from the project (Short to Madison, 17 Nov. 1789, and Lee to Madison, 8 Dec. 1791, both in 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 12:447–49, 14:144).

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