Francis Lightfoot Lee: Virginia Gentleman and Forgotten Patriot, by Margaret Elizabeth Gillie, Critical Essay on Sources

Francis Lightfoot Lee: Virginia Gentleman and Forgotten Patriot

Critical Essay on Sources

The most important source of information on Francis Lightfoot Lee’s political career are the Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1758–1776, edited by H. R. McIlwaine and John Pendleton Kennedy. The Journals contain both essential primary information on Lee’s activity in the House of Burgesses, and, as a preface, excellent secondary material by McIlwaine and Kennedy. This preface material is useful as a source in itself, and also aids greatly in explaining the causes and effects of the actions of the colonial Virginia legislature. John Carer Mathews, “Richard Henry Lee and the American Revolution” focuses primarily on Richard Henry Lee, as would be expected. However, since Francis Lightfoot Lee worked closely with Richard Henry Lee, this source mentions him quite often. This source contains an excellent account of the work of the two brothers, and the political scene in Virginia, particularly concerning the John Robinson affair. Likewise, Virginius Dabney, Virginia: The new Dominion has some interesting information on the Robinson affair, along with a rather concise explanation of the economic troubles facing Virginia in the mid-eighteenth century. The Journal of the Council of the State of Virginia, edited by H. R. McIlwaine and Wilmer L. Hall, makes brief mention of Lee several times in connection with appointment as lieutenant for Richmond County and compensation for his service as “Deputy Commissioner under the provision law.” This second piece of information is frustrating, however, since there is no description of the duties or responsibilities of a deputy commissioner. The information on Lee contained in this source is very sketchy. The various editions of the Virginia Gazette were extremely useful in this study, containing reports of the House of Burgesses, the Richmond County gathering in 1774 and the meeting at St. John’s Church in 1775, as well as Lee’s advertisements and the announcement of his marriage. The Virginia Gazette also reveals the sentiments of colonial Virginians, both Tory and Patriot. Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, edited by Edmund C. Burnett, offers a little information Lee, but most of it is opinions of Lee held by fellow members of Congress or correspondence between Lee and Landon Carter concerning an effort to have Carter’s nephew appointed as an aide to Washington. There is little information here on Lee’s official activity in Congress, other than that he served on military committees, but some of his thoughts on politics and the war can be found here. Norman K. Risjord, Forging the American Republic, 1760–1815 and John Richard Alden, The South in the Revolution both offer excellent overviews of the Revolution and preceding events. Risjord’s book deals with the thirteen American colonies as a whole and their relations with England. Alden’s work, part of the series A History of the South, is limited to the South’s part in the war. This source is detailed and scholarly, and was quite useful. A Virginia Chronology 1585–1783, by William W. Abbot, is a wonderfully helpful little book. It served as a handy ready reference work with concise explanations of events in Virginia, and was a great aid in straightening out the sometimes confusing chronology of events during this turbulent period.

Although there is no major biography of Francis Lightfoot Lee, there are several books available on the Lee family in America. The oldest of these, and the one often cited in other works, is Edmund Jennings Lee, M.D., Lee of Virginia. Much of E. J. Lee’s information comes from William Lee, brother of Francis Lightfoot Lee, and can, therefore, be considered to be fairly accurate for the purposes of this study. E. J. Lee included in his huge history of the Lees a few original and useful letters though the researcher should know and make allowances for the fact that he was infected with the fever to exit and re-word old manuscripts (though not to the point of rendering them useless) that was prevalent at the turn of the century. Burton J. Hendrick is considered one of the foremost authorities on the Lees, and his book, The Lees of Virginia: Biography of a Family is excellent. He relied heavily on the primary sources in his writing, and the second part of this book, “The Six Sons of Stratford” was especially helpful here. Ethel Armes, Stratford Hall: The Great House of the Lees is the result of exhaustive research. This volume along with E. J. Lee’s book, is considered the handbook of Lee history by Stratford Plantation officials. Cazenove Gardner Lee, Lee Chronicle: Studies of the Lees of Virginia is a collection of essays on members of the Lee family written in the typical FFV style. However, while Lee makes no effort to hide his pride in his ancestors, the book contains no blatant incongruities with other sources. The book was edited by Dorothy Mills Parker, who had it reviewed by two Lee historians, Eleanor Templeman Lee and Ludwell Montague, before having it published. The second section of the work, “The Great-House of the Lees,” is a good source of information on Thomas Lee and his six sons, including Francis Lightfoot Lee. Frederick Warren Alexander, Stratford Hall and the Lees Connected with its History is also a good source of information on Francis Lightfoot Lee. Nathaniel Burt included a section on the Lees in his First Families: The Making of an American Aristocracy which contains Francis Lightfoot Lee’s exclamation, “What damned dirty work is this politics!” Here also can be found an interesting comparison of the personalities of Francis Lightfoot Lee and his brother, Richard Henry Lee. It is difficult to rank these sources in order of importance to this study, for none devotes an entire chapter or section to Francis Lightfoot Lee alone, and they all overlap to one degree or another.

However, each provides some unique fact about Lee and gives another author’s perspective of the man. Relatively few of Francis Lightfoot Lee’s letters are extant, and while they provide the historical figure with personality and relate his emotions and opinions, they do not provide many details of his work as an officer on the local, state, or national level. Most of the correspondence between Francis Lightfoot Lee and his brother William Lee concerns trade, although there are sometimes reports of political events and sentiments which include these men’s views on the matters. The letterbook of William Lee is owned by the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation, Inc., and is in the DuPont Library at Stratford Plantation. It is also available on microfilm from the University of Virginia, entitled The lee Family Papers from Stratford, 1355–1896. Some idea of events and circumstances on both sides of the Atlantic may be gained from the copies of William’s letters to his brother. The Lee Family Papers, 1742–1795, owned by the University of Virginia and available on microfilm, contain most notably an apparently unpublished and possibly undelivered speech by Francis Lightfoot Lee, the only one found in the course of this study. Francis Lightfoot Lee’s letters in the Lee Family Papers, 1638–1867 at the Virginia Historical Society are mostly to Landon Carter. They show his interest in domestic pursuits as well as his interest in politics. The Life, Correspondence and Speeches of Patrick Henry contains a letter from Henry to Lee concerning the removal of the powder from the magazine at Williamsburg.

Two sources, Landon Carter’s diary and the diary of Philip Vickers Fithian give some idea of the sort of social life led by Lee. Carter’s diary also mentions Lee’s agricultural pursuits.

B. J. Lossing, Signers of the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Harvey, The Signers of the Declaration of Independence are not exhaustive, scholarly works, however, they are interesting and useful, though only to provide other interpretations of Lee’s work and personality. Signers of the Declaration, part of a National park Service series edited by Robert G. Ferris, contains a very brief sketch of Lee’s life together with a description of the architecture and location of his home, Menokin.

For those who may be interested in further research on related topics, T. Perkins Abernethy, Western Lands and the American Revolution is an excellent source of information on the role of land and expansion during the Revolutionary period. Louis W. Potts, Arthur Lee: A Virtuous Revolutionary has been recommended as a modern and reliable source of information on the Lee-Deane controversy.

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