Richard Henry Lee

By Frank Gaylord Cook

Note: Frank Gaylord Cook, an 1882 graduate of Harvard and one-time president of Delta Upsilon, contributed more than a dozen articles to The Atlantic Monthly, including “The Law’s Partiality to Married Women” (September 1886); “The Marriage Celebration in Europ” (February 1888); “The Marriage Celebration in the Colonies” (March 1888); “Some Colonial Lawyers and Their Work” (March 1889); “James Wilson” (September 1889); “John Dickinson” (January 1890); “Robert Morris” (November 1890); and “John Rutledge” (February 1891). The following essay appeared in the July 1890 issue of the Atlantic (vol. 66, pp. 23–35), published in Boston and New York.



THIS country has never seen a more interesting form of aristocracy than that which existed in Virginia at the middle of the eighteenth century. The colony had drawn its ruling class mainly from the English gentry. Many such, eager for gold and adventure, had come in the beginning with Dale and Captain Smith; while others, royalist refugees, had found here an obscure retreat after the overthrow of Charles I. Purchasing for a trifle large tracts of the rich lowlands along the picturesque river-banks, they gradually assumed many of the conditions and modes of life to which they had been accustomed in England. They built spacious, imposing manor-houses, kept large numbers of servants, affected ceremony, luxury, and ease, and ruled their wide and separated domains with a mild but arbitrary sway. Establishing the English Church, they made it the medium of their power as well as of their worship; for through its vestries they directed not only the religious services, but also the local government. Indeed, their influence controlled the State as fully as it did the household and the Church; for, occupying the magistracies, and monopolizing the governor’s Council and even the popular House of Burgesses, they gathered into their ready hands all the reins of political power. And the better to maintain their position and to perpetuate their names, they transplanted and nourished that taproot of aristocracy, the rule of primogeniture, controlling the descent and securing the integrity of the family estate and prestige.

From this dominant, conservative aristocracy came the greater part of “that generation of Virginian statesmen who left so deep an impress on the history of the world;” and among them no one traced a longer lineage or inherited a stronger taste for politics than did Richard Henry Lee. His family was established on the rich tract of lowland known as the Northern Neck, between the Rappahannock and the Potomac, and at a point not far from the present city of Washington. Its history ran back nearly to the founding of the colony, and was interwoven with its most stirring and important events. Lee’s great-grandfather, Richard Lee, came to Virginia in the reign of Charles I., and during that king’s struggle with Parliament was secretary, and next in prominence, to Sir William Berkeley, then governor of Virginia. Together, these two kept the colony loyal, so strong was its royalist sentiment. Even after they were forced by Cromwell’s ships to acknowledge the Commonwealth, they still plotted for the restoration,—Richard Lee himself visiting Charles II. in Flanders, and inviting him to Virginia; and when royalty was restored, their fidelity and zeal were rewarded by a renewal of their control of Virginian affairs.

The prestige thus acquired by Berkeley’s secretary was maintained in the Lee family. A son, Richard Lee, was a member of the king’s Council; and a grandson, Thomas Lee, father of Richard Henry Lee, after serving many years as president of the Council, was commissioned governor of Virginia just before his death. Equally distinguished in the public service were the Ludwells of Greenspring, to whom the mother of Richard Henry Lee belonged. Both her father and her brother were members of the Council, and her grandfather had been governor of North Carolina.

With these continuous and eminent examples among his ancestors,—his father being the president, his uncle and grandfather having been members, of the king’s Council,—naturally Richard Henry Lee early contemplated a public career. Indeed, this was about the only future then open to a young man of his class in Virginia. To engage in trade or in manual labor was deemed unworthy of a gentleman. In fact, there was no trade, even as there were no municipalities. The plantations, each constituting a little community by itself, usually had their own artisans and handicraftsmen among their indentured servants or their slaves; and, generally bordering upon tidal bays or upon rivers, they had their separate wharves, from which they loaded English ships with their sole important product, tobacco, and at which they received in return nearly all fabrics, tools, utensils, furniture, and even food required for their use or consumption. Of the professions, the clergymen, such as they were, came mainly from England, and the physicians scarcely constituted a class by themselves; the law alone began to attract young men from the first families. Its practice not only afforded scope and opportunity for the highest talent, but also furnished a thorough preparation for the Council and the House of Burgesses. But Lee was not attracted to the law as a profession, and he chose a more direct way to these goals of youthful ambition and battlefields of Virginian politics. In 1757, at the age of twenty-five years, he was chosen to represent his native county of Westmoreland in the House of Burgesses.

This assembly was surpassed by no other in the colonies for dignity, influence, and ability. It was the oldest legislative body in America, having sat for the first time June 30, 1619. It was also one of the most free and spirited. As early as 1624 it had voted that “the Governor shall not lay any taxes or ympositions, upon the colony, their lands or comodoties, other way than by the authority of the General Assembly, to be levyed and ymployed as the said Assembly shall appoynt.” The spirit and the principle then manifested were uniformly maintained during the century and a half which followed, so that at the approach of the Revolution few political bodies more independent or more resolute existed in the world.

In this generous, animating school was acquired the political training of the planter aristocracy; for the House of Burgesses was mainly a patrician assembly. To be sure, its members were elected by the freemen; but as they received no pay, few but wealthy landowners could afford to serve, and those few often owed their election to the predominant influence of the local magnates. Its prevailing spirit, therefore, was aristocratic, and its conduct was correspondingly dignified. Its sessions were held in the stately old Capitol at Williamsburg, and were attended with ceremonies more or less copied from those of the House of Commons. The Speaker sat upon a high dais under a canopy supported by a gilded rod; just beneath sat the clerk, his mace upon the table before him to show that the House was in session; while in front, in long rows, their hats upon their heads, sat the honorable Burgesses, representing the wealth, culture, and pride of Virginia.

Doubtless there was much in this dignified body to abash and repress a young man just admitted to it; and apparently such was its effect at first upon Richard Henry Lee. Diffident by nature, and deferential to the experience and abilities of his associates, he remained for several sessions a silent member. It required first a strong conviction of duty, and then a sudden prompting of affection, fully to discover to himself and to the House his remarkable gift of speech. The first occasion here alluded to was a debate upon a motion “to lay so heavy a duty on the importation of slaves as effectually to put an end to that iniquitous and disgraceful traffic within the colony of Virginia.” At this time there were in Virginia over one hundred and twenty thousand slaves,—nearly four tenths of the whole population,—with that number fast increasing; and the resulting evils, social and economic, were already arousing discussion and solicitude.

Evidently they had long weighed on Lee’s mind, for in this debate he was at last moved to speak. In a brief but pointed and earnest speech he set forth the impolitic, unjust, and cruel aspects of the slave-trade. Imputing to it the inferior economic development of Virginia as compared with other colonies, he declared that, “with their whites, they import arts and agriculture, whilst we, with our blacks, exclude both.” Finally, he openly denounced his countrymen as participants in the nefarious traffic: “We encourage those poor, ignorant people to wage eternal war against each other; not nation against nation, but father against son, children against parents, and brothers against brothers, . . . that by war, stealth, or surprise we Christians may be furnished with our fellow-creatures.

For a maiden speech this was indeed a bold one. It must have angered many of his hearers, themselves slave-owners. Of course it did not avail, so strongly was slavery linked with aristocracy; yet its keen insight and elevated tone, at that early day, are worthy of admiration. In other respects the speech was not noteworthy. At the most, it unsealed Lee’s lips, and made him available shortly afterward in a cause that appealed even more strongly to his sympathy and indignation. His brother, Thomas Lee, also a Burgess, having been selected to bring forward a motion that was obnoxious to the Speaker and to a large part of the House, performed the duty in an able and effective speech, but at the same time neglected to observe the rule requiring all motions to be presented in writing. The Speaker quickly perceived the oversight, and gladly took advantage of it. Administering a severe rebuke at the omission, he so disconcerted the mover that the latter could not recover from his confusion. Thereupon Richard Henry Lee sprang to his feet, and presented the motion in writing, in a speech of great force and eloquence, completely retrieving the discomfiture of his brother. It is recorded that the elder brother never again ventured to address the House, but the younger from that hour became one of its acknowledged leaders.

The nature of his leadership, assumed at this time, will be evident from a memorable incident of 1766. The Speaker just mentioned was John Robinson, one of the most wealthy and aristocratic of the Virginia planters. He had been Speaker of the House for twenty-five years, and for several years Treasurer of the colony, also; and, using his official position with tact and ability, he had acquired great power and popularity. Suddenly, in 1766, his death occurred, and at once rumors arose of serious defalcations in the office of Treasurer, involving many of the Burgesses. An inquiry was imperative; but all shrank from taking the initiative. Lee, when convinced that there was ground for suspicion, had the courage to move “that a committee be appointed to inquire into the state of the treasury.” As was expected, his motion met bitter and determined opposition; but he did not flinch, and it finally prevailed. In the investigation that followed the worst suspicions were realized. It had been the duty of Robinson, as Treasurer, to cancel all government bills paid to him for redemption; but instead of destroying them, he had been in the habit of loaning them secretly to importunate Burgesses and other friends, relying on his own property, together with what security he could obtain, to prevent loss to the colony.

The union of these two offices had given opportunity for this misconduct; and, obviously, their separation might prevent its recurrence. Accordingly, Lee followed up his advantage by moving that the office of Treasurer be separated from that of Speaker; and again he antagonized most of the older and more influential planters. Nevertheless, with the aid of Patrick Henry and other kindred spirits, he carried his point, and effected an important reform.

The incident just narrated clearly reveals the existence of two parties in the House of Burgesses. One party, the aristocratic or conservative, was drawn chiefly from the oldest and wealthiest families of Virginia, and was devoted to the maintenance of the power and privilege they had so long possessed, even at the expense of some abuses in the government and in society. At its head was Edmund Pendleton, an able lawyer, a shrewd politician, and a self-made man. Early in life, he was left, penniless and uneducated, to make his way; and by his industry, integrity, and ability he rose from the position of a ploughboy to that of the conservative leader. From his entry into politics he was the protégé of Speaker Robinson, and with him strove to resist innovation and revolution. Among the other able and distinguished conservatives were Peyton Randolph, Richard Bland, and George Wythe.

The other, the radical or popular party, was determined to break up abuses, wherever they might be, and to bring the colony into a more progressive policy; and its number was made up from the sturdy yeomanry, or middle class, together with a few earnest recruits from the principal families. Foremost among these last, strange to say, was Richard Henry Lee. From the antecedents of his family, he should, on the contrary, have been first among the conservatives. From his great-grandfather, the valiant secretary of Berkeley, down to his father, the president of the Council, the family had been, without exception, upholders of royalty and aristocracy. But he, cutting loose from family ties and traditions, became a determined radical, denouncing the injustice and inexpediency of slavery, and exposing the greed, pride, and excesses of the aristocracy.

The explanation of this is to be found largely in his moral and intellectual development. In his education he had been left much to himself, his mother bestowing her care chiefly on the eldest son, the heir to the estate. Yet the younger sons, of whom there were four, were not overlooked. In their earlier years they had a private tutor, and subsequently at least three of them were sent to England. Thus Richard Henry Lee spent several years abroad in study and travel. Returning in 1750, at the age of eighteen, shortly after his father’s death, he resided for some years with an elder brother; and it would seem, in anticipation of a public career, he devoted himself during this time to the study of history, law, politics, and literature. Evidently these were the chief formative years of his life. In his father’s library, a large and valuable one for the time, he found, among many other works, those of Locke, Hooker, and Grotius, Homer, Virgil, Milton, and Shakespeare. Becoming familiar with the best in politics and belles-lettres, he not only refined and informed his taste and style, but examined the fundamental principles of free government. He studied especially the history and constitution of England and her colonies, tracing the development and embodiment of English freedom, and following with deep interest the careers of Pelham, Sydney, and Hampden. Withal he acquired that habit of bold and independent thinking in politics which later led him, far in advance of his fellow-planters, to discern the evil designs of the British ministry, and to devise means of thwarting them.

Under such a well-trained and vigilant director, it is no wonder that the Virginia radicals performed so well their part in opening the drama of the Revolution. In March, 1764, Grenville’s Declaratory Act was passed, asserting a right and a determination in Parliament to tax America. Lee saw the dangerous scope and intent of this measure, and resolved to arouse his fellow-Burgesses against it. Soon after the meeting of the House, he brought the subject forward; and, after full discussion, a special committee was appointed, consisting of Landon Carter, Richard Henry Lee, George Wythe, Edmund Pendleton, Benjamin Harrison, Richard Bland, and Peyton Randolph. They reported an address to the king, a memorial to the House of Lords, and a remonstrance to the House of Commons. These papers, of which the first two were written by Lee, denied, in clear and decided terms, the claim asserted by Parliament; and their adoption by the Virginia House of Burgesses constituted almost the earliest legislative opposition in America to the designs of Great Britain.

In this step it had not been difficult to enlist the leading conservatives, of whom chiefly the above committee was composed. Thus far they were willing to go, exercising their undisputed right of petition. But when their petitions were disregarded, and Parliament, in the execution of its programme, enacted the Stamp Act, the Virginia aristocrats were inclined to acquiesce. Fortunately, at this point, the radicals received a potent accession to their number through the election of Patrick Henry to the House of Burgesses; and, aided by his unexpected and irresistible eloquence, they barely secured the adoption of his famous resolves.

On this occasion, Lee, though a member of the House, was temporarily absent. But he was quite in accord with Henry; and from this time these two men worked together to keep Virginia in the front rank of colonial resistance. Yet their functions and methods were very different. To Patrick Henry politics was more an avocation, to which, indeed, at times, he gave his whole mind and soul. But his profession was the law, and in its pursuit he was regularly engaged.

Lee, however, had no profession. He was devoted to the welfare of his country. For its sake he had made extensive, earnest preparation, and to this cause he henceforth gave almost undivided attention. He endeavored in every way to enlarge his field of observation. He kept himself informed of public opinion in England, and of the course of the ministry and Parliament, through an active correspondence with his brother, Arthur Lee. The latter, having taken a degree in medicine at Edinburgh, was then studying law at the Temple; and, being in the confidence of Lord Shelburne, Burke, Colonel Barré, and other Whig leaders, possessed an intimate knowledge of public affairs.

Keeping thus a close watch upon English politics, Richard Henry Lee was one of the first to become convinced that a serious struggle with Great Britain was inevitable; and, spurred by this conviction, he eagerly strove to impart his information and anxiety to other patriots, and to consult with them for the common safety. For this purpose, in 1768, he endeavored to institute a private correspondence society among the leading men of the colonies, addressing, among others, Christopher Gadsden, of South Carolina, and John Dickinson, of Pennsylvania. In his letter to Dickinson, he suggested also that, “well to understand each other, and timely to be informed of what passes, both here and in Great Britain, . . . select committees should be appointed by all the colonies.” Here, it seems, is the first suggestion of those “select committees of correspondence” which became so formidable to the British authorities and so potent in the American colonies.

It did not satisfy Lee to suggest the plan. He followed it up to its execution. Not far from the old Capitol, on Gloucester Street, the broad thoroughfare of Williamsburg, was the quaint old Raleigh Tavern, named from Sir Walter Raleigh, whose bust stood over the main doorway. During the session of the Burgesses, this was the meeting-place for the gay and polished society of the town; and in the Apollo Room, the large apartment of the tavern, Jefferson and his fellow-students from the neighboring College of William and Mary often danced with the handsome and accomplished belles of Virginia. Here, also, later, were accustomed to meet, in a private room, a knot of zealous patriots, including Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Richard Henry Lee. At one of these conferences Lee advocated his scheme. Being approved by his fellow-radicals, it was presented to the House, and on March 12, 1773, the first general committee of correspondence was appointed. It consisted of the ablest members of the Burgesses, and included Bland, Lee, Harrison, Pendleton, Henry, and Jefferson.

The new governor, Lord Dunmore, taking affront at these proceedings, dissolved the house. But he could not change the effect or importance of their action. Already, in Massachusetts, Samuel Adams had organized local committees in many towns; and now the example of the two oldest colonies was followed by the others, and the general committees of correspondence thenceforth secured an authoritative and expeditious exchange of information and sentiment. No more important step had yet been taken toward union, and hence it caused great alarm and apprehension in the British ministry. They foresaw what soon took place. A rapid assimilation of public opinion into a determination to resist aggression was followed within a year by a general and growing demand for concerted public action.

In meeting this demand Lee was hardly less active than he had been in arousing it. Immediately upon hearing of the passage of the Boston Port Bill, he drew a series of resolutions denouncing that measure, and proposing an intercolonial congress; but before he could bring them to the attention of the House it was dissolved by the governor, in the hope of checking the rising tide of popular indignation. Nevertheless, the Burgesses assembled, the next morning, in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern, and took the momentous step on which at last they were resolved. They directed the committee of correspondence to propose a general congress of the colonies. Shortly afterward, led by Samuel and John Adams, Massachusetts took similar action. Again the example of these trusted leaders was followed by the other colonies, and on September 4, 1774, in Carpenter’s Hall, Philadelphia, an intercolonial union became a fact.

The men sent by Virginia to this first Continental Congress were, in the order of their selection, Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison, and Edmund Pendleton; and in character, ability, and influence they were not surpassed by any other delegation. The impression that they made, on arriving at Philadelphia, may be inferred from the words of Joseph Reed, a contemporary Philadelphian: “We are so taken up with the Congress that we hardly think or talk of anything else. About fifty have come to town, and more are expected. There are some fine fellows from Virginia, but they are very high. . . . We understand they are the capital men of the colony, both in fortune and understanding.”

In the Congress itself, the precedence that Virginia had hitherto taken was at once recognized. Peyton Randolph, formerly the attorney-general of Virginia and Speaker of the House of Burgesses, the chairman of the Virginia delegation, was made the presiding officer; and Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee were soon acknowledged to be the greatest orators. The eloquence of the former has become famous. Intense, dramatic, or constrained, according to mood or occasion, he could at will charm, melt, or subdue. He lives, and will live, in American history for his wonderful mastery over human passion. But in chasteness and purity of diction, in grace of manner, in melody of voice, and in culture of mind he did not equal his friend and associate, Richard Henry Lee. Of the latter, John Adams, that keen and unsparing critic of his contemporaries, wrote, toward the close of his life, “As a public speaker, he had a fluency as easy and graceful as it was melodious, which his classical education enabled him to decorate with frequent allusion to some of the finest passages of antiquity.”

Lee’s personal appearance was striking. His form was tall and spare, but well proportioned, and his face was of the Roman type. His manners were easy, cordial, and elegant. He had lost the use of one hand, through an accident while shooting swans on the Potomac, and kept the wound concealed by a black silk bandage; yet his gestures were so graceful as to give the impression of having been practiced before a mirror. He was sometimes called “the gentleman of the silver hand.” It was not without reason that the Virginians spoke in raptures of Richard Henry Lee as the Cicero, and of Patrick Henry as the Demosthenes, of the age.

Nevertheless, it was not the form and manner of Lee’s utterances so much as their spirit that made them impressive and weighty. They displayed a breadth of view, a variety and richness of knowledge, and an elevation of mind remarkable even in that era of great statesmen. Yet their tone seemed too bold to the Congress of 1774. The great majority of this body were cautious and conservative, and for this reason the New England delegates deemed it expedient, in the interest of harmony, to refrain from any decided expression of their radical views. As John Adams said subsequently, “Because they had been suspected from the beginning of having independence in contemplation, they were restrained from the appearance of promoting any great measures by their own discretion, as well as by the general sense of Congress.”

Not the same restraint was imposed or observed in the case of the Southern radicals, like Lee, Henry, and Gadsden. For the first two a fair hearing was insured, both from the prestige enjoyed by Virginia and from their own preëminence as orators. Their temperament impelled them to speak, and they made the most of their opportunities. “Government is dissolved,” declared Patrick Henry at the opening of the Congress; and in his Address to the People of the Colonies, Lee warned them “to extend” their “views to mournful events.”

The Congress did not possess the spirit that animated these bold and energetic minds. Lee thought that the opposition of the colonies had been so feeble and incompetent hitherto that it was time to make vigorous exertions. “A resolute unanimous resistance,” he wrote to Washington, “and the king and his ministers will give way.” Accordingly, he moved that “the Congress do most earnestly recommend to the several colonies that a militia be forthwith appointed and well disciplined, and that it be well provided with ammunition and proper arms;” and later, on hearing of the investment of Boston by General Gage, he moved in a similar temper for prompt and decided action. But these motions were either rejected or modified to suit the conciliatory policy of the conservatives. The hour for revolution and independence was not yet come.

Just how early the more ardent patriots began to contemplate independence it is impossible to determine. The Adamses were suspected of entertaining such a project considerably before 1774, and early in 1775 the suspicion became a certainty by the interception and publication of a letter written by John Adams, savoring of the spirit of independence. There is some reason to think that Lee secretly cherished the idea at a date even earlier; for in 1764, immediately after hearing of the passage of the Declaratory Act, he wrote to a friend, “Possibly this step of the mother country, though intended to oppress and keep us low, in order to secure our dependence, may be subversive of this end.” At any rate, it was the conviction alike of Samuel and John Adams, and of Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, that the conciliatory measures of the first Congress would not move Britain, and that, in the words of Joseph Hawley, “after all, we must fight.”

This conviction once reached, the desire and effort to bring it home to the people naturally followed. In Virginia, at a convention held in St. John’s Church, Richmond, March 20, 1775, a resolution for arming the militia, similar to that rejected by the recent Congress, was brought forward by Patrick Henry, and supported by Richard Henry Lee. Against them rallied the forces of Virginian aristocracy and conservatism, led again by Edmund Pendleton; and long and heated was the struggle that ensued. Lee presented a masterly review of the resources of the colonies and of the available force of Great Britain; while Patrick Henry, roused to a frenzy by the persistence of the opposition, poured forth that torrent of eloquence which has fixed the attention and elicited the admiration of subsequent generations. Of course the resolution was adopted. Its two chief advocates were the first ones named on the committee for its execution.

The aggressive spirit here manifested rapidly spread throughout the colonies; men’s minds turned toward war and independence. And when, shortly afterward, the second Congress met, that spirit speedily permeated and controlled its councils and conduct. At last the times were ripe for the radical revolutionists, and they pushed their scheme with gathering momentum and assurance of success. Disregarding the warnings and expostulations, and disarming or overpowering the resistance of the conservatives, they secured a large majority, both of the people and of the Congress, in favor of declaring independence. The night of doubt, contention, and uncertainty was past, and the birthday of American nationality was at hand.

At this point the question arose as to who should move the declaration. All circumstances pointed to Richard Henry Lee. To the Congress it seemed fitting that Virginia, hitherto the foremost colony in nearly all the more important advances toward union and resistance, should also be the leader in this final, momentous step; and of the Virginia delegates (George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and Carter Braxton) no one was better known or more acceptable than Richard Henry Lee. He was chosen, doubtless, for his preëminence as a debater, and for his long and zealous advocacy of independence. Similar reasons influenced the selection of John Adams, of Massachusetts, to second the motion.

They were well mated, the bold and polished Cavalier with the fertile, argumentative Puritan. No duty more trying or more honorable had ever fallen to their lot. In American politics, few debates have been more persistently or more evenly contested; never was there such a momentous issue. Though the words have been but meagrely reported, both men are known to have acquitted themselves as became the eminence of their talents and the significance of their cause. With magnanimous faith and courage, looking beyond the perils and discouragements of the time, they pleaded for the preservation of republican institutions for themselves and for all mankind.

While the debate was in progress, Congress, anticipating the result, chose a committee of five to prepare a declaration of independence. Of this committee Lee, being the mover of the resolution, should have been made chairman, in accordance with parliamentary usage. But on the eve of its selection he was summoned to Virginia, on account of the serious illness of his wife; and his absence was used to his disadvantage by his enemies. The animosities that he had early aroused in the Virginia aristocrats by his reforms in the House of Burgesses, and the antagonisms that he had subsequently excited in Dickinson, Jay, and other conservatives through his radical course in Congress, now worked together to deprive him of his right. Even John Adams, his professed friend and sympathizer, on this occasion turned against him. The youthful Jefferson, being made chairman, enjoyed the fruit that Lee should have gathered,—the signal honor of being the author of the Declaration of Independence.

However great and memorable was Lee’s service in that event, on which all Americans delight to dwell, an even greater claim to the remembrance and gratitude of his countrymen lies in his conspicuous devotion to the ordinary business of government,—and that, too, during the most critical years of the Revolutionary struggle, when so many statesmen deemed it honorable to forsake the halls of Congress for their state legislatures. As an example of his activity and readiness, it may be said that, during the years 1774 to 1778 inclusive, he was a member of every military and naval committee, and of nearly every committee on finance and foreign affairs. His brother-in-law, Dr. Shippen, at whose house he lodged in Philadelphia, declared that “there was a constant procession of members repairing to his chamber, to consult about their reports.” His services as a writer, also, were in frequent demand; and he drew many state papers, from the Address to the Inhabitants of Great Britain down to the commission of Washington as commander-in-chief.

Yet his mind was not absorbed in details; nor was it narrowed by local prejudice. Studying the interests of the United States as a whole, he delighted to forecast and to contemplate its great future. In this spirit, when in 1779 the conditions of peace were discussed by Congress, he demanded for New England fishermen the same rights enjoyed by the French in British North American waters, and for the future pioneers of the great West the unrestricted navigation of the Mississippi. His views received then but little support from the delegates of the Middle and Southern States, but were ultimately embodied in the treaty of peace, and soon became important principles of national policy.

But Lee had not the strength to perform the arduous tasks to which he was called by his associates and impelled by his zeal. Under such a prolonged, incessant strain his health was impaired; and for several years his attendance upon Congress was intermittent. Yet even from his retirement at his country-seat, Chantilly, on the Potomac, he eagerly followed the course of public affairs. In 1784, his health being improved, he resumed his seat in Congress; and almost immediately he was elected president of that body, the most honorable position under the Confederation. He retired from this office at the end of the year, but continued to take a prominent part in Congress. In particular as a member of the committee that reported the famous Ordinance for the government of the Northwest Territory, he was able at last to embody and enforce those views regarding slavery which he had vainly presented in his maiden speech to the Burgesses. In view of his pure and exalted character, it was eminently fitting that the cause of the bondmen should engage the close, as it had enlisted the opening, of his political career.

There remained, however, one service for Richard Henry Lee to render his country; and it was the most remarkable, if not the most important, of all. Strange to say, it was to oppose the Constitution of the United States. Lee had no part in the framing of this instrument, nor did he share officially in its ratification. As a private citizen, he objected to it from the first, and attacked it earnestly in the press and in correspondence; and in this course, singularly enough, he had the sympathy and support of his old-time friends and associates, Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry. The radical revolutionists of 1776 had become, it would seem, ultra-conservatives in 1787.

From their standpoint only is it possible to reconcile the two positions. To them the Declaration of Independence secured the liberty of the individual, the autonomy of the community; it asserted the rights of the person and of the State as opposed to the claims of society as a whole. Upon this theory carried to an extreme the Confederation had been erected—and had gone to pieces; and the framing of the Constitution resulted from a decided reaction toward the recognition of the unity and interdependence of the political divisions of society. But this reaction had gone too far, in the opinion of Lee, Henry, and Adams. They believed that, in the eagerness to escape from the evils of the Confederation by strengthening the general government, the rights of the individual had been neglected and the authority of the State diminished. Like many other devoted and distinguished Revolutionary statesmen, they leaned toward those political convictions which subsequently led to the doctrine of state rights. Lee, expressing their common sentiment, declared that “the first maxim of a man who loves liberty should be, never to grant to rulers an atom of power that is not most clearly and indispensably necessary for the safety and well-being of society.” “The most essential danger from the present system arises, in my opinion, from its tendency to a consolidated government, instead of a union of confederated States.” They therefore viewed with suspicion and anxiety the extraordinary grants contained in the Constitution. They saw in it, moreover, a deficiency equally as great,—it lacked that cherished English birthright, a bill of rights, securing trial by jury and freedom of conscience and of the press; and so vital did Lee deem this deficiency that when finally the Constitution was adopted without change, he resolved, notwithstanding his infirmity, to reenter public life for the purpose of securing its amendment. In 1789, he was nominated by Patrick Henry, and elected by the Virginia legislature, one of the first Senators of the United States.

Soon after taking his seat in the Senate, Lee moved several amendments to the Constitution, embodying the views held by his party; and at the same time similar action was taken by the Virginia delegates in the House of Representatives. So great and persistent was the pressure which they brought to bear that the Federalists under Madison were soon obliged to yield; and by the adoption of the first ten amendments a bill of rights was added to the Constitution of the United States. Having attained his object to a large extent, Lee soon resigned his seat in the Senate, and definitely retired from public life. Overcome at last by the disease from which he had so long suffered, he died at Chantilly, the same month in which, eighteen years before, he had moved that “these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent States.”

Throughout his political career, as in its concluding episode, Richard Henry Lee was filled with “a constant care of the public liberty.” Apprehensive of “the unvarying progress of power in the hands of frail men,” he was loath to concede to individual or to legislature the exercise of any power not clearly and strictly defined and carefully guarded. In this attitude, as well as in temperament, he much resembled Samuel Adams. Early drawn together by common convictions and purposes, they became firm friends and close allies; and their correspondence, covering almost their whole political careers, is replete with interest and instruction. With a common intolerance of superimposed authority and usurped privilege, they boldly and persistently advocated the rights of the people. From early manhood to old age they were radical democrats.

Not only toward New England’s leaders, but also toward her spirit and institutions, Lee felt a strong attraction. At one time he went so far as to consider a change of residence; for in 1779 he wrote to John Adams, “I feel myself interested in the establishment of a wise and free government in Massachusetts, where yet I hope to finish the remainder of my days. The hasty, unpersevering, aristocratic genius of the South suits not my disposition, and is inconsistent with my views of what must constitute social happiness and security.”

Not being in harmony with the genius, he could the better promote the reformation, of Virginian society. His aristocratic birth and training did not fetter his bold, independent spirit. Sympathizing with the masses, and indignant at wrong and abuse, he stood forth from his class, first and alone, denouncing its excesses and checking its arrogance. He roused animosities and suffered ostracism; but he received the support of the yeomanry; and later, in company with Patrick Henry, securing control of the House of Burgesses, he placed Virginia beside Massachusetts in the front of colonial resistance.

As a reformer, Lee was a co-worker with Henry, and the predecessor of Jefferson. Less forceful than Henry, but more steady and intelligent, he broke the soil that Jefferson cultivated; and all three together introduced in Virginian society a republican leaven that finally worked a thorough reformation. They were at the South the early “apostles of democracy.”

Lee’s radicalism did not warp his judgment. While intolerant of, and out-spoken against, the excesses and abuses of aristocracy, he agreed with Jefferson that, in organizing resistance to Great Britain, it was wise, by a charitable and conciliatory attitude toward the conservatives, to advance slowly, “keeping front and rear together.” Thus public sentiment progressed toward separation from Great Britain with less friction and contention in Virginia than in any other colony.

When radicalism contended with his convictions of private justice or public morality, Lee adhered to the latter, even at the hazard of friendship. For example, while a member of the Virginia Assembly in the sessions of 1781–82, he found himself in constant opposition to his old friend and associate, Patrick Henry. The latter was in favor of making the depreciated paper money a legal tender for debts contracted on the faith of specie payment, and of impeding or confiscating debts due British merchants and contracted before the war. Both these measures Lee earnestly opposed, on the ground that they violated honesty and good faith. He declared that it would have been better to remain “the honest slaves of Great Britain than to become dishonest freemen.” It is possible that his indignation was intensified by the memory of his own pecuniary losses through the depreciation of paper currency. In 1779, he had written to Jefferson, “This year, sir, the rents of four thousand acres of fine land will not buy me twenty barrels of corn.” But it is more likely that his early studies in social and political problems, followed by his experience and reflection, revealed the inexpediency as well as the enormity of such schemes.

In fact, his liberal culture, with his aristocratic breeding, gave a temper and balance to his radical sympathies and impulses. As a result, he had a breadth of view and of interest unusual in his time. His alert and eager gaze swept the political horizon, comprehending European as well as American affairs. Thus it was that he was among the first to perceive the gathering storm and to prepare to break its force. So when the shock had been met and overcome, and a nation had sprung from the impact, he comprehended its wide extent and foresaw its great future.

Toward the realization of that future much was done by the radicals of the Revolutionary era. Against aggressive foes and indifferent friends they asserted the rights of the person and the community, and finally fixed them secure in our political system. Far-seeing, vigilant, bold, and energetic, they urged on, by eloquent voice and tireless pen, a timid, reluctant people to revolution and independence. They were the motive force in effecting the political franchisement of America.

Frank Gaylord Cook.


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