General Charles Lee

July 12, 1776, General Charles Lee, who was then in South Carolina, wrote to Patrick Henry to congratulate him for being elected the first governor of the first free country ever formed by the sovereign people therein: writing their own constitution and electing their own first magistrate. Lee sees the writing on the wall: the consequences of arrogant and designing men are not prevented from obtaining too much power. Unfortunately, we were not able to prevent it; it is the natural course of things. Only virtuous statesmen can stop this, by inveighing against it, warning about it, protesting mightily, and organizing and bringing people of good conscience together to say “no.”

The concerns of Lee echo those of Edmund Burke, advising a remedy that ironically, Virginia has just availed herself of in seceding from Great Britain.

No man who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate, else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.

Now, this is what Charles Lee wrote to Patrick Henry, warning him about his new country and his new power:

12 July, 1776

Sir, I most sincerely congratulate you on the noble conduct of your countrymen; and I congratulate your country on having citizens deserving of the high honor to which you are exalted; for the being elected to the first Magistracy of a free people is certainly the pinnacle of human glory; and I am persuaded that they could not have made a happier choice.

Will you excuse me? But I am myself so extremely democratical, that I think it a fault in your Constitution that the Governour should be eligible for three years successively. It appears to me that a government of three years may furnish an opportunity of acquiring a very dangerous influence. But this is not the worst. A man who is fond of office, and has his eye upon reelection, will be courting favour and popularity, at the expense of his duty.

There is a barbarism crept in among us that extremely shocks me: I mean those tinsel epithets with which (I come in for my share) we are so beplastered—his Excellency and his Honour, the Honourable President of the Honourable Congress, or the Honourable Convention. This fulsome, nauseating cant, may be well enough adapted to barbarous Monarchies, or to gratify the adulterated pride of the magnifici in pompous Aristocracies; but in a great, free, manly, equal Commonwealth, it is quite abominable; for my own part, I would as lief they would put ratsbane in my mouth as the Excellency with which I am daily crammed. How much more true dignity was there in the simplicity of address amongst the Romans: Marcus Tullius Cicero, Decimo Bruto Imperatori, or Caio Marcello Consuli, than to his Excellency Major-General Noddle, or to the Honourable John Doodle. If, therefore, I should sometimes address a letter to you without the Excellency tacked, you must not esteem it a mark of personal or official disrespect, but the reverse.

Lee is basically saying: that’s great, you guys elected your own little legislature. They elected you the chief magistrate, the governor of Virginia, fantastic. But you can be elected three times (and Henry was elected three times.) Once someone has acquired that kind of power, they can more easily acquire it again through re-election for all the wrong reasons, and finally can begin the process of divvying the power up amongst his concerned interests, amongst those that will attempt to curry favor with him.

This is the exact danger that has crept in, ladies and gentlemen, to our legislatures. The final nail in the coffin was the popular election of United States senators by virtue of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. Now the state legislatures do not have the authority to check the machinations of the national government.

No, it’s not a federal government anymore and no one should call it that. It is a national government. It is a national legislature. It pretends to own and operate upon every living soul and every living soul’s activity, no matter how significant or trivial. This is what happens in countries that ultimately fall to despotism, despotism which is right at our doorstep. The President of the United States is being encouraged or allowed to unilaterally declare war by warlike actions against a sovereign country like Syria; and if Congress does not dutifully react in order to stop the abuse, then, ladies and gentlemen, we are in a basic state of nature. We have no legislature to hear our appeals. There is no place to go for a redress of grievances because no one is listening. Even if they did listen, they refuse to do anything to stop the abuse. What then is the alternative?

Well, my friends, ladies and gentlemen, the alternative must then be that, as Edmund Burke said, good men are going to have to associate. Only an association of good men can stop the cabal of the bad men. I will leave it up to your fertile imaginations as to how that might come about. Believing that an association of good men is ever going to be elected amongst 790,000 citizens (for each Congressional district) in a manner in which will be large enough and popular enough to stop the abuses that are currently at hand, I believe, is the stuff of pure fantasy and delusion.

The only hope then is to what? In some way, shape or form, to reorganize, decentralize, break away from the current despotic monster that refuses to heed the document that gives it its only powers. That’s the amazing thing about this. There is no federal or national government without our constitution, there simply isn’t. It is what brought it into being, yet it does not act as a check on it. It’s sad, folks, sad but true.

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