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


In many ways, Richard Henry Lee fell into the category of a typical Antifederalist; yet most authorities who discuss the Antifederalists rarely mention Lee’s name. For example, his inclination toward a stronger government before 1787 was characteristic of several other Antifederalists, including William Grayson, James Mercer, Elbridge Gerry, George Mason, Patrick Henry, George Clinton, Timothy Bloodworth, Joseph Jones, James Warren, James Monroe, Benjamin Harrison and John Francis Mercer.[note 185] And after the Constitutional Convention, like most Antifederalists, Lee argued that the Constitution favored the few at the expense of the many, and criticized general powers in the Constitution, preferring a detailed and explicit enumeration of powers. Although sharing with most Federalists a view of human nature motivated by self-interest and lust for power, Antifederalists generally reproached the opposition for being excessively optimistic about the virtue of elected officials and demanded more structural barriers to usurpation of power. In this sense, too, Lee’s ideas coincided with the mainstream of Antifederalist thought. Furthermore, he shared with Antifederalists the belief that America was too vast a territory to remain a republic if united under a central government.[note 186] Obviously, Lee was united with the great majority of Antifederalists in the view that the Constitution created too strong a government, and he also shared their opinion that the Constitution established a national government consolidating previously sovereign states into one, instead of the federal government it was claimed to create. As evidence of the change to one consolidated government many Antifederalists cited the central government’s power to levy direct taxes, and Lee was no exception. And like most Antifederalists, he felt a bill of rights was imperative.[note 187]

In addition, Lee’s objections to the powers of the various branches of government were characteristically Antifederalist. Many of those who opposed the Constitution were particularly perturbed about the issue of representation, preferring an incrcase in the number of representatives with the concomitant benefit of smaller constituencies, and fearing democratic elements would be left out of the representation. A common concern was for the loss of direct contact between representatives and their constituencies, which was only aggravated by the lack of rotation of office, especially among senators who were to serve longer terms under the new government.[note 188] Each of these Antifederalist sentiments was expressed by Lee. Another Antifederalist, Melancton Smith, argued that the small size of the House of Representatives would mean that it would reflect only the will of the “natural aristocracy,” a view he held in common with Lee. In general, Antifederalists saw the senate as a federal feature since state legislatures chose the senators, and as a result this selection of senators, though indirect, was not perceived as undemocratic or as a weakness in the governmental structure. Other weaknesses pointed out by Antifederalists, including Lee, concerned the special relationship between the senate and the the presidency and the fact that impeached senators would be tried by their own house.[note 189] In common with some Antifederalists, Lee feared the power of Congress to intervene in elections and was cautious about giving Congress power to regulate trade. Several Antifederalists were reluctant to grant Congress commercial power because they felt the Northern states, having a majority, would combine to the disadvantage of the South.[note 190] Lee had held this notion as early as August, 1785, and the worry persisted through the ratification of the Constitution.[note 191] George Mason was anothor Antifederalist and Southerner who shared Lee’s opinion on this issue, and it was to him that Lee wrote in May, 1788, to suggest an amendment requiring the consent of “three?fourths

of the United States on regulations of trade.”[note 192] Other Antifederalists opposed Congressional control over trade for other reasons, including such possibilities as agrarian distrust of merchants, or just an Antifederalist desire to limit the powers of Congress.[note 193]

With regard to the executive branch, most Antifederalists felt the president’s terms of office should be limited, but only a minimal number opposed the electoral college. The lack of opposition to the electoral college clearly stemmed from a preference for state participation in the new system. Whereas these views were consistent with Lee’s, the belief of many Antifederalists that the president had been given too much power was not. Lee gave little attention to the president’s power with the exception of his worry about the combined powers of the executive and the senate, and in fact seemed quite amenable to a single head of government. To be sure, Lee was not the only Antifederalist who was generally uncritical of the powers of the executive, but he was among the minority.[note 194]

There are some more sweeping distinctions anong Antifederalists which clarify Lee’s position, however. For example, he was among the wing of Antifederalists who were willing to accept the Constitution if some amendments were made, whereas a number saw no need for the Constitution. Although nearly all Antifederalists agreed that some reform of the present system was necessary, most opted for keeping the Articles of Confederation and only strengthening them.[note 195] In addition, Lee spoke often of his faith in the democratic nature of the people once they understood the implications of the issues involved, with the exception of the “Shayites” whom he considered an anomaly. This attitude of Lee’s is in contrast to that of many Antifederalists. Although one scholar maintains that it is very difficult to determine to what degree the Antifederalists were inclined to approve popular rule,[note 196] another claims that the Antifederalists, like the Federalists, lacked faith in the people as evidenced by their speeches and essays. Lee shared with many Antifederalists the fear that the people might not see all the dangers and defects in the proposed government that the better-educated perceived, but he was distinguished by his faith in the people once they saw the defects. Lee’s confidence in the state legislatures apparently set him apart, too. Whereas the Antifederalists in general were unwilling to trust completely their own state legislatures, Lee showed no such indications.[note 197] He viewed the state legislatures as the stronghold of democracy, apparently because they were less removed from the people.

The Bill of Rights is another area in which Lee contradicted some generalizations about the Antifederalists. Specifically, he was not more concerned with common law rights of procedure in criminalcases than with First Amendment provisions, as other Antifederalists are said to have been.[note 198] Instead, Lee had early advocated several rights which ultimately were incorporated into the First Amendment, and only eventually was influenced by others to urge procedural rights in criminal cases.

Lee can alse be differeritiated from other Antifederalists by his relatively conciliatory attitude towards the Constitution. He seems to have mellowed in his opposition, for although in October, 1787, he
favored a second convention,[note 199] in May, 1788, he suggested a compromise whereby the Virginia ratifying convention might submit amendments alone; with its ratification and give Congress two years to secure the changes. Patrick Henry was one Virginia Antifederalist who did not share Lee’s openness, demanding prior amendments.[note 200] Furthermore, Lee did not carry his fight against ratification to the Virginia ratifying convention, for some reason refusing to be a delegate despite the urging of George Mason and his brother Arthur Lee. Divisions of opinion within his family may have influenced Lee to be more amenable toward the Constitution, for his cousin Henry Lee and his oldest son were active Federalists. Madison espected a change of opinion on Lee’s part regarding the Constitution just before the Virginia convention, and when George Washington heard Lee might be having a change of heart, he thought Lee wanted to disassociate himself from the Antifederalists because he found himself in such bad company.[note 201] Although Lee did not reverse his attitude toward the Constitution, he seemingly became reconciled to the new government. When, through the leadership of Patrick Henry, he was elected to the senate from the largely Antifederalist Virginia House of Delegates, he did not share Henry’s desire for another federal
convention.[note 202] Although Lee still shared many Antifederalist sentiments, he was not as intransigent as Henry’s wing of the Party.

Apparently disconcerted with the label “Antifederalist,” Lee defended those who opposed the Constitution, saying:

To be for or against the constitution, as it stands, is not much evidence of a federal disposition, if any names are applicable to the parties, on account of their general politics, they are those of republicans and anti-republicans.

Lee also defended the Antifederalists against charges of personally attacking the framers of the Constitution, and at the same time analyzed the real motivations of those who called themselves Federalists:

The gentlemen who oppose the constitution, or contend for amendments in it, are frequently, and with much bitterness, charged with wantonly attacking the men who framed it. The unjustness of this charge leads me to make one observation upon the conduct of parties, etc. Some of the advocates are only pretended federalists; in fact they wish for the abolition of the state governments. Some of them I believe to be honest federalists, who wish to preserve substantially the state governments united under an efficient federal head; and many of them are blind tools without any object. Some of the opposers also are only pretended federalists, who want no federal government, or one merely advisory. Some of them are the true federalists, their object, perhaps more clearly seen, is the same with that of the honest federalists; and some of them, probably have no distinct object. We might as well call the advocates and opposers tories and whigs, or ar thing else, as federalists and anti-federalists.

Also noting that “the opposers are generally men not very friendly to those rights, and properly anti-republicans,” Lee apparently felt there were both republicans and anti-republicans hiding under the guise of Federalists and Antifederalists.[note 203] It is evident from Lee’s earlier remarks about the framers of the Constitution that he held no animosity towards them, and this passage provides a possible explanation. Lee retained respect for many of the Founding Fathers and other Federalists because he felt there were men of both parties who honestly sought a balanced, federal government, just as there were those on each side who were more interested in other ends.

While Lee’s openness to the Constitution and the Federalist party set him apart, he was also distinguished with regard to his written presentation of the Antifederalist position. Lee’s Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican were sent to every important population center in New York,[note 204] and many newspapers throughout the states presented Lee’s views, including the New Hampshire Recorder of Keene, N.H., the Columbian Herald of Charleston, S.C., the Daily Advertiser of Charleston, S.C., the Country Journal of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and the Albany Gazette of Albany, N.Y. His opinions gained wide publicity and were influential.[note 205]

In conclusion, then, Lee was an Antifederalist, but one amenable to acceptance of the new government if amendments were added to the Constitution. He was not a radical, for although he exhibited considerable faith in the people as agents for democracy, he placed a large emphasis on law and order and property rights. He rejected the Shayites as irresponsible and undemocratic, and had a similar reaction to the French Revolution. On the subject of the events of France, Lee wrote in 1794:

I too love Liberty, but it is a regulated Liberty, so that the ends & principles of society may not be disturbed by the fury of a Mob or by the art, cunning, and industry of wicked, vicious & avaricious men. . . . It is impossible that so sacred a thing as liberty can ever be necessarily supported by assassination, murder, deceit, plunder, and every species of wickedness that the mind of Man has hitherto been supposed capable of possessing.[note 206]

He clearly rejected the type of popular rule that took place in France, favoring instead popular rule within a governmental structure. Lee’s significance remains untarnished, however, for when many Americans were so panicked by Shays’s Rebellion and other such incidents that they hastened to check the “excesses” of democracy, he retained a calm perspective, recognizing that neither extreme was desirable. Consequently, Lee’s merit lies in the fact that he favored moderation, not only at the time of popular uprisings, but even later when other Antifederalists refused to compromise on the ratification.

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