Front Page Titles (by Subject) TO HENRY LEE, IN CONGRESS. - The Writings of George Washington, vol. XI (1785-1790)
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TO HENRY LEE, IN CONGRESS. - George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, vol. XI (1785-1790) 
The Writings of George Washington, collected and edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890). Vol. XI (1785-1790).
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TO HENRY LEE, IN CONGRESS.
Mount Vernon, 31 October, 1786.
My dear Sir,
I am indebted to you for your several favors of the 1st, 11th, and 17th of this instant, and shall reply to them in the order of their dates. But first let me thank you for the interesting communications imparted by them.
The picture which you have exhibited, and the accounts which are published of the commotions and temper of numerous bodies in the eastern States, are equally to be lamented and deprecated. They exhibit a melancholy proof of what our transatlantic foe has predicted; and of another thing perhaps, which is still more to be regretted, and is yet more unaccountable, that mankind, when left to themselves, are unfit for their own government I am mortified beyond expression when I view the clouds, that have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned upon any country. In a word, I am lost in amazement when I behold what intrigue, the interested views of desperate characters, ignorance, and jealousy of the minor part, are capable of effecting, as a scourge on the major part of our fellow citizens of the Union; for it is hardly to be supposed, that the great body of the people, though they will not act, can be so shortsighted or enveloped in darkness, as not to see rays of a distant sun through all this mist of intoxication and folly.1
You talk, my good Sir, of employing influence to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts. I know not where that influence is to be found, or, if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for the disorders. Influence is no government. Let us have one by which our lives, liberties, and properties will be secured, or let us know the worst at once. Under these impressions, my humble opinion is, that there is a call for decision. Know precisely what the insurgents aim at. If they have real grievances, redress them if possible; or acknowledge the justice of them, and your inability to do it in the present moment. If they have not, employ the force of government against them at once. If this is inadequate, all will be convinced, that the superstructure is bad, or wants support. To be more exposed in the eyes of the world, and more contemptible than we already are, is hardly possible. To delay one or the other of these, is to exasperate on the one hand, or to give confidence on the other, and will add to their numbers; for, like snow-balls, such bodies increase by every movement, unless there is something in the way to obstruct and crumble them before the weight is too great and irresistible.
These are my sentiments. Precedents are dangerous things. Let the reins of government then be braced and held with a steady hand, and every violation of the constitution be reprehended. If defective, let it be amended, but not suffered to be trampled upon whilst it has an existence.
With respect to the navigation of the Mississippi, you already know my sentiments thereon. They have been uniformly the same, and, as I have observed to you in a former letter, are controverted by one consideration, only of weight, and that is, the operation which the conclusion of it may have on the minds of the western settlers, who will not consider the subject in a relative point of view, or on a comprehensive scale, and may be influenced by the demagogues of the country to acts of extravagance and desperation, under a popular declamation, that their interests are sacrificed. Colonel Mason at present is in a fit of the gout. What [his] sentiments on the subject are, I know not, nor whether he will be able to attend the Assembly during the present session. For some reasons, however, (which need not be mentioned,) I am inclined to believe he will advocate the navigation of that river. But in all matters of great national moment, the only true line of conduct, in my opinion, is dispassionately to compare the advantages and disadvantages of the measure proposed, and decide from the balance. The lesser evil, where there is a choice of them, should always yield to the greater. What benefits, more than we now enjoy, are to be obtained by such a treaty as you have delineated with Spain, I am not enough of a commercial man to give any opinion on.1 The china came to hand without much damage & I thank you for your attention in the procuring & forwarding it.2 Mrs. Washington joins me in best wishes for Mrs. Lee and yourself.
I am, dear Sir, &c.3
[1 ]“For God’s sake tell me what is the cause of all these commotions? Do they proceed from licentiousness, British influence, disseminated by the Tories, or real grievances which admit of redress? If the latter, why were they delayed till the public mind had become so much agitated? If the former, why are not the powers of government tried at once? It is as well to be without, as not to live under their exercise. Commotions of this sort, like snow-balls, gather strength as they roll, if there is no opposition in the way to divide and crumble them.”—Washington to Humphreys, 22 October, 1786.
[1 ]From Mr. Lee’s Letter.—“The eastern States consider a commercial connexion with Spain as the only remedy for the distresses, which oppress their citizens, most of which they say flow from the decay of their commerce. Their delegates have consequently zealously pressed the formation of this connexion, as the only effectual mode to revive the trade of their country. In this opinion they have been joined by two of the middle States. On the other hand, Virginia has with equal zeal opposed the connexion, because the project involves expressly the disuse of the navigation of the Mississippi for a given time, and eventually they think will sacrifice our right to it. The delegation is under instructions from the State on this subject. They have acted in obedience to their instructions, and, myself excepted, in conformity to their private sentiments. I confess that I am by no means convinced of the justice or policy of our instructions, and very much apprehend, unless they are repealed by the present Assembly, the fatal effects of discord in council will be experienced by the United States in a very high degree.”—New York, October 11th.
[2 ]Some china marked with the order of the Cincinnati.
[3 ]While Kentucky was seeking to become a separate State, its agent before the legislature of Virginia, John Marshall, wrote: “The negotiation which has been opened with Spain, for ceding the navigation of the Mississippi—a negotiation so dishonorable and injurious to America, so destructive of the natural rights of the western world—is warmly opposed by this country [Virginia], and for this purpose the most pointed instructions are given to our delegates in Congress. I persuade myself that this negotiation will terminate in securing instead of ceding that great point.” On August 3d, 1786, Jay had announced to Congress his conclusion that no agreement could be reached with Spain without surrendering the claim to the navigation of the Mississippi for a limited period. An attempt by the southern delegates to take the negotiation out of Jay’s direction failed, and full powers were conferred upon him, powers that he was seeking to carry into effect when the new government interrupted his diplomatic contentions with Gardoqui. The intelligence of the grant of these powers, however, awoke a strong feeling of resentment among the people of the back country, a resentment that was directed against the Confederation, for the legislature of Virginia had promptly taken up the cause of the West, and insisted upon the claims to their fullest extent. (Resolution, 29 November, 1786.)