The Political Thought of Richard Henry Lee
By Holly Eileen Munchoff Kendig



Richard Henry Lee was born on January 30, 1732, into what was to be a large family. He had five brothers: Phillip Ludwell, Thomas Ludwell, Francis Lightfoot, William and Arthur. He also had three sisters—Hannah, Lucy, and Alice. His father, Thomas Lee, had become one of Virginia’s largest landowners mainly through his own efforts since he had been the fifth son of seven children and the practice of primogeniture had diminished his inheritance somewhat.[note 1]

Richard Henry began his public career in his early twenties as a justice of the peace in Westmoreland County, Virginia. This position entailed a significant amount of respectibility since each justice performed minor judicial functions. Once each month the justices met as a county court and heard the more important civil and criminal cases. Furthermore, the court was the chief administrative and legislative authority of the county.

Lee was chosen to represent Westmoreland County in the House of Burgesses in 1758, when Francis Fauquier, who had just come as the new lieutenant governor, called for new elections. At that time, the lieutenant governor acted as governor, while the actual governor often resided in England. Furthermore, the acting governor had a great deal of control over the House of Burgesses, for he not only issued the calls for the election of burgesses, but he could prorogue or dissolve the house. Consequently, he controlled the length of the terms of membership. He also had an absolute veto.

This extensive control was undoubtedly a formative influence on the thinking of Richard Henry Lee. He was greatly disturbed by this power of the governor, as evidenced in a letter to his brother Arthur on December 20, 1766. He praised the British system, in which monarchy, aristocracy and democracy were blended so that the advantages of each were united, an din which the legislature was independent of the other branches. But he saw this as a sharp contrast to the royal government of Virginia, in which the governor, council, and House of Burgesses were all controlled directly or indirectly by the Crown.[note 2] Obviously Lee was not the first to favor mixed government, for its theory had influenced Western political thought for centuries. Other revolutionary figures also stressed mixed government. John Adams believed that each of the simple forms of government had a desirable trait: monarchy possessed order or energy, aristocracy had wisdom, and democracy had honesty and goodness. Yet Adams felt none of the simple forms alone could produce a stable government. Each simple form would be perverted by the rulers’ seeking more power. But a mixture of these simple forms in one government would balance detrimental effects and preserve the desirable qualitites of each.[note 3]

Americans in general justified their opposition to English policy in the royal colonies by affirming the theory of mixed government. Yet there were still differences among American thinkers regarding the proportion of power to be divided among each of the elements of the mixed government. For example, Richard Henry Lee disagreed with Carter Braxton’s plan for implementing the theory. In his plan for the government of Virginia published in 1776, Braxton proposed that the governor held office during good behavior and that a council of state chosen by the legislature hold their positions for life. Lee disliked this emphasis on the monarchial and aristocratic element.[note 4] Thus, Lee was in the mainstream of revolutionary political thought when he affirmed the theory of mixed government in opposition to British policy, but he was somewhat more democratic than some when it came to the proportions of power he was willing to give to each element. The unbalanced power in Virginia’s royal government made a great impression on Lee and contributed to his distrust of power in the hands of a few.

Lee’s first experience with overt opposition to the British government came with the Stamp Act crisis. Early in November, 1764, Lee first heard about a stamp duty preposed by Parliament for America. When a friend offered to use his influence to secure the office of stamp collector for Lee, Lee reacted favorably. Soon after he and his friend had both written to England about this matter, Lee apparently decided that the act was “in the highest degree pernicious to my country.”[note 5] Later when Lee joined in an attack on George Mercer, who had become the stamp agent, some, Mercer’s relatives in particular, cried it was hypocrisy. Lee wrote a letter to the editor of the Virginia Gazette to explain his early interest in the position and his later reconsideration.

The news of the passage of the Stamp Act reached the colonies in April, 1765. In May, 1765, a new session of the House of Burgesses began, and Patrick Henry initiated a response to the Stamp Act through several resolutions. These maintained that the first settlers brought with them all the rights and privileges held by the people of Great Britain, that the two royal charters gave them the privileges and immunities of subjects living in Great Britain, that taxation by the people or their representatives was a characteristic of British freedom, and that the people of Virginia had never forfeited the right of being governed by their own assembly in areas of taxation and internal police.[note 6] A fifth resolution of uncertain content was accepted at first, then later rejected.[note 7] The governor responded by dissolving the legislature. Richard Henry Lee was not present at this session, perhaps because the speaker of the house had learned that Lee had applied for the position of stamp agent and threatened to expose him. Lee had undoubtedly aroused the ire of speaker John Robinson by attempting to expose the latter’s embezzlement of public funds.[note 8]

Despite his dissatisfaction with the power of the royal government, Lee seemed little affected by the Stamp Act crisis and came only gradually to the belief that separation from Great Britain was necessary. In 1768, Norbourne Berkeley, Baron of Botetourt, came to Virginia as the new governor. In his first speech before the General Assembly on May 8, 1769, Governor Botetourt assured the members that all future governors of Virginia would reside there. Following a series of governors in absentia acting through Lieutenant governors, this announcement so pleased the burgesses that they offered extravagant resolutions of loyalty for the King in respect. Lee, as a member of the committee which drew up the answering address to the governor, evidently agreed with the sentiments of loyalty and affection for the King. At this point Lee, like most of his fellow colonists, was still loyal to England. The future of the thirteen colonies lay in a strong connection with Great Britain.[note 9]

Whatever the friendly overtures of the new governor, he still retained the power to dissolve the House of Burgesses and dissolve it he did a little over a week later. Botetourt had asked that the Virginia Assembly pass no resolutions in support of Massachusetts, which faced British reprisals for its opposition to the Townshend Acts. On May 16, 1769, however, the House of Burgesses adopted four resolutions maintaining both its sole right of taxation and the right to petition the King and to join other colonies in petitioning, and challenging the proposal to take Americans to England for treason trials. When a committee was appointed to write an address to the King, the governor responded by dissolving the Assembly. The members still had some unfinished business, however, and they relocated elsewhere in Williamsburg to form an association agreeing not to import anything taxed by the Townshend Acts, except paper of a certain prize, until these acts were repealed. Many luxuries such as liquors, foods, clothing, jewelry, and other items such as tools, cloth and leather goods were included in the non-importation agreement.[note 10] Futhermore, the Virginians agreed not to import slaves after the next November nor to purchase any already imported. These resolves were signed by Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Peyton Randolph and others.[note 11] Details of the Boston non-consumption agreement had been available in the Virginia Gazette since November, 1767, and later the New York non-importation agreement was printed, too, but Virginia was not ready for that step herself until spring of 1769.[note 12] The Virginia resolves indicated a definite dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. Political thought among Virginia statesmen was united at this point, and Richard Henry Lee was no exception.[note 13]

As early as 1768 Lee had reacted against the Townshend Acts of “destructive of public liberty, and in violation of those rights which God and nature have given us,” and suggested a “union of counsel and action among all the colonies” to combat the act. He specifically favored select committees in all the colonies and private correspondence between individuals.[note 14] Lee’s suggestion for union was often to be repeated until the Confederation was established. Later he criticized Pennyslvania for not taking a stand against these acts, arguing that “silence in this case, must by all the world, be deemed a tacit giving up of our Rights,” and declared that he could not go along with “those who would derive our security from submission.”[note 15]

But Lee had not become bitter or antagonistic toward Great Britain yet. In fact, he was still very attached to her. In a letter of May 31, 1769, to Lord Shelburne, Lee claimed that the recent resolves of the Virginia Assembly were not seditious or disloyal. Instead Lee defended them as “nothing more than a necessary and manly assertion of social privileges founded in reason, guaranteed by the English Constitution and rendered sacred by a possession of nearly two hundred eyars. . . .” Lee assured Shelburne that Americans “are certainly loyal, very warmly attached to their mother country, and . . . wish its prosperity with unfeigned heartiness.”[note 16]

At the November, 1769 meeting of the new Virginia Assembly, the governor announced that Lord Hillsborough, the Secretary of State for the American Department, promised the repeal of the Townshend Acts at the next session of parliament. However, the repeal was to be only partial, with the duty on tea retained. The burgesses at first responded with a resolution of thanks to the governor. Although Lee was displeased, as were some other “radicals,” that the burgesses had accepted the announcement as a redress of their grievances, he was content to wait until the burgesses eventually appointed a committee, of which Lee was chairman, to petition the King. Presented to the burgesses on June 27, 1770, the petition objected to the use of admiralty courts in trials of colonists and to the tea tax. It was adopted unanimously.[note 17]

Shortly after the formulation of this petition, there was a lull in British-American quarreling.[note 18] For three years after the passage of the Townshend Acts, Parliament passed no major laws affecting America.[note 19] Lee’s correspondence also underwent a lull. Only two more letters in 1769 and two in 1770 have come down to us. By 1771, his letters increased, but were concerned primarily with family and domestic matters.

In June, 1772, the events surrounding the Gaspee incident aroused increased antagonism toward Britain. When the Gaspee ran ashore near Providence, Rhode Island, and a mob attacked it, the British government announced that the accused Americans would be sent to England for treason trials. American colonists responded indignantly, protesting that their rights would be violated by such mesaures. When the Virginia Gazette ran inflammatory accounts of the incident, Lee, uncertain about the accuracy of these stories, wrote on February 4, 1773, to Samuel Adams for a full and factual report.[note 20] With the information from Adams and instructions from his constitutents to take a firm stand against the British on this incident, Lee was prepared to urge action in the House of Burgesses. Lee was included in a meeting at Raleigh Tavern with Jefferson and Patrick Henry to work out a strategy to get passed a resolution favoring committees of correspondence. As we have seen, Lee had proposed intercolonial committees of correspondene to John Dickinson as early as July, 1768; perhaps that is why he was included in the strategy session at Raleigh Tavern. Their efforts were successful. On March 12, 1773, the burgesses agreed unanimously to appoint a standing committee of eleven to keep watch over acts of Parliament and the ministry, and to correspond with the other colonies.[note 21] Highly pleased, Lee remarked that “they have nor adopted a measure which from the beginning of the present dispute they should have fixed on, as leading to that union and perfect understanding of each other on which the political salvation of America so eminently depends.”[note 22] Once again the prospect of sending Americans to England for treason trials had spurred Virginia to initiate action which would unite colonial efforts. Virginia appointed the first intercolonial committee of correspondence.[note 23]

By 1774, Lee’s attitude towards Great Britain had grown more hostile and alienated as a result of the Boston Port Act. When the Virginia House of Burgesses agreed to observe the beginning of the Boston Port Bill with “fasting, humiliation and prayer,” the governor dissolved the Assembly once again. The dissolved burgesses met the next day at Raleigh Taven and advocated united colonial cooperation. They urged the committee of correspondence to communicate with other colonial committess about appointing delegats to a general congress. The former burgesses also recommended that their countrymen stop importing and using products of the East India Company until American grievances were redressed. Yet Lee had wanted the burgesses to take even stronger action against the Boston Port Act. He had prepared seven resolutions to present to the House, but fellow burgesses, not expecting a dissolution, had persuaded him to postpone his presentation until the public business was completed.

Lee’s resolutions provide an insight into his thinking at that point. One resolution provided for the appointment of delegates to meet in a general congress of colonial delegates to consider ways to stop exports from America and to adopt other methods “for securing the constitutional rights of America against the Systimatic [sic] plan formed for their destruction.”[note 24] Lee firmly believed his resolutions would have been approved by a great majority had they been proposed.[note 25] Although no one can know that now, Lee’s role in conceiving and initiating the resolutions is important, for it shows that he wanted stronger action than the burgesses took. His revolutionary thinking had progressed to a more advanced stage. His was not the only suggestion for a general congress, however. The New York and Philadelphia committees of correspondence and a Providence, Rhode Island, town meeting had also proposed such a gathering in response to the Boston Port Bill.[note 26] Furthermore, the precedent for a general congress had been set by the Stamp Act Congress of 1765.

The general congress of colonial delegates that Lee advocated became a reality on September 5, 1774, with the first meeting of the Continental Congress. Richard Henry Lee served as a delegate to this first Congress and was quite active in it. In an early debate conerning Parliament’s authority over the colonies and the law of nature as a basis of colonial rights, Lee maintained that resting colonial rights only on the charters would not be wise since the right of the King to grant such charters had been questioned. He believed colonial rights were based on nature, the British Constitution, and past usage. The Declaration of Rights of October 14, 1774, was the result of discussion about Parliament’s authority. The preamble to this document included a statement of American rights very similar to Lee’s argument, indicating the influence of his ideas.[note 27]

In October, 1774, Lee drafted an address to the people of Great Britain and a Memorial to the people of British America. The address to the people of Great Britain was not accepted by the Continental Congress, however, possibly because Lee’s language was too strong, and John Jay wrote the draft which was finally accepted.[note 28] Lee’s Memorial to the people of British America was accepted, and he was later one of three appointed to a committee to draft an address to the people of Quebec, which after debate and recommittal was amended and approved by Congress, and a letter to each colony not represented in Congress, which was approved as it stood.[note 29] On June 3, 1775, Lee was named chairman of a committee to write an address to the inhabitants of Great Britain. This address, written by Lee alone, objected to the denial of trial by jury, the annulment of colonial charters, the destruction of American commerce, the estabishment of a despotic government in Quebec and oppressive acts in Boston.[note 30] After being recommitted and debated, this address was also approved,[note 31] as was a letter to the Lord Mayor of London, which Lee drafted in July, 1775, upon order of Congress.[note 32]

The colonies increasingly turned to economic pressure to induce Britain to redress their grievances. In August, 1774, a Virginia convention of old and new burgesses had adopted twelve resolutions providing for non-intercourse with Great Britain.[note 33] One of the earliest actions of the Continental Congress was their September 22, 1774, resolution to request the colonies to stop importation from Britain. A few days later, Richard Henry Lee proposed unequivocal non-importation. After several days of debate about when the non-importation should begin, the resolution was passed on September 27, 1774, to begin on December 1.[note 34]

Non-exportation and non-consumption were also agreed upon and Lee was a member of the committee appointed to implement the plan.[note 35] Lee’s views on colonial trade seem to have been in agreement with the majority of colonists at this point. By July, 1775, the Continental Congress realized that further measures were needed to protect colonial trade and appointed a committee to consider the issue. As members of the committee reporting to Congress, Lee and Benjamin Franklin each offered a version of a general plan to open colonial ports to foreign powers free of duty unless acts of parliament detrimental to American commerce were repealed.[note 36]

This action on Lee’s part indicates a shift in opinon. He had earlier opposed including the British navigation laws in the list of colonial grievances. But now he was willing to violate these acts by encouraging the exportation of American goods to foreign ports. In his opinion, “We shall be prevented from exporting, if British power can do it. We ought to stop our own exports, and invite foreign nations to come and export our goods for us. I am for opening our exportations to foreigners further than we have.” Acceptance of this proposal for unrestricted trade with foreign powers would have been a move toward independence.[note 37] In this case, then, Lee was no longer in agreement with the majority of the colonists, who were not ready to take the first steps toward independence. Lee was in close agreement with colonial leaders such as Franklin, but his thinking had surpassed that of most.

Lee had always wanted the colonies to stand up for their rights, and in the early years of disagreement between the colonies and mother country, he stood in the mainstream of opinion with regard to the measures he supported. As the years wore on, however, his ideas were too radical for the mainstream and he found support for his views among a small group of colonial leaders. Lee assumed revolutionary leadership in initiating some actions in opposition to Great Britain. He was willing to take steps that would constitute a break from Great Britain and lead to independence at times when the majority of colonists were still looking to reconciliation. Lee was a strong advocate of states’ rights, but he valued a united colonial stand against England.

Although Lee had advocated measures in the handling of commerce equivalent to the beginnings of independence, he probably did not specifically speak of independence until early in 1776. The evidence is indirect: John Page wrote to Lee on February 3, 1776, saying he agreed with him on independence. Probably Lee had been influenced by Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Colonel Landon Carter spoke of Lee as “a prodigious admirer, if not partly a writer” of the work. While the latter is doubtful, Carter’s remark provides an indication of Lee’s agreement with Paine. By the meeting of the Second Continental Congress on May 10, 1775, Lee had come to view the conflict with Britain as an American war, not a New England war.[note 38] By this time the prospect of fighting the British was popular, however, and Lee’s position was not unusual. The major disagreement among the colonists centered on what the result of the fighting would be, reconciliation or independence.[note 39] By April, 1776, Lee urged independence as necessary for securing internal peace and foreign alliances,[note 40] and on June 2, 1776, he reasserted this belief, including confederation as one of the essential concommitants of independence.[note 41] Five days later, Lee proposed a resolution for independence, resolving that the colonies “are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States. . . .” His resolution was debated in a committee of the whole for two days, when Congress decided to postpone further considerations until July 1.[note 42]

Lee was clearly assuming a role of leadership in these efforts for independence, although for unknown reasons he was not appointed to the committee drafting a declaration of independence. A possible explanation could be that the committee was appointed on June 11, and Lee had already planned to leave Congress for the Virginia Convention on June 13. Lee had been urged by fellow Virginians John Page and George Mason to participate in the convention to form a new state government, and he may have felt state affairs to be more important than federal ones.[note 43] Whatever the reason, Lee left Congress before the final draft of the Declaration of Independence and before his own resolution for independence was voted on and passed on July 2.[note 44]

Throughout this tune, Lee’s political thought was dominated by the conviction that tyranny in government was an ever-present danger. The several arbitrary dissolutions of Virginia’s House of Burgesses undoubtedly made Lee wary of concentrated power. He felt tyranny frequently resulted from the ambitions of men and advocated definite measures to curb it in government. He believed short terms of office, moderate revenues, and “every unnecessary power withheld, are potent means of preserving integrity in public men and for securing the community from the dangerous ambition of [sic] that too often governs the human mind.” In Lee’s estimation the royal government of Virginia had bordered precariously on tyranny because the executive, the judiciary and two-thirds of the legislature were in the same hands.[note 45]

Lee’s dislike of powerful government and his suspicion of man’s ambitiousness were reinforced by the prevalence of corruption in public office. He lamented that “the demon of avarice, extortion and fortune-making seizes all ranks. And now, to get into office is another thing for getting into wealth on public funds and to the public injury.”[note 46] Furthermore, Lee saw that the corruption even occurred in the offices created by the Continental Congress to centralize and expedite the execution of the war. He specifically deplored those in staff departments of commissary and quartermaster who were becoming wealthy at the public expense.[note 47]

Yet Lee’s fear of a tyrannous government did not prevent his supporting the Confederation. The Confederation had little concentrated power that could be misused. In a letter to Samuel Adams of July 12, 1777, Lee, pleased with the military efforts against Great Britain, remarked:

The next great object is certainly the Confederation. This great bond of union will more effectively than anything else, produce present strength, credit, and success; and secure future peace and safety: Nor can any human plan more conclusively establish Amarican independence.[note 48]

Clearly, the union of the colonies in confederation was significant, in Lee’s judgment, for the increased stability it would bring and the aid in securing independence. His attitude towards the Confederation contradicts a genralization of Merrill Jensen about the “radicals” of the Continental Congress. Jensen, who classified Lee a “radical,” claimed that the “radicals” became less and less interested in union after 1776 when independence was declared.[note 49] But this description did not apply to Lee, who was convinced that the “friends of Dependence” opposed and delayed the Confederation because they realized that it would secure American independence, although they did it slyly, concealing “their true motives.”[note 50]

Despite his support of the Confederation and distrust of power, Lee recognized a need for a stronger government in some cases. For example, he was quite disturbed by the lack of public support for the army.[note 51] In April, 1777, he wrote to Thomas Jefferson that the ordering drafts from the militia by Congress was the only alternative.[note 52] His support for such drafts reveals that he was willing to grant the Continental Congress more power and authority than many. Most members were opposed to ordering a draft, believing Congress had only the power to recommend quotas to the states. The majority of Congress preferred to encourage recruitment by issuing bounties and making quotas, a system which lasted for the duration of the war.

During the years 1777 to 1779, Richard Henry Lee’s political activities and correspondence were subordinated to a more personal cause, the defense of his brother Arthur during the Deane-Lee controversy. The vast majority of Lee’s letters were efforts to defend his brother and to present the Lee viewpoint. After being recalled from England, Silas Deane had blamed Arthur Lee for the interception of Deane’s papers by the British envoy when he was in Berlin and accused Lee of hating France and opposing the treaty of alliance with France. Deane published his case in the Pennsylvania Packet in December, 1778, including some strong accusations against William, Francis Lightfoot, and Richard Henry Lee. Deane blamed William for neglecting his public responsibilities, implicated Richard Henry with an accused British spy, and labelled both Francis Lightfoot and Richard Henry his personal enemies.[note 53] Richard Henry’s defense included a letter to the editor of the Pennsylvania Packet refuting Deane’s charges with excerpts of his brother’s letters from England.[note 54] Although a motion for Arthur Lee’s recall failed on May 3, 1779, Richard Henry never forgave Congress for the handling of the affair and the lack of clear exoneration for his brother.[note 55] In that same month, Richard Henry Lee’s first period of service in Congress ended on the unhappy note struck by the Lee-Deane affair.[note 56]

As early as 1777, Lee’s popularity back home in Virginia seemed to be temporarily waning, possibly because of agitation by his political enemies. On May 22, 1777, Lee was not reelected as a Virginia representative to the Continental Congress. In protest, Mann Page, Jr., and Francis Lightfoot Lee sent in their resignations as members of Congress. Later George Mason declined membership in Congress for uncertain reasons although some contend it was also dissatisfaction over the treatment of Lee. Richard Henry Lee immediately returned to the Virginia Assembly to defend his conduct and was rewarded with a resolution of thanks from the Assembly for his services in government, and eventually with the Assembly’s selection of him to fill the vacancy caused by Mason’s refusal to serve.

Later in 1777 and in 1778, Lee’s enemies sought to discredit him in the Virginia Assembly by verbal attacks and by barely reelecting him to Congress.[note 57] Although Lee survived all these threats, he did not represent Virginia in the Continental Congress for four years from 1780 to 1784 for uncertain reasons. If not the main cause, his poor health was undoubtedly a factor in his absence from Congress, as evidenced by several of his letters. Apparently, Lee was generally unwell from August, 1779, to late summer or early fall of 1784, being afflicted with repeated colds and fevers, attacks of the gout and so forth, which culminated in a near-fatal condition during the winter of 1783–1784.[note 58] Lee’s political activity was unquestionably diminished by his poor health, as was his letter-writing. Only four letters are known to have been written in 1782 and six in 1783. Even by January, 1784, Lee described himself as still recovering and far from venturing again into politics and public business.[note 59]

Lee’s absence from Congress allowed him more time to become involved in affairs in Virginia, even though such involvement was circumscribed by his health. He made it his project to work for the improvement of the state militia, which he found ineffectual upon his return to Virginia in 1779. Lee urged the government to supply arms, powder, and lead, and was generally successful in his pleas.[note 60] His
efforts in this area were important, for the British were within Virginia territory intermittently during this time. In 1779, Lee mentioned leading the militia against Tories who had burned local warehouses,[note 61] and by June, 1781, the situation had grown much more serious with actual enemy troops in Virginia. In this moment of crisis, there was internal chaos in the state government since the governor had resigned and the lieutenant governor had been taken prisoner by the British. Appalled by the lack of authority and organization when the British were so near, Lee wrote Washington asking him to lead the army into Virginia to provide much-needed support. His efforts were successful if we can judge by the fact that Washington did march into Virginia and by the gradual development of a more organized militia.[note 62] Lee’s activities in state affairs also included membership on various committees attached to the Assembly, such as the Committee of Privileges and Elections, and the Committee of Propositions and Grievances.[note 63]

Lee worked toward confederation by attempting to speed the cession of Virginia’s western lands, which Maryland viewed as prerequisite to confederation. He lamented that “this necessary coalition has been hitherto ostensibiy prevented by the claim of Virginia to all the western lands within her charter on this side of the Mississippi.” In September, 1780, he felt Congress could acquire the lands under the following “easy conditions” of Virginia cession: that the money from the fair sale of the land be applied to the Continental debt, that no fewer than two or three states be established within the territory, and that Virginia be reimbursed for the cost of defending the land from the Indians.[note 64] But Congress apparently did not consider the conditions to be so “easy.” In January, 1781, the Virginia Assembly voted to cede the lands on condition that Congress would 1) declare null and void all land purchases from the Indians and all royal grants that were inconsistent with chartered rights and laws of Virginia; 2) guarantee Virginia her possession of the Kentucky territory; 3) organize the territory into states; 4) reimburse Virginia for the cost of defending the territory; 5) reserve land for officers and soldiers of the regiment of George Rogers Clark; 6) give additional lands to Virginia troops if the reserved land proved insufficient; 7) confirm the possessions and titles of French and Canadian inhabitants and other settlers who were citizens of Virginia, and protect them from British forces and from encroachrnent on their civil liberties; and finally 8) guarantee that all lands ceded to the United States would be considered a “common fund” for the use and benefit of the states.[note 65]

Shortly thereafter, Lee wrote to Samuel Adams that he felt these conditions were reasonable; yet he could forsee the rejection of them by Congress. He admitted that “hitherto the avarice and ambition of Virginia has prevented Confederation” and hoped nothing more would stand in the way.[note 66] But Congress did not accept Virginia’s terms. Finally in September, 1783, Congress agreed to accept the cession if Virginia dropped the first two conditions, and Virginia acquiesced in December, 1783. Virginia’s amended act of cession was immediately sent to Congress, but final approval was not secured until March, 1784.[note 67]

It was in the Virginia Assembly during these same years that Richard Henry Lee first worked against the five per cent impost proposed by the Continental Congress. Lee opposed the impost on the ground that it provided an easy means of paying taxes with the concomitant danger of public apathy, that it would “strangle . . . infant commerce,” and “sacrifice this country to its northern brethren.”[note 68] During one of his absences, the Assembly approved the five per cent impost, only to reverse its action approximately eight months later when Lee was present. The accusations of Governor Benjamin Harrison and Edmund Randolph lead us to believe that Lee played an active role in securing the ultimate defeat of the impost, at least in Virginia.[note 69] Lee saw the impost issue in terms of state as opposed to national power. He called the proposed inpost “too early and too strong an attempt to over leap those fences, established by the Confederation to secure the liberties of the respective states.” The impost question had aroused in Lee his old fear of encroaching power, and he urged caution.[note 70]

In fact, most of Lee’s past experiences with government had reinforced in him the view that power should be carefully guarded by the people. In particular, experiences with British authority had convinced him that unmixed government tended to be arbitrary. The problems of the Confederation were gradually more apparent to him, though, and he came to admit some changes in government were advisable.

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