Richard Henry Lee to Wythe, 19 October 1777
Richard Henry Lee gives George Wythe an account of the progress of the war in the northern colonies. He talks about the British General John Burgoyne having been defeated in the Battle of Saratoga. General Burgoyne had surrendered his army of 6,200 men on October 17,1777, two days before the date of the letter. Lee says that he enclosed a full account of General Burgoyne's action in a letter to Mr. Page which he referred to Wythe so Wythe could read it. In the next paragraph, Lee says that his enemies are going to present a letter he sent to Mr. Scott at the upcoming session of the Assembly and Lee expresses his worries about his reputation. In the third paragraph, the first section is crossed out. In the crossed out section, Lee talks about his experience with the depreciation of the Continental currency. Because the money is so devalued at this point, his tenants have offered to pay with produce because it is worth more than the money. Lee continues talking about the devalued money and its effects on contracts in the non-crossed out portion of the paragraph. He says that there needs to be a way to protect individuals from being hurt in their contracts from the greatly devalued money. He has had tenements complain so he is looking for a solution and turns to Wythe because of their long friendship.
York in Pennsylva. Octr. 19, 1777
I have once before, since our session here, given you an account of the progress of war in these parts and further North, but the irregularity of the Post gives reason to doubt whether you have received my letter. The boasting Burgoyne having been beaten in two pitched battles is on his return, with his shattered army, but whether he will be able to get back or not, time must discover. The want of a Press here obliges us to furnish manuscript accounts of military events, and this is attended with great difficulty amidst the pressure of much business. You will for the reason excuse my referring you to the inclosures sent Mr. President Page, for a full account of the last action with Gen. Burgoyne & an entertaining correspondence between him & Gates subsequent to the battle. Danger appears now to be thickening about Gen. Howe, so that I hope to be able e’er long to give you favorable accounts from the neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Permit me now Sir to trespass a little on your time and friendship with my private concerns. I am sure to be indulged by the latter and therefore more confidently complain of the malicious perseverance of my enemies, who, I am informed, propose to bring my letter to Mr. Scot before the approaching session of Assembly. It is realy difficult to say whether the folly or the malice of these people is greatest, but it is certainly very insultive & degrading to the Great Council of the Commonwealth, to make it a Court of Scandal, and a Vehicle for conveying Slander against the reputation of innocent men; when the great and important affairs of Defence, Finance, and Courts of Justice, call so loudly for quick and wise determination. Let the date of my letter to Scott be attended to, the State of paper money at the time, the reasons and principles upon which my proposal was founded, and my conduct will appear not only innocent but laudable. For it is certainly praiseworthy to prevent ones family from ruin by means that are just and fair.
If by a proper reflection upon Men and things, It was clear to me that my rents established under different laws, from the present, and upon principles that then appeared proper and permanent, would most probably, by the change that was working in our political system, be rendered of little value, where was the harm in proposing a change, by which I might be saved from ruin, and the Tenant not injured? Nor could this have operation upon a currency that then scarcely began to exist and which from its then scarcity was as good as any money whatever. In truth it was so scarce, that my Tenants either could not, or would not get it to pay me my rents, but offered me produce in lieu of money. In fact my plan was rather to affect futurity that the present time, and a bargain made before the existence of the currency could not be intended to injure it.The question then is was I obliged by law when these contracts were made, to receive any thing like the present currency in discharge of the rent reserved. You Sir will say no. When therefore the exigence of public affairs rendered it necessary to issue such quantities of paper money as to lessen its value some hundred per Cents, and that a law should be made to establish its currency, this being subsequent to, and destructive of private contracts made under the faith of former laws, should not Individuals be saved from the retrospective destruction wrought by the change. And the more especially in instances where this can be done without injury to the other contracting party. For in this case the Tenants produce rises in value in proportion to the superabundance of circulating money. Reasoning upon the probility of the change, and as a good Citizen, willing to procure a just alteration before events took place that might render such an attempt liable to misconstruction, I long since endeavoured to procure that which would only in good faith obtain the original design of both the contracting parties. And this point of reason and justice would long ago have taken place without murmur or noise had it not been for some malicious enemies, Pseudo Patriots, and a few Knavish Tenants, who under the cloak of public spirit have raised this clamor. Perhaps I may be considered as standing in the way of some private views. My wish is only to lend my helping hand to fix the independence of America on wise and permanent foundation, and then with infinite pleasure I will return to my farm and eat the bread of industry in freedom and ease. I have no doubt Sir, but that you will on all proper occasions, as well upon principles of justice to injured character, as on account of the long friendship that has subsisted between us, place this matter in the clear light that your abilities enable you to do. It is long since my letter to Mr. Scott was written, and having mislaid the copy, I do not perfectly remember its contents, but conscious of the purest intentions I am sure that no sentiment can be found therein inconsistent with virtuous patriotism. And after all it will be a ridiculous gratification of private malice for the Assembly to take up the consideration of such an affair as this. I have inclosed you a letter from Colo. Marshall to me on the subject, and one to yourself from me, which I leave to your discretion and friendship to produce to the House or not, if any attempt shd. be made there to my prejudice.
I am, with particular esteem, dear Sir, your affectionate friend and obliged humble servant,
R. H. Lee