Richard Henry Lee
6th President of the United States
in Congress Assembled
November 30, 1784 to November 23, 1785
By: Stanley L. Klos
Richard Henry Lee was born in Stratford, Westmoreland County, Virginia on January 20th, 1732 and died in Chantilly, Virginia on June 19th, 1794. He was the third son of a Thomas Lee, the “empire builder,” who as the 5th son of Richard Lee “the emigrant”, the largest Virginia landowner at the time of his death in 1640, received a modest inheritance. Thomas Lee, Richard Henry Lee’s father, nonetheless managed to acquire real estate holdings far beyond Lee “the emigrant” and at the time of his death in 1750 amassed some 30,000 acres in the Northern Neck of Virginia. The greater part of Thomas Lee’s massive estate, including the family homestead called Stratford, went to the eldest son, Philip Ludwell Lee. Only the first four of Thomas Lee’s six surviving sons, which included Richard Henry Lee, were left modest landed estates.
At an early age Richard Henry Lee was sent over to England for schooling at the academy of Wakefield in Yorkshire. The personal wealth and status of his family enabled Lee to choose any profession, including philanthropist. In 1752 he returned to Virginia and without any plans for a professional practice applied himself with great diligence to the study of law. Both English and Roman law occupied his attention; he was also an earnest student of history. As a young adult, Richard Henry Lee decided to rent out many of his inherited slaves as well as his inherited lands hoping to support his family on the proceeds while devoting his professional efforts to politics.
In 1757 he was appointed justice of the peace for Westmoreland County. In 1761 he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, of which he remained a delegate until 1788. Extreme shyness prevented his taking any part in the debates for some time. His first speech was on a motion:
“to lay so heavy a duty on the importation of slaves as effectually to put an end to that iniquitous and disgraceful traffic within the colony of Virginia.”
On this occasion his hatred of slavery overcame his timidity and he made a powerful speech containing the proofs of the principal arguments used in by the northern Abolitionists through the 1860’s. Lee had no profession beyond his public service. Like Samuel Adams, he was a professional politician. In times of need, especially when the real estate market declined after the French Indian War, he could see no other way to provide for his family except through seeking lucrative appointive governmental offices. In 1764, Lee even requested the post of Virginia Stamp Collector in a particularly embarrassing life episode. It was actually Lee’s repeated failure to win Crown appointments that reinforced his and Arthur Lee’s perception that the British regime only distributed offices to buy or reward sycophant colonialists. His perceptions quickly evolved into convictions that the colonial side of “virtue against the forces of corruption” was just cause early in the Anglo-American conflict.
He was an energetic opponent of the Stamp-Act, and in 1765 formed an association of citizens of Westmoreland County for the purpose of deterring all persons from undertaking to sell stamped paper. A Tory gentleman in the neighborhood accepted the office of Stamp-Collector and boasted that he would enforce the use of stamped paper upon the people in spite of all resistance. Mr. Lee, being then captain of a Volunteer Company of Light Horse, at once went with his men to this gentleman’s house and made him deliver up his commission as collector and all the stamped paper in his possession. He also insisted the former collector bind himself by oath never again to meddle with such matters. The Stamp-Collector Commission and the incriminating papers were then burned in a bonfire on the lawn. It was a ceremonial fire overseen by Richard Henry Lee, who desperately sought the office only two years earlier.
At the news of the Townshend Acts of 1767, Mr. Lee moved a petition to the king in the House of Burgesses, setting forth in pointed terms the grievances of the colonies. In July 1768, he wrote a letter to John Dickinson, suggesting that all the colonies should appoint select committees “for mutual information and correspondence between the lovers of liberty in every province.” The suggestion was in harmony with the views of the famous “circular letter” of the Massachusetts assembly, written by Samuel Adams and lately sent forth to all the colonies.
There has been some discussion as to whether Adams or Lee is to be credited with the first suggestion of those remarkable “committees of correspondence” which organized the American Revolution. The earliest suggestion of such a step, however, is to be found in a letter from the great Boston preacher, Jonathan Mayhew, to James Otis, in June, 1766. The letter mentioned above from Lee to Dickinson seems to have come next in point of date, and at the same time Christopher Gadsden appears to have received from Lee a letter of similar purport.
Mr. Lee may or may not nave heard of Mayhew’s suggestion. The idea was one that might naturally have occurred to several of these eminent men independently. The machinery of committees of correspondence was, however, first set in motion by Samuel Adams between the towns of Massachusetts in 1772. The project of inter-colonial committees was first put into practical shape by the Virginia house of burgesses in the spring of 1773, on motion of the youthful Dabney Cart, brother-in-law of Thomas Jefferson.
In 1769 as a member of the House of Burgess Richard Henry Lee introduced a tax on imported slaves seeking to begin the necessary impediments to end the inhumane trade. His critics, however, were quick to point out that his bill was self serving as if the importation of slaves ended the value of those he already owned and leased would be driven up in the more restricted labor market. Despite this Lee continued to condemn slavery itself. The institution he claimed harmed innocent Africans who he described as “fellow creatures created as ourselves and equally entitled to liberty and freedom by the great Law of Nature.”
Mr. Lee was a member of the Virginia committee and about this time he wrote to Samuel Adams a letter, which was the beginning of the lifelong friendship between the two great leaders. In August 1774, Mr. Lee was chosen as a delegate to the First Continental Congress just about to assemble at Philadelphia. He was a member of the committees for stating the rights of the colonies, for enforcing commercial non-intercourse with Great Britain, and for preparing suitable addresses to the king and to the colonies – Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Georgia, and the then Floridas – that had not sent delegates to the congress.
In the second Congress Lee drew up the address to the people of Great Britain, which along with a last petition to the king, was carried over to London by Richard Penn in August 1775. About this time Mr. Lee was chosen lieutenant of Westmoreland County, an office which, after the analogy of the lord-lieutenancy of a county in England, gave him command of the militia; hence he is often addressed or described, in writings of the time, as “Colonel Lee.”
For more than a year he openly and warmly advocated a declaration of independence. After the May 17, 1776 Virginia Convention instructed its delegates in congress to propose such a measure, it was Lee who took the foremost part. On June 7th, 1776 he moved
`Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”
Richard Henry Lee’s Resolution
Courtesy of the National Archives
John Adams seconded the motion. Congress deferred action for three weeks, in order that more definite instructions might be received from the middle colonies. In an uncanny twist of fate Mr. Lee was called home by the illness of his wife. It was at this time that Thomas Jefferson was appointed in his place as chairman of the committee for preparing a draft of the proposed Declaration of Independence. For the same reason, the task of defending the motion, when taken up for discussion, fell mainly upon John Adams, who had seconded it.
John Adams was successful in defending Mr. Lee’s motion, and on July 2, 1776, the United Colonies of America officially became the United States of America. It was July 2, 1776 that John Adams thought would be celebrated by future generations of Americans.
The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games,Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” — John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776
Thomas Jefferson went on to author the formal Declaration of Independence, which was passed by Congress on July 4, 1776, immortalizing the young delegate forever. During the next four years Mr. Lee served on more than a hundred committees. Richard Henry Lee only had one drive, full speed ahead and his pace as Congressional Delegate resulted in failing health on several occasions forcing Lee to return to Virginia to recuperate. From 1780 until 1782 he did not take his seat in Congress because the affairs of Virginia required his leadership and good work in the state assembly. During this period of the Revolutionary War the British Army controlled the ports and key cities in Georgia and the Carolinas. In 1781 Cornwallis overwhelmed Southern Virginia while Benedict Arnold burned Richmond. Additionally in the Virginia two questions of great importance were being debated in the legislature. The first related to the propriety of making a depreciated paper currency, the U.S. Continental, legal tender for debts. The second was a resolution to disclaim all debts to British merchants contracted by citizens of Virginia before the beginning of the war. In these debates Richard Henry Lee took a strong position against paper money, and he vehemently condemned the repudiation of debts, declaring that it were better to be “the honest slaves of Great Britain than to become dishonest freemen.”
As Colonel of the Westmoreland Militia his troops secured key ports, one a Stratford Springs, along the Potomac River aiding the Continental Army in their mission to keep the trade routes open to Virginia. He was successful and soon Washington won a sweeping Victory at Yorktown. During the negotiations of the subsequent Treaty of Paris Lee remained very active in the Virginia assembly. He successfully led the effort to establishing sound methods of funding Virginia’s public debt and providing for the revival of public credit. These Herculean accomplishments did not go unnoticed by his colleagues in the Unites States in Congress Assembled as the Definitive Treaty of Peace with Great Britain exacted a heavy monetary measure from the United States restoring Tory land holdings and repaying British merchants for goods used and seized during the Revolutionary War. The citizens and government of the United States were dire financial circumstances as the debt was staggering and the Continental Currency had collapsed. In the hopes that Mr. Lee could duplicate his financial success managing Virginia’s debt at a national level, the Delegates elected him President of the United States in Congress Assembled on November 30, 1784 with the following resolution:
The committee, to whom were referred the credentials produced by the delegates from the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, report, “That they have carefully examined the credentials to them referred, and are of opinion, that the honorable Samuel Holten and George Partridge, of the State of Massachusetts; the honorable David Howell, of the State of Rhode Island; the honorable William Churchill Houston and John Beatty, of the State of New Jersey; the honorable Joseph Gardner and William Henry, of Lancaster, of the State of Pennsylvania; the honorable Samuel Hardy, James Monroe and Richard Henry Lee, of the State of Virginia; the honorable Hugh Williamson and Richard Dobbs Spaight, of the State of North Carolina; the honorable Jacob Read, John Bull and Charles Pinckney, of the State of South Carolina; and the honorable William Houstoun and William Gibbons, of the State of Georgia, appear to be clearly and indisputably entitled to their seats, are authorized to sit and vote in the present Congress of the United States. Eight states being assembled, the United States in Congress assembled, proceeded to the election of a President, and, the ballots being taken, the honorable Richard Henry Lee was elected.
The Liberal Adams-Lee faction had finally come into power and even the most staunch conservatives prayed that Richard Henry Lee would lead the country onto a path of prosperity.
Richard Henry Lee’s Presidency was a busy one, attending to the needs of the new nation. Lee’s candor and straightforwardness bore few secrets. In a November 18, 1784 letter to Samuel Adams he wrote, “I shall be extremely happy to be aided by your counsels during my residence in Congress.”
Richard Henry Lee’s letters are abundant and well published. From these letters we know the new President favored low taxes by funding the debt with foreign loans. Lee reviled taxes and Congress’ willingness to tax the citizens at a Federal level. Lee wrote to Samuel Adams on March 14, 1785
But I can never agree that this Body shall dictate the mode of Taxation, or the collection shall in any manner be subject to Congressional control.
Richard Henry Lee’s presidency began not in Philadelphia but in Trenton, New Jersey which was the temporary capital of the United States. Since the mutiny of 1783 in Philadelphia, where U. S. soldiers held the Federal Government hostage in Independence Hall, the capital wandered first to Princeton under President Boudinot, then to Annapolis under President Mifflin and now, in 1784, to site in the heart of George Washington’s Hessian Victory at Trenton.
President Richard Henry Lee was a strong believer in Federal supported Christianity and utilized his office to purport his belief that God should be an intricate part of U.S. legislation., Lee writes, as President, in this letter to James Madison that “refiners may weave as fine a web of reason as they please, but the experience of all times shows religion to be the guardian of morals.” Although Lee understood the importance of instructing the men in history and the classics, he believed the Federal Government should also educate the citizenry in Christian Theology. Lee continues in his letter to Madison:
And he must be a very inattentive observer in our Country, who does not see that avarice is accomplishing the destruction of religion, for want of a legal obligation to contribute something to its support. The declaration of Rights, it seems to me, rather contends against forcing modes of faith and forms of worship, than against compelling contribution for the support of religion in general. I fully agree with the presbyterians, that true freedom embraces the Mahomitan and the Gentoo as well as the Xn religion. And upon this liberal ground I hope our Assembly will conduct themselves.
November 26th, 1785 Letter from Richard Henry Lee to James Madison – Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Lee Continues in his letter to Madison this time turning to the need for revenue laws and note that require the payment of interest but “slowly sink the principal:”
I believe there is no doubt but that the population of our country depends eminently upon our Revenue laws, they therefore, demand intense consideration. It is natural for men to fly from oppression to ease, and whilst our taxes are extremely heavy, and North Carolina & Georgia pay little or no tax, it is not to be wonderd that so many of our people flock to these States & unfortunately they are carrying to Georgia & South Carolina the Cultivation of Tobacco.
I do not mean by this, that we should suffer ill example to prevent us from honorably and punctually paying our debts. But I think that we may fairly practise here, as other Nations the most honest do—;I mean, exactly to pay the interest, and slowly to sink the principal. An attempt to do the latter too suddenly, will ruin, by depopulating, the country. The only mode appears to be, a funding of the whole debt, so as certainly to pay the interest, and slowly the principal. Cannot a sinking fund be brought to bear upon the latter, by throwing all overflowings of taxes into a Reservoir for gathering interest upon interest? I suppose that at all events, the facilities offerd by Congress in their Act of the 28th of April last will be among the amendments to the Revenue law this Session.
November 26th, 1785 Letter from Richard Henry Lee to James Madison – Courtesy of the Library of Congress
The people have certainly sufferd much hitherto by not knowing in season what taxes are lawfully demandable from them. For want of this information, numbers are compelled to submit to the extortion and abuses of Collectors. The Treasurer used formerly to publish annually in the papers what were to be the Taxes of the year, and this practise was then very useful. But at present, the dispersion of newspapers is so uncertain, that information thro that channel would reach but few. A Statement from the Treasury printed in the way of Handbills, to be put up at the Court Houses & churches, might perhaps furnish the requisite information, & save the people from extensive abuse. I am very happy to know, for the honor of our country, that there is a probability of the impeding laws being again taken under deliberation. What I wrote to you in my last upon this subject, is a most serious consideration, and the inclosed paragraphs, taken from a late paper, will shew you how quickly the fame of our proceedings travels, and the effect likely to be produced upon our Commerce!
By the 5th article of the Confederation, the annual meeting of Congress is to be on the first Monday in November, and by our Act establishing one yearly meeting of the Assembly on the third Monday in October; you will see Sir, that there is very little probability of Virginia being represented in Congress for some time after its federal day of meeting. So that it becomes necessary to consider this matter. I suppose that either the Assemblies time of meeting must be altered, or the Delegates for the ensuing federal year be chosen this present Session.(2) We have not yet made a Congress but we have some reason to expect eight States on Monday next. I understand that Spain means to insist upon the exclusive navigation of the Mississippi, which will render the exploring our western waters of the greater importance.
I am dear Sir, with great esteem and regard Your most obedient and very humble servant, Richard Henry Lee
November 26th, 1785 Letter from Richard Henry Lee to James Madison- Courtesy of the Library of Congress
P.S. If the election of Counsellors is not over, may I be permitted to suggest what I realy believe will improve and fortify the counsels of that Board. It is, that Major Gen. Gates be appointed a Member of it. He has a pretty good estate in Berkeley, is a single Man & therefore not withheld from due attendance by domestic considerations. But above all, he is a Man of great worth, solid judgement, and sound attachments to America. A propos—;It is by many here suggested as a very necessary Step for Congress to take—;The calling upon the States to form a Convention for the Sole purpose of revising the Confederation so far as to enable Congress to execute with more energy, effect, & vigor the powers assigned it, than it appears by experience that they can do under the present state of things. It has been observed, why do not Congress recommend the necessary alterations to the States as is proposed in the Confederation? The friends to Convention answer—;It has been already done in some instances, but in vain. It is proposed to let Congress go on in the mean time as usual. I shall be glad of your opinion on this point, it being a very important one.
R . H. Lee
November 26th, 1785 Letter from Richard Henry Lee to James Madison – Courtesy of the Library of Congress
On December 8th newly elected President Lee and the Congress began the judicial work of appointing judges for yet another border dispute, this time between New York and Massachusetts. On December 11th Richard Henry Lee took the time as President to officially write fellow revolutionary Marquis de Lafayette, who played a central role in saving Virginia from the British in 1781, the following letter:
I have the honor to enclose you a letter for the Minister plenipotentiary of the United States, at the court of his most Christian Majesty, which covers a letter to our great and good Ally, a copy of which I have also the pleasure to enclose for your satisfaction. I assure you my dear friend that I feel myself singularly happy in observing the unanimous disposition that prevails in Congress to promote your glory, for I do most sincerely wish you every felicity that this world can afford…
In August 1784, the Marquis had arrived in America to renew acquaintances and rekindle wartime memories. His grand tour took him to New York, Philadelphia, Mount Vernon, Albany, Boston, Richmond, Annapolis, and Trenton. By December Lafayette had returned to New York to sail for France and upon receiving this announcement Congress appointed a special committee of one member from each state to receive him. Lafayette was a true friend, ally and hero to the citizens of the United States. He was especially revered by Richard Henry Lee and his fellow Virginians. Lafayette would return one last time in the 1820’s to make another, much more robust tour of the United States and accept two copies of the Wet Ink Transfer of the Declaration of Independence by fellow Revolutionary War Veteran and President of the United States James Monroe.
Richard Henry Lee, like the other Presidents was beleaguered by the new Nation’s lack of capital. Congress and Lee, however, were determined to expertly manage the demands of an ever shrinking federal pool of assets. Providing for a standing Army at key forts and ports while at peace became especially burdensome to the treasury. On December 13th Richard Henry Lee received a letter from William Duer who had explained that his contract for provisioning the troops at West Point would expire at the end of December, and “As it is probable (from the present State of the Finance Department) that congress may not be able to take timely Measures for Continuing the Supply.”
Duer stated he was prepared to continue under the contract through January and requested instructions. Congress, under President Lee, was already aware of this situation as Major John Doughty the Commander of West Point, had already written about his plight. In a lengthy letter he explained that there were no treasury commissioners or war office officials available to address the needs of the troops at West Point. The United States in Congress Assembled had quickly authorized the extension of Duer’s contract through February, by terms of the December 11th resolves Lee enclosed with this letter.
Your letter of the 10th Inst. was this day received and laid before Congress; no immediate Order was taken upon it. If I may be permitted a conjecture, I would suppose that the enclosed resolve upon the subject of your letter was considered as the sense of Congress on that point; should this not correspond with your idea, you will please to signify your opinion upon that point in a subsequent letter.
On December the 15th Congress received a grave letter concerning Spain closing of the free navigation of the Mississippi River to the United States:
I have the honour to communicate to your Excellency an extract of a letter which I have lately received from Don Joseph de Galvez, Minister of his Catholick Majesty for the department of the Indies. I beg you will be pleased to lay it before Congress, and communicate the contents to the governours and presidents of the several states. His Majesty is persuaded that Congress will admit the justice of a claim which is founded on all the rights which an entire conquest and an uninterrupted possession can give to any power; and that they will agree that the cession of the navigation of the Mississippi, made by the King of Great Britain to the United States in the treaty of 1783, can have no real force unless the Catholick King, my master, to whom the navigation of that river belongs, shall think proper to ratify it. I see with pleasure by the contents of the extract enclosed, that there is a probability that Spain and the United States will very soon confirm, by a solid and durable treaty, that friendship which has already for several years subsisted between the two nations. I hope that all objects, about which there is any doubt, will then be settled and terminated to the mutual satisfaction of his Majesty and Congress. (Signed) Francisco Rendon.
Extract of the from De Galvez’s letter — Aranjues, June 26, 1784: Until the limits of Louisiana and the two Floridas shall be settled and determined with the United States of America, his Majesty commands that you should give the states and Congress to understand that they are not to expose to process and confiscation the vessels which they destine to carry on commerce on the River Mississippi, inasmuch as a treaty concluded between the United States and England, on which the former ground their pretensions to the navigation of that river, could not fix limits in a territory which that power did not possess, the two borders of the river being already conquered and possessed by our arms the day the treaty was made, namely, the 30th November, 1782. This order I communicate to you that you may conform yourself thereto.
The free navigation of the Mississippi River remained a pressing issue for both the 1st and 2nd U.S. Federal Governments. The tariffs and fees placed on American vessels by Spain placed under the Confederation period especially heightened the monetary strain on a U.S. burdened by war debt and a collapsing economy. The United States would be forced to contend with Spain’s tariffs until 1795 when Secretary of State, Thomas Pinckney mission resulted in a Treaty of Friendship, Limits, and Navigation Between Spain and the United States on October 27th.
On December 20th Richard Henry Lee turned the business of Congress to more pressing matters. The body, after some heated debate, voted to locate the federal capitol in New York City and not finance ancillary federal offices in Philadelphia, which remained since the hostage crisis of 1783, with the following resolutions:
Resolved, That it is expedient the Congress proceed to take measures for procuring suitable buildings to be erected for their accommodation. And that a sum not
exceeding dollars be and they are hereby appropriated for the payment of the expense of erecting such buildings.
Resolved that said buildings shall be erected at NY Resolved, (by nine states,) That a sum not exceeding one hundred thousand dollars be appropriated for the payment of the expense of erecting such buildings; provided always, that hotels or dwelling-houses for the members of Congress representing the different states, shall not be understood as included in the above appropriation.
Resolved, That it is inexpedient for Congress at this time to erect more than one federal town public buildings for their accommodation at more than one place.
Four days later, on Christmas Eve in Trenton, just before adjourning to the new capitol in New York City, Richard Henry Lee signed the resolution appointing judges for hearing Massachusetts-New York land claim dispute. This was to be the last official act to be conducted at the federal level in New Jersey:
“TO THE UNITED STATES IN CONGRESS ASSEMBLED. We the underwritten agents of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of New York, do humbly certify, that in pursuance of the pleasure of Congress to us signified on the seventeenth day of December instant, we have agreed on the following gentlemen as commissioners to constitute a court for hearing and determining a dispute or controversy now subsisting between the said states, as set forth in the petition of the said Commonwealth, now on the files of Congress; that is to say, The Honorable Robert Hanson Harrison, Esquire, of the State of Maryland; The Honorable Thomas Johnson, Esquire, of the said State; The Honorable John Rutledge, Esquire, of the State of South Carolina; The Honorable George Wythe, Esquire, of the State of Virginia; The Honorable William Grayson, Esquire, of the said State; The Honorable James Monroe, Esquire, of the said State; The Honorable George Read, Esquire, of the State of Delaware; The Honorable Isaac Smith, Esquire, of the State of New Jersey; and The Honorable William Patterson, Esquire, of the said State. And we the said agents do further certify, that it is mutually agreed between the parties, that if any one or more of the said gentlemen so named as commissioners, shall decline the said office, the vacancy shall be supplied by Congress, according to an agreement in writing of this date, signed and interchanged by us the said agents. And further, that any five of the said commissioners who shall finally accept the said office, shall be a quorum, according to the Confederation of the United States. And we do further humbly certify, that it is also mutually agreed between us, that the court for determining the said controversy, shall be holden at such place, as Congress by a vote of the majority of the states to be assembled, when the place for holding the said court is considered, shall appoint. Dated at Trenton, this 24 December, 1784.
|Agents for Massachusetts:||Agents for New York:|
|John Lowell||Jas. Duane|
|James Sullivan||R. R. Livingston|
|E. Gerry||Walter Livingston|
|S. Holten||Egbt. Benson|
Adjourned to meet at the City of New York, on the 11 day of January next.
It is important to note, once again here, as in other chapters that land was the chief revenue source for the States. In a Nation that abhorred taxation exacting capital from its citizens to maintain newly created state and federal governments was a daunting task. The nation’s population, however, still continued to grow and settlers, businesses and investors all sought land. It was through the sale of land that the States raised money for their coffers so border disputes were serious matters of finance. The sale of land was the primary source of revenue to repay the war debt.
In New York the war debt plagued the Federal government so deeply that Richard Henry Lee, every mindful of cutting costs, accepted the offer to convene in City Hall to minimize expenditures. It was the New Year and only the 2nd full months into his presidency when a serious financial crisis gripped the United States. Foreign secretaries’ letters began to flow into the new N.Y. Federal reporting that the borrowing power of the United States has reached its limits, credit was collapsing abroad. On January 21st President Richard Henry Lee wrote this letter to the States::
I have the honor to enclose to your Excellency some late communications from the Ministers plenipotentiary of these United States at Paris, together with an Act of Congress on that subject. Much inconvenience to the American Ministers abroad, being apprehended from improper publications of their letters, hath induced Congress to desire that these informations may be kept from the public eye. The precarious state of our public credit abroad is so powerfully expressed in these letters, as to render a comment unnecessary. They prove incontestably, the necessity of immediate, vigorous measures for supplying the Treasury of the United States, that justice may be punctually done to those excellent friends who assisted us in the day of our distress. Your enlightened Legislature Sir will see the close connection that subsists between National safety and National faith; that the loss of the latter will ever have the most malignant effects upon the former. The Congress request that your Excellency will lay these communications before the General Assembly of your State, with the Act of Congress respecting them.
The January 20th “Act” ordered the delivery to the states two foreign dispatches concerning the payment of interest on U. S. foreign debt. These “late communications” included a November 3rd letter from John Adams reporting the extent of the United States’ interest obligations and the instability of the nation’s public credit in Europe. The second letter included with the Act to the States was dated November 11th from Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson reporting the “uneasiness” of U. S. default on Dutch loans by the French court who guaranteed the debt for the United States.
President Lee was undeterred and on the 24th Congress ordered the preparation for an emergency 1785 capital requisition from the States. On February 1st they managed to secure and subsequently ratified a two-million-guilder Dutch loan to most importantly maintain interest payments on other foreign debt. On the 25th of January treasury commissioners were elected to insure the solvency of the government. On the 27th Congress, turned to preparation of war which usually dogged financial collapses, and adopted an ordinance for ascertaining the powers and duties of the Secretary at War.
February was the month that the Confederation Capitol became solidly entrenched in New York City with orders for the removal of War Office, Post Office and Treasury offices from Philadelphia. The City that birthed Independence would never again host the U.S. Federal Government’s nucleus of power. The delegates, to prepare for the NY expansion, elected Philip Schuyler commissioner for planning the new federal capital. Also in February Congress conceded to John Jay’s demands adopting regulations for his office as Secretary of Foreign Affairs which was quickly becoming the most influential executive office in the Confederation government. On February 24th John Adams was appointed the first U.S. Minister to Great Britain, a Herculean assignment considering the mindset of King George III and the English parliament.
Richard Henry Lee had never been more overwhelmed with work or such daunting financial challenges. The office required him to marshal all his expertise in diplomacy (National and International) and debt management as he sought capital from the states and the European Royalty. On February 4th Richard Henry Lee wrote his friend Samuel Adams about the British situation:
You have no doubt seen the speech to Parliament, and from thence may judge what our Ministerial enemies propose for us. A letter from London 6th of December says ‘the present intention of the Ministry is to declare all meetings and associations in America illegal and treasonable –To guard the Coast against all Traffic and Communication with Holland, France, and Spain. To corrupt N. York, and to employ a military force, chiefly from Canada if necessary. Having their designs before you, your attention will be bent to defeat them with all earnestness which the greatest question in the world demands.’
“Added to this, I understand they propose to forfeit and confiscate all the estates of all those who meet, associate, or combine against the Commerce of Gt. Britain! Should such Acts pass, will it not be proper for all America to declare them essentially vile and void, and that whoever takes or claims any Estate so said to be forfeited, shall be deemed a public Enemy and that it shall be meritorious in any person to put such Claimant to death? This would probably deter, and defeat the wicked design. I find the Ministerial Maneuver of dissolving the Parliament, has, notwithstanding the timely warning of Junius, answered their purpose so far as to rest the matter now on the firmness of our own virtue, or on the general exertion of the people of England. Tho’ the latter should fail us, I hope the former will be immovable.
In an act to help a key member of the Adams-Lee Faction, Signer Benjamin Rush, proposed a plan to cut costs on the treasury. Richard Henry Lee persuaded Congress to approve Rush’s idea to lease the federal public buildings at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to Dickinson College. Lee wrote to Benjamin Rush on this act of Congress:
I have received the letter that you did me the honor to write to me on the 16th of last month, and I lost no time in presenting to Congress the petition of the Trustees of Dickinson College. The petition was referred to the consideration of a Committee, but as yet no report has been made upon it. Informing the minds of youth, is an object of such essential consequence to the well being of society, that I hope this proposition will meet with no difficulty; and it is a purpose as benevolent as well to deserve your fostering care and attention. I am particularly obliged to you Sir for your polite and friendly congratulation on my appointment to the Chair of Congress.
March 1785 brought the orders for Benjamin Franklin to return home, Thomas Jefferson to assume his position as Minister to France and the election of Henry Knox to a redefined office of Secretary of War. Also in March a heated debate began on the Northwest Territory ended abruptly on the 16th with a rejection of a motion to limit slavery in the federal lands. Virginia, which had laid claim to vast amounts of the Northwest Territory, was being asked to concede in favor of Federal ownership. Virginia, along with several other Southern States, shared a long western border with the new federal territory which if deemed emancipated would enable slaves easily to flee across its borders to the “slave free” federal territory. This common border with a very active Slave State was the major factor in the vote to defeat an ordinance for the territory northwest of the Ohio River. In more mundane matter the end of March brought a letter from future President James Monroe to President Lee accepting his appointment as judge to settle state border disputes:
New York 20th March 1785. By a letter from the honorable the Agents on the part of Massachusetts and New York my appointment as a judge to sit on the Federal Court for deciding the Controversy between those states has been announced to me. I should have answered it sooner, but being on the spot where the Communication might at any Moment be made, did not conceive it essential. I now do myself the honor to inform your Excellency that I shall accept the appointment & attend at whatever place the Court may be held.
April ushered in the settlement of Massachusetts western land claim to the Northwest Territory and the debates resumed on enacting an ordinance for the vast region. Once again the states failed to achieve the necessary representation to pass legislation and Richard Henry Lee was forced to send out another Presidential appeal:
Sir, New York April 30th, 1785: I have the honor to enclose to your Excellency an Act of Congress that has been produced by a very pressing state of the public affairs. Your Excellency will observe that exclusive of other important business, Congress point to two objects particularly, the requisition for the present year, and an Ordinance for disposing of lands in the western Territory. The honor and justice of the United States is much concerned in the former, and upon the wise, speedy, and effectual execution of the latter, essentially depends the future case; happiness and prosperity of the people