Richard Henry Lee

views updated May 17 2018

Richard Henry Lee

Richard Henry Lee (1732-1794), American patriot and statesman, led early resistance in Virginia to British rule. He introduced into the Continental Congress the resolution declaring American independence.

Richard Henry Lee was born into a family long prominent in Virginia's history. Stratford, the family home, in which Lee was born on Jan. 20, 1732, was one of the stateliest mansions in Virginia. Lee received an education befitting a wealthy planter's son—private tutors at home and then Wakefield Academy in England. By the age of 26 he was already a justice of the peace in Westmoreland Country and a member of the House of Burgesses.

One of Lee's first speeches in the House, an impassioned denunciation of the slave trade, helped establish his reputation as an orator, second only to Patrick Henry. With Henry he shared leadership of the "progressive" faction in the House and led the colony's vigorous opposition to the new British tax measures after 1764. Lee also achieved prominence by exposing the embezzlements of John Robinson, who, for 3 decades Speaker of the House and treasurer of the colony, had used public funds to finance his friends' business ventures.

Revolutionary Patriot

Between 1766 and 1776 Lee developed a reputation throughout the Colonies as a flaming "Son of Liberty." In the House of Burgesses he drew up the memorials to the Crown and the Lords protesting the Stamp Act, and he gave strong endorsement to Patrick Henry's famous Virginia Resolves. Lee was not averse to employing direct action, organizing a boycott against the stamps in Westmoreland Country and leading an armed party against the local stamp distributor. The Townshend Acts renewed Lee's militancy. He strongly supported the boycott of British goods and wove cloth on his own looms and pressed his own grapes for wine. Anticipating the need for a broader opposition to British measures, he proposed a system of intercolonial committees of correspondence among "lovers of liberty in every province."

Lee was one of the most active and influential members of the First and Second Continental Congresses, serving on the committees that drew up the Declaration of Rights, the Address to the King, the Memorial to the People of British America, the Address to the People of Great Britain, and the letters to the people of Canada and Florida. He also helped draft the commercial interdict against Britain known as The Association. By this time he was well known as the "Cicero" of America. John Adams described him as a "tall spare man … a scholar, a gentleman, a man of uncommon eloquence."

By 1776 Lee and Adams had become the leaders of the movement for independence. Lee admired the British Constitution but felt that its equipoise had been destroyed by ministerial corruption. In any case, he believed that Britain had "already put the two countries asunder" by Parliament's American trade ban of December 1775. In July, Lee proposed an economic declaration of independence, throwing open American ports to the trade of the world; but Congress did not act on Lee's suggestion until almost a year later, when it also recommended the formation of independent state governments, an action Lee had already urged upon Virginia. Lee's three famous resolutions of June 7, 1776, followed logically: American independence, an alliance with France, and a plan of interstate confederation.

For the remainder of his stay in Congress (1774-1780, 1784-1787), Lee served on the committee to negotiate foreign alliances, chaired the committee that drafted the formal ratification of the Articles of Confederation, and helped secure Virginia's cession of western land claims.

The Antifederalist

Lee resisted efforts to give Congress the power to regulate commerce and to impose customs duties. He viewed commerce as an enemy to virtue and the breeder of the mercantile aristocracy that had corrupted Europe. He felt that a Congress with an independent income would threaten the liberties of the states. Lee approved the Northwest Ordinance because of its property guarantees and the Articles of Confederation because of their guarantees of liberty. He believed that social happiness was to be found in "a wise and free republic and a virtuous people." For these reasons he viewed the Constitutional Convention with suspicion and declined to serve as a delegate.

Lee wrote the most thoughtful, skillful, and powerful of the Antifederalist polemics, Letters from the Federal Farmer (Oct. 8-13, 1787), voicing his fears of a consolidated government and the "formidable combination of power" vested in the president and Senate; he also protested the inadequacy of representation of all interests in the House and the absence of a bill of rights. Lee saw the issue as a contest against both aristocracy and democracy on behalf of the vast majority of "men of middling property." In the end he accepted the Constitution because it was "this or nothing," and he served as one of Virginia's first senators in the new government. He died on June 19, 1794, never quite reconciled to the Constitution despite the Bill of Rights, which he had helped to add to it.

Further Reading

A full collection of sources is James Curtis Ballagh, ed., The Letters of Richard Henry Lee (2 vols., 1911-1914). Lee's "Farmer's Letters" can be found in Paul L. Ford, ed., Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States (1888). His work in the Continental Congress can be traced in the appropriate volumes of W. C. Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (34 vols., 1904-1937). The most recent biography of Lee, more political than personal, is Oliver P. Chitwood, Richard Henry Lee: Statesman of the Revolution (1967). Lee receives considerable attention in Burton J. Hendrick's readable and critical account. The Lees of Virginia: Biography of a Family (1935).

Additional Sources

Matthews, John Carter, Richard Henry Lee, Williamsburg, Va.: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1978. □

Lee, Richard Henry

views updated May 21 2018

Lee, Richard Henry

LEE, RICHARD HENRY. (1732–1794). Member of Congress, Orator, Signer. Virginia. Eldest of the four famous sons of Thomas Lee, he attended England's Wakefield Academy from 1748 to 1751, touring the Continent before returning to the Lee home of Stratford in Virginia in 1752. His career in politics began on a minor note as a justice of the peace in his home county of Westmoreland in 1756; the next year he followed the path of his ancestors to the House of Burgesses, where he became heavily involved in supplying the militia. He also married in 1757, taking his wife, Anne Aylette (d.1768), to Stratford. They remained there until 1763, when Lee established Chantilly-on-the-Potomac, the estate where he would raise nine children and live for the remainder of his life. During those years he began to play a prominent role in the Patriot politics that led to the break with England. He allied with Patrick Henry, with whom he remained close politically and personally for the rest of his life. He coauthored the important Westmoreland Resolves during the Stamp Act crisis, and in 1768 he proposed setting up committees of correspondence. From then to 1773 he kept up his political activity while simultaneously engaging in a profitable tobacco-shipping business with his brother William, who was in London. In 1774 he attended the Virginia Convention.

In the Continental Congress (1774–1780), Lee quickly formed a lasting friendship with John and Sam Adams; he favored strong measures in dealing with the mother country and was one of the first to advocate a direct attack on the king, rather than the ministry, as the oppressor of the colonies. He saw independence primarily as a pre-requisite to the essential winning of foreign support, and he had an important part in getting his state to send Congress resolutions on behalf of independence, foreign alliances, and confederation. Having touched off the movement toward independence, Lee left Philadelphia on 13 June 1776 without taking any part in the subsequent drafting of the Declaration of Independence. He subsequently became a Signer, however. His service on eighteen different committees in his first three months as a delegate gives an indication of his tireless efforts in Congress.

In the late 1770s he took a leading part in convincing fellow Virginians that their sacrifice of claims to western lands was necessary if a confederation were to be achieved. With his brother Arthur he became deeply involved in the controversy with Silas Deane. In May 1779 he was forced by ill health, resulting from arduous work, to resign from Congress, but he came back in 1784 and was elected president of that body; he sat in Congress again in 1787. Meanwhile, despite bad health, he sat in the state House of Delegates. He led opposition to adoption of the Constitution, feeling that the lack of a bill of rights and other features of the document gave the federal government powers that could be abused. Patrick Henry, who shared Lee's objections, was instrumental in getting him elected to the new U.S. Senate, where Lee worked toward amending the Constitution. His principal propositions found their place in the first ten amendments.

In October 1792 he again resigned on grounds of health. A little more than two years later he died at Chantilly, the home he had established around 1757 near the family seat, Stratford.

In addition to politics, Lee ventured into western land speculation, forming with Washington and his brothers the Mississippi Land Company. He was also one of the most outspoken opponents of slavery in the eighteenth century, advocating "liberty and freedom" for Africans by 1759.

SEE ALSO Adams, Samuel; Deane, Silas; Henry, Patrick; Independence; Lee Family of Virginia; Stamp Act.


Chitwood, Oliver Perry. Richard Henry Lee: Statesman of the American Revolution. Morgantown: West Virginia University Library, 1967.

McGaughy, J. Kent. Richard Henry Lee of America: A Portrait of an American Revolutionary. Lanham, Md.: Rowan and Littlefield, 2003.

Smith, Paul H. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1976–2000.

                           revised by Frank E. Grizzard Jr.

Lee, Richard Henry

views updated May 18 2018

Lee, Richard Henry (1732–94) US political leader. US political leader. He was a leading spokesman for colonial rights in Virginia. As a delegate to the Continental Congress, he proposed the resolution on which the Declaration of Independence was based (1776). He opposed the Constitution on the grounds that it diminished the power of the states, but he supported the Bill of Rights. He was president of Congress (1784–86) and one of the first US senators from Virginia (1789–92).

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