William Lee: Militia Diplomat, By Alonzo T. Dill

WILLIAM LEE
Militia Diplomat

By Alonzo T. Dill

[THIS BOOK USED BY PERMISSION LIBRARY OF VIRGINIA, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.]


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WILLIAM LEE
Militia Diplomat

William Lee appears as a well-dressed young man in this portrait painted
by an unidentified artist. In the rendition he has the handsome features
and large dark eyes characteristic of many members of the Lee family.
(Courtesy of Virginia Historical Society, Richmond.)


WILLIAM LEE
Militia Diplomat
By Alonzo T. Dill
Edward M. Riley, Editor

Published by the
Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission
Box JF
Williamsburg, Virginia 23185


Copyright © 1976 by the Virginia Independence
Bicentennial Commission

Printed in the United States of America


Commonwealth of Virginia
Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission

Lewis A. McMurran, Jr., Chairman
Hunter B. Andrews, Vice Chairman

Fred W. BatemanBenjamin H. Woodbridge, Jr.
Garland GrayA. E. Dick Howard
Omer Lee HirstW. Moscoe Huntley
John Warren CookeE. M. Hutton
W. C. DanielMrs. Carolyn Moses Lusardi
Frank E. MannMrs. Perry W. Moore
Sam E. PopeJack C. Smith
John Sears, Jr.John C. Stephens, Jr.

Parke Rouse, Jr., Director
Jacqueline Taylor, Assistant Director
Robert L. Scribner, Historian

Committee on Publications
Edward M. Riley,
Chairman

Francis L. Berkeley, Jr.John M. Jennings
Alf J. Mapp, Jr.William F. Swindler
A. E. Dick HowardLouis H. Manarin

William Lee: Militia Diplomat

WILLIAM LEE, fifth-born of the six famous Revolutionary War brothers, was one of a handful of American patriots who were up-rooted from peace-time civilian pursuits to represent the infant United States in the eighteenth-century capitals of Europe.

These Americans were summoned to be the “militia diplomats” of the War for Independence. Like the Minuteman mobilized from his lams and field, Lee and his colleagues were sent into the front lines of international relations with a minimum of preparation and without the training of career foreign service officers.

William Lee’s public career was brief and controversial. It was compressed into seven eventful and intrigue-filled years between 1773 and 1779. These years began with his elevation to high municipal office in London—a vantage point from which he opposed the ministry dominated by King George III. They ended with the termination of his dual responsibility, as United States commissioner to the courts of Berlin and Vienna, in the heat of the Silas Deane affair.

Between these years Lee had also been appointed commercial agent of the Continental Congress and of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Afterwards, in retirement in Virginia, he served brief terms as a State Senator and as a county sheriff. But the period of his prominence fell in the early part of the Revolution when the United States was establishing itself in the eyes of other countries as an independent nation.

From the public career of William Lee and his colleagues one may date the beginning of the diplomatic establishment of our nation—the U.S. Foreign Service, as it was to be called in a later day. Americans at the time, however, were ill-prepared to embark upon the business of foreign relations. From their early history, their relations with other countries had been conducted by Great Britain. The colonies had had no need for diplomatic representation abroad, though many of them had maintained agents for special purposes in London. They had no tradition of foreign service and no schools that offered training in modern languages or other skills of diplomacy.

Furthermore, it must be remembered that the national government had grave weaknesses and that the United States existed as a nation only because the Continental Congress, in declaring it a nation, had said it was a nation. No other country was to recognize it as a nation until a year and a half after the Declaration was signed. It must he remembered, too, that all foreign relations had to be conducted through committees of Congress. There was at this time no chief executive and no department or secretary of state.

But here was a gallant beginning, in which the Lees had a vital role, along with the Adamses of New England. One appreciates their achievement all the more because it was made against odds. These men, who provided so much of the drive to win a place for the United States in the family of nations, must be admired for the manner in which they took over an unfamiliar and thankless task. In the blood of the new nation was the rough resourcefulness of the frontier, and not the softer heritage of the court, the chateau, or the cloistered university where the diplomatic arts had some place in the curriculum.

The Lee and Adams families, who supplied many of the United States’ early envoys, made a virtue of the necessity that these early diplomatic representatives had to be rushed into service without diplomatic background. Richard Henry Lee, older brother of William and author of Virginia’s resolution for independence, thought American military capability “formidable in its militia,” apart from the well-drilled Continental troops. He and the exuberant John Adams believed that the never-say-die patriotic ardor of the untrained American envoys would more than compensate for their lack of cold professionalism. And it was true that the militia diplomats, uninhibited by tradition or by protocol, would win friends for America and bring a fresh breeze through the stuffy salons of imperial Europe.

Benjamin Franklin, whose mastery of French and whose seasoning as a colonial agent made him the nearest to a trained diplomat the young nation could muster, disagreed with the Lee-Adams thinking. Such differences over militia diplomacy—a philosophical difference among many other differences between Franklin and the Lees—were not to be resolved within William’s span of prominence in the Revolution. William Lee was in the thick of the enmities that seethed within the new American diplomatic establishment. But the fact does not diminish the essentiality of the role that he was called upon to fill, nor the patriotic motives that underlay his service.

*   *   *   *

William Lee was born on August 31, 1739, at Stratford Hall, the great house built by his father Thomas Lee on the Potomac River, in Westmoreland County, in the Northern Neck of Virginia.

His father was the grandson of Richard Lee, who had emigrated from England in the second quarter of the seventeenth century. A scholarly man, Thomas Lee had continued the family’s tradition of land acquisition and colonial office-holding. As president of the Virginia Council, he held the highest office in the colony below the governor himself.

Thomas Lee continued also the family tradition of advantageous marriage. His bride was Hannah Ludwell, daughter of wealthy Philip Ludwell, of the James River plantation Green Spring. This ancient estate had been established by the early governor, Sir William Berkeley. The Lees as well as the Ludwells had supported Berkeley against Nathaniel Bacon’s rebels in 1676.

Eleven children were born to Thomas and Hannah Ludwell Lee. Of the eleven, eight survived to adulthood. In order of birth, they were Philip Ludwell, Hannah, Thomas Ludwell, Richard Henry, Francis Lightfoot, Alice, William and Arthur. William’s place in this order and his relationship to his oldest brother were to shape his altitudes and profoundly affect his career.

Both Thomas and Hannah died within a twelvemonth when William was turning eleven years old. The younger children were left in charge of the oldest brother, whom they called, with more respect perhaps than affection, “Colonel Phil.” Philip Ludwell after his father’s death was unassailably the master of Stratford Hall, as head of the family, principal executor and chief legatee of his father’s vast estate.

Stratford Hall, the fortress-like brick mansion built by Thomas Lee,
father of William Lee, on the high banks of the Potomac River in
Westmoreland County, Virginia. William Lee was born here. As a young man,
he managed the plantation under the direction of his oldest brother.
(Courtesy of Virginia State Library, Richmond.)

Under the will, Thomas Ludwell, Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot were bequeathed some land or given right of succession to some of the holdings, but William and Arthur were not provided for in this manner. Each of the two youngest sons was to receive £1,000 sterling upon reaching the age of twenty-one. Each was also to receive £200 toward a homestead plus certain fees accruing from the customs sinecure long held by the Lee family for certain Potomac River landings. William Lee spent embittered years trying to collect his cash inheritance from the estate, whose income was so closely held by his eldest brother.

Thomas Lee’s will provided that the younger sons were to be “maintained and Educated out of my Estate.” This left Philip Ludwell in charge of their education. He and Thomas Ludwell had received legal educations at the Inns of Court in London. Richard Henry had completed seven years or schooling at the famous Wakefield academy in Yorkshire. Francis Lightfoot, affectionately called Frank, was being tutored at home by a Scottish clergyman named Craig. Apparently he did not elect to go abroad for higher education.

William and Arthur undoubtedly received their early instruction from the Scotsman. If so, they were endowed with a thorough grounding in the fundamentals or learning. Mr. Craig’s forte was science, and Arthur, the most brilliant of the brothers scholastically, showed such promise that he was sent on to Eton, later to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. Like Frank, William did not scintillate scholastically, but his aptitude for figuring undoubtedly was sharpened by Craig, if indeed this Scottish man of science was his tutor. Besides, there was the great library at Stratford in which William must have read widely, judging from the allusions to Shakespeare and Homer in his correspondence.

A head for figures marked William out for apprenticeship in the trade of a merchant. But why send the boy to a countinghouse in London or Philadelphia, his brother Philip must have reasoned, when he can be taught the essentials at hone? In a letter to William some years later, Philip described these essentials in asking William to send him an indentured lad “to learn of me to be a Mercht.” The boy was to he taught bookkeeping, surveying, navigation and mensuration, including gauging, or the estimation of volume in barrels, casks and hogsheads. William had found Euclid a congenial subject, so this discipline could have given him no trouble in his own years of apprenticeship under his brother.

Philip had urged careful selection or such a boy, “as you know how useful he will be to me.” Certainly William was useful in the management of the great Potomac River plantations that belonged to the Stratford line of the Lees. He rose quickly to become Philip’s clerk-steward and served in that capacity until he was twenty-one, almost as if he had been bound out to his older brother. In later years William expressed resentment at the way Colonel Phil had used him. All of his education and clothing, said William, from the death of his father until he reached his majority, could have cost Phil no more than £50 sterling. And the lord of Stratford paid him nothing for his labors as clerk-steward, which William estimated should have been worth at least £50 per year.

William grew up to be a sober young man, as meticulous as his clerkly handwriting. Old Landon Carter of Sabine Hall, his god-father, called the serious youth Billy Lee, but few if any of his friends did. Most gave him the dignified full name, William. He was deeply imbued with the importance of his family and proud of the dark good looks of its males. He liked to hear that his grandfather “was a man of good Stature, comely visage, an enterprising genius, a sound head, vigorous and gentle nature.” He felt that the Lees were “above the common herd” and should take care not to compromise themselves by adopting the ways of lesser orders. Clearly he was ambitious, but at eighteen, at which time of life he considered himself a fully competent merchant, there seemed little future for him beyond buying and selling among his kinsmen and neighbors.

William was engaged in the tobacco export trade and probably operated, as had his great-grandfather, a small store from which he sold imported goods to friends and to relatives such as Landon Carter. This rather drab existence in his twenties was broken by a taste of travel which may have influenced him to seek his fortune abroad.

In 1761, with Arthur a student in the British Isles, William sailed to England, probably with his sister Alice, who was to visit their Ludwell cousins in London. Philip Ludwell III, last of his line, had gone abroad the year before for his health. In the Ludwell circle of friends, Alice met her future husband, William Shippers, Jr., of Philadelphia, who was studying medicine in London. William remained in the British capital to attend their welding in April, 1762. During the visit William met his own future bride, his cousin Hannah Philippa Ludwell, who was two years older than he. Three years after his return to Virginia, William journeyed to Barbados to visit an island cousin, the wife of a sugar planter who introduced William to the mysteries and delights of planter’s rum punch.

On his return from London, William found the Northern Neck squires excited over the prospects of a new land speculation company. Thomas Lee himself had created the prototype of such ventures, the Ohio Company, but by the close of the French and Indian War the Ohio group was inactive. The new Mississippi Company was formed on June 3, 1763, under the leadership of Colonel George Washington, who had not been a member of the Ohio Company, though his brother Lawrence was a leading spirit. The Mississippi Company hoped to patent 2,500,000 acres on the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers north of the Ohio. Its membership was limited to fifty persons, each of whom was to have a share equal to 50,000 acres.

Philip Ludwell Lee, one of the Ohio Company stockholders, did not enter the new company. Thomas Ludwell and Richard Henry had been members of the older company and took a chance on the new one. For Francis Lightfoot and William, who had been too young to participate in the Ohio undertaking, the new company offered a flyer in western land speculation. A score of Virginians and Marylanders, some Ohio Company members and some not, put up small sums to get the new venture going. Arthur Lee held no shares, but he was to be the London agent, to he compensated in fees. There was no permanent president, simply a presiding officer, who was chosen at each meeting. William Lee was the secretary-treasurer and the only paid officer. He was to receive 5% of all monies to be collected from the members.

Like many other colonial enterprises, the Mississippi Company ran headlong into a wall of hardening imperial policy, especially as regards western lands. In October, 1763, less than five months after formation of the company, the British Ministry issued a proclamation halting settlement and strictly regulating land purchases from the Indians in territory beyond the Appalachian watershed. Clearly the Mississippi Company was going to need all the influence it could muster, not in Williamsburg, but in London itself.

All of the Lee brothers except Philip were involved in the American protests against the Stamp Act, another manifestation of the new British policy. Colonel Phil was not involved because, like his father, he was now a crown-appointed member of the Virginia Council and could not properly take part in such protests.

Richard Henry drafted the vehement denunciation of the act known as the Westmoreland Resolutions. It was signed by Richard Henry, Thomas Ludwell, Francis Lightfoot and William and by their cousins John and Richard Lee of Lee Hall. Arthur, being abroad, did not sign, but he was an opponent of the act. After the act was repealed, William and others joined in a subscription toward the painting of a portrait of the pro-American Lord Camden. Five of the brothers, Arthur being in Virginia at the time, joined in another subscription, this one to pay off a judgment against an Essex County man who had attacked a Tory for “refusing to join in the general joy” over repeal. Richard Henry pledged £20, Arthur £10 and “more if necessary,” Thomas Ludwell £5 and “more if necessary,” and Francis Lightfoot £5, “if necessary.” William in his no-nonsense manner gave £5 with no conditions attached.

During this unsettled period Arthur had earned his medical degree at Edinburgh and had returned to Virginia to practice in Williamsburg. By 1768 he had lost interest in the practice of medicine and planned to return to Great Britain and study law. William, too, became restless. He had had enough of being a country merchant and of living under the thumb of Colonel Phil. He decided to accompany Arthur, seek a position with the powerful East India Company, and make a career elsewhere in the British empire.

In May, 1768, William was busy collecting assessments from members of the Mississippi Company. He needed all the money he could raise, and his percentage of the collections was one source of funds for the great adventure that lay ahead. On this errand he visited Colonel Washington, among other investors. William and Arthur spent the nights of July 6–7 at Mount Vernon on their way toward boarding a vessel that would put them in London sometime in August, 1768.

*   *   *   *

Where William Lee stayed in the sprawling, rural-urban patch-work of greater London is not known. The metropolis at this time consisted of the old City of London, the densely populated heart of the mercantile and banking community, plus the growing City of Westminster, the out-parishes of Middlesex County and the Boroughs of Bermondsey and Southwark, south of the Thames. William was soon to acquire a knowledge of these local government divisions and many of their leading residents.

Possibly the brothers roomed together at Arthur’s chambers in the Middle Temple. Certainly they sought out, among the 600,000 residents of the metropolis, their Ludwell cousins at the bereaved household in Cecil Street not far from the Law Courts. For here Philip, last of the Ludwells, had died in March, 1767, leaving his immense estate to his surviving daughters, Hannah and Lucy.

William divided his time between the Ludwell home off the Strand, where the attraction was the heiress Hannah, and East India House in the City, where he sought a passage to the Far East in connection with a “scheme” he does not explain in his correspondence. He got his berth in the Indiaman Princess of Wales, but just before the sailing date he cancelled it, to the surprise of his family and friends.

Wrote a fellow-merchant from Maryland:

. . . who the devil could have thought that any man in his senses instead of takings simple voyage to the East Indies, which could not possibly exceed two years, should turn tail and embark at once on a voyage to the land of Matrimony, from whence, God help us, no one can escape but thro’ the jaws of death.

William and Hannah—“a very amiable Lady with a handsome fortune”—were united in matrimony on Tuesday, March 7, 1769, at the seventeenth-century church of St. Clement Danes in the Strand. Even Colonel Phil, whom William had not written about the marriage though he notified his other brothers, sent warm congratulations to the twenty-nine-year-old Benedick and his bride.

The honeymooning couple made their home in a small leased house called Lilliput in Ipswich, near the North Sea, sixty-nine miles from London. In this ancient, churchly community, William would have time and a peaceful setting in which to ponder his future plans. Here he fell ill, though he had expected to find the place “healthyer and somewhat cheaper” than London. “I was very near kicking the Bucket,” he wrote Frank, “but thank God I have now weathered the Cape, and am rather stouter than when I was in Virga.”

Lee made periodic trips to London to keep in touch with the City merchants. (A fast, daily-except-Sunday stage made the journey each way in twelve hours.) And he plunged into one business affair only three days after his marriage. He opened a correspondence and began an ineffectual effort to manage, from a distance of 3,000 miles, Hannah’s inherited properties at Williamsburg and nearby Green Spring. Under British law at the time, the wife’s properties were solely controlled by the husband. Lee tried to advise the estate manager about everything from the proper “prizing” or packing of tobacco to the steps he should take to prevent undue influence on the slaves by itinerant “New Light” preachers. The result was that he lost two estate managers by resignation and alienated the respectable Robert Carter Nicholas of Williamsburg, principal executor of Philip I.udwell’s will.

Lee had congratulated himself that the marriage placed him “in unrivaled possession of the dear & amiable Miss Ludwell.” But if he hoped to retain sole supervision of the great estate, he was badly disappointed. Hannah’s younger sister Lucy moved from the Cecil Street house to the home of her guardian, Peter Paradise, a wealthy gentleman who had retired from the British consular service alter many years in the Mediterranean countries. Mr. Paradise’s son John had been born in Greece, of a half-Greek mother. He was an attractive though shy young man, a remarkable linguist, a devoted member of the Royal Society and an intimate of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s literary circle. On May 18, barely two months after Hannah’s marriage, Lucy wed her guardian’s son—a dismaying surprise for William, who found young Paradise much too exotic for his taste.

Lee now pressed urgently for a division of the Ludwell properties. The executors brought this about with reasonable speed in June, 1770. Hannah and William received more than 7,000 acres of land including the manor plantation Green Spring. They were allotted several Williamsburg houses and lots, a stable of thoroughbred horses which William soon sold, and about 164 slaves. In spite of this largesse from the Ludwell side of his family, William was convinced that the division favored Lucy and young Paradise. On paper Hannah’s share was worth £15,000 or more, but since 1760 the plantations had been without a resident master, and had deteriorated under absentee ownership. Productivity was low, and remittances dribbled back to England in amounts far below William’s expectations. Finally they were completely cut off by the coming of war.

William wanted to be a rich man but not an idle one. Within a few months of his marriage he made serious plans to become a commission merchant in the Virginia-Maryland tobacco trade. Richard Henry and Frank encouraged him in the idea. Thomas Ludwell was taciturn about it. Colonel Phil dourly urged him to return home and manage Green Spring.

To enter the tobacco business, William firmed a partnership with Dennys De Berth, his son Dennys, Jr., and Stephen Sayre. Sayre was a handsome, well-educated native of Long Island, a playboy who dabbled in banking in London. The elder De Berdt was far gone in years and business judgment. In his prime he had been a respected merchant of Flemish descent who served as colonial agent for Massachusetts Bay colony and for the lower counties of Delaware. Benjamin Franklin followed him in the Massachusetts post. Most of the De Berdts’ trade had centered on Philadelphia, where they were owed large debts. Tobacco was a new sideline, with a partnership set up under the name De Berdts, Lee & Sayre. Largely under William Lee’s supervision, the company purchased a new 180-ton vessel and began to solicit the Chesapeake Ray planters for their tobacco.

Both Phil and Frank Lee heard rumors that old De Berdt’s financial position was shaky. His death in April, 1770, threw his affairs into insolvency and William into a panic. However, since William had put up most of the money for the vessel, he assumed sole control of the tobacco end of the business. “I had near burnt my fingers there, but expect to escape whole;” he wrote. “It has sicken’d me of Partnerships.” In his declining years William was still trying to collect what he claimed was the residue of the amount the partnership owed to him, including a huge sum of interest.

Alter fourteen months in Ipswich, the Lees departed in August, 1770, to make their home in the City of London, where William could stay in closer touch with the tobacco markets. They occupied a merchant’s mansion, complete with countinghouse, at No. 33 Tower Hill. The dwelling had been found for them by Edward Browne, a clerk-bookkeeper with whom William was to have a lasting business association. The instructions Lee gave to Browne for painting and refurbishing the house indicate that Hannah Lee (if not the parsimonious William) intended to live in style. Among other essentials Browne was to hire a boy to wear livery and serve as a footman. William now joined a livery company, the Haberdashers, sue of the oldest and strongest of the medieval guilds. Membership in the Haberdashers, who nominally sold small wares like needles and thread, made him a “freeman” of the City, with the right to vote for Lord Mayor, sheriff and other corporate officers.

Lee had entered the tobacco trade at an unpropitious lime. The early 1770’s were a period of depressed prices. Neither the Virginia spring floods of 1771, which destroyed public warehouses and crops in the low grounds, nor the threat of non-exportation in 1775, which perversely produced a glut in the supply, could lift or sustain the markets at levels satisfactory to planters and commission merchants. Between these years occurred a panic brought about by the collapse of the Threadneedle Street bankers Neale, James & Down and the abscondence of a principal partner, Alexander Fordyce. Within thirteen months nine tobacco houses went out of business, and Lee narrowly escaped with his credit unimpaired.

Lee never developed the full support he expected from friends and relatives in Virginia and Maryland. A long-established London merchant, the Marylander William Molleson, all but monopolized the shipments of Colonel Phil, of William’s godfather Landon Cartier and of his cousin “Squire” Richard Lee and other influential planters. The Squire was notorious for signing drafts on William, sometimes before the small shipments he sent him had even cleared the Virginia ports. Molleson shamelessly flattered the susceptible Landon Carter to assure his trade. Landon finally broke with Molleson in 1774 when the merchant had the effrontery to demand payment of “a very trifle” of a debt. Phil sent a paltry two hogsheads by William’s first vessel, which returned from Virginia and dropped anchor in the Thames with only one-third of her capacity in hogsheads. Richard Henry and Thomas Ludwell were more generous, while gentle, often ailing Frank was faithful to a fault both as client and as William’s agent in Virginia.

Besides his business cares, William was burdened with other responsibilities freely imposed by his brothers. Though Arthur was agent for the Mississippi Company, he was busy with his law studies, and some of the affairs of that losing venture fell to William’s lot until the collapse of the land-patenting efforts around 1772. William assisted Arthur financially when remittances were not forthcoming from brothers Phil and Tom. Richard Henry loaded William with a variety of chores, from gathering facts about the glassmaking industry at Bristol to overseeing the education of his two sons. Richard Henry and Phil were continually wiling on William to obtain profitable “places” for them through crown appointment—sinecures which, as William and Arthur stressed, would hardly he served up to the Lees in view of their known antagonism to the king’s ministers.

William, the work-horse of the family, was ill-rewarded for his trouble. When he feared his business was imperiled, he begged Phil to help him out of the funds due him from his father’s estate. Phil refused and dared him to sue for the money. Philip Ludwell Lee died in February, 1775, within three days of his forty-eighth birthday, and William was forced into a lengthy correspondence to try to collect his patrimony from the estate. From the oldest brother, who had asked much of him, William received not one shilling of what his father had left, and this at the most critical period of his fortunes. Aided only by the uncertain income from the Ludwell estate, he made his own way as a merchant despite poor business conditions, adverse political circumstances and indifferent support from friends and relatives. Yet by the time he left England in 1777, he had accumulated assets amounting to more than £6,000 sterling.

“Younger brothers are commonly fortunate,” wrote Lord Bacon, “but seldom or never where the elder are disinherited.” A wise old Virginian, Colonel Richard Corbin of King and Queen County, applied the quotation to William Lee, whom he called “a man of Sense, frugal and Industrious.” Certainly William owed much of his resourcefulness and some of his success to a selfish brother’s unwitting motivation of a younger, unrequited heir.

*   *   *   *

Once William Lee had become a familiar figure as a merchant on the “Virginia Walk” of the Royal Exchange, his thoughts turned to politics and perhaps even to seeking political office.

Courtyard of the Royal Exchange, erected in the City of London in 1669.
The building, used until it was destroyed by fire in 1838, was frequented by
William Lee and fellow merchants. The essayist Addison called it “a kind of
Emporium for the whole Earth.” (From Sir Walter Besant, LONDON IN THE
EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, London and New York, 1903.)

It was a traditional outlet for Lee energies, but William hesitated. He thought it deplorable that “among the Merchts & Tradesmen there is not at present any application for the redress of American grievances.” But he felt that among so many candidates, in so large a metropolis, he would stand no chance.

Arthur, on the other hand, had plunged into the political life of Great Britain soon after beginning his law studies. He became a pamphleteer under the pen-name “Junius Americanus,” and inevitably he fell under the spell of that rakish apostle of civil liberties and later Lord Mayor of London, John Wilkes. He dined with “Liberty” Wilkes regularly in King’s Bench Prison, where the City’s idol was serving a 22-month sentence for libeling the king in his journal, the North Briton. At fashionable watering places as well as at Wilkes’s comfortable and only lightly restrictive apartments in the old debtor’s prison, Arthur hobnobbed with many an anti-Ministry politician. Among these was the Earl of Shelburne, hardly a popular man because of his unlikeable personality, but one who had prestige in Opposition ranks and who, when a member of the Privy Council, had defended Wilkes. Arthur believed Shelburne and the elder Pitt, Earl of Chatham, were “the only real friends lo the rights of the People;” aside of course from Wilkes.

William did not share Arthur’s enthusiasm for Shelburne (who consistently opposed American independence) or for the fashionable Whig Society of Supporters of the Bill of Rights. And though William supported Wilkes mid received support from him, he does not appear to have been an intimate of that paradoxical man. On a rare occasion he dined with Wilkes at the table of the arch Tory, Dr. Johnson, but William belonged there no more than Wilkes. It is possible that William named his first tobacco vessel the Liberty in tribute to the Wilkes movement. Both he and Arthur joined London guilds and defiantly called themselves Patriots—that is, followers of the radical Whigs—to the scorn of conservative Virginians. But William put not his trust in peers or in demagogues for any hope of righting American wrongs.

William pinned his faith, to united action by the Americans themselves, and Arthur, too, worked around to that position. Such action, William felt, could bring economic pressures against the British and British-American merchants who then, in their own interest, would unite and effectively influence the Ministry or even overturn it. Again and again in his letters to his brothers and other correspondents, Lee insisted on a determined stand by the colonies as their surest means of bringing about a reestablishment of British liberties not only for the colonists but for their cousins in the British Isles. “Indeed you ought to stand firm & united,” he wrote, “& then it will not be in the power of this or any other Country to hurt you.”

Lee’s fellow Americans often disappointed him. He deeply resented the defection by New York from the non-importation “associations” initiated by Virginia. “As to Politics,” he confessed, “I am almost sick of them since the base desertion of the Northern Colonies from every good & noble principle.” The angry disillusionment extended to his compatriots in Philadelphia and Loudon. He deplored an ingratiating petition of Philadelphia merchants to the House of Commons and its irresolute support by the American merchants in London. He lambasted the Philadelphians for ignoring the oppressions of Massachusetts Bay and pretending, ostrich-like, that the four Townshend taxes on tea, paint, paper and glass were the sum total of America’s grievances. In his anger William struck out at the man he called the Quakers’ “Arch fiend,” Dr. Franklin, who he said would join them in seeing Boston “laid in Ashes, as being the only dreadful rival in Commerce to their darling Ph[iladelphi]a” Here were seeds of a distrust that later bore bitter fruit. It was, moreover, a foolish charge, for Franklin was ably representing the interests of Massachusetts as the colony’s agent, succeeding Dennys DeBerdt.

Lee won his first political office—that of sheriff of the City of London and County of Middlesex—in a curious way.

To appreciate the title and significance of the office, one must understand that London by ancient charter had the privilege of maintaining two sheriffs. Besides this charter privilege, the City had purchased from Henry I the sheriffwick of the adjoining County of Middlesex. Thus the two sheriffs represented both the crowded City and the urban county next to it, and their titles reflected the fact.

These sheriffs held a unique office in another sense. Those elsewhere in England were appointed by the king. Only in the metropolis were they nominated by the Lord Mayor and elected by the freeholders. Lee’s English forbears had been crown-appointed sheriffs of Shropshire. But as a radical Whig, William Lee would hardly have been favored with such an honor by George III. However, a show of hands by lowly commoners could and did confer that honor.

John Wilkes (1727–1797), member of Parliament, Lord Mayor of London
in 1774 and leader of the City’s opposition to crown colonial policies.
A biographer called Wilkes “exceedingly ugly, with a startling squint.”
(From Sir Walter Besant, LONDON IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, London and New York, 1903.)

At the time-honored Midsummer Day election (June 25) in 1773, the City’s Wilkites, spurred on by Arthur Lee, swept an American, Stephen Sayre, into one of the two sheriff’s offices. William’s old partner was an even hotter radical than William and Arthur. With him was elected a moderate Wilkite, Alderman William Plomer, who had been thrust into the race unwillingly. Plomer was allowed to resign the office after only four days upon payment of the £400 fine imposed on any citizen who, being elected, declined to serve.

At a special election held on July 3 to fill the vacancy, the Lord Mayor “drank to” (nominated) all the former mayors and aldermen who had not served as sheriff—making in all twenty-two candidates. Hardly any hands were held up for these worthies in the viva voce election which could be official if a “poll” (ballot) were not demanded by one or more of the contestants. At this point William Lee—“Citizen and Haberdasher, a known and approved friend of liberty”—was nominated and elected by nearly unanimous vote.

Lee made a bold acceptance speech that rose to this climax:

As neither the terrors of a tyrannical Court, nor its allurements, will ever have any influence over my conduct, so shall I always esteem it the most distinguished honor of my Life to obtain the confidence and applause of the independent Livery of London. . . . It shall not be my fault if we do not transmit to our posterity undiminished, and even untainted, these glorious privileges and immunities which our ancestors have so nobly handed down to us.

Lee meant every word of this high-sounding pledge, and a great roar of applause followed the speech.

Thus were two Americans elected sheriffs of London—“could you think it?” mused Franklin in a letter to his son. By this stroke William Lee had become for the time being a greater celebrity than any of his brothers.

The duties of the sheriffs were numerous, and the responsibilities of the office were heavy ones. The sheriffs served writs, impaneled juries, collected fines for the royal exchequer and administered the two “compters” or prisons of the City, where debtors and others arrested in the City or sentenced by the lord Mayor and aldermen were incarcerated. These prisons were notoriously bad, and immediately on taking office Lee and Sayre, according to a London newspaper, “gave many humane directions about the treatment of the prisoners.” The new sheriffs also followed the time-honored custom of ordering and paying for a hot dinner, on the occasion of their election, for each of the prisons’ inmates. Here was a foretaste of the personal expense which deterred many aspirants and which Lee must have weighed against the  400 he would have had to forfeit to resign the office.

It was the sheriffs’ prime responsibility to keep the public peace. Each sheriff could, if he thought proper, “raise the Posse Comitatus” to put down disorders; each was also authorized to “break down doors” if he were denied entrance to a dwelling or business in an attempt to serve a king’s writ. Keeping order at the turbulent City elections was part of this responsibility, and William Lee carried out this duty to the satisfaction of the Wilkes followers over the anguished protests of Ministry supporters. Another duly, and one which Lee and Sayre probably wished to forego, was the requirement that each sheriff attend every hanging, seated on horseback, wearing a black suit and carrying a white wand or rod to symbolize his authority.

A large staff was necessary to assist each sheriff in carrying out his duties. Directly under the sheriffs’ administration were a “secretary,” often an attorney, whose office returned writs, issued warrants and impaneled juries for the courts; a “clerk of the papers” who impaneled juries for the sheriffs’ courts; four “clerk sitters” who entered actions, look bail bonds and recorded verdicts; eighteen “serjeants at mace” and under each of these a “yeoman”; a “master keeper” for each prison and, under this keeper, two “`turnkeys” and other wardens. Four of the serjeants at mace and four of the blue-clad yeomen waited upon each sheriff daily. Directing the activities of such a retinue was a responsibility in itself.

One could not blame William Lee if the pomp and power of the sheriffs’ office went a little to his head. “I have before me,” he wrote his brother Francis, “the glorious example of my namesake, the Immortal William the Third.” His constituents found in him only one fault—that he did not entertain them handsomely enough—and this probably was one that could be laid al the door of most sheriffs who were not independently wealthy. They immortalized his radicalism and his caution with pounds and pence in two Drydenesque couplets:

                 
               
. . . His Shrieval board
The grossness of a City feast abhorr’d:
His cooks with long disuse their trade forgot;
Cool was his kitchen, though his brains were hot.

From his eminence, Lee could look forward over a broad and beckoning horizon, for the honor of being sheriff was regarded as a stepping stone to higher office. The Virginian now had his eye on a seat in the Court of Aldermen or even in the House of Commons. In either capacity, much might be achieved for the American cause.

Lee sounded out, with no encouragement, the voters in Coleman Street Ward with a view to becoming their alderman. Next he sought election to the House of Commons from the southside borough of Southwark. He ran third in the election. A few days later he tried for the aldermanic seat from Bridge Ward with the same result. He was nothing if not persistent. He tried again in Vintry Ward in an attempt to succeed a fellow tobacco merchant, retiring Alderman Barlow Trecothick, but was defeated by a wholesale grocer, 59 to 46.

Some of an alderman’s prestige lay in the fact that he was chosen for life. Only death or his resignation could remove him from office. Lee’s chance to achieve the lifetime honor came with the death of the incumbent in his own ward, Aldgate. The deceased alderman happened to be a staunch supporter of the Ministry. And Lee’s only serious challenger in the race to succeed him was a liveryman of the weaver’s guild, as famous for niggardliness as Lee, since he was thought to follow his father’s example of carrying water and fodder in his chaise so he would not have to pay for stabling his horses! It is doubtful whether such caricatural criticism affected the election. But the fact that Lee was anti-Ministry may have shown that the voters in his ward were not willing to return a king’s man to the seat.

In the wardmote or assembly of freeholders on May 23, 1775, Lee defeated his challenger, 73 to 40. If he chose, the alderman’s gown was now his for life. An advantage of the honor, as Lee pointed out, was that it was “attended with little or no extra expence.” At a full Court of Aldermen, he was sworn in on June 14. With Arthur Lee present, the dignitaries were lavishly entertained at the Mansion House by the Lord Mayor, John Wilkes himself, then at the peak of his power.

As an official and as a private merchant, Lee was taking a bold stance in defense of American rights. The proof that he was a thorn in the British lion’s paw appears in this Ministry-inspired paragraph in The London Chronicle:

The Livery, &c. of London alt unceasing in their endeavours to destroy the importance of the metropolis, by their choice of aliens and improper people to offices, that were filled once with Gentlemen only of acknowledged worth and fortune.

Americans could not only be taxed without representation in Parliament. They were no better than “aliens” anyway in certain tests of citizenship!

During the ten months in which Lee attended the aldermanic meetings, he served on four or more committees named to draft protests to the king or Parliament against the Ministry’s American policy and its persistent denial of American rights.

This service, however, represented only a small part of Lee’s efforts in concert not only with the City corporation but with his fellow Americans in London. He was a leader in every protest developed by the Americans or by the mercantile community, from the introduction of the Boston port bills in 1774 lo the final break with Great Britain. At first the Americans alone—led by the Lee brothers, Franklin and certain well-to-do visitors or business men from nine colonies—took up the battle against the Ministry. They were joined early in 1775 by the merchants and traders of London in a petition to the House of Commons which William helped to draft. On the heels of these protests followed two petitions to the king himself from the lord Mayor, aldermen and guilds of the City, the first on April 10, the second on July 14, 1775. William Lee was among those who stood at the side of Wilkes in both confrontations with his Majesty.

The king and both houses turned a deaf ear to these remonstrances, and Lee realized that the time for “milk & water” petitions, as he called them, was fast running out. Seven days before the king’s loftily indignant rejection of the first petition, Lee wrote to his brother Richard Henry that if the colonists stood fast, the result would he their “absolute Independence.” In that letter of April 3, 1775, written before the Battle of Lexington, the practical Virginian’s thinking on separation from Great Britain was six months or more ahead of John Adams and other radical dreamers. Adams, in fact, tried to dampen such ardor in a letter to Lee in the following October.

When the news of Bunker Hill arrived in London late in July, Lee realized that his clays in British-American trade were numbered. For all Americans in London, the future held gray uncertainties. For a few, the resistance that had been overt was to become clandestine. Before the year was out, the American Continental Congress had named a Secret Committee to establish communications with agents abroad. Among the agents appointed was the fledging lawyer Arthur Lee. By spring of the following year Arthur was conferring in London with a secret agent of the French government, the playwright-adventurer Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Beaumarchais, posing as a private merchant named Hortalez, suggested to Arthur that the French would be willing to aid the rebellious colonies.

About the time Arthur was conferring with the mysterious Hortalez, Congress appointed Silas Deane, a merchant and former delegate to Congress from Connecticut, as secret agent in Paris. Deane was to forward war essentials and maintain contact with Friends of American in France. Hortalez would, of course, appear in good time among these well-wishers.

Like other Americans, the Lee brothers of London began to look to France. Arthur’s role in London would soon become untenable, and he wanted to talk with Deane about the Hortalez offer. William was not fully informed about the intentions of the French, but he shrewdly guessed that American tobacco would be pouring into France and wanted to transfer his activities as a commission merchant front London to Paris. According to Arthur, Hortalez had suggested that, in return for French arms, the Americans initiate token payments in tobacco through Cap. François in the West Indies. Later Arthur was to maintain that the French wanted no payment for their assistance, token or otherwise—a contention which Deane and Hortalez were to deny.

The two brothers, traveling separately—first Arthur, then William—crossed the Channel in the summer of 1776 and held separate and highly unsatisfactory meetings with Silas Deane. It is doubtful that either knew at the time how keenly Deane resented what he regarded as their officious meddling in his responsibilities.

William tried to obtain French capital to set himself up in the tobacco trade, but ran into the wall of the French government tobacco monopoly. While on the continent, he learned of the Declaration of Independence. From Dieppe he wrote Richard Henry, a powerful influence in the Congress since its converting in 1774 and in addition a member of the Secret Committee, to seek appointment for him as commercial agent representing the United States in the French ports.

An equally powerful member of Congress, the Philadelphia merchant Robert Morris, had already installed the Scotsman John Ross as his company’s factor, and his half-brother Thomas Morris as the Secret Committee’s commercial agent at Nantes and the nearby ports most accessible to American shipping. Disturbing news had reached Robert Morris concerning his hall-brother’s drunkenness and neglect of business. Morris was also a member of the Secret Committee; and probably he acquiesced in the committee’s appointment of William Lee as joint agent at Nantes because of Tom Morris’ bouts with alcohol. Perhaps the sobersides Virginian could keep Tom on the straight and narrow path.

Robert Morris asked Silas Deane to notify William Lee that the Secret Committee had appointed him co-agent. Here was a distasteful chore for Deane. He had already been shaken by the decision of Congress to appoint Arthur Lee, of all people, as the third member of the new diplomatic commission—the other members being Franklin and himself—that was being set up to take the place of the single agent at Paris. Now he must have boiled inwardly over Robert Morris’ disclosure that he would soon have another Lee to contend with.

Arthur had hastened to Paris in December, 1776, to assume his duties as commissioner. Deane took his time informing William of his appointment as joint agent. He wrote to him on March 3, 1777, not by courier but by slow, easily intercepted penny post. William did not receive the notification until about April 21. His movements were being watched by British secret agents. He was involved in closing out his business affairs soon after receiving Deane’s letter, and his wife was far along in pregnancy. She gave birth to a daughter, Portia, on May 12.

Delayed by these circumstances, Lee did not journey to Paris until June 7—1 I. lie left his wife to follow with the new baby and their young son William Ludwell, not quite two years old.

*   *   *   *

In Paris Lee took modest lodgings in the Rue Jacob and began his career as a representative of his country’s foreign interests. His frustrations and failures have been disproportionately blamed on his temperament—his disposition to distrust and quarrel with his associates. Lee was aware of his weakness and tried to curb his skittish temper. But there were other forces in play on both sides of the Atlantic over which Lee had no control at all.

Just about the time Lee was appointed, Silas Deane on his own responsibility appointed an agent to supervise the sale of prizes taken by American privateers and the cargo handling and refitting of all Continental vessels. It was obvious to everyone that Tom Morris had become incompetent to act, but Deane had not waited on Congress to remedy this situation. His appointee was Jonathan Williams, a nephew of Franklin, a bright young man with a promising future. Deane alone signed the appointment. Arthur Lee was not consulted, but Franklin silently acquiesced in this profitable plum for his nephew.

Jonathan Williams was on the job at Nantes in March, weeks before William lee knew about his co-agent’s appointment. And when Lee arrived, Deane did not press him to go to Nantes, saying he should await the arrival of his commission from Congress and the balancing of Tom Morris’ accounts by John Ross. Finally, in late July Ross found a copy of Lee’s commission among Morris’ papers and advised Deane that he had done so. The document had also been transmitted to the Paris commissioners, but Deane had not been able or willing to produce it. Since it did not appear Ross would finish the audit, there was no reason for William Lee to remain in Paris. He went down to Nantes, arriving at the old slave port on August 4.

If Deane’s appointment of Jonathan Williams stood, Lee would be shorn of responsibilities which Tom Morris had been given and of the commissions that compensated an appointee, there being no salary attached to the post. Finding Williams settled into his job, and with no idea of vacating it, the outraged Virginian wrote indignantly to Deane. Deane’s appointment of Williams, he fumed, was equivalent to “ordering your Servant to take my Coat off my back & put it on his own.” Lee had hoped to avoid “an open rupture” over this. But by the end of 1 777 it yawned wide and deep.

Ross al the outset was favorably disposed to Lee, though his employer Robert Morris often clashed with the Lee-Adams faction. He knew what duties had been given to Tom Morris and therefore what powers Lee was to share under the newly found commission. Rehire William Lee’s appearance on the scene, Tom Morris had protested the Jonathan Williams appointment, pointing to a letter to him from the Secret Committee dated October 25, 1776, authorizing him to sell the prizes brought to France by Continental armed vessels.

On the other hand, Deane stubbornly maintained that Congress had given the Paris commissioners top-level authority over Continental vessels and prizes. Possibly he based this on the Secret Committee’s instructions of December 21, 1776, authorizing the commissioners to fit out armed vessels on the Continental account. These later, somewhat conflicting instructions did not mention prizes at all. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the dispute over instructions, Deane appears at fault in exercising the appointive power on his own, and Franklin used none of his great influence to settle the quarrel when it first arose.

Poor Tom Morris was no help at all. Lee found “this strange lost Man,” as he called him, drunk and barricaded in his lodgings. He had to force a way inside to find out whether Morris was dead or alive. Within a few months Morris was indeed dead of this tragic compulsion.

Lee was shocked at the state of affairs at Nantes. Through this port and the local firm of Pliarne, Penet & Cie., essential supplies for the Commonwealth of Virginia had to move. Morris, in his incapacity, was delegating many of his responsibilities to these French partners, so Lee got a close look at their business capabilities. Unimpressed by what he saw, he advised Frank and Richard Henry of his misgivings. Since his own headquarters probably would be at Nantes, he wrote Governor Patrick Henry offering his services as State agent at Nantes and her sister ports. Then, having done what he could at Nantes, Lee returned to Paris on October 6.

Neither of the Lees had liked Silas Deane from the hour of their first meeting in the summer of 1776. Now they were united in profound distrust of the man who so fully held Franklin’s confidence. Arthur bitterly resented Deane’s keeping him at arm’s length in the commission’s affairs. He suspected that Deane was collecting payment from the United States for supplies which he, Arthur, believed were intended as gratis assistance from the French.

William had, from his viewpoint, been defrauded by Deane’s appointment of Jonathan Williams. He was indignant over Deane’s “reprehensible” treatment of Arthur, and alleged that Deane had been incompetent and wasteful in making tobacco contracts. From late 1777 onward, the brothers kept up a flow of indignant letters to Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot, who now was also in Congress. William echoed Arthur’s solution—send Deane as envoy to Amsterdam and Franklin as minister to Vienna! Deane was equally intemperate—Arthur was insane, William sane hut avaricious. Possibly the mildest judgment pronounced was that of Franklin, who in a letter he did not send called William “a very artful as well as disputatious man.” Franklin, however, though he was the most respected figure in the diplomatic service, did nothing In mediate or even mitigate this dangerous dispute.

Deane eventually agreed to rescind Jonathan Williams’ authority to sell prizes, but the breach was then past closing. Events by this time had propelled William Lee into new responsibilities. However, the conflicts with Deane and Franklin were to continue, since neither commissioner had been removed, as Arthur fervently desired, to posts in capitals or communities far horn the scene in Paris.

*   *   *   *

One new responsibility for William Lee was an outgrowth of the Lee-Adams conviction that “militia diplomats” should be sent not only to Paris but to other capitals of Europe. Ten days after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, Samuel Adams urged such a course to Richard Henry Lee. Congress had gone on record for this policy before the year was out and had named the all-important three-man delegation to Paris. But the members delayed until May, 1777, the appointment of commissioners to other capitals—Arthur Lee to Madrid (in addition to the appointment to Paris), Ralph Izard to Florence and William Lee to Bed in and Vienna.

Even Richard Henry had some misgivings about William’s appointment in view of “the envy & hatred of a certain sett” toward the alderman. William received his appointment and commission just as he returned from Nantes in early October. He wrote his acceptance without delay—a letter which never reached the Congress since it was stolen, along with all other Paris mission papers to that date, in a smart feat of British espionage. But William, too, had his misgivings. In the mercantile field, he was fully competent, he felt. But in diplomacy? In a rare mood of self-doubting and self-appraisal, he wrote to Frank:

. . . In the first line [as commercial agent] I cou’d & assuredly shou’d have been of great use to the Public as well as myself especially if ye Secret Committee wou’d support their own authority & show an insolent medler here that they wd. properly notice his presumption. . . . In the present line [as envoy to Berlin and Vienna] I doubt my abilities, for however anxious & zealous, it must require both much time & more capacity than is common for a man not versed in the crooked paths of courts to get into the mysteries of the most subtle cabinets of Europe & besides [since I am] about 40 years old, it is somewhat awkward to go to school to learn languages. All this however must be essay’d. . . .

Immediately the new envoy wondered what his compensation would be and whether “the true votive” in appointing him was not to keep him away front the chaotic and possibly corrupt affairs at Nantes.

Congress cavalierly assumed that its appointees were wealthy enough and patriotic enough to want no pay. Lee glumly observed that the joint commercial agent’s post had paid him only 1,761 livres, less than £75 sterling, this being his commission on a single cargo of rice he had handled during the confusion at Nantes. Before Tom Morris’ death, he had considered giving up the agency. Now he determined to keep it at least temporarily along with his new position until Congress made better provision for the pay of its foreign representatives. As a consequence he appointed deputies in the various French ports pending information as to the wishes of Congress in the matter.

Now it was William Lee who was making appointments without the prior sanction of Congress, though he designated them temporary until the will of Congress could be known. The move brought him into deeper conflict with Deane and Franklin. Nonetheless, the scheme of deputies (from which Lee avowed he did not gain a penny) lasted at least until John Adams, succeeding Deane as commissioner, began to push for reform in foreign representation.

As to the matter of compensation for envoys in William Lee’s position, the members of Congress admitted they should have made some provision and belatedly authorized the appointees to draw on the Paris commissioners for expenses “from time to time.” The Lee brothers and Ralph Izard drew large lump sums, to the dismay of Franklin. The ill-defined compensatory arrangement produced nothing but trouble between “Poor Richard” and the Lees and their new-found ally, the wealthy South Carolinian, Izard.

Lee had established his family at Chaillot, then a crossroads village between Paris and fashionable Passy where Franklin resided. He now faced the certainty of being uprooted again as soon as he could prepare for the long overland journey to Vienna and Berlin.

In the midst of his preparations, the death of Tom Morris on January 31, 1778, required Lee to return to Nantes al the request of the Paris commissioners. One purpose was to impound the public papers aiming Morris’ effects and prevent them from falling into unauthorized hands. Lee went armed with a legal order allowing him to take them and return with them to Paris. Unfortunately, he alienated John Ross by the brusque way in which he seized possession of the documents. They were inextricably mixed with private business paper, and Lee left himself open to the charge that he was prying into the affairs of Willing, Morris & Company, Robert Morris’ firm in Philadelphia. Back in Paris on February 25, he angered Franklin with futile formalities about the sealing of the papers. The grim and somewhat ridiculous little episode was one more nail in the coffin of a working relationship between the Lees and the de facto chief of the Paris mission.

In completing plans for his journey, Lee ran into circumstances created by the most important diplomatic event of the Revolution—the conclusion of the alliance between France and the United States.

Lee had felt it essential to take with him a copy of the model treaty which Congress had drafted in 1776 as a recommended basis for United States negotiations with France and other powers. Not until six weeks after his request did Franklin and Deane permit this paper to leave their hands. Undoubtedly one reason was their reluctance to risk letting outside the commission a document so closely approximating the treaty then in actual negotiation with the French.

The willingness of the French to enter an alliance was brought about by the news of Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga, which arrived in Paris on December 4, 1777. The negotiations, though not all details of the alliance, were an open secret to British spies and to those close to the Paris commissioners, including William Lee. Lee tried to profit from the certainly of war in Europe by short-selling on the London stock exchange, but the order he attempted to place with his brokers did not go through. This preoccupation with the already depressed stock market and his ill-timed effort to ride the sinking shares may have given Lee some sleepless nights, but it did not delay his journey to the Germanic capitals.

At this busy period came the news that he had been appointed commercial agent for the new Commonwealth of Virginia. At the time he applied for the position, during his shocking first visit to Nantes, he could not have foreseen the appointment to Berlin and Vienna. As in the matter of the Continental agent’s post, he debated whether to hang onto what was now a triple responsibility, but regardless of whether he was in France or elsewhere, he was “determined to attend to the appointment of Virginia.”

Governor Patrick Henry wanted Lee to borrow an enormous sum in France and to purchase arms worth one million livres or approximately £44,000 sterling. A task of this magnitude could not be carried out in a few weeks or without the assistance of brother Arthur, since Arthur was to remain in Paris while William went on his travels.

However, William and Arthur did immediately stir themselves to fulfill an important assignment of the infant Commonwealth. This was to see to the making of dies for the new State seal from a design approved by the first General Assembly. The design—the figure of Liberty with a conquering foot on the neck of Tyranny—was duly engraved by the artificer M. Sauvage on the Quai des Orfevres, and the dies were delivered to Arthur Lee in the summer of 1778. The original dies were lost in the Confederate evacuation of Richmond in 1865.

By March Lee was ready to embark on his journey, but events were in the making which kept all the American residents of Paris close to the city in anticipation and excitement. These revolved around the receptions held by the royal family in honor of the American delegation and the Franco-American alliance. On March 24, two days after the festivities, Lee set out from Paris. The worse of the winter was over, but political storms lay ahead.

*   *   *   *

Lee traveled directly to Frankfort-am-Main and from the Rhineland city through the principalities of the Holy Roman Empire to the imperial capital, Vienna. In that “gay & expensive” metropolis, as Lee called it, Joseph II reigned over the great anachronism of Europe under the watchful eye of his mother, Queen Maria Theresa, sovereign over all the Austrian dominions.

Neither monarch chose to receive the envoy from the wilds of America, and Lee’s credentials were so defective due to Congress’ ignorance of Maria Theresa’s importance that he could not have treated with the queen even if she had welcomed him with open arms. “The conduct of the Emperor’s Court,” wrote Lee with understatement, “has not been the most pleasing.” The one bright spot of his stay was his association with the French ambassador at Vienna, the Baron de Breteuil, a career diplomat known for his kindnesses, who was to assist him in obtaining arms from French arsenals for Virginia. Lee remained in Vienna for little more than the month of June, 1778, using his time for correspondence with Paris in behalf of Virginia aid. He then returned to Frankfort to consider his next move on the unfamiliar chessboard of Europe.

On May 30, 1778, as Lee arrived in Vienna, war was declared between Emperor Joseph and Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, over their conflicting claims to parts of the territory of Bavaria, whose ruling elector had died without a natural heir. De Breteuil advised Lee to remain in Frankfort at least temporarily rather than go immediately to Berlin. Though the diplomat did not put it so bluntly, it was unlikely that Frederick, with immense armies mobilizing, would give him any more attention than had Joseph and Maria Theresa in Vienna. De Breteuil urged Lee to wait until Frederick’s principal minister, Count von der Schulenburg, invited him to the court and the capital of Prussia.

The War of the Bavarian Succession ended on May 13, 1779, after only minor military clashes. From the prodigious activity of foraging troops, the peasants wryly called it the “Potato War.” Frederick was away from his court much of the time, but one suspects that the war was not the only reason for De Breteuil’s advice to William Lee. The real reason may have been the fiasco of a previous mission to Berlin undertaken early in 1777 by Arthur Lee over the veiled but strenuous objections of Schulenburg. Congress had not specifically accredited Arthur to Berlin. He went there under the broad authority given to the Paris commissioners to treat with other powers besides France. Arthur had cut a sad figure. The king declined to receive him, and the British ambassador contrived the burglarizing of his hotel room and the copying of all his papers.

Frederick had said the British should blush to send out such ambassadors, but the disgust made him no more anxious to receive another American diplomat. The old king had few maritime interests and no naval power, and he was not disposed to lend open royal approbation to a rebellion against another monarch, cool though he might be to George III. William never received the long-awaited invitation to present himself at the court. As envoy he had to content himself with the replies of Schulenburg to his letters from Frankfort.

Lee’s diplomatic achievements were not impressive, but it is doubtful whether another envoy could have done better under the circumstances. Neither Austria nor Prussia was willing to recognize American independence at the time—Lee’s prime objective under his instructions. Nor were they amenable to concluding treaties of friendship and commerce—another objective—since neither had maritime or trade interests that American interests could reciprocate under war conditions. Frederick sharply rebuffed Lee’s suggestion that American privateers be allowed to use the port of Emden. The king’s one friendly concession was a promise to prevent British-recruited German mercenaries from crossing his territories in the Rhineland.

Lee was impelled to a rash and unprecedented diplomatic venture, possibly by his feeling of frustration. In April, 1778, the Paris commissioners considered seeking a treaty of friendship and commerce with the seven United Provinces of Holland. Nothing was done until the restless Virginian arranged on his own initiative a meeting it Aix-la-Chapelle with an Amsterdam merchant, Jean de Neufville, who represented the grand pensionary (foreign secretary) of the republic. On September 4, 1778, De Neufville signed a “rough plan of a treaty” offered by Lee in Charlemagne’s ancient capital. Lee had no authority to put his name to the draft and refrained from doing so. But he was responsible for the draft and passed it on to Congress and the Paris commission with the recommendation that it be signed and ratified.

The political situation in Holland was delicately balanced. The Americans were obtaining more undercover aid from the Dutch through St. Eustatius, Curaçao, and other islands of the Dutch West Indies than they could expect if the provinces openly took up their cause and brought down upon Holland the guns of the British Navy. The commission and Congress declined to all on the draft, and Lee was berated in sonic quarters for overstepping his authority.

An unfortunate aftermath of the meeting at Aix occurred in 1780 when Henry Laurens of South Carolina was seized at sea by the British with a copy of the draft among his papers. Laurens was on his way at the time to be minister to Holland. The British threw poor Laurens into the Tower of London. They used the captured “treaty” as a casus belli to justify a declaration of war against Holland. They followed the declaration with a crippling attack against St. Eustatius which blocked that channel of supply for the rest of the war. Franklin fell that William Lee had “acteed very imprudently,” but thought that in the end “some Good may come of it.” At least, when a treaty was concluded with the Dutch in 1782, the negotiators borrowed many beneficial clauses from the one worked out between Lee and De Neufville four years before at Aix.

With the diplomatic doors shut in Vienna and Berlin, Lee took up temporary residence in Frankfort, the “quiet and retired place” he now called his headquarters. It was an unhappy time for the family in their furnished morns. Portia and William Ludwell were sickly, and so was their father. Mrs. Lee after an exhausting pregnancy gave birth in November, 1778, to a son christened Brutus, but the child died within eight months. “Our dear little Patriot . . . rests in peace;” wrote William to Arthur. “His time here was very unpleasant, but I trust he has amends now.” At the end of nearly two years on the continent, the family looked back on days in London, with all their anxieties, as happy ones. As to their existence in Frankfort, Lee sighed: “We breathe indeed, but that is all.”

William traveled to Paris occasionally to confer with Arthur on obtaining supplies for Virginia. With the backing of De Breteuil, he applied to the French ministry for a loan of 2,000,000 livres with which to purchase arms. The ministry denied the monetary aid but directed him to apply through the Paris commissioners for arms from the royal arsenals. The cost of the weapons was later to he repaid. For the Lees it was a bitter pill to ask Franklin’s support. Franklin was besieged with similar appeals from other States, and he made it clear he intervened only to oblige Governor Henry and not the Lees. Arthur meanwhile had quarreled with three private firms whose services he had sought, and none of them would deal with him. William, too, proved difficult in the negotiations. He alienated a French army officer in the Commonwealth’s service by haggling over his expense allowance, among other “Quarrels and Abuses” which Franklin laid to the Lees in the business of aid to Virginia.

Arthur chartered from an American firm doing business in France three vessels on the credit of the Commonwealth to carry the howitzers, mortars and other heavy weapons from the French arsenals. Two of the vessels arrived safely in Virginia at a time when the State was being harassed by invasions from the sea. By late 1779 the Lees had obtained about 220,000 livres worth of supplies, most of it from French arsenals and all of it on credit. For the shipments William expected the customary 5% commission, which he badly needed to support his family since he could touch none of his assets in Virginia or Great Britain. The supplies that were dispatched arrived when they were critically needed, but William was dissatisfied with his efforts, the amount of aid being far less than the Commonwealth had hoped for at the time of his appointment in 1777.

*   *   *   *

During the William Lees’ unhappy months in Frankfort, the suspicions and hatreds within the diplomatic establishment culminated in a controversy that bitterly divided Congress and destroyed the foreign service careers of Deane and both Lees.

The first mild intimation on the floor of Congress came in November, 1777. This was before the full flood of accusations from William and Arthur Lee and Ralph Izard had circulated among the members. Congress passed a resolution offered by Richard Henry Lee to recall Deane to the United States over his excesses in sending foreign officers to America with promises of high rank in the Continental Army. Deane had encouraged the emigration of some excellent officers, among them Lafayette and De Kalb. He had also pestered the army command with troublemakers like Thomas Conway. The resolution passed without dissent, and John Adams was elected to succeed Deane. The friends of Deane could expect, at worst, that he would be sent to another post. Richard Henry Lee and other enemies wanted only to get Deane out to Paris, not to ruin him.

Deane received the letter of recall early in 1778. The Franco-American treaty was at last being concluded, and Deane could claim much of the credit. A poor reward, this recall! Angry and indignant, Deane delayed his departure until he could board the French warship that would bear Conrad Alexandre Gérard, the first French minister, to the United States. With this symbolic support of the French court, he arrived dramatically in Philadelphia on July 12 expecting an immediate hearing in Congress.

During these six months, the charges of the Lees and their friend hard had mounted in volume and gravity. As Deane arrived, the lines were sharply drawn between pro-Deane and anti-Deane forces, vehemently at odds behind the closed doors of Congress.

The Lees seemed unassailable, backed by such influential allies as Samuel Adams and Henry Laurens, then presiding officer of Congress, who gave them a combination of support from New England and from some members of the delegations from the South. Brothers Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot were confident of their strength, though the Virginia delegation, like many others, was divided. The Lees believed they had the votes to break the influence of John Jay, the friends of Robert Morris and all the other pro-Deane mercantile interests whom they accused of “impudence and jugglery” on the Deane issue. Benjamin Harrison, a pro-Deane member of the Virginia delegation, believed the Lees’ “Cabal” was “too powerful to afford us the least prospect of their removal.” As if putting off a fearful showdown, Congress kept Deane angrily waiting to he heard in his own defense.

Not until a month after his arrival was Deane invited to appear. Even then the Lees’ supporters cut him short by demanding that he reduce his defense to writing. By this time Congress had decided to end the cumbersome three-man commission in Paris and to appoint Franklin as the United States’ first minister to France. In the cloakrooms Deane was now being accused of “Misapplication of the Public Money, Misconduct in his public and private character and pursuing a reprehensible System and Measures in his public character.” Such was the escalation from the misdemeanor involving foreign officers being sent to the army command.

Deane put in writing his reply to some of the charges, in letters to President Laurens dated October 12. In one of the letters he boldly attacked William as well as Arthur Lee. Two of the charges against William were wild swings which left Deane himself off balance. One was that William “never had a Commission to the Commercial Agency” William could easily turn aside that thrust. If Deane believed this, why did he present William to the French government in this capacity? Deane charged that William had tried to monopolize “places both of honor and of profit” for his own aggrandizement. Deane was vulnerable here, too. He had done his share of monopolizing by retaining commercial as well as political power in his own hands as commissioner. He also charged that William Lee had dragged his heels in undertaking his responsibilities as a representative of his country—that he had been slow to commit himself to the American cause for fear of prejudicing his interests in London and especially his position as alderman.

Weeks went by, and Congress continued to sit without any action either to condemn or clear the maddened Deane. In anger and resentment, the recalled diplomat took his case to the public, and in an “address” in the Pennsylvania Packet of December 5 dragged the affair from the secrecy of Congress into the open. The appeal to the public was a long and bitter attack on the Lees. Here Deane omitted the weak contention that William Lee had lacked authority from Congress as co-agent, and built up the charge that he had neglected the interests of the United States in favor of his own interests.

The slowness of communication across the Atlantic prevented Lee from replying to the two attacks, in Congress and in the press, until March, 1779. His defense was well-reasoned and carefully documented. Unfortunately, by the time his first letter reached Philadelphia on August 30, Congress had already acted inn his case without waiting to hear what he had to say in his own behalf.

William Lee’s defense did not help him in Congress, but it is worth examining from the standpoint of his place in history.

First, he explained his delay in crossing from London to Paris in 1777. The notification of his appointment as joint agent—sent by Deane—came not by “safe hand” but through the British General Post Office, a nerve center of Ministry intelligence. In view of his anti-Ministry activities, Lee feared the letter was “a snare” laid for him by enemy agents. It was a matter of record that William’s activities had fallen under suspicion; and in sending his reply to Deane he took the precaution of waiting until he found a friend going to Paris who would carry his response. The imminent birth of another child and his efforts to close out his business affairs also delayed his departure.

Once in Paris, said William, he did not go immediately to Nantes because he was advised not to do so by Deane and Franklin. He produced in evidence a letter dated July 31 from the two commissioners saying that he should now make the journey because John Ross, contrary to expectations, was going to be unable to balance Thomas Morris’ accounts. At Nantes, according to Deane, William had failed to “regulate certain affairs.” lest his property and aldermanic post be jeopardized by full participation in the American effort. Lee pointed out that Tom Morris was uncooperative, that Jonathan Williams’ appointment had taken many matters out of his hands, that the Paris commissioners replied to none of his letters, and that they broke their word by failing to rescind Williams’ appointment and give him a free hand for his work.

Deane had made much of the charge that Lee had been reluctant to commit himself fully to the American cause. He pointed to Lee’s retention of his alderman’s post and to his delay in becoming active as envoy to Vienna and Berlin.

Though Deane did not know it, Lee had offered to resign as alderman in late 1777 after his family had come to live in Paris. The letter, according to Lee, was addressed to the Lord Mayor but had never reached its destination. Meantime, on December 21, 1777, the freeholders of Aldgate Ward, being unrepresented in the City corporation, met and decided to request Lee’s resignation because there seemed no prospect of his resuming residence in London. The aldermen did not act, and Lee again offered his resignation in October, 1778. This, too, was before Deane had launched his attack, and the offer was reported in December in the London press. However, it was not formally accepted by the aldermen until January, 1780, so Lee was still a member of the Court of Aldermen at the time of Deane’s criticism. One of Lees supporters commented that his being an alderman was the one charge Deane could substantiate.

Deane alleged that Lee had waited until the Americans were winning (that is, until after the news of the Saratoga victory) to undertake his diplomatic mission. Lee refuted the charge by pointing out that he had asked Franklin and Deane on November 10—three weeks before Burgoyne’s defeat became known in Paris—for a copy of Congress’ model treaty in preparation for his mission, but that Deane and Franklin did not see fit to give him the copy until January 12. Lee put in evidence documents to show the timing of the request. It came when Lee and others in Paris knew only that Howe had taken Philadelphia and that Burgoyne was threatening a decisive blow by his invasion from Canada. Self-evident was the delay occasioned by Tom Morris’ death late in January, after which Lee spent most of February in Nantes to gather up Morris’ papers at the Paris commissioners’ own request

Finally, Deane leveled a charge of corruption which he could not prove and William could refute, at least with his own witnesses. This was that Lee had exacted a kickback from the subagents or deputies he had appointed in the French ports just before he left for Vienna. Again Lee produced documents, this time to show that the appointments were temporary until the will of Congress could he ascertained and that Franklin and Deane were informed about them. In addition, he attached affidavits from the appointees certifying that they had neither divided nor been asked to divide their commissions with Lee. Franklin questioned the amount of one appointee’s percentage, but felt the testimony tended to clear Lee of Deane’s charge.

The effect of Deane’s appeal to the public was to throw Congress into an uproar and raise questions about the conduct of the Lees and the influence they wielded in the Continental government at home and abroad. Refutations from the brothers overseas would be many weeks in arriving, but the Lees in Congress and their partisans fought out the battle pro and con with printer’s ink. Deane had not cleared himself by his attack on the Lees. Congress agreed to hear him in a long oral “narrative” which required his appearance before the members from December 22 to December 31. At the end of the hearing he was informed that “Congress will notify to him their future orders.” No “future orders” ever came. John Adams had arrived in Paris to succeed him, and Deane would never again hold public office, but would live out his life in disgrace.

The witches’ brew boiled on, to the disadvantage of the Lees. Writing as “Senex” in the Pennsylvania Packet, Robert Treat Paine, a former delegate from Massachusetts, commented:

Gracious Heavens! is it possible that in the infancy of our rising Republic, two brothers of one family should represent the interests and sovereignty of these United States at four of the principal Courts in Europe; and that two others of the same family should exercise the highest acts of sovereignty in our great Council, and thereby possess the power of securing and protecting their connections, however unfit their characters might be, or however injuriously they may have acted in the public service.

Francis Lightfoot Lee was “astonished” and “benumbed” at the turn against the Lees, and the brothers realized it was their family that was now on trial.

Deane’s most serious charge against Arthur Lee was that he did not have the confidence of the French court. Samuel Adams paradoxically and unintentionally brought forth support for the charge by saying that Minister Gérard had assured him Arthur Lee was fully trusted by the French king and his cabinet. The French envoy was obliged, reluctantly, to explain that Adams had misunderstood him and that Arthur’s close association with Lord Shelburne and with the Comte de Lauraguais, an indiscreet nobleman, had indeed created a distrust of Arthur at the French court because of his intimacy with the British earl and the French count.

Out of all the welter of charges, provable and unprovable, emerged the overriding fact that “suspicions and animosities” had crippled the foreign service and that some of its members had proved ineffective for this reason or other reasons. Besides, the members of Congress reasoned, why maintain William Lee and Ralph Izard as envoys to courts that would not receive them? Congress decided on June 8, 1779, to recall them without requiring them to return home and attend an inquiry. In the case of both men the vote was seven to four with New Jersey’s delegation divided. Voting for the recall of Lee and Izard were Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia. Voting against it were New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. Evidently Izard had better support from his fellow South Carolinians than William Lee from his compatriots in Virginia. Here, however, was no judgment on the conduct of these men. The issue was simply whether Congress should maintain them as diplomatic representatives when the courts to which they were accredited would not receive them.

Congress could not as easily make up its mind about Arthur Lee. On two occasions votes bearing on his recall found the States divided four to four with four delegations split. On September 26 Congress determined to supplant the position of commissioner to Madrid, which Arthur held, with that of minister to Spain. Arthur Lee, John Adams and John Jay were nominated for the post. The vote on September 27 gave it to Jay, with Adams being elected commissioner for concluding a treaty of peace with Great Britain in anticipation of that eventuality. Arthur Lee received only the vote of New Hampshire for the ministerial post. “Your enemies,” wrote Richard Henry Lee to his brother, “have triumphed at last.”

During this year of disputes Richard Henry Lee had resigned from Congress because of ill health, and Francis Lightfoot Lee had quit in disgust over the Deane affair bickerings. Thus in 1779 all four Lee brothers passed from high positions in the Continental government.

*   *   *   *

Six months before receiving official word of his recall, William Lee realistically considered the possibility that his position would be discontinued, and began to look for a residence elsewhere than in gloomy Frankfort. In Brussels, capital of the Austrian Netherlands, he found an acceptable house in the Place St. Michel that could be taken on a short-term lease. Soon after getting notification of his recall, Lee moved his family to the Flemish city, where they were to await the end of the war.

By this time the Lees’ financial position was precarious. For the Vienna-Berlin mission William had drawn 3,000 louis d’or, the equivalent of £3,150 sterling, from the Paris commissioners, but this sum could not last indefinitely. The war had cut off the family from any Ludwell estate income, and it was impossible for Lee to resume the career of a merchant until hostilities ended. Franklin had been nettled because the Lees and Izard drew lump sums on the often depleted purse of the commissioners. Since early in the year, the commissioners had declined to honor further drafts.

Lee may have exaggerated when he described himself as being “almost penniless,” but certainly he was in anxious circumstances. In his first letter to Richard Henry upon moving to Brussels, he asked his brother to speed to him whatever Congress owed him in the way of a settlement. Later he cast up his accounts and figured that the sum came to 42,189 livres after deducting the drafts on the Paris commissioners. Congress translated the debt into the sum of $45,000, and Franklin, after some delay during peace negotiations, finally authorized the payment. But sums that were collectible only in the future—including several thousand pounds owing to Lee from the tobacco planters of Virginia and Maryland—were of no help in meeting the financial problems of the present.

If Lee had been unhappy in Frankfort, he was miserable in his enforced idleness at Brussels. Once he made overtures to the Prussian ministry about sending an American cargo vessel to Emden, but old Frederick himself rejected the notion. Only Lee’s correspondence kept him occupied; and the letters from America, even from his brothers, were rarer now. Arthur and Ralph Izard dared the British blockade and left Paris before the war was over, so the William Lees could not count on either their letters or their company. Alice De Lancey Izard occasionally visited the Lees, once with John Adams, and kept up a chatty correspondence with Hannah Lee. Her letters indirectly brought news of Virginia and of Green Spring in the form of excerpts from those written by her husband during his passage through the war-ravaged State.

The household was enlivened by an addition, a daughter christened Cornelia, who was born March 3, 1780, the last of the children. All were in fair health except for William, who suffered from “a horrid Rheumatism” which he believed had developed during his disagreeable journey to Aix-la-Chapelle. Alice Izard wanted William to try the traditional two and forty days of hot mud baths at a famous French spa, but if he undertook this heroic treatment it did not arrest the ailment. The rheumatic, possibly arthritic pains were to rack his bones for the rest of his life.

Lee gave much thought during his inactivity to the structure of a peace between the United States and Great Britain. His views were more enlightened than those of many contemporaries in that he saw the peacemaking as an opportunity to draw the two English-speaking countries together again, though he wanted no compromise on the issue of independence.

Lee proposed a relationship strikingly similar to the pattern of the British Commonwealth of Nations as it had evolved by mid-twentieth century. He had introduced his ideas in private correspondence as early as 1778, suggesting that a treaty might confer mutual commercial concessions as well as mutual citizenship rights for persons in both countries. As the actual treaty was being concluded in 1783, he reverted to these ideas, saying he thought American vessels and American citizens “should be legally esteem’d” in Great Britain after the war just as they were before the war. “This Policy,” he wrote to his London friend Samuel Thorpe, “would unite the two Countries in one common Interest, and might be done by one single Act of Parliament” And, as he ailed to add, by similar legislation in the United States.

Soon after hostilities ended, Lee made one more overture toward useful employment, This time to the Continental Congress. His approach, however, was couched in such indirect terms that a refusal could not be considered a snub. He wrote Robert. R. Livingston, the Continental Congress’ first Secretary of Foreign Affairs, that he had information indicating Austria’s desire for a treaty of friendship and commerce with the United States. He suggested that if such a treaty were desirable a minister to Vienna should be appointed. He suggested also, drawing on his own experience, how the minister’s credentials should read and what salary he should he paid. Congress did not receive the letter until nearly a year later. The members evidently believed the small volume of trade that could be expected through Trieste on the Adriatic and the ports of Austrian Netherlands would not justify a treaty or diplomatic representation. Nothing was done, though treaties were signed by the Confederation with Holland, Sweden and Prussia.

Lee was eager to return to Virginia and retire with his family to Green Spring plantation. This had been his dream during his travels, and he had urged Richard Henry to see that the overseers kept the plantation in good repair and the slaves instructed in useful skills. All the income was to he invested in Continental Loan Office certificates, the war bonds of the period. The three Ludwell houses in Williamsburg had been damaged early in the war by being used for militia barracks and a hospital, but the farms suffered no losses until Cornwallis’s invasion of Virginia in 1781.

Even then the damage was less than that caused at neighboring plantations. Ralph Izard reported just after the Yorktown victory that the British had carried off between sixty and seventy slaves but that half of them had been recovered. William learned from Richard Henry that the enemy had spared his crops but had commandeered sixty head of cattle. The untenanted manor house at Green Spring had long since fallen into disrepair, but the plantation would afford Lee a good living. “If he can reconcile himself to a Country life” observed Izard, “he has everything here that he can reasonably desire.”

*   *   *   *

Lee had hoped to leave Brussels for America early in the spring of 1783, but was disappointed again and again in trying to book passage. In late April he purchased or chartered a vessel, the Virginia, “sound, tight & strong but a very dull Sailer.” He left Hannah Lee and their two daughters in Ostend with the family of his old business associate Edward Browne, and sailed from that port on June 30 accompanied by his son and two servants.

It was characteristic of Lee that since he had to take a vessel to get a passage, he would make the trip earn his fare or perhaps even show a profit. He induced Browne and another old friend, Alderman Samuel Thorpe of London, to join him in purchasing Flemish and British goods for sale in Virginia and Madeira and perhaps other ports of call en route. Aside from being run aground by a Scottish pilot and quarreling violently with the captain, Lee found the voyage pleasant, though unduly long. Not until September 20 did the lumbering Virginia drop anchor in Lynnhaven Inlet near Cape Henry. The Lee party reached Green Spring ten days later. Speaking of the trip as a business venture, Lee called it a “saving” voyage though not a “brilliant” one. He meant that it had paid his passage.

Settling the accounts of the Virginia and putting the Green Spring properties in some kind of order proved more of a headache than Lee had anticipated. “My own private affairs here,” he wrote Browne, “are in a State sufficient to make any Man crazy”

To counterbalance these vexations, Lee had a pleasant surprise, offered as a token of welcome by the Peninsula residents to a Northern Neck native who had now become one of them. While he was on the high seas, they had elected him a member of the State Senate from the district composed of Warwick, Elizabeth City and York counties. He was obviously gratified, explaining to Edward Browne that the election had been unanimous and that it conferred on him a legislative position similar to a seat in the House of Lords. Lee dutifully served in the session that met in November–December, 1783. Certainly no one expected him to perform brilliantly as a legislator after fifteen years’ absence from Virginia, and he went about his responsibilities unostentatiously during his single term.

Apparently he was not tempted, as Arthur had been, to seek public office on his own. He did not run again. Arthur was finding no joy in his brief terms in the Virginia lower house and in Congress, where he met with nothing but “perpetual enmities.” Lees would always be drawn into politics. At the time William served his one term in the Senate, there was a plethora of Lees in the assembly. In the House, besides Arthur, were brother Richard Henry and cousin Richard Lee of Westmoreland County. In the Senate, besides William, was another cousin, Henry Lee, Jr., a newcomer to the upper house who had just succeeded brother Frank Lee in one of the Northern Neck seats. Frank, it appears, had resigned for the last time from the rough and tumble of a pursuit which attracted yet repelled him.

William Lee wanted to try exporting his tobacco to Europe and importing manufactured goods to Tidewater Virginia. He had left a substantial sum in Brussels on which he could draw for this purpose through Edward Browne of Ostend. As he made these plans, he discovered that his eyesight was becoming greatly impaired. By late 1783 he could no longer read by candlelight. As the months passed, the impairment grew worse until Lee discovered that he was gradually going blind. This fact circumscribed his business plans and all other plans during the closing years of his life.

A heavier blow fell late in 1784 when Hannah Ludwell Lee died suddenly as she was preparing to embark with her daughters from Ostend. She expired at the Brownes’ home on August 18 at the age of 46, and her body was sent to England and temporarily interred at Margate. At Lee’s request Samuel Thorpe saw to the removal of Mrs. Lee’s remains to the Ludwell family vault in the Church of St. Mary, Stratford-le-Bow, on the outskirts of London. There she was laid to rest beside her father.

Lee’s obsession now was to get his daughters safely to Virginia, and he asked Thorpe to arrange their passage. “My vision decays very fast,” he wrote to his friend. He wanted literally to see his girls before the curtain of blindness fell. On November 29 his “dear Babes” arrived in the company of their governess. After a long visit with their ailing father and delicate brother, they were sent to the Francis Lightfoot Lees’ plantation Menokin, where their upbringing as young ladies continued under the watchful eye of William’s sister-in-law, Rebecca Tayloe Lee. Menokin was in Richmond County, in the Northern Neck, quite a distance from Green Spring.

The dilapidated manor house at Green Spring, drawn by the architect
Benjamin Henry Latrobe soon after his emigration to Virginia from his native England
in 1796. William Lee lived in retirement on the plantation, died there and was buried
at nearby Jamestown. (Courtesy of Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.)

An honor conferred by his fellow churchmen must have warmed the bleakness of Lee’s declining years. A deeply religious man, he was dismayed at the rise of “immorality and vice” which seemed to follow the war and the disestablishment of the Anglican faith. He joined wholeheartedly in the movement to found a new church on the toppled stones of the old; and his fellow parishioners elected him a lay delegate to the convention that met in Richmond in 1785 to organize the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. The thirty-six clergy-men and seventy-one laymen again honored Lee by choosing him to serve with John Page, Jr., of Caroline County as a lay delegate to the general convention that met in Philadelphia a few months later. However, had weather and Lee’s increasingly bad health prevented him from attending the gathering in the northern metropolis which brought into being the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States.

In the autumn of 1787 the monotony of life in the decaying manor house was broken for the ailing master by the visit of Lucy Ludwell Paradise and her husband to Green Spring. The Paradises were deeply in debt, and they had undertaken a long-deferred journey to Virginia to establish American citizenship and forestall expropriation of their Ludwell properties under the enemy alien legislation passed (luring the war. In the early years of his married life Lee had found it “extremely Irksome” to have anything to do with the Paradises. John Paradise felt the sane way about the lee family, though he was well-acquainted only with William.

Possibly Lee had mellowed and no longer nurtured the old prejudice against the brother-in-law with whom he shared the Ludwell estate. Only one quarrel flared during the weeks of visiting. Toward the end of their stay the Paradises learned of the sudden, mysterious death of their daughter at her London boarding school, and this tragedy cast a deep pall for everyone over their sojourn in America. Before this blow, Lucy Paradise had reported on the pleasurable days at Green Spring she had spent in the company of Lee. Though he was losing his sight—the scatterbrained Lucy insisted he had lost it—she said he “bears it remarkably well and enjoys good health and spirits.”

Lucy was more optimistic than accurate in this observation, for Lee was often depressed and in acute pain, so neither his health nor his spirits could be described as good. On the other hand, he was not too incapacitated by 1790 to accept the governor’s appointment as sheriff of James City County. In republican Virginia this position was, of course, far less demanding than the shrievalty of London and Middlesex with its numerous staff and ceremonial duties. The responsibilities were roughly similar, though the Virginia officer had no sheriffs’ courts. As in London, Lee was responsible for the prisons within his jurisdiction and for all phases of law enforcement, such as the making of arrests, serving of writs and summonses, and execution of orders and sentences. He wore no gown and chain and bore no white wand of authority. Though he did not command the retinue of the sheriffs of London and Middlesex, he could depend upon the precinct constables appointed by the county court to assist hint in carrying out his duties. The office had its honor, and as Lee’s last public service seemed to bring his unusual career full circle. He served two one-year terms before bowing out.

Just before accepting the appointment, he underwent the crude operation for cataracts performed by contemporary surgeons. This was the “couching” of the dim eye—inserting a needle and pushing back the clouded lens from the line of sight. Relapse often followed an improvement in the sight. Richard Henry Lee believed his brother had “a good prospect of having vision totally restored.” It was a cruel delusion. In April, 1793, William wrote: “I am now deprived of sight & reduced by many years of extreme ill health to the brink of the grave.”

In the last days Lee spent several months of each year at one or more of Virginia’s mountain springs “in search of relief,” he said, “from bodily pain.” His affliction, he explained, required him to he constantly on the move hoping that change of climate would help him. The pain and the journeys tended to undermine his morale, and it was Francis Lightfoot who made it his business to rally and cheer his brother. William worried needlessly and somewhat neurotically about his financial position. He feared that he would leave to his children an inadequate estate. To this feeling or insecurity, Frank addressed a letter less than two months before William’s death:

As to worldly matters, I think you should make your mind easy on that score; you will at all events leave a sufficiency to your children, to make them happy, unless they are much wanting to themselves; in which case millions would be insufficient.

Sensible Frank Lee! One hopes that his brother needed his counsel for the sake of his peace of mind. William Lee was actually far better off than many Virginians whom the war and post-war hard times had sucked dry. He had been able to preserve his landed property and most of his slaves. The revenues had accumulated into a tidy sum in the form of Continental loan certificates. Lee had been able to collect few debts, but there were several thousand pounds owing to him in Virginia and some of these, at least, would be collectible in time. Furthermore, he owned British stocks, possibly as a result of assets he had liquidated in London, and these swelled the fortune he left in his will.

Possibly one reason for Lee’s feeling of insecurity was the fact that none of his children had married and settled into their own homes. William Ludwell, 20 at the time of his father’s death, was to remain a bachelor and die early. Portia was 18 during her father’s fatal illness. Not until four years afterward did she marry the English-born merchant William Hodgson of Alexandria. Cornelia, being only 15, was not of marriageable age. When she was 26, she wed John Hopkins, of a prominent Richmond family. Through the daughters and their many children, the line of William Lee was perpetuated.

It was Cornelia who recorded her father’s death at Green Spring on Saturday, June 27, 1795. He was not an old man even by eighteenth-century lift expectancy. As Cornelia tells us, he “was taken from this turbulent and mortal state, after a lingering illness of ten months, act. 55 years, 9 months and 27 days.” In his will, drawn in 1789, Lee had directed that he be buried wherever he chanced to die, “without any pomp or parade, or any unnecessary expense whatever.” In accordance with the wish, he was buried on the day after his death in the nearby Jamestown Church yard, next to the graves of his Ludwell grandparents.

Lee left an opulent estate, nearly all of it to his son. He appointed the wife of Francis Lightfoot Lee, Rebecca Tayloe Lee, guardian of his daughters. Each of the daughters was bequeathed a substantial sum in sterling currency. Portia received in addition a 1,250-acre plantation in northern Virginia which Lee purchased for her in 1786. Lee directed that his British stocks not be applied to any debts or legacies unless all other personal property proved insufficient. His son inherited these shares along with the Ludwell properties which had belonged to his father and mother.

A curious clause of the will expressed Lee’s desire that his son drop the surname Lee in the hope that “the family name of Ludwell, so ancient and honorable, both in England and America, . . . may be revived.” William Lee owed much to the lineage which gave him his mother, his wife and his fortune. However, the son loyally declined to give up his father’s name. He died as William Ludwell Lee, without having wed, at Green Spring on January 24, 1803. He was then only 28 years old.

Biographers have paid only passing attention to William Lee in the two centuries that have elapsed since the period of his fame. The reason, perhaps, is that his abilities were so largely unfulfilled by the wartime tasks imposed upon him in the political context of his era. No biographical treatment of Lee, however cursory, can ignore his faults of character or the extent to which they contributed to the flawing of his career, but there must be a corresponding recognition of the difficult, sometimes impossible conditions that hedged about his diplomatic employment. “The trials I have had,” he wrote ruefully to a friend, “are rather too much for a temper naturally quick.”

That Lee’s abilities were formidable is attested by his friends and foes alike. His papers reveal a proud and cultivated though self-taught man of lucid mind and purpose in all that he did. One cannot help wondering what success he might have achieved if he had become, say, a lawyer or a soldier. His letters abound with references to strategy, fortification and military intelligence. It is not hard to imagine the practical, forthright Lee in the role of an officer. His letters also reveal, in combative passages, an advocate’s skill in the marshaling of facts, the documentation of evidence and the flash of eloquence that sometimes decides a case. Franklin observed that Lee was “much of a lawyer, and would do everything regularly.” There is sarcasm here, but also insight. Speculation about Lee in another career is idle, of course, but it is possible that another channel for his talents and energies would have left him better remembered by history.

Lee’s claim to the attention of posterity lies in the fact that he saw clearly—and at a point of comprehension long before most of his contemporaries—the diverging destinies of the British and American governments. Once convinced of this great reality, he fixed his mind unswervingly upon independence as the lode star of his countrymen’s future. Yet, with independence won, he saw the necessity for a far closer working relationship between the two English-speaking nations than most Americans would admit. Silas Deane attempted to discredit Lee with the insinuation that he placed personal gain or prestige above love of country. He might have attacked Lee with better success for other faults in which he was vulnerable, but lack of patriotism was not a shortcoming with which he could he fairly charged—and even the enemy British knew it.

Lee once said that it was his high purpose to help transmit inviolate to later generations the liberties of the English heritage which he had watched a king and his ministry attempt to corrupt. In that aspiration, he found fulfillment, in a measure not given to all who have served their country in whatever age or crisis.


BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

THIS PUBLISHED BIOGRAPHY contains no documentation, but a foot-noted typescript has been placed on file at the Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, Jamestown, Virginia.

The voluminous letters and papers of William Lee and his brothers are the principal single source for his life and public career. These include a number of William Lee letterbooks in the Virginia Historical Society and the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation, which are the letter-files of the man himself.

Many of these letters up to the date of Lee’s departure from Europe in 1783 have been published in Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Letters of William Lee 1766–1783 (3 vols., Brooklyn, 1891). Not all of the letterbooks have been published in this work; and there are a wealth of loose papers at the Virginia Historical Society which have not been published.

Another important source of William Lee material has been made available in microfilm form under the title Paul R. Hoffman, ed., The Lee Family Papers, 1742–1795 (8 reels, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, 1966). The collection assembled from Lee papers at Charlottesville, at Harvard University, the American Philosophical Society and other institutions, is especially interesting for the correspondence among the Stratford brothers. Microreels nos. 1 and 2 are especially valuable for the light they cast on Lee’s youth and his mercantile and political career in London.

The files of The London Chronicle, 1767–1776, which the author searched at Duke University, are indispensable for their record of Lee’s candidacies in greater London and his activities as sheriff and alderman in London. I am indebted to Dr. Edward M. Riley, director of research, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, and to Mrs. Susan Sutton, research agent of the Foundation in England, for information on Lee from the City of London Record Office at the Guildhall.

Most of the letters and papers relating to Lee’s career as joint commercial agent in France and continental commissioner to the courts of Berlin and Vienna have been published either in Ford or in Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (Washington, 1889); Albert H. Smyth, ed., The Writings of Benjamin Franklin (New York, 1905–1907); and Charles Isham, ed., The Deane Papers (Collections of the New-York Historical Society, New York, 1887–1891).

Transcripts of Lee’s correspondence with the Prussian court are preserved in the Bancroft Collection, New York Public Library. Interesting supplementary material has been quoted from B. F. Stevens, comp., Facsimiles of Manuscripts in European Archives Relating to America 1773–1783 (London, 1889–1895).

Almost all documents or letters pertaining to Lee’s service as Virginia’s agent in France are preserved in the State Agent, Council or Executive Papers in the Virginia State Library, Richmond, and have been published in one form or another, notably in H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Official Letters of the Governors of the State of Virginia (Richmond, 1926– ) and McIlwaine, et al., eds., Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia [1776–1788], (Richmond, 1931–1967).

Many librarians and archivists assisted in the research for this booklet. I wish to express special thanks to the staff of the Virginia Historical Society, in particular to Howson W. Cole, curator of manuscripts, and Miss Susan Agee, cataloger, who in the midst of re-cataloging the William Lee papers, took time to make the papers available in a manner that shortened and simplified the author’s task.

[THIS BOOK USED BY PERMISSION LIBRARY OF VIRGINIA, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.]