Do not judge too harshly
During the bleak days of the Revolution which followed Washington’s defeat at New York, Major General Charles Lee actively campaigned to have Washington removed from command, with Lee replacing him. As part of this campaign, Lee sent a letter to Colonel Joseph Reed, one of Washington’s aides, in which he congratulated Reed for his role in saving the Continental Army from complete annihilation at the hands of the British. The fatuous Lee flattered Reed, who responded in a letter of his own, showering Lee with similar praise, and referring to Washington as having “an indecisive mind.”
Lee replied in another letter in which he discussed an indecisive mind as a “â¦greater disqualification than stupidity or even want of personal courageâ¦” and went on to point out that defeat was inevitable for one lacking the means to act decisively at the right time. When Reed received this letter it was accompanied by a note from Washington. He had opened the letter when it arrived at headquarters, believing it to be official correspondence regarding the movements of the Army. Washington was at the time concerned that Lee was not moving across New Jersey with sufficient speed and hoped that the letter would let his commander know that the troops were on the march.
Washington’s discovery of the contents of the letter must have shocked him to the core, but he didn’t let on to his subordinates. One of his trusted aides and his second in command discussing him in terms which were hardly flattering must have hurt as well. In the note which he sent to Reed when forwarding the letter he said that he had opened the letter and read it, thinking it to be official in nature, and when he discovered that it was personal he resealed it and sent it on with his apologies for intruding into a personal correspondence. That was all. He neither mentioned it to Reed nor any other aides, and he did not address the issue with Lee.
Rule number 63 reads, “A Man ought not to value himself of his Achievements, or rare Qualities of wit; much less of his riches Virtue or Kindred.” This to Washington would have meant not to have too high of an opinion of his own achievements. He may also have been guided by Rule 58, which includes, “â¦And in all causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern.” There was nothing in the letter which was specifically disloyal, instead it was the personal opinion of another officer being expressed in what he believed to be a private correspondence. Washington may have simply had too much character to react, even as Lee continued to vex him.
Washington may also have allowed his silence to serve as sufficient punishment for Reed, who continued to serve throughout the war, but not as one of Washington’s aides after the New Jersey campaign. Or he may have considered bringing up the matter with Lee in person when he arrived, as described in Rule 77, “Treat with men at fit Times about Business & Whisper not in the Company of Others.” If so, we’ll never know. Lee was captured by the British as he lolled in New Jersey and by the time he was exchanged and returned to the Army other issues of greater concern occupied Washington’s mind.