Arthur Lee, First United States Envoy to Spain
Paul H. Giddens

Note: The following is taken from the January 1932 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 40), pp. 3–13.

By Paul H. Giddens,
Department of History and Political Science, Allegheny College

The Lees of Virginia have ever played a prominent part in the history of the United States, not only on the field of battle, but in the various legislative assemblies and in the foreign service. Among those men who labored in Europe during the Revolutionary period, seeking to convince the European powers that their best interests lay with the revolting colonies, Arthur Lee was one of the more conspicuous. Arthur, the youngest son of Thomas Lee, was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on December 20, 1740.1 There were five older brothers in the family, but the youngest spent much of his boyhood romping with the slave children on his father’s plantation.2 When his father died Arthur, now a ten year old lad, was placed in the care of his eldest brother, Philip Ludwell Lee, who was for a time President of the Council of Virginia.3 Another brother was Richard Henry Lee, sometime President of the Continental Congress and mover of the resolution for the Declaration of Independence.4

Arthur Lee was educated in the same manner as the sons of the planter class of that period. He was first placed under the care of a private tutor. Then, while still quite young, he was sent to England. He entered Eaton College, which was at that time considered the best grammar school in England, and here he became acquainted with many who were destined later to play a prominent part in the great struggle between England and her American colonies.5 Lee made a notable record at Eaton and when he completed his course, he enrolled in the University of Edinborough to study medicine. He received his medical degree in 1764, and his thesis, Dissertatio Medica de Cortico Peruviano, (a treatise on the properties and uses of Peruvian bark), was considered so excellent that he was awarded a gold medal and the thesis was published under the direction and authority of the university.6 After completing his university career, he spent some time in travelling through Holland and Germany, and on his return to America, began the practice of medicine at Williamsburg, the capital city of Virginia.

Although successful as a physician, Lee’s major interest became politics. He had entered the medical profession only because of his father’s wishes. When he returned to America just at the close of the French and Indian War, he was drawn into the thick of politics, especially since some of his older brothers, notably Richard Henry Lee, were taking a prominent part in public affairs. There was little opportunity to advance politically, however, excepting through the law, and Lee was only a physician. He decided, therefore, to return to London and study at the Inns of Court.

Lee was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn on March 1, 1770, changing to the Middle Temple in November, 1773. He was admitted to the British bar in May, 1775.7 There seems to have been a desire on his part to make England his permanent home, for some of the letters from his brothers in Virginia indicate that such was the case. The probable reason for this contemplated action was his dislike of slavery and had he lived on an estate in America, he could not have escaped holding slaves.8 And so he remained in England.

During his first years in London, Lee kept in active touch with American affairs and in November, 1770, was appointed agent in London for the assembly of Massachusetts. His duties as agent brought him into contact with various British governmental officials and helped to prepare him for his later diplomatic career.

Lee was fairly successful as a lawyer in London. He was retained as counsel in some famous cases, one of which had to do with the impressment of seamen.9 He also appeared at the bar of the House of Commons as attorney for the East India Company in a case of considerable importance.10 That he was retained in cases of this kind speaks well for his ability and indicates that he had more than ordinary talents.

These years of residence in London saw the gulf between the American colonies and the mother country constantly widening. As an American more or less prominent in London, Lee could not help but be drawn into the controversy. He warmly supported the cause of the colonies, bringing the situation before the English people in a series of letters, which were called, “An Appeal to the English Nation.” He addressed a second series, the “Monitor’s Letters,” to his friends in America, and issued a third series which he signed “Junius Americanus.” Lee attempted to do for the American cause what “Junius”11 had done for the cause of liberalism in England. “Junius” attacked those who were hostile to the cause which he favored, while Lee attacked those who were hostile to American claims.

Lee’s influence with those who might have favored the American cause was somewhat impaired by the company he kept while in London. In 1769 a society called “The Supporters of the Bill of Rights” was organized, and the members met to discuss political subjects and matters of controversy between the ministry and the opposition.12 If the society had confined itself to this harmless diversion, no trouble would have resulted, but the real purpose of the organization seems to have been to advance the interests of John Wilkes, who had four times been expelled from the House of Commons and had not yet realized that he was unwelcome in that body.13 Lee’s affiliation with this society had considerable influence upon his later career, for it was in this connection that he began to dislike Benjamin Franklin, a feeling which later developed into positive hatred. Franklin looked with disapproval upon Wilkes and all his ilk. In fact, he openly denounced Wilkes and his friends and expressed amazement that the former was not banished from England. “If George III were Wilkes and Wilkes, George III,” Franklin wrote, “he would long since have been expelled from the country.”14 On the other hand, Lee went so far as to make public addresses defending Wilkes. Of course, he did not defend Wilke’s private life, but the fact that he associated with men of this stripe was to his discredit. The feeling of dislike for Franklin was also accentuated by Lee’s naturally suspicious and morose nature. He wrote innumerable letters to his friends in America attacking Franklin, the contents of which could be prompted by nothing but jealousy.15

Lee’s first connection with the American Revolution seems to have been in 1776, when he addressed a series of letters to Lieutenant-Governor Colden of New York.16 They were dated February 13, 14, and April 15, 1766. While their contents were not of any great importance in themselves, they showed Lee’s aversion not only for Franklin but also for George Washington. He suggested that a European officer of high rank should be brought to America to command the American army, and in another letter he suggested that a New Englander be placed in command.17

In the early fall of 1776, Lee was appointed one of the three American commissioners to France, and he left London for Paris in December. During the months between the issuance of the Declaration of Independence and December, Lee seems to have kept in close touch with his English friends without seeing anything incongrous in maintaining friendly relations, even though active hostilities had begun. In fact, throughout his career Lee was more or less influenced by his English friends and it has been convincingly proved that several of his confidential secretaries were in English pay.18 And Lee himself was duped on several occasions by the British, who permitted false news to come into his hands by way of his secretaries, knowing full well that it would be promptly forwarded to America.

In Paris, Lee joined the other American commissioners, Franklin and Silas Deane.19 In many respects Lee’s appointment was most unfortunate. He was morose, envious, jealous of any who seemed more popular than he, and no doubt he keenly resented the fact that he had been selected after Jefferson’s declination of the post. Furthermore, Franklin could not trust him, for the former knew what Lee thought of him, while Lee, for his part, did not trust Franklin, seeming to think that he was working for his own advancement rather than for the welfare of the Colonies. This rendered Lee obnoxious to the French who had high regard for the genial scientist, statesman, and philosopher.20 Lee even went so far as to accuse Franklin, together with Duane, Jay, Morris, and others, of actually conspiring “to bring us back to our former denomination.”21

Lee had been in Paris for a little more than a month when he was sent to Madrid to secure the aid of the Spanish government in the American cause. But there seems to be a difference of opinion as to the facts of this mission. That he received the appointment to Spain is beyond dispute. R. H. Lee in his Life of Arthur Lee speaks of the mission in glowing terms, but gives the impression that he went to Spain after his official appointment by Congress.22 Sparks infers that he went to Spain early in the spring of 1777 on the advice of his colleagues in Paris, to secure aid from the Spanish government, and was partially successful.23 Later he received an appointment as commissioner to Spain from Congress, but did not return there, being stopped at the border.24 Wharton agrees with this version—namely, that Lee went to Spain in 1777 on the advice of his colleagues, that he was partially successful in this mission, and that he did not return to Spain after receiving his official appointment from Congress.25

Lee’s activities in behalf of the United States at the Court of Spain were confined to that period between February and April, 1777. This mission was unofficial in that it was undertaken at the request of his colleagues in Paris and not by Congress. The object was to incite interest in the American cause at the Spanish Court.26 Lee left Paris for Spain early in 1777, for his first letter, while on this journey, was written on February 11, 1777, from Nantes where he had stopped to rest.27 Meantime, he had come into communication with James Gardoqui, a Spanish exporter and merchant, relative to his projected visit to Madrid. Gardoqui advised Lee not to proceed to the Spanish capital and stressed the necessity of secrecy in their negotiations, saying “that in such a small place as Madrid it would be absolutely impossible to remain incog, either by your own or any other name, and you would of course be spied by the gentlemen here who would have a real interest therein, and consequently you could not treat with the ministers without hurting the Colonies in the highest degree by your doings; and, besides, you would set the Court at variance without success.”28 Gardoqui proposed that Lee meet the Marquis of Gramaldi and himself at Burgos, and conduct the negotiations with the Spanish government from that point, to which Lee agreed.

England had already protested to the Spanish Foreign Office, taking exception to their receiving a commissioner from the United States. But Lee pointed out to the Spanish officials that no objections had been made by England to the presence of American commissioners in Paris and urged Spain not to heed the British protest.29 In the same letter he also asked for a loan, saying that “next to an immediate declaration of war by Spain upon England, a supply of money to support the credit of the States, and pay for what is necessary, is the most effective aid.”30 A few days later Lee again wrote the Spanish government from Burgos. He pointed out the advantages to America of an immediate declaration of policy in her favor and showed how a victory for England would result in a positive disaster for both France and Spain. He stressed the necessity of giving England a mortal blow, and if action were delayed and England and the colonies were reunited, then all opportunity to deal England a blow would be lost, and the influence of Spain and France on the continent would be forever subordinated to that of Great Britain.31

But Spain was unmoved. Her reply was short and to the point: “You have considered your own situation and not ours. The moment is not yet come for us. The war with Portugal,—France being unprepared, and our treasure from South America not being arrived,—makes it improper for us to declare immediately. These reasons will probably cease within a year, and then will be the moment.”32 It will be observed that Spain did not entirely close the door to open aid and apparently promised to do something as soon as conditions warranted it. But even then it was dubious as Spain was not at all anxious to have a democratic neighbor in the New World, for her own colonies were “jumpy”, and a free United States would be a bad example for her South American dependencies. As a result, no open and direct aid was granted to the United States by Spain and Jay, after his appointment in 1779, was not any more successful than Lee.33

Lee’s mission, however, was not entirely lacking in results. Even if Spain did not consent to open aid for the colonies, she promised secret assistance. The mercantile house of Gardoqui at Bilboa was to become a medium through which secret aid might be extended, just like that rendered by the firm of Beaumarchais in France. Arms and ammunition were to be deposited at New Orleans where they were made available to the “rebels.” In addition, it was agreed that American vessels were to receive the same privileges at Havana as those granted to the French, and this action would be a stimulus to trade as well as a means of securing supplies needed for the army. Then, too, credit was to be extended through Dutch bankers, Spain underwriting the sums advanced. Finally, Spain agreed to release from service a number of skilled army officers so that they might come to America and help whip the army into shape.34 The Americans did not take advantage of this last offer, for there were already more foreign officers available than needed.

In a letter written on March 18, 1777, from Victoria in Spain to the Committee of Secret Correspondence, Lee reported the results of his work. He pointed out that the United States had received as much as we could expect at that time. He showed too, how Spain was not in a position to acknowledge the independence of the United States, for reasons which were satisfactory to him. Moreover, he held that postponing the making of a treaty would probably be a good thing for this country “since our present situation would raise demands, and perhaps enforce concessions, of which we might sorely repent hereafter.”35 He also stated that through the house of Gardoqui a vessel would be dispatched “with all possible expedition, laden with salt, sail and tent cloth, cordage, blankets, and warlike stores, as he can immediately procure, and an assortment of drugs as I think will be necessary for the three prevailing camp diseases.”36 The captain of this vessel was to make for Philadelphia or any port farther south and there await the pleasure of the Committee. Lee also gave some advice regarding the shipment of goods to Spain and asked that great secrecy be observed in making these shipments or else the traffic might embroil Spain before she was ready to take an active part in the American conflict.

Meantime, Lee had been appointed our official representative to Spain, but this honor must have been galling to one of Lee’s temperament, for it was the second time he had been the second choice for a diplomatic post. Franklin had been appointed originally, but declined on account of the infirmities of age.37 Lee’s instructions from Congress are of interest. They were issued June 5, 1777, and read as follows:38

To all who shall see these presents, send greeting.

Whereas a friendly and commercial connection between the subjects of his catholick majesty the king of Spain and the people of these states, will be beneficial to both nations: Know ye, therefore, that we, confiding in the prudence and integrity of Arthur Lee, esquire, of Virginia, have appointed and deputed, and by these presents do appoint and depute him the said Arthur Lee, our commissioner, giving and granting to him, the said Arthur Lee, full power to communicate, treat, and conclude with his catholick majesty, the king of Spain, or with such person or persons as shall be by him for that purpose authorized, of and upon a true and sincere friendship, and a firm, inviolable, and universal peace, for the defence, protection and safety of the navigation and mutual commerce of the subjects of his catholick majesty and the people of the United States; and also, to enter into, and agree upon a treaty with his catholick majesty, or such person or persons as shall be by him authorized for that purpose, for assistance in carrying on the present war between Great Britain and the United States, and to do all other things which may conduce to these desirable ends; and promising in good faith to ratify whatsoever our said commissioner shall transact in the premises: Provided always, that the said Arthur Lee shall continue to be possessed of all the powers heretofore given him, as a commissioner at the court of France from the states, so long as he shall remain in, and be present at, the said court.

Done in Congress, at Philadelphia, the fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-seven. In testimony whereof, the President, by order of the Said Congress, hath hereunto subscribed his name, and affixed his seal.

Franklin also forwarded to Lee the instructions he had originally received as envoy to Spain. They provided that if Spain and France should enter the war, the United States would agree to assist the latter in the conquest of British sugar islands and the former in the conquest of Portugal. And Franklin told Lee to promise the assistance of “six frigates manned, of not less than twenty-four guns each, and provisions equal to 2,000,000 dollars; America desiring only for her share, what Britain holds on the continent. . . . If we can we are ordered to borrow £2,000,000 on interest.”39

But Lee did not act upon these instructions. Tired and disgusted, he withdrew from Spain before his official appointment had been made and by May, 1777, was on his way to Berlin.40 But for some additional letters to Gardoqui thanking him for his assistance and interest in the American cause, Lee’s mission to Spain was at an end.41

Therefore, there is little to relate about the official mission of Arthur Lee to Spain. He bears the very unique distinction of having performed his duties before being officially appointed by Congress and did not set foot in Spain after his appointment.

The result of Lee’s unofficial mission to Spain have already been related. While they were not of such a nature as to entitle him to credit for being a great diplomat, yet his work gave some encouragement to the colonial leaders. It is a wonder that he was able to do anything, for Spain was not interested in the American situation, except as she saw some opportunity for embarrassing her hated enemy England. She wished to cut off the United States from the Mississippi, and Count de Florida, chief minister to the King, went so far as to suggest to France the possibility of assisting the colonies to gain their independence, but of permitting England to retain Rhode Island, thus providing a source of constant irritation between the United States and Great Britain.42 And while they were busy settling their difficulties, Spain and France would regain their world empires.