Letter from Henry Lee IV to William Berkeley Lewis (July 26, 1833)


In this letter to William Berkeley Lewis, dated July 16, 1833, Henry Lee IV discusses family matters and politics, including his affair with Elizabeth “Betsy” McCarty, his wife‘s younger sister and his guardian.


Paris 26th July 1833

My dear Lewis,

I had the sincere pleasure to receive your letter of the 12th June with its valuable accompaniments, on the 13th Inst. The box of seed I expect soon to receive, when with the map in one hand and the other topping a plant of cotton, for it will be necessary in this northern region – or attaching to a cornstalk the tendril of a pea vine, the germ of which grew in the soil of Virginia, I shall be able to imagine myself actually in my native country. For this gratification however I shall have to wait one year more in unmitigated exile. The details your [sic] give about your two youngest children, and about your Sister and her children form the most interesting part of your letter, both because of the kindness we have received from your Sister and yourself, and of the extreme interest with which William and Margaret inspired us. As I saw them they would have furnished the happiest possible subjects for a great painter to exhibit in infancy the characters of the two sexes. I wonder Genl Earle has never thought of them in this light. I think you are right in having William near you. I wish my circumstances were less unfortunate than they are; I should beg one of them of you at least to bring up under my care in Paris. I have always loved children, and have long thought I ought to have been made a schoolmaster. (I do not mean for young ladies) the veto of the Senate to the contrary notwithstanding. I could dwell on this subject of children much longer and willingly devote my whole letter to William and Margaret and Jackson. What I remember of them I could fondly retrace what I hope for them, freely expatiate upon, until I should become as childish as themselves. But there is a subject mentioned in your letter which forces me on to other topics – topics that I enter upon with a shuddering reluctance like that with which on “a rain and gusty day,” a traveller leaves a warm fire side to pursue a lone and wearisome journey. In that letter you tell me – “I shew the General your letter and he requested me to say to you that he thought you had better come home, and that he hoped it would be in his power still to do something for you notwithstanding the Senate’s veto” and then you mention the friendly and jocular remark of our amiable friend Earle. From the kindness of this language you perceive it would be impossible for me to pass it by silently as I would wish to do – and from its subject – it – is equally impossible to mention it without explaining the sentiments and conclusions to which it gives rise. In the first place, I must remind you that in the month of September 1830, I wrote to the General as well as to you and Donelson from Mahon expressing a desire if it were possible, to be sent to Constantinople as an executive agent, to procure the ratification of the treaty with the porte. I was induced to take that step, heedless as it seems to have been considered, by the following expressions in the General’s letter to me, informing me of the appointment of Commodore Porter as my successor. His letter is dated the 4th of June 1830, and considering that it was not confidential in its character, and considering also your intimacy with him, I suppose I am at full liberty to repeat its language to you. The Genl says in that letter “I need not say to you the mortification I experienced on your rejection by the Senate when you return to your country, you will be advised by whom, aided by all the opposition this has been brought about. Your fellow citizens in the county of Westmoreland have addressed me upon this subject, which from their number and respectability is honourable to you and consoling to me. This is preserved” you will allow that this emphatic language, volunteered by a man of Genl Jackson’s energy of purpose and moderation in professions, was calculated to persuade me that his inclination to promote my wishes and interest, remained at least undiminished, and that the opportunity to gratify me by and appointment, was all that was wanting to ensure me the possession of one. The language of your own letter explaining some of the villainous and extraordinary means which were employed to defeat my nomination, as well as that of Donelson’s, assuring me that the “attachment of my friends remained unshaken,” was calculated you will admit to confirm I had persuasion. However some old American papers and private letters which I saw at Florence in the December following, which described with exaggeration as it has since appeared the strength of the opposition in and out of Congress, made me apprehend that any immediate attention to my wishes or wants on the part of the President might serve to increase his embarrassments & expose him to additional obloquy; and I therefore wrote to him that I should be perfectly satisfied to be unnoticed, and hoped that he would not expose himself to annoyance, by endeavouring to serve me. I do not remember the words but this was the substance of my letter, and as I recollect the occasion of it. In writing from Mahon to the General you and Donaldson, I had requested that answers might be sent to me at Paris, where I arrived in February 1831. I found on my arrival no letter from either of you except a blank cover from you enclosing a letter from my brother Carter. Nor has the subject of my application from Mahon been mentioned or alluded to by the President or even by you or Donelson, in any of your letters from that day to this! In or about the month of July 1831, while I was smarting in silence under this evident neglect and apparent indifference, and had made up my mind that I could not mention the subject to the President again without self-abasement, I came across an old Washington Telegraph, in which Phil Barbour carefully advised the publick that he was not the Barbour who had recommended my appointment, without condescending to add the very material fact that he never had been invited to do so. This naturally excited my indignation not a little; and I made use of it as an occasion not only of expressing my disgust at such impertinent meanness, but of absolving the President from any farther care about providing for me, and also of freeing myself from the appearance of depending on his good will or hoping for marks of his favour. From that moment to this I have been perfectly silent in regards to any expectation of office or appointment, in all my letters to him and to his or my friends. Nor can I account for the language in the extract above referred to from your letter of the 12th of last month. I keep no copy of my letters, but I am confident I never asked you to request an appointment for me, or, since [word is missing] letter from Mahon in 1830 intimated in the remotest manner, a wish that you should do so. I mention my exile and the pain of it on a late occasion, but in reference solely to the continued absence from the U.S. to which my now literary undertaking would condemn me I am therefore at a loss, I repeat, to account for your observation. “That you had showed my letter to the president, and that he thought I had better come home, and hoped it would be in his power still to do something for me, notwithstanding the Senates Veto.” No one could read your words without supposing I had expressed to you a wish that the President should do something for me, while as far as a man can be certain retrospectively of his own thoughts and intentions, I would have revolted from the idea of making such a suggestion. Belated as I had stood to General Jackson personally and politically, I should have thought after the manner in which my application from Mahon had been treated; a suggestion of the kind; an act of the deepest degradation as well as of the highest folly. In applying to him lately for a letter of introduction to Genl Bernard limited carefully to the purpose of facilitating my literary views, I observed the strictest caution, and placed the subject before him exclusively in the light of a becoming encouragement to letters, so fearful was I of appearing to disturb the [letter torn] of his goodwill or to solicit the revival of his patronage. Your language leads to another inference which I consider equally erroneous. You say for the president that he hopes still to do something for me in spite of the Senate’s veto. Any reader would conclude from this that the President had all along been endeavouring, or at least hoping to do something for me in spite of the Senate’s veto. But as I before stated he never paid the slightest attention to the request I made at Mahon in September 1830, which reached him, for the Sloop of War Lexington by which it was forwarded arrived safely, and in July 1831 I expressly absolved him from all care about providing former; feeling myself called on to do so by his apparent indifference and obvious neglect. Could it be supposed that notwithstanding this neglect on his part and disclaimer on mine, he still entertained a hope or desire to do something for me, other circumstances have occurred of a character to force the opposite impressions on my mind, where it would have remained indelible but for the message you have unexpectedly favored me with. These circumstances I will briefly recapitulate. Upon Mr. Rives departure from this country it seems that although Mr. Livingston was selected by the President as his successor, it was determined not to make any alterations in the cabinet for a time, and interim to put the legation here into more competent hands than those in which Mr. Rives had left it. The choice of the executive fell on Mr. Levitt Harris, a gentleman to whose urbanity, experience and capacity I bear willing testimony but one who I believe was never distinguished as a political friend or supporter of General Jackson’s election, one who has spent the greater portion of his life out of the U.S., and who has not been exempt from popular odium. He was nominated to the office just before the adjournment of the last Congress, and his nomination was confirmed. Had that appointment been deferred only a few days, that is until after the adjournment of Congress, it would have been completely at the disposal of the president. I was on the spot, was declared by the president to be in possession of his “great confidence,” &c, and whatever may be said of my qualifications, they are not likely to be pronounced by any jury in the States inferior to those of Mr. Vail in London or to the average of our diplomatic agents in Europe, or to the duties of a charge d’ affaires. Besides, my recommendations in the most of them at least, such as those of Judge Marshall, Judge McLean, General Armstrong, Livingston himself, &c had expressly named me as Charge d’ Affaires and Hugh Nelson, who had himself been a minister abroad, as a full minister. In addition to these, the testimonials in my favour of Mr. Rives, of the speaker of the House of Representatives, and of the chairman and Secretary of the Jackson Fredericksburg committee, besides those other Virginia gentlemen, and besides the address of a number of respectable citizens of my native county, expressing regret at my former rejection, and an affectionate respect for my character, were in the President’s possession, and considering that Judge Marshall, Stevenson Rives, Nelson Barbour, the Garnett’s, and the Fredericksburg committee men, were like myself citizens of Virginia, constituted as strong a body of vouchers in favour of a candidate for an office of the kind as could be conceived or desired. Yet no notice was taken of me and the appointment was given to a man over my head, who as I understand never applied for it. It appears to me that if providence had designed to create an occasion for the exercise of the presidents patronage in my favor, notwithstanding the senate’s veto as fairer one I have presented itself in this conjecture could hardly have been produced. I was not so blind as not to observe it, nor so stupid as to be insensible to the strong evidence of indifference toward me, which the use that was actually made of it, afforded. Yet I did not complain even to my wife, my brother, or my friend and I defy you to point out the slightest change in the tone of my letters to the Genl or to yourself respecting him. I had disclaimed all pretensions to his favour in consequence of former neglect, and I felt that I had no right to complain, could I have condescended to do so, of his taking me at my word, although that disclaimer had been extorted by conduct on his part which disappointed no less than it mortified me. Besides, I was not unmindful of the marks of personal confidence with which he had previously honoured me, nor of the obligations under which I was placed towards him as a citizen of the U. States. These had attached me to him, and I was resolved that selfish considerations should never lesson the esteem and admiration which his great virtues and exploits and former kindness had inspired me with. His inflexible patriotism in opposing and defeating nullification added to warmth of my attachment and enthusiasm and all thoughts of such small subjects as myself and my concerns were buried in my breast as insignificant. You have disinterred them as you perceive, as much I assure you to my surprise as to your own annoyance. For before I read your letter, I had concluded that Genl Jackson had dismissed all hopes or rather abandoned all intentions of doing any thing for me even when an occasion offered of the most inviting description, for his rendering me the highest service. For it is impossible for me to estimated the advantage which the appointment of charge d’ affaires here even pro tempore, would have conferred on me both in a political and literary point of view. Since the receipt of your letter I have looked back to the strong expressions in the General’s letter to me of June 1830, and have supposed it possible that he saw the fitness of the circumstances attending this appointment as plainly as I did, and have cast about in my mind for the reasons which may probably have prevented him from giving it to me. The first that occurs to me is that the appointment would not have been agreeable to Livingston through whose office it must have passed. But is the President to sacrifice his friendships (for both you and he himself say that he is my friend) to the enmities of the secretary of State, especially in cases where the president knows that the enmity of this secretary has arisen from unjustifiable conduct on his part. Besides may not a Secretary of State write a dispatch or even countersign an appointment, to a man he does not like, even where his aversion is the fruit of conscious injustice on his part. Livingston I am sure is not formed of such stern materials as to recoil from a proceeding of the kind nor should I have conjectured the possibility of such a proceeding part of the president have you not remarked, that Livingston leaves the U States my enemy, and also observed, “Now that Mr. Livingston has left the State Department I mean to make another effort to get your accounts settled,” intimating that Livingston’s enmity had been manifested in opposition to my just interests. As to any other reason I am hardly able to conjecture one. My moral character is at least as good, or not worse than it was when the General nominated me to Algiers; and I presume in its worst aspect is at least as respectable as that of d’Avezac, or as faultless as that of Livingston himself; who undoubtedly absconded from New York in debt to the U States about one hundred thousand dollars for money which he had received for the Government when entrusted by it with the office of District Attorney of the U States, and had appropriated to his own purposes in violation of his duty as an officer and his honour as a man. The president declares in his order dismissing Randolph, that for retaining 4, or 5,000 dollars either of the publick money or of Timberlake’s, and for presenting an improper account with intention to defraud the one or the other, he is rendered unworthy of the confidence of the government and unfit to associate with men of honour. In this sentiment, upon this view of the case I agree with him. But it is not less dishonourable to rob than to defraud, nor to rob the publick than it is to rob a purser; and therefore I contend that the rule pronounced in the case of Randolph applies more strongly still to the default of Livingston. It is said he paid up about the end of the first quarter of the present century, the money which he abstracted from the government about its commencement. This is acknowledging the theft, but not cancelling the crime. Besides he was probably settled with more in the style of Toby than of Amos. Now a disbursing officer to whom the duty of paying over and accounting for public money is assigned, may fall in arrears and be indebted to the government through negligence or accident without dishonour or intention to defraud. But Livingston was not a receiving or disbursing officer. He interposed6 improperly as I have always understood between the Marshall of the United States, and the debtor of the U States, and got the public money as dishonestly as he used it. The public money was placed in the hands of Lt. Randolph in the regular course of official Agency. Moreover I acknowledge my adultery, and have paid for it dearly enough, in a pecuniary point of view I mean yet I am persecuted unrelentingly by my enemies and still more unrelentingly neglected by my friends and if appearances are to be trusted am thus neglected, out of deference to the hostility of a man who has been guilty of conduct unfitting him to associate with men of honour, and whose hostility is the result of behaviour on his part at which I could not but feel indignant, which the president says had the effect of mortifying him inexpressibly, and which you yourself admit cannot be justified.

On the subject of this Mr. Livingston I experienced yet another mortification because I was made sensible that I had been subjected on his account to still further injustice. When I was in London Mr. Van Buren adverted to the subject of my rejection by the Senate and mentioned that in order to counteract the obloquy which was cast upon the Govt for nominating me, as well as to shield me, the letters of gentlemen recommending me had been published in the Telegraph, or perhaps their names only, for I forget which. But he added that Livingstons had been withheld out of tenderness for him. This transaction, the first of the kind in the official annuals of our Government as far as I recollect, was no doubt intended for the purposes above mentioned, that is to justify the govt and to break my fall. But it must be obvious upon the least reflection that its natural effect was very different in regard to me (especially as no farther use has been made of those testimonials) that it was calculated to exonerate the govt from the sin of having appointed me, by shifting it to the broad shoulders of Chief Justice Marshall, Judge McLean, Andrew Stevenson, Genl Armstrong, Hugh Nelson, Rives, J. S. Barbour, the Garnetts, Thomas P. Moore, and the Chairman & Secretary of the Fredericksburg Jackson Committee. The language which the whole affair from beginning to end has spoken on the part of the execution, and that but two loudly for my reputation and feelings, has been this? “We nominated Major Lee because he is the son of a distinguished officer of the revolution, is considered to have been an efficient writer on the prevailing side in the political contest of which we are now enjoying the victory, and because he was recommended to us for a higher office than the one we gave him by the very first men in the State of which he is a citizen, and by the leading characters of the Union. Under these circumstances we could not do less than offer him the appointment which he accepted, and which therefore is to be placed to the account not of the President or of the Secretary of State, but to that of the Chief Justice of the U States, associate Justice McLean, of the Speaker of the house of Delegates, of the former minister to Madrid, of the present ministers to France and Buenos Ayres, of a former minister to France and Secretary of War, and of various Virginia gentlemen, all of whom know him well, have known him long, and earnestly recommended him. So far from being Claimable for having offered him an office not likely to be tempting to a man desirous of wealth or distinction, and not coming up to the post for which he was recommended, we claim credit for having complied with such strong recommendations in a manner which was far from expressing an opinion as favourable to Major Lee, as that entertained by the distinguished persons who advised his appointment. And now that his nomination is rejected by the Senate we shall confirm our justification on this point by observing a course of perfect indifference in regard to him, by leaving him a prey to popular odium and private hate, by distinguishing with honours the highest of his enemies, and admitting to favour the meanest one among them. In short we shall ratify and rivet the decree of the Senate rejecting our own nomination. That this is the natural and obvious signification of the circumstances above mentioned there can be no doubt in the mind of any man when the multiplied and accumulated offices of Livingston and the recent appointment of “the God like man” Robinson, are taken into view. I have several letters from different persons and quarters of Virginian and of different dates repeating it. The writers not knowing each others thoughts, and some of them not acquainted with Robinson’s appointment. They, that is the former, ask what has Robinson ever done to bring him into notice but busying himself in a manner more infamous even than his character or his object, to defeat my nomination, and so far to embarrass and discredit the administration in the commencement of its career. And they all ask how is it possible for them to suppose the president friendly to me, when he does the very things which are the most unfavourable to me and mortifying to my friends, and fails to do such things as might benefit me and gratify my friends. These are questions which I must leave it to you to answer.

If indeed Robinson is appointed as I am informed in two letters received since I recd yours but of a few days earlier date, to the place of corresponding clerk of the war department with a salary of 1400 dollars, it must be considered an act of sheer favour, as everybody who knows him must know that he has neither character nor qualifications suitable to holding intercourse with “the sons of chivalry and honor.” These things however strange and mortifying to my friends have never any of them been alluded to by me in any communication verbal or written, to any human thing on this or the other side of the Atlantic up to this day, and now when I allude to them to you it is in consequence only of the unaccountable message in your letter. You will hardly doubt the truth of what I say, when you remember, that I have never uttered either a complaint or solicitation on the subject of my treatment by the executive in my letters to you or the General from the time I left Mahon. And I defy the acutest critic to discover the slightest change as was before observed in the tone of my correspondence with you and him, or with any other person respecting him through that long tract of time.

Recurring to Livingston, and to the suppression of his name in the publication of those who had recommended me, I have to observe that taking the proceeding in the favourable light in which it was placed by Mr. Van Buren, it is obvious that my interest was as readily sacrificed on that occasion as it has been throughout the whole proceeding on or rather through the whole course of the general’s administration, at least from the day on my rejection by the Senate. Now if any man’s name could have been served particularly to ease my fall, it would have been that of Livingston who was a member of the Senate which rejected my nomination. His letter accompanied by the address of the citizens of Westmoreland, which the general thought honourable to me would have exposed his inconsistency, would have led to enquiries, and would have drawn the public attention to the slander of which he was the weak or the willing dupe. But when good to me, was weighed in the balance of executive justice against harm to this quick abstracter and slow payer back of public money, it was found as light and as worthless as a straw, and so the publication which was intended to serve me was stripped of the very ingredients which would have been the most useful and the most palatable to me was put forth in a manner calculated to do me as little good and as much havoc as possible, out of favour to a man who had deeply injured me, and as the president says, had contributed to affect him with inexpressible mortification. On this man, and his connections too, the CornuCopia of the president’s favour has since been emptied in one continued flood. He is first made Secretary of State; then, after the cream of that department is skimmed, he is gratified by a permanent embassy to the first court and most agreeable Capital on the Continent of Europe, with a roving commission in his packet and a ship of the line at his service, to visit the classical shores of the Mediterranean, to negotiate with the splendid court of Naples; and with whatever diplomatic honours he may pick up, to make the tour of Italy and Switzerland, the triumphant prelude of his reception at Paris. The salaries and outfits accruing in this career, will no doubt replace at least half the public money, he was so gradually and gently induced to disgorge. His son in law is made secretary of Legation an office intended by the spirit of the Law creating him, as a check upon the minister; and is of course associated in this bright succession of ambassadorial honours. His brother in law is made secretary of Legation to Holland, then charge d’ affaires to the same court, and then sent on a special mission to Naples, to execute which he had to pass by me, and to leave his proper post and his regular duty. And it appears to me I have seen somewhere an account of his brother in law, Carleton being appointed to some office or other. If not he is the pretermitted child of the family. These things I could not but observe and could not help being mortified at, but still I reflected that I was out of the president’s view both by his virtual enforcement of the decree of the Senate, and by my consequent disclaiming all pretensions to his notice, and I determined never to suffer a syllable of complaint or a thought of dissatisfaction to occupy my mind or escape my lips. This determination I have all along adhered to and never should have departed from had you not surprised me, under the mortifying pressure of such long continued, evident, injurious and ostentations neglect, with the message from the president advising me to return home as he hopes still to be able to do something for me notwithstanding the senate’s veto! If you were in my place would you not be surprised at such a message under similar circumstances, after such wintry neglect, and such a lapse of time? Would you not be prompted to ask where lay this hope buried when an appointment, upon which the Senate’s Veto could not have operated, had been handed by the president past me to Levitt Harris, a gentleman who however amiable in his character and manners, is not exempt from censure, was never distinguished as a supporter of the claims of Genl Jackson to office, and who moreover did not apply for the place, and when another appointment completely out of the reach of the Senate was given to d’Avezac who already held one above his expectations if beneath his well known moral merit. If you were in my situation would you not ask where has this hope been sighing for gratification ever since I made a very humble application from Mahon, seeing that that application was not only unsuccessful but was never in the slightest degree noticed. Is it possible that the president could not indulge this hope, as long as Livingston sat like Haman at the King’s elbow, and could not stomach that I should be allowed to sit at the King’s gate. Is it possible that the man who hated me because he had injured me was to be removed by the temptation of new and abundant honours, before I could be invited by a vague, indifferent, and second hand summons, to pick up a crumb, if perchance one could be found, from the table at which he and all his tribe had feasted to the surfeit? Is it possible that the good will of Robinson was to be propitiated by a sop of treasury gravy, for fear he should snarl at the hand which tardily tossed a bone to him? At this last endorsement of my degradation from office, I was the more astonished from referring to a passage in a letter from Mr. Brown of the 2nd of last April, when he could have had, as little expectation of Robinson’s appointment as I had. His words are “I saw your Uncle Billy lately in Washington. He was very well as to health of body; but damn’s Genl Jackson and his administration, and from what he says I should judge he thinks them too corrupt for him to take office under. He intends to settle again in Westmoreland.” I must guard you against conceiving that I am silly or selfish enough to think that the president was under an obligation to give me an office, or to refrain from giving offices to whatever other persons he chose out of regards to my feelings or reputation. His own views of the public interest and his own sense of duty are the only rules for his conduct in this respect, under the Law. But when he totally neglects me, and patronizes my particular enemies without any motives of public duty, you may suppose that I am surprized at the terms of his message, or at his conceiving I would hasten my return home upon such an invitation given in such a manner and such a time. “I have stuffed Livingston and all his creole Kin,8 from the gizzard to the gullet, and I have given that beast Robinson a bellyfull. Now if you will abandon the undertaking you say you are engaged in an hasten through a voyage of three thousand miles, I may possibly endeavour while Livingston is belching and Robinson glutted, to smuggle you into some little out of the way official stall where neither the Senators nor anyone else will ever hear of you.” Is not this a fair interpretation of the message, and when you recollect that my being in Paris was the most favourable circumstance that could be found towards making me charge d’ Affaires here, or of sending me instead of d’Avezac to Naples, and connect with it the casual and second hand advice to return home upon the careless expression of a hope that some little snivelling clerkship (I suppose) may be by good luck and great favour provided for me, does it not remind you of the kindness which boys sometimes shew to a favourite dog, in making him stand on his hind legs or jump over a stick, by the offer of a crust of bread? To save my soul I can view it in no other light although there is no comfort in the prospect.

Among the conjectural causes of this unexpected neglect and strange remembrance of me it has sometimes occurred to me, that for the last 12 or 18 months, my having disputed some of the dicta and exposed some of the faults of the late Mr. Jefferson, may have been considered a complete disqualification for appointment and our government. This conjecture, is I own in opposition to the opinion I have always entertained of Genl Jackson’s spirit and character, but then the whole course of his official conduct in regard to myself is equally opposed to this opinions, at least from the time he received my letter from Mahon. I say at least, for from the first I discovered that I was held very cheaply was postponed infinitely to infinitely indifferent men, was placed far in the rear of your Eatons, Inghams, Branches, Kendalls, Moores, the best among them by the way, and was considered by Genl Jackson of less value as a friend than I would have been by Mr Adams as an enemy. This conjecture however though countenanced by this analogy, I should never have for an instant entertained, had not Mr Van Buren when he earnestly dissuaded me in London from publishing my defense of my father’s memory, intimated that it might stand in the way of the revival of my political prospects. This advice abhorrent as it was to my feelings as a son and even as a citizen, I am fully convinced was given in perfect kindness. Indeed I will take this occasion to say that in all my intercourse with that Gentleman I have reason to be satisfied. But still his advice on that occasion shews how dangerous he considered it for my slender political hopes to be hazarded in opposition to the impure idolatry of the deluded people and their leaders. A comparison between my situation and that of the Trists too, whose only particular claim to patronage under two antagonist administrations, consists as I am informed in the marriage of one of them with one of Mr. Jefferson’s grand daughters, strengthens this impression received from Mr. Van Buren. All I can say farther can regard to it is, that if this has been among the causes of my abandonment of my being left struggling in the waves of injustice persecution and revenge while the very persons who precipitated me overboard by treachery and meanness are accommodated under the forecastle or feasted in the Cabin, it will cut a poor figure in the account of the voyage. Had I been a connection of Jefferson or Carroll or even Livingston, do you believe I would hence been so deserted or that the strong and earnest intimidation contained in the Presidents letter of June 1830, would have subsided into the accidental, languid and late remembrance found in the message to me of June 1833.

You may ask me why my complaints are now heard for the first time and yet expressed so strongly. I answer that hitherto perfect silence was required by self respect, and that it is less humiliating to implore the mercy of an enemy, then to importune the kindness of a friend. Your communication has forced me to speak and it would be unworthy of the subject as well as of Genl Jackson’s concern in it, to utter any thing but the truth.

You may tell me that in the great and difficult affairs which have occupied the cares of Government. I being absent and inconsiderable, was naturally forgotten. It may all be very true, for it appears very probable. But why have others, down even to the lowest in the list of bipeds, Robinson for example, been remembered, under circumstances less likely to recall them fairly to mind than the accident of my being here was on two occasions to bring me to the memory of the President. Besides when I am remembered, at the eleventh hour, it is in terms which imply contempt as strongly as they express interest. You may further ask how I can feel the dissatisfaction here expressed and still entertain the friendship and respect which I have never ceased to manifest for Genl Jackson. I answer that my friendship for him is founded on my admiration his general character, and my recollection of instances of his personal confidence and kindness, and that it is a sentiment too elevated ever to give way to the mortifications attendant are neglect. A positive and intentional injury or some glaring demerit alone could weaken it. Moreover there is a sort of magnanimity in remaining tranquil and unmoved under treatment of the kind, which the example of my father taught me to imitate. Genl Greene as his letters shew, owed all his success and fame in the southern war except those resulting from Morgan’s victory of the Cowpens, to the counsels and exertions of my father. Yet in his report of the various events of his campaigns and especially of the battle of Eutaw, he almost disgraced him, out of respect for the envious reproach of having trusted him too much, and the narrow apprehension of being too much indebted to him. Genl Washington, although he confessed that he thought my father more deserving of the appointment than any other officer that his own inclination “was strongly in his favour” for fear of dissatisfying senior officers, gave the command of the Indian War to Genl Wayne. He never complained in the first instance except on account of the officers of his Legion, nor at all, in the second, nor did his friendship for either of these great men abate in the least. Why then should I with pretensions so contemptible where compared with his suffer a petty sense of injury or feeling of disappointment to stand between Genl Jackson and myself. I have never done so nor will I do so now, though like my father I feel the injury the more acutely inasmuch as it comes from a friend, and is attended by disrespect to the gentlemen who recommended me and the affectionate fellow citizens who unknown to me interposed their remonstrance not more to alleviate my disgrace, than to justify the president.

You may possibly be disposed to add that I am not sensible of the enormity of my sin, or of the weight of public odium to which it exposed me. To this I answer that the first was not aggravated by the vote of the Senate, or by the subsequent continuance of executive disfavour and that the second should not have been and that I am fully sensible of the enormity of my sin and not afraid as you shall see to acknowledge it in all its dimensions. It was an act of adultery and according to the laws of Virginia of incest, and moreover a violation of my duty as guardian. This is a formidable offense no doubt, and in the eye of prejudice a mountain of atrocities. But look at it with the eye of reason. The adultery so far from being magnified by the incest is diminished by it. The laws of Virginia and of England, in that respect opposed to the laws of the rest of civilized Europe and of Scotland the most moral and religious country of Europe, in order to extend the sphere if fraternal affection in families make the marriage between a man and the sister his former wife incest and consequently illicit intercourse between a man and the sister of his wife adultery and incest. A citizen of Virginia therefore associates with the sister of his wife, with all the unguarded intimacy which he would observe toward his own sister and there being no blood connection, no barrier of instinct between them, is more liable to be surprized into adultery in this very case, than in any other. Any impartial man is capable of conceiving the reasonableness of this position. The conviction of it is not an afterthought of mine, nor is it confined to me even in Virginia. About 10 or 12 years ago a bill was bought into the Legislature of Virginia by (I believe) the present Judge Upshur, to effect a repeal of the act defining incest, in order to make the marriage between a man and his former wife’s sister, and of a woman with her former husband’s brother lawful, as it is for instance in the neighbouring state of Maryland. It was advocated on this ground, among others, that the law in its present shape, operated as an inducement to adultery, and was founded on an erroneous view of human nature. It was also observed that almost all the adulteries occurring in the respectable families of Virginia were attended by this artificial incest and that if these parties were declared by law marriageable, they would be protected by the usual reserves of discretion which are found effectual in most other cases. The bill failed, though it was supported by about a third of the members, and a greater proportion of the talents of the house, and was rejected more out of an aversion to change than from any force of argument or reason; the minority palliating my sin, and the majority not disputing that palliation. As to the matter of guardianship in my case it was merely nominal. But in any case, to suppose that after the great restraint of conjugal fidelity was broken the smaller one of fiduciary obligation could prevail, is like supposing a hawser would hold where a chain cable had parted. This guardianship too was forced on me sorely against my will, so much so that when I was at length got into court to accept it. I had provided no security, never having consented until at the very last moment. Besides while my sins are laid bare, it would be just to ask who is faultless to inquire if there never was adultery before or never will be again. Further, should this be any disqualification of me, when Mr Jefferson who as a private man was ten times more guilty, as his guilt was not only deliberate but was persevered in for twelve years against the discouragement and warning of constant repulse and endless defeat, not only climbed to the highest offices, but imparted irresistible claims for appointment to his remotest descendents. Again, mine was the crime of a private man, Mr. Livingston’s of a public officer, and while my treatment shews that a man who is surprised into adultery, is if he aspires to an humble office, to find the indifferences of his friends conspire against him with the persecution of his enemies; his treatment proclaims, with all the authority which the great name of Genl Jackson can give it, that a man who, in a great public trust defrauds his country of 100,000 dollars, and who commits acts which unfit him to associate with men of honour, may reasonably expect with a good share of talents and of luck, to become secretary of state and foreign Ambassador, with a faculty of directing the overflow of executive bounty in abundant streams from himself to his connections. Now while I do not deny that Mr Livingston should be forgiven and appointed, I contend that I am as much entitled to the benefit of the act of oblivion as he or Mr Jefferson.

You may say that Livingston has been sanctified since his guilt by the mantle of popular favour and that I have not been. But that mantle is worn by many men not fit for office, for example, by David Crocket, Thomas Benton and Felix Grundy, and besides I had all the weight of Livingston’s consecrated character in my favour, and have now, if his letter is preserved. I left it to be deposited in the department of State, from which perhaps he has purloined it, an act which would be less dishonourable in the secretary of state, than evaporating with the public money was in the district Attorney. I am aware that other district attorney have fallen in debt for money of the U States. But they did not abscond, thus betraying the animus furandi. If they had no property their person remained in deposit for the debt. In France, a public officer who abstracts the funds of the nation and absconds is condemned to transportation or the galleys, according to circumstances. Had Livingston been a Frenchman therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that he might have left his country in circumstances of less pomp, than those with which Genl Jackson has invested him.

Finally you may ask how could the president appoint me when the senate would reject my nomination. I answer that we must catch our fish before we expect to fry them, and that although the hostility of the senate, admitting that it is always to continue unchanged, is a strong obstacle against my appointment, it is a less insurmountable one than the refusal of the president to nominate. By the first I might be ejected from office, by the second I must be kept out of it. The president it would seem is disposed to befriend me in spite of the senate’s veto, and yet complies implicitly with that veto. How did he act in the case of Gwynn? Instead of filling up the vacancy occasioned by his rejection as he did in all haste in regard to mine, he nominated him, not for a different office, but twice over the same, keeping it open pertinaciously until he got his appointment confirmed. The annunciation of my rejection was brought me by my successor! In Gwynn’s case attestations in his favour were carefully published; in mine, the address of the people of Westmoreland in my favour, which the president describes “from the number and respectability of the signers as honourable to me and consoling to him,” with Livingston’s own recommendation of me, has never seen the light!

I cannot help believing that had that address even without Livingstons letter, been published and the least pains been taken to disarm the public prejudice a salutary reaction in my favour might have been effected. That was the opinion I know of Mr. Brown, who is a judicious observer of men and things. A distinction may I admit be drawn between my case and Gwynns, inasmuch as no adultery or other moral delinquency was urged against him, and as in the course of the practices, the Senate was supposed to have encroached on the president’s authority. The adultery was neutralized by my first nomination and was no longer a bar to the president’s confidence, and it is evident from a passage in the president’s letter to me of June 1830, that he conceived the senate had abused their authority in order to obstruct his “When you return to your country I think there will be ample room for your genius and your pen to correct the abuses of the Senate, and convert it from a worse than Spanish Inquisition, to what it aught to be the preserver of moral character.” This sentence I quote with the more pleasure because I think its concluding member does honour both to the heart and head of Genl Jackson.

To conclude this painful retrospect, I beg to add that as I received the singular communication which occasioned it through you, I have thought proper through you to convey my answer, the scruples which arose against speaking of matters so immaterial as myself my feelings and my concerns, being overruled by the strong necessity of my position. Nothing inconsistent with friendship or incompatible with admiration is intended, for I believe the General’s sentiments towards me are as far as they go, friendly, and his public services have contributed to exalt his public character. For I really think that his energy and independence in [letter is torn] his proclamation saved [letter torn] country from civil war, by saving Virginia from falling into the torrent of nullification madness. I have no more doubt that he preserved the Union than that he preserved New Orleans. If the language of the president as repeated by you had been distinct and earnest instead of being indifferent and vague, and your own had been serious and impressive instead of being incidental and jocular.2 I should have relied like any other citizen that in order to determine whether I would return to the United States in the hope of getting an appointment it would be necessary for me to know the reasonableness of the hope, and the dignity and duty of the place in question. A copy of this letter I have [returned], as you will see, in order that I may not be misunderstood. It is designed neither for private nor public circulation but for you and the general. No man rejoices more sincerely than I do, in his popularity and success, and no man felt more indignantly the outrage which was lately offered him; nor should I be found less earnest in defence of his character now, than I have always been, and I leave it to you to say, if a warmer or more disinterested [illegible] can be formed in my endeavours to justify my own father than in my writings in behalf of General Jackson.

But what I have said, being demanded by truth and justice by a respect for my own feelings, as well as for those of the few friends who in spite of combined persecution and neglect have adhered to me. I shall not be willing to repeat or likely to recal [sic].

I am truly your friend.

H. Lee


Letter from Robert E. Lee to Charles Carter Lee (January 4, 1831) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Charles Carter Lee (September 28, 1832) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Charles Carter Lee (February 24, 1835) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Hill Carter (January 25, 1840) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mary Randolph Custis Lee (April 18, 1841) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mary Randolph Custis Lee (December 27, 1856) “Some Facts That Should Come to Light,” New-York Tribune (June 24, 1859) Col. R. E. Lee’s Report (October 19, 1859) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Henry Lee (December 6, 1859) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mary Randolph Custis Lee (November 11, 1863) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mary Randolph Custis Lee (January 24, 1864) Letter from Howell Cobb to James A. Seddon (January 8, 1865) [future url="PS_LeeBarksdale1865"]Letter from Robert E. Lee to Ethelbert Barksdale (February 18, 1865) Robert E. Lee’s Testimony before Congress (February 17, 1866) Memoranda of Conversations with General Robert E. Lee by William Allan (1868, 1870) Memoranda of Conversations with General Robert E. Lee by William Preston Johnston (1868, 1870) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Robert E. Lee Jr. (March 12, 1868) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Captain Wagner (May 4, 1868) Statement by Francis Preston Blair (April 14, 1871) “General Lee’s Views on Enlisting the Negroes,” Century Magazine (August 1888) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Edward Lee Childe (January 16, 1868) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee (December 25, 1861) Letter from Robert E. Lee to Jefferson Davis (September 2, 1864)

APA Citation:
Lee IV, Henry. Letter from Henry Lee IV to William Berkeley Lewis (July 26, 1833). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Lee IV, Henry. "Letter from Henry Lee IV to William Berkeley Lewis (July 26, 1833)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, January 28
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