LEE, WILLIAM. (1739–1795). American merchant, diplomat, troublemaker. Virginia. Only sixteen months older than his brother Arthur, William was closely associated with him in Europe after 1768. In the 1760s William learned the mercantile trade from his elder brother Philip ("Colonel Phil") Ludwell Lee at Stratford and served as secretary for the land speculation venture, the Mississippi Company. On 7 March 1769, soon after reaching London, he married his wealthy cousin Hannah Philippa Ludwell (d. 1784); later she was the heiress of Green Spring, the Ludwell family seat in Virginia. The next year William partnered in the tobacco trade with Stephen Sayre and the Dennys De Berdts (father and son). With Sayre and Arthur Lee, he became involved in British politics as a supporter of John Wilkes. Both Sayre and William became sheriffs of London (1773), and William soon after became an alderman of the City of London (1775), the only American ever elected to that office. William ran unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1774.
Early in 1777 the commercial committee of Congress, which included Robert Morris and William's brother, Richard Henry Lee, named William and Morris's brother, Thomas Morris, joint commercial agents to handle Congress's business in Europe. In June 1777 William went to France, where to his chagrin he discovered the financial accounts of Congress's agents in disarray and the lines of authority hopelessly confused. Before long, in a series of letters sent back to the states, William and brother Arthur began questioning Silas Deane's financial dealings on behalf of Congress and even Deane's loyalty. Deane's employment of the clever British spy Edward Bancroft seemed to lend credence to their charges, and eventually Congress recalled Deane and held an official inquiry into his actions. In May 1777 Congress appointed William commissioner to Prussia and Austria, but neither power had any idea of recognizing the United States at that time and William was not permitted to visit either capital.
The Lee brothers and Ralph Izard had been rebuffed in their diplomatic assignments, so they stayed in Paris and tried to justify their existence. Their constant complaining tended to undermine Deane and Franklin and led to much animosity among all the parties. Consequences of the resulting controversy included the elimination of William Lee and Izard from their posts in June 1779 and the recall of Arthur Lee three months later.
Meanwhile, however, William Lee had taken a step that led to war between England and Holland. Unable to gain entrée to the Prussian and Austrian courts, he took it on himself to see what he could do in Holland. With a minor Dutch official, John De Neufville, he framed a draft treaty of commerce, and although the Dutch gave no indication of interest in it, Lee proudly sent his draft to Congress. When Henry Laurens was sent to the Netherlands in the summer of 1780 to get a treaty and a loan, the Lees gave him William's "treaty" as a model. Laurens was captured by the British at sea. The historian Helen Augur has written that "Whitehall believed, or chose to believe, William Lee's … treaty genuine, and immediately declared war on Holland." (Augur, p. 322)
William lived in Brussels for four years after losing his official status. In September 1783 he retired to Green Spring and died after several years of almost total blindness.
Ford, Worthington C., ed. The Letters of William Lee. 3 vols. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Historical Printing Club, 1891.
revised by Frank E. Grizzard Jr.