Lee, Richard Henry (1732–1794)

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LEE, RICHARD HENRY (1732–1794)

Educated in England, Richard Henry Lee practiced law in his native Virginia and became a justice of the peace in 1757. The next year he was elected to the House of Burgesses where his first speech was in favor of a measure to check the spread of slavery. Lee was a leader of opposition to parliamentary taxation of the colonies and wrote the protest of the House of Burgesses against the Sugar Act (1764). When the royal governor dissolved the House of Burgesses in 1774, Lee introduced a resolution, adopted by the rump of the house, calling for a continental congress. As a delegate to the first continental congress

Lee proposed formation of committees of correspondence (a plan he originated with patrick henry and thomas jefferson) and adoption of the continental association. In June 1776 Lee made the original motions in the Continental Congress for a declaration of independence, confederation, and seeking of foreign alliances. He later advocated Virginia's cession of western territorial claims in order to facilitate ratification of the articles of confederation; and, in 1784, he was elected President of the United States in Congress Assembled.

Lee was chosen as a delegate to the constitutional convention of 1787 but declined appointment, citing conflict with his responsibilities as a member of Congress. When the new Constitution was submitted to Congress, Lee opposed it on the ground that the convention had exceeded its mandate. Seeing that he could not block the proposal, he attempted, but failed, to have Congress add a bill of rights (drafted by george mason).

Lee was a leading opponent of ratification of the constitution. His seventeen "Letters from the Federal Farmer," widely printed in newspapers, were among the most influential of the various antifederalist writings. In the letters Lee presented a wide-ranging critique of the new Constitution: it was consolidationist, not federal, and would rob the states of their sovereignty; it was aristocratic, or even monarchical, in tendency, not republican; the coexistence of state and federal courts would lead inevitably to conflict; the judicial power of the united states was so broadly drawn as to permit foreigners and citizens of other states to sue a state in federal court; and, most important, there was no bill of rights. Lee argued and voted against ratification in the Virginia convention of 1788.

Lee was one of Virginia's original United States senators (1789–1792). He was chairman of the committee that drafted the judiciary act of 1789 and floor leader in the Senate for the Bill of Rights. Later in his senatorial career he became a supporter of the Federalist party and the economic program of alexander hamilton. a fervent opponent of slavery, Lee himself held about three dozen slaves.

Dennis J. Mahoney