Founding Fathers Fridays: Richard Henry Lee

by Derrick G. Jeter

According to an 1848 biography of the signers, “Richard Henry Lee was a scion of the noblest stock of Virginia gentlemen. Could ancestral dignity and renown add aught to the coronal that enwreathes the urn of his memory, it is fully entitled to it.”

Like George Washington, who was born just a month before and a few miles away, Lee was a man of bearing. He was charismatic and noble. He was a men who commanded attention by his mere presence. And he was an independent from an early age.

Born in Westmoreland County, Virginia on January 20, 1732 (the family Bible records his birth year as 1733), Lee was sent to the Queen Elisabeth Grammar School in England in 1748. While studying in England both of his parents died. Lee’s old brother, Philip Ludwell became his guardian and summoned him home to Virginia. Young Richard had different ideas—he fled England for the continent and toured Europe for a year. It was probably in Europe where he developed his liberal views on slavery.

Returning home in 1751, the nineteen-year-old Lee pursued literature and recruited a volunteer militia. In 1755 British General George Braddock came to Virginia to stamp down Indian trouble on the Ohio frontier. Lee presented himself, offering his services and that of his militia. Braddock rebuffed Lee, setting him on a growing course of antagonism against British rule.

Two years later, in 1757, Lee was appointed the justice of the peace of Westmoreland County. The following year, he was elected to the House of Burgesses. His maiden speech demonstrated his independent spirit—it was against the importation of slaves. In essence, his speech came down to this: he wanted to “lay so heavy a duty on the importation of slaves, as effectually to stop that iniquitous and disgraceful traffic within the colony of Virginia.” Up until this point, Lee’s powers of persuasion lay dormant; afterward, he became know as the “Cicero” of Virginia. Lee was twenty-five.

When Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1764, Lee initially applied for the job as stamp distributor (Benjamin Franklin had done the same in Pennsylvania). But the position went to George Mercer. Once it became apparent though that the Stamp Act would impose a direct tax on the colonies—something that had never been done before—Lee came out strongly against the act. He burned Mercer and George Grenville, the British Prime Minister, in effigy and persuaded 100 of his fellow citizens to sign his Leedstown (or Westmoreland) Resolves—a document pledging the signers to preventing the act from going into effect “at every hazard, and, paying no regard to danger or death,” and making sure that anyone attempting to enforce the act would be in “immediate danger and disgrace.” When it became public knowledge in 1766 that Lee had applied as stamp distributor, he was forced to vindicate himself before such staunch patriots as George Wythe.

Satisfying his patriotic bone fides, Lee was joined in his opposition to the Stamp Act by Patrick Henry—known as the “Demosthenes of America.” Together, Lee and Henry were a forced to be reckoned with. According to one biographer, “the powerful Patrick Henry, whose stormy eloquence strongly contrasted with the sweet-toned and persuasive rhetoric of Lee, but when they united their power the shock was always irresistible.”

In 1767, Lee wrote to Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson proposing a system of correspondence between the colonies as a means of exchanging information and opinions about increasing British tyranny in hopes of presenting a united colonial front before Parliament. The idea didn’t come to fruition for another five years, and though there was a minor dispute as to who originally came up with the idea, Virginia or Massachusetts, the various Committees of Correspondence proved successful. Lee received information from his brother Arthur, who was part of the literary circle in London and friends with high placed individuals in the British government, on the various sentiments and actions of Parliament—months before the general American public knew anything. Lee then passed that information on patriot leaders in the other colonies. The political intelligence Lee received from Arthur was generally spot on, pushing Lee ever closer to the conclusion that a total and irrevocable split with England was the only means of ensuring American rights.

The Virginia Committee of Correspondence was made up of Henry, Jefferson, and Lee. And when Lee got wind of the Boston Port Bill in May, 1774—the bill that ordered the closing of Boston’s port after the destruction of the Crown’s tea—Lee immediately set to work writing a series of condemnatory resolution to present to the Virginia Assembly. When the Port Act was effected, Lee was ready with his resolutions—one of which showed solidarity with the Yankees of Boston by protesting the closing and calling for a colonial congress: “an attack, made on one of our sister colonies, to compel submission to arbitrary taxes, is an attack made on all British America.” The Burgesses were willing to support the protest but it wasn’t willing to go so far as to call for a meeting of all the colonies.

However, in August of 1774, after Lord Dunmore had already disbanded the House of Burgesses, the breach between England and her America colonies was ever widening. The inevitable had come—the colonies must meet together and seek protection of their rights as a united colony. Philadelphia was chosen as the site, given its central location and its status as the largest city in America. September 5, 1774, was chosen as the date for the First Continental Congress. The first delegates from Virginia were George Washington, Peyton Randolph, Patrick Henry, and of course, Richard Henry Lee.

While in Philadelphia Lee deepened his friendship with Samuel Adams, with whom he had been corresponding, and became a leading voice in Congress, using “his convincing and persuasive eloquence [to] nerve the timid to act and speak out boldly for the rights of the colonists.” It was in Congress that his powers of persuasion fully matured. Described by John Adams, Lee was one of Congress’s “great orators.” It wasn’t just his use of words, however, that arrested attention—he also knew how to use the dramatic gesture.

In 1768, in a freak hunting accident, Lee blow off four of his fingers on his left hand. He was left with only his thumb. To hide the gruesome scar, he wrapped his hand in a black silk scarf. When he spoke, gesticulating with his left hand the scarf would wave in the air giving his rousing words additional drama.

Lee’s masterful use of words were not resigned merely to the podium. He was skillful with his pen as well—and put it to excellence use on June 7, 1776, when he put forth his resolution for independence.

Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

John Adams resoundingly seconded the motion.

Lee’s resolution unleashed the hornet’s nest in Congress. Debate went back and forth all day and into the night. Congress agreed to table the resolution until the first of July, at which time Congress would give an official vote. In the mean time, the delegates formed a committee to draft a Declaration of Independence in case the measure carried at the time of the vote.

The committee consisted of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. According to custom, Lee should have been on the committee and authored the Declaration since he put forth the resolution. He wasn’t and he obviously didn’t. Why? Tradition has that on the very day he submitted his resolution an express rider arrived in Philadelphia informing Lee that some members of his family were gravely ill. He left immediately and was absent while the committee did its work. In fact, Lee was absent for the historic vote on July 2. When Lee read a copy of the Declaration of Independence he said, “the Thing is in its nature so good, that no Cookery can spoil the Dish for the platates of Freemen.” And with that endorsement, Lee sign the engrossed document on August 2.

Lee wasn’t reelected to Congress in 1777 due to his backing of brother Arthur’s claim that Silas Dean—one of America’s representatives to France—improperly secured munitions from that country. The charge against Dean was baseless and caused a minor stir this side of the Atlantic. But the stir was serious enough that Lee lost favor with Virginia voters. Lee’s brother, and fellow Congressman from Virginia, Francis Lightfoot Lee resigned his seat in protest. In 1779, however, the Lee–Dean affair had passed and Richard and Francis returned to Congress.

During the war, Lee fought with the militia and had his horse shot out from under him. In 1784 he returned to Congress and served as president until 1785. He finally left Congress in 1789, declining a seat at the Constitutional Convention. During the ratification debates Lee joined with his old friend Henry and fought against the Constitution’s adoption unless it was first amended with a Bill of Rights. Lee lost the battle. But in 1791, due in large part to Lee’s leadership, the new federal government agreed to ten amendments to the Constitution—the Bill of Rights.

Lee was Virginia’s first U.S. Senator. He resigned his seat in 1792, for health reasons. He died two years later and is buried in the Lee family cemetery in Coles Point.

The 1848 biography of the signers ends with this eulogy: “Mr. Lee was a sincere practical Christian, a kind and affectionate husband and parent, a generous neighbor, a constant friend, and in all the relations of life, he maintained a character above reproach.”