Richard Henry Lee

Richard Henry Lee was a patriot, Anti-Federalist, and statesman from his “country,” Virginia.  He led the charge for independence in 1776 and was a powerful figure in Virginia political life.  He served one term as president of the Continental Congress and was elected a United States Senator from Virginia immediately after the ratification of the Constitution.  His role in the founding period is often overlooked due to his “personality” and the slapstick characterization of him in the musical 1776.  Lee was a Southern aristocrat, sometimes considered pompous and arrogant, but he was not a bumbling idiot.  John Adams, in fact, called him a “masterly man,” though “tall and spare.”  Excluding Lee from a list of Founding Fathers would be a travesty, for he was as important to the cause of independence as Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin.

Lee was descended from one of the oldest and most powerful families in Virginia.  His great-grandfather, Richard Lee, was the first of the family to settle in Virginia and at one time served as the Attorney General and Secretary of State for the colony and was a member of the king’s council.  His father, Thomas Lee, served in the Virginia House of Burgesses and as acting governor of Virginia.  His mother, Hannah Harrison Ludwell, was a member of the powerful Harrison family of Virginia.

Richard Henry Lee was born in 1732 at the family plantation, Stratford.  His brother, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and nephew, Henry Lee III (“Light Horse Harry”), would become American military heroes, but Richard Henry Lee was more like his grandfather, Richard Lee II, often called “Richard the Scholar.”  His service would be rendered in the political break with Great Britain and as a champion of the rights of Englishmen. How Alexander Hamilton... Brion McClanahan Best Price: $3.00 Buy New $5.95 (as of 11:50 EDT - Details)

Lee was educated by private tutors and was graduated from the Wakefield academy in Yorkshire, England, in 1751.  He received a solid background in the classics, government, and history, and in 1752, Lee returned to Virginia and practiced law.  He began his public career in the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1757 and became a justice of the peace for Westmoreland County in 1758.  He was a leader in the House of Burgesses, an ally of Patrick Henry, and an early opponent of Parliament’s authority to tax the colonies.  He wrote in 1764, one year before the infamous Stamp Act, that taxes imposed on the colonies without proper representation in Parliament were akin to an “iron hand of power” and a violation of the British constitution.  “Surely no reasonable being would,” he stated, “quit liberty for slavery; nor could it be just for the benefited to repay their benefactors with chains instead of the most grateful acknowledgments.”

He was not in attendance in 1765 when Henry presented his famous Stamp Act Resolves to the House of Burgesses, but he agreed with him. Lee, along with several other Virginia gentlemen, attempted to force the Stamp Act collector to resign his appointment, and Lee later called the collector “an execrable monster, who with parricidal heart and hands,” would “ruin…his native country.”  Lee organized the first non-importation association in the colonies, the basic structure of which later became the Virginia Association and Continental Association for the boycott of British goods.  In contrast to the violent opposition to Parliamentary acts in New England, Lee chose boycotts and “persuasion” and never threatened tar and feathers or the destruction of property.  His was a gentlemanly rather than a radical approach and based upon the constitutional rights of Englishmen, which his family had fought to preserve for generations.

The Townshend Acts of 1767 were, to Lee, an even graver injustice.  He called them “arbitrary, unjust, and destructive of the mutual beneficial connection which every good subject would wish to see preserved.”  Lee began urging for colonial committees of correspondence, not unlike those which Samuel Adams suggested a few years later.  He was present when the House of Burgesses was dissolved in 1769 and participated in the famous Raleigh Tavern meeting where the Virginia Association, which organized the non-importation of British goods, was agreed upon.  As British violations of colonial sovereignty became more pronounced, Lee was more aggressive.  He pushed his call for committees of correspondence in 1773, stating that such action should have been taken from the beginning of the conflict as a means to achieve “perfect understanding of each other, on which the political salvation of American so eminently depends.”  And in 1774, Lee, Henry, and Thomas Jefferson called for a day of fasting and prayer in protest of the closing of Boston Harbor.  He called this action of Parliament the “most violent and dangerous attempt to destroy the constitutional liberty and rights of all British America.”

Lee was elected as a member to the First Continental Congress in 1774 and he enthusiastically supported the adoption of the Continental Association for boycotting British goods.  By 1775, he was urging independence.  The Fifth Virginia Convention followed his lead and declared Virginia independent from Great Britain in May 1776.  They sent Lee instructions to present a series of resolves to the Second Continental Congress calling for the independence of all the colonies in order to form foreign alliances and establish a confederation for common defense.  He presented the “Lee Resolutions” to Congress in June 1776.  The language was clear: “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.”

Lee left the Congress one week later to participate in the formation of the new Virginia government, at that time a much more prestigious role than hammering out a formal declaration of independence.  He had already laid the rhetorical groundwork for independence and Jefferson copied much of Lee’s language and that of George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

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