WASHINGTON, George. Autograph letter signed ("G:o Washington") to William Goddard (1740-1817), Mount Vernon, 11 June 1785. 1½ pages, folio, integral blank leaf with recipient's docketing, minor reinforcements to fold lines of blank, otherwise in excellent condition.
"CONSCIOUS OF MY INTEGRITY...I SHALL NEVER UNDERTAKE THE PAINFUL TASK OF RECRIMINATION, NOR DO I KNOW THAT I SHALL EVER ENTER UPON MY JUSTIFICATION..."
"I AM GLIDING DOWN THE STREAM OF LIFE, AND WISH...THAT MY REMAINING DAYS MAY BE UNDISTURBED AND TRANQUIL." A revealing and very important letter. Goddard, a Baltimore publisher and journalist, long active in support of the cause of Independence, had been bequeathed the papers of the late General Charles Lee (1731-1782). He planned to edit and publish these papers, and he drew up a prospectus, but the project put him in an awkward position, since many of Lee's wartime letters contained harsh and malicious references to Washington. The antagonism dated from June 1778, when Lee, the second highest-ranked officer in the American army, publicly drew Washington's wrath for his reluctance to press the American attack on the British army in the Battle of Monmouth. Protesting his treatment, Lee demanded a court-martial which--not surprisingly--pronounced him guilty of disobeying orders, misbehavior and disrespect to his senior officer, Washington. Removed from command for a year, Lee retired to his Virginia farm, but he was far from discreet in retirement. In December 1778 he issued a highly colored defense of his conduct under the rubric "General Lee's Vindication to the Public." This polemic contained such highly insulting references to Washington and his abilities as commander that Washington's young aide-de-camp, John Laurens (son of Henry Laurens, then President of Congress), challenged Lee to a duel, in which Lee was wounded. In 1780, still nursing bitter resentments, Lee wrote an offensive letter to Congress and was finally dismissed. (Only in 1860 was it revealed that Lee, while a captive of British General Howe in 1776-1778, had proposed a strategy for a British campaign against the American rebels [for details, see DAB online]). Goddard had written Washington (May 30, 1785) enclosing a manuscript prospectus and deferentially explaining his dilemna: "while it was my duty to preserve what was useful in military & political knowledge, I took the liberty to suppress such expressions as appeared to be the Ebullitions of a disappointed & irritated mind..."
In response Washington thanks Goddard for his solicitude, and adds "...I can only say, that your own good judgment must direct you in the publication of the manuscript papers of Genl. Lee. I can have no request to make concerning the Work. I never had a difference with that Gentleman but on public ground, and my conduct towards him upon this occasion, was only such, as I conceived myself indispensably bound to adopt in discharge of the public trust reposed in me. If this produced in him unfavourable sentiments of me, I yet can never consider the conduct I pursued, with respect to him, either wrong or improper, how ever I may regret that it may have been differently viewed by him, and that it excited his censure & animadversions. Should there appear in General Lee's writings any thing injurious or unfriendly to me, the impartial and dispassionate world, must decide how far I deserved it from the general tenor of my conduct."
In conclusion, Washington gently dismisses such old quarrels: "I am gliding down the stream of life, and wish as is natural, that my remaining Days may be undisturbed and tranquil; and conscious of my integrity, I would willingly hope that nothing would occur tending to give me anxiety; but should any thing present itself in this or in any other publication, I shall never undertake the painful task of recrimination, nor do I know that I shall ever enter upon my justification. I consider the communication you have made as a mark of great attention, and...your letter as a proof of your esteem...."
In the end, Goddard's proposed collection failed to attract subscribers and was never issued; another edition of Lee's papers was published in the Collections of the New-York Historical Society, 1872-1876. Published (from a letter-book copy, with a few minor differences) in Papers, Confederation Ser., ed. Abbot, 3:50.
Provenance: Charles Hamilton, 29 October, 1981, lot 216.