Richard Lee II, Elizabethan Humanist or Middle-Class Planter?, by Milton Ellis

The Library of Richard Lee, the Scholar



Note: The following is taken from the January 1941 issue of the William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine (WMQ, 2d series, vol. 21, pp. 29–32).

In the October, 1938, Huntington Library Quarterly,1 Mr. Louis B. Wright reprints the inventory of the library of Richard Lee II (1647–1714), of Pleasant Mount, with an analysis and interpretation in accordance with the traditional conception of the colonial tobacco plantation owners of Virginia as scholarly cavaliers transmitting the best ideals of Elizabethan humanism. This traditional conception has suffered somewhat in our day as a result of Mr. Thomas J. Wertenbaker’s investigations,2 and the wary reader of Mr. Wright’s study may find cause for questioning certain rather sweeping statements which he makes.

Undoubtedly, as Mr. Wright asserts, Lee was an Anglican and a royalist and a man of prominence in the Virginia Colony. His descendants apparently were much impressed with his practice of making notes in Latin, Greek, and, they said, Hebrew; and by the size of his library, containing some three hundred volumes, clearly one of the larger American libraries of its time. They are also responsible for the statement, unsupported by the records of the institutions concerned, that he studied at the Inns of Court and at Oxford, where his brother, John, did attend Queen’s College.

Lee’s library proves to be much like those of some of his Virginia and New England contemporaries, comprising mainly the Latin and Greek classics, instructive works, and sermons and theological treatises, many of which would be found in Puritan libraries of the generation preceding. One is struck with the relative poverty of belles lettres—only twenty titles out of the three hundred, and these chiefly in Latin, or translations. Mr. Wright apologizes for the absence of Spenser as a “poet’s poet,” of Shakespeare as not yet “magnified” by generations of schoolmasters, and of Milton as “recent” and tainted with Puritanism. These reasons, however, do not account for the like absence of all Elizabethan drama, Ben Jonson, Donne, Waller, Denham, the character writers, and Browne, Taylor, Fuller, and Walton, or such other “recent” writers as Dryden, Cowley (in English), Locke, and Temple. Of the twenty belles lettres titles, in fact, English literature is represented by only six: a verse jest-book; Richard Head’s English Rogue; Howell’s Epistolae Ho Elianae; “Pain’s Poems,” doubtfully identified as the Daily Meditations of Philip Pain, the New England poet; Butler’s doggerel epic Hudibras; and the Poems of John Cleveland, with two or three other conjectural titles of little significance.

The next striking fact about the library is that the great bulk of it is made up of volumes published before Richard Lee II reached a book-buying age. His father, Richard I, who survived the Restoration, was an active and enterprising spirit, who made frequent trips to London. We know also that the older brother, John, at his early death in 1673, left a library valued at 4000 pounds of tobacco. Since this valuation was equivalent to John’s negro manservant Francis and a suit of livery, it represented, as Mr. Wright remarks, “at least a respectable handful of books.” It is thus at least probable that most of Richard Lee II’s books were inherited; and while an inherited library is perhaps at least as valuable as a purchased one, it does not in the same degree reflect the cultural and religious preferences and tastes of the owner. This fact must then weaken the credence of such assertions as that Lee “provided his household” with Richard Braithwaite’s The English Gentleman (1630) and H.W.’s The Accomplished Courtier (1658).

There is, of course, one portion of the library concerning which reasonably assured statements can be made. Lee outlived his father and brother by over forty years. Any books, therefore, which were not in print before 1673 presumably are of his own selection and illustrate his own interests and tastes. An examination of the list of these books is enlightening.

In the first place, after eliminating uncertain identifications and purely conjectural dates of imprint,3 one can find only twenty-three books which are conclusively assignable to the entire forty years, or hardly more than one biennial purchase—surely not a very liberal list, even making all allowances for possible old books bought and for years when the tobacco crop brought in little income for book buying.

The character of these twenty-three probable selections of Lee’s own is also striking. They comprise two arithmetics and a text on surveying; four commonly used law books; a book on heraldry probably donated by the author, an erstwhile guest of the Lees; three household books on medicine; and six books on religious subjects, one on philosophy, and five on history and contemporary affairs. Not a single title—unless we assume with Mr. Wright that the family waited until 1685 to buy a copy of Hudibras, instead of getting the 1663 or 1664 edition when the work was most popular—comes under the head of belles lettres.

The complete list follows:


John Ayres, Arithmetic, 1695
Edward Cocker, Arithmetic, 1677+ [i.e., several later editions]
John Wing, Art of Surveying, 1700

Religious Books:

Isaac Barrows, Sermons, 1685+
Matthew Hale, Contemplations, 1676
[Nathaniel Parkhurst ?], Select Discourses, [1706 ?]
Thomas Sherman, Divine Breathings, 1680
Robert Wensley, The Present Miseries . . . of Sin, 1682
Joseph Wyeth, Anguis Flagellatus, 1699

Law Books:

George Billinghurst, Mysteries of Clerkship, 1674
[William Bohun ?], Institutio Legalis, [1708–1709 ?]
Joseph Keble, An Assistance to Justices of Peace, 1683
[Charles Molloy ?], A Treatise of Affairs Maritime, [1676 ?]

History and Politics:

[Abel Boyer ?], Annals of Queen Anne, [1703+ ?]
Anonymous, Complete History of Europe, [1698 ?]
Anonymous, Europe a Slave unless England Breaks her Chains, 1681
Ludolph Smids, Pinacotheca, 1699
Dalby Thomas, Historical Account . . . of the West India Colonies, 1690

Medical Books:

George Bate, Dispensatory, 1694
London Practice of Physic, n.d.
William Salmon, London Dispensatory, 1678


Antoine Legrand, Entire Body of Philosophy, 1694


John Gibbon, Introductio ad Blazoniam, 1682

Of most credit to Richard Lee II as a man actively interested in current topics of his own time is the small group of works dealing with the annals of Queen Anne’s reign, European history, the menace of the Papacy to England, and British expansion in the West Indies. For the rest, he seems to have bought mainly such manuals as would be of practical service to the busy manager of a large tobacco plantation, the local justice, and the head of a household subject to the customary physical illnesses. The religious books listed, moreover, do not denote a pronounced Anglicanism, as Mr. Wright implies. Isaac Barrows, whose sermons were enormously popular, was, to be sure, an Episcopal clergyman, but one who avoided controversy whenever possible; and Nathaniel Parkhurst, Mr. Wright says, was an “exponent of cheerful instead of gloomy religion.” Sir Matthew Hale, however, had Presbyterian Puritan leanings, Wyeth was a defender of the heretic Quakers, and Wensley’s Present Miseries and Mischiefs of Sin, Discussed in a Sermon sounds almost as though it might lean toward a gloomy instead of a cheerful religion.

It may well be, of course, that Richard Lee II bought
other books during these riper years. It is possible also that
some English classics on his shelves became worn out by use
before he died. Or he may have believed that his father’s
and brother’s libraries already included sufficiently the treasures
of the world’s literature. Aside from such possibilities,
however, the man reflected by the evidence of this inventory
surely seems more like Mr. Wertenbaker’s middle-class
planter, industrious in his business, tenacious of his privileges,
taking seriously his public and domestic responsibilities,
and in some instances at least tolerant of dissenting
views, rather than the zealous and cultured scholar described
in Lee’s pious epitaph as “in literis Graecis et Latinis et aliis
humanioris literaturae disciplinis versatissim [us] .”

University of Maine.


1 “Richard Lee II, a Belated Elizabethan in Virginia,” The Huntington Library Quarterly, II, 1–35.

2 In a letter to the writer, July 1, 1939, Mr. Wertenbaker summarizes: “The first large planters brought with them a fair degree of education; . . . the second generation [to which Lee belonged] were chiefly interested in building up their estates and education declined; . . . the third and fourth generation in imitation of the English squire turned to cultural things.”

3 Numerous editions of Latin and Greek classics and other works are conjecturally dated after 1673 by Mr. Wright, but only conjecturally. One wonders, for example, why “Hudibras 8vo” is set down as the duodecimo edition of 1685, rather than one of the quartos of 1663 and 1664.

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