Richard Henry Lee of Virginia: A Biography, by Mary Elizabeth Virginia, Chapter 4

Richard Henry Lee of Virginia: A Biography

Chapter 4
The Burgess

After his return from Wakefield, according to his predilections, Richard Henry Lee began preparations for entrance into the political arena. The first step for an aspiring planter was toward the position of justice of the peace. While service as a justice did not guarantee entry into the Burgesses, and many justices of the peace, particularly those of the lesser gentry never advanced beyond the county court, admission to the House of Burgesses was attained only after county political experience. The vast majority of Burgesses, therefore, had begun as justices in their home counties. Between 1720 and 1776, over four-fifths of the Burgesses had served either as justices of the peace, vestryman, or had been fledged in a handful of other local offices including sheriff, clerk, surveyor, and coroner. Cognizant of such political routing, Richard Henry Lee became a justice of the peace for Westmoreland County in 1755 at the age of twenty-three.1

Physically dominating the landscape, the county courts were intersections for Virginia’s social culture. These attractive brick buildings symbolized permanence and wealth, contrasting sharply with the wooden houses scattered across the landscape. Only the homes of the great planter challenged the architectural splendor of the courts. Since courts were located at crossroads, ordinaries, racetracks, cockpits, and central greens often lay adjacent. A carnival-like atmosphere surrounded the courthouse and court day was a significant social event in the lives of Virginians.2 Court days, furthermore, constituted a reaffirmation of the social hierarchy. For, while Virginians of all economic levels attended the festivities, justices of the peace were members of the gentry. At this bottom rung of the political ladder, there were no popular elections, justices being appointed from local, leading planter families. Sitting judges routinely recommended new candidates for the office to the governor who, since he required the cooperation of the counties’ leading families, almost invariably accepted their recommendations.

By the eighteenth century the office of justice of the peace had already become hereditary. With planters usually priding themselves on their practical legal knowledge, the system created justices, who though not attorneys, were still well informed about the law and its local applications.3 The system, consequently, was self regulating. Though admission to political office required appropriate parentage, heredity alone by no means assured political success in Virginia; ability and ambition were essential for political advancement. The result was an elitist government dominated by men of privilege who were exceptionally well-educated, talented, and capable.

As colonial Virginia’s basic unit of government, the county court was characterized by its well-ramified legal and administrative jurisdiction including: the probating of wills; trying petty crimes for whites and petty and capital offenses for slaves; building and maintaining roads, ferries, bridges, and inspection houses; appointing coroners; and collecting slave duties.4 Within the court, there was a hierarchy of justices, with the older, most experienced judges sitting “of the Quorum.” For a court to sit, the presence of at least one Quorum judge was mandated. Presumably Lee had been diligently reading law at Stratford, for he rapidly earned the respect of other justices who petitioned the Council for his appointment as presiding justice.5

Following his appointment as a justice, the next logical step for Lee was to stand for election to the House of Burgesses. Unlike, justices of the peace, Burgesses were popularly elected in a process that had evolved partially through custom and partially through a series of electoral laws, so that by the eighteenth century, the system was fairly well-standardized. Elections occurred at the county court house where all white male free holders over twenty-one were eligible, and in fact were required by law to vote. Thus election days were suffused with political as well as social importance. Voters swore an oath affirming their eligibility, and though requirements were continuously modified, the percentage eligible voters was a respectable 50–60% of the white males, with approximately 40–50% of those eligible, actually voting. Elections were of two sorts: general ones, in which the entire House was reelected due either to prorogation or to the appointment of a new governor; and special elections to replace a candidate who had died or resigned. Though voting viva voce, with the candidate present, an effective electoral system evolved in Virginia. Elections were frequently contested and local issues were pitched to the forefront.6

While planters exerted considerable influence within the elections, the electoral system served the interests of the voters. For political candidates did not—indeed, could not—advance without popular support and campaign promises commonly were made to constituents. During the nomination procedures, candidates actively sought the support of local leaders by direct participation in local affairs and by acting as vestryman and justices. At the very least they were familiar with and generally sensitive to local concerns. Despite the absence of parties or even factions, local issues were vital factors in election of candidates and rivalries between localities often were incorporated into the election process. Men voted according to issues and during periods marked by heightening friction between Britain and her colonies, local election activity increased discernibly. All of these elements helped to insure candidates’ responsiveness to community demands.7

To assure an electoral victory, an extensive system of treating—supplying food and drink for voters both before and after elections—evolved. While a slightly higher incidence of treating occurred in elections with new candidates, both geographically and temporally, treating remained a widespread, deeply embedded custom throughout the eighteenth century. Because treating was expensive, particularly for a new candidate who needed to build his reputation with the voters, it functioned on behalf of the upper gentry as a limitation on the pool of potential candidates to their own ranks. Although the system was by no means democratic, it was peculiarly effective in elevating extraordinarily well-educated, capable leaders, to positions of public service.8

Presumably, Richard Henry Lee participated in this system of electioneering for he successfully stood election for the House of Burgesses in 1758. With an appropriate hereditary lineage, demonstrable legal and political skills, and a preternatural drive, Richard Henry entered his first session in the House in September 1758.9

Contributing to his early, and indeed, his lifelong political successes, was a talent that manifested itself during his years as a justice—an exceptional oratorical ability. The “Lees talk well,” claimed the Reverend Boucher in his crude analysis of inherited traits of prominent Virginia families. And Richard Henry spoke more eloquently than had any other Lee. “I think his eloquence approach’d more nearly to that of Cicero . . . than any other I ever heard,” declared the prominent Virginia lawyer and professor of William and Mary College, St. George Tucker. “The fine polish of language which that gentleman united with that harmonious voice,” encouraged Tucker to fancy he was “listening to some being inspired with more than mortal powers of embellishment.” Thus upon election to the first Continental Congress, Richard Henry’s reputation, in this respect had preceded him. “The Virginians speak in Raptures about Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry—one the Cicero and the other the Demosthenes of the Age,” wrote John Adams before he had heard the pair speak, later, adding that “As a public speaker, he [Lee] had a fluency as easy and graceful as it was melodious.” Likewise, Silas Deane, delegate from New York wrote to his wife that he was anxious to hear Lee for he was reported to rival even Patrick Henry. “He had attuned his voice with so such care that one unmusical cadence could scarcely be pardoned by his ear,” wrote fellow Virginia delegate, Edmund Randolph in his History of Virginia. Made more powerfully effective by their brevity and their clarity in an era rich in oral traditions his speeches naturally fostered his political successes.10

A “tall, spare Man,” sporting red hair, like many of his fellow Virginians, Lee was lean and strong from a life spent in the saddle. His commanding presence was undiminished by his physical ailments—epilepsy, asthma and gout—all of which, it need be stressed, were invisible to the observer. Indeed, he turned his one physical deformity into an advantage. Having lost four fingers when a gun misfired during a swan hunting expedition in 1769, he thereafter attended public events with his left hand snugly fitted into a black silk bandage, allowing for the addition of theatrical gestures to his speeches. Gossip had it that he even practiced such gestures before a mirror. Certainly he sought to impress. “His aquiline nose and Roman profile struck me . . . forcibly,” wrote St. George Tucker. In the House of Burgesses, “the distance from the gallery to the chair,” wrote Tucker, “did not permit me to have such a view of their features and countenances as to leave a strong impression,” adding, however, “except of Mr. Lee’s, whose profile was too remarkable not to be noticed at an even greater distance.” Charming, strong and eloquent, Lee, as he wished, commanded attention and compelled respect.11

All of these skills and experiences were combined and would be brought into play during his tenure as Burgess. Although entrance into the House of Burgesses brought no emoluments such as that of the Council which carried a stipend of £100 sterling per annum, a House seat, nevertheless was much coveted by the public spirited and status oriented Virginia planters. While it is true that Burgesses received travel expenses of ten shillings per day, the amount in light of their needs was inconsequential. Planters, in fact, occasionally found the cost of service onerous. Lee on several occasions threatened to quit the House because of the expense.12 There were other privileges, however, that partially compensated for this. During and for ten days following each Assembly session Burgesses were entitled to, and in actuality jealously guarded their “ancient rights and privileges.” These included freedom from arrests for themselves and their servants, and protection for their estates—that is, conviction against being served for debt. Moreover Burgesses were legally immunized from public criticism. The Reverend Jacob Rowe, professor at the College of William and Mary, for instance, was to be taken into custody after he was overheard claiming that all Burgesses who voted for the 1758 Two Penny Act should be hanged.13

Otherwise, the attendant privileges were largely honorary. Unlike Lee, most planters did not find attendance burdensome, for Burgesses were almost invariably wealthy men. Their wealth from plantations was further enhanced by their many ancillary economic activities, particularly by profits from their extensive land speculations. Over one-third of the Burgesses speculated in land, often using their positions to lever favors out of the Crown, a practice resulting in the exacerbation of animosities between Burgesses. The Greenbrier Company of John Robinson and the closely associated Loyal Land Company, as we have seen, were in direct competition with the Ohio Company whose founder was Thomas Lee. With Lee’s death, three of his sons—Philip Ludwell, Thomas Ludwell, and Richard Henry—assumed control over their father’s interests, which were in a state of legal confusion. Upon entering the House of Burgesses, Richard Henry was acutely aware of the rivalry of his family and that of the Robinsons, a situation that undoubtedly influenced the disagreeable nature of relations between the two men.

In addition to landed sources of wealth, planters often engaged in other sorts of speculative ventures, most notably mining and some limited manufacturing. Four principal iron works, located above falls of the Rappahannock, had been established early in the century under the guidance of Governor Spotswood. By 1750, these were still thriving economic concerns, particularly that mine which had been inherited by John Chiswell, Spotswood’s agent’s son. Burgesses also pursued secondary occupations, most commonly that of lawyer—about one third of the Burgesses were estimated to have been lawyers—but others were merchants, owners of ordinaries and even occasionally doctors.14

As the eighteenth century progressed, Virginia’s House of Burgesses had slowly usurped the Council’s prerogatives, becoming by the middle of the century, the colony’s most powerful legislative body. Popular attitudes toward the House however, particularly as relations between the colonies and Great Britain deteriorated, were often characterized by resentment both of the powers of the Council and of the Governor. While lauding the classical balance between monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy as embodied in the British Constitution, Richard Henry, for instance, lamented the destruction of the “just equilibrium” in Virginia because the Council and the Governor were each appointed by the King. Several times, he was determined to quit the Assembly, very likely because the Council was a more lucrative post, but also because of his frustration within it where he claimed “The power of checking ill, and the means of doing good,” occurred more frequently in the upper than the lower house.15

Within the House, the two principal positions were that of Speaker and Treasurer. By far, the most important position was that of Speaker—literally the spokesman for the House: communicating resolutions, thanks, reprimands and serving as liaison with the Council. As may be expected the most lucrative position was that of Treasurer, who was paid a percentage of all money circulating through his office. From Richard Henry’s viewpoint the most obvious deficiency in the system was the combination of these two offices, between 1738 and 1766, in one man, Robinson—his antagonist.

Business of the House, most of it anyway, was performed in five, and after 1769, six standing committees—Privileges and Elections, Propositions and Grievances, Public Claims, Courts of justice, Trade, and Religion— with ad hoc committees created as required. And while there was no dominant party within the House, most of the power was shared by relatively few men who repeatedly served on the most important committees. Of 630 men who sat in the House between 1720 and 1776, historian Jack Greene has identified 110 of them as being members of a special top elite of Burgesses. Approximately one-fifth of the Burgesses handled over one-half of the business of the House.

This pattern varied little throughout the century. Furthermore, no single geographical region dominated proceedings, though there was a delay of approximately twenty years after a region was settled before men from that county entered prominent leadership positions. House business followed the procedure of the Britain’s House of Commons. Bills were read three times and ample time was allotted for discussion. Bills were sometimes referred to specific committees but were ultimately read and approved by a committee of the whole House. Private petitions, and there were large numbers of them, were regularly entertained by the House. Indeed, some of the principal legislation, for instance, The Two Penny Act of 1758, was initiated by private petitions thus illustrating the responsiveness of the House to public interest.16

Personifying a formidable blend of elite parentage, superior education, and driving ambition, Richard Henry had only briefly served in the House before his meteoric elevation to the status of a front ranking Burgess. As if to assay the quality of his abilities, on his first day the House appointed him to a committee charged with thanking the Governor for his opening remarks. Appointment to several other special committees occurred swiftly. Having instantly demonstrated his polished oratorical skills, Lee was soon chosen to present an address to the Governor, informing him of the Burgesses’ desire to limit the number of Ranger companies they were willing to support on the frontier. Presenting bills to Governor and to the Council for their approval rapidly became a routine assignment for him.17 During his first session, Lee had already become a work horse, indeed, his record in the Burgesses and later in Congress attests to his remarkable industry. By the opening days of the February session of 1759, having obviously proven his abilities, he was appointed to the House’s important standing committee—the Committee of Privileges and Elections. Five days later he was also appointed to the Committee of Propositions and Grievances.18 In his first few months as a Burgess, Lee had performed brilliantly.

The launching of his House career coincided with an unusually important crisis revolving around the issue of payment for public servants. Chronically shy of specie, Virginians, by law, paid their county fees, including those for clergy, in tobacco, the weight having been fixed at 16,000 pounds per annum. Consequently, as prices for tobacco fluctuated, so too did the value of clergy’s annual salary. While Lee was attending his first session, this crisis that soon gained familiarity as the Parson’s Cause was vigorously brewing. Its genesis lay in the passage of the so-called Two Penny Act of 1755. During that year, a drought had drastically reduced the tobacco crop raising the crop’s market value and subsequently producing highly inflated salaries. To rectify the matter, the Burgesses passed the Two Penny Act fixing the rate of money paid for services at two pence per pound. In addition, the Act was without the mandatory suspending clause whereby an act amending a previous act was ineffective until approved by the King. Since it was designed for immediate relief, the suspending process could not have been concluded before the act expired.

Believing themselves underpaid and unappreciated, clergy were infuriated by the Act. Although the Act was general, affecting all public servants who were paid in tobacco, the only organized resistance to the measure was inspired by the clergy. Avowing that their salaries were “Scanty at best,” clergy declared that they were constrained to rely upon occasional high market values for tobacco. Their collective response was framed in a petition to Governor Dinwiddie, though they did not stop there, for they buttressed their position by also sending direct petitions to England. To the Bishop of London they reported the Act’s “insult upon the Royal Prerogative” which they deemed “contrary to the liberty of the Subject, as well as to natural Justice 6 Equity.” But initially little became of this controversy simply because the Act, by design, expired ten months later. The potential for later eruptions, however, merely waited upon the weather.19

Indeed the wait was brief. Due to an exceptionally poor tobacco crop, the market price soared again in 1758, and the House of Burgesses, responding to petitions from several counties, on 23 September 1758, renewed the earlier Two Penny Act with the same provisions except it was to remain in force not ten but twelve months.20 This Act, too, was without the requisite suspending clause. Governor Fauquier, anxious to retain support for the war on the frontier and therefore cautious about alienating the Burgesses, refused the clergy’s requests that he veto the law. Thereupon the clergy responded by appealing directly to the King in the person of the Reverend John Camm of Williamsburg who was dispatched to England to plead their case—successfully as it transpired. For, finding in favor of the clergy, the Act was overturned by the King, thus resulting in a series of suits instigated by clergy suing for back payment of their salaries.

The suits culminated in the famous Maury case which afforded opportunity for the young lawyer from Hanover, Patrick Henry to make his reputation. The Reverend James Maury, sued for back pay in Louisa County but the jury was so swayed by the arguments of Patrick Henry, against Maury, that although they found in favor of the Reverend, they awarded him only one penny.21 Though anti-clericalism was certainly not new in Virginia, the clergy emerged from the Parson’s Cause with their reputation further diminished. Reflecting popular sentiments, the Committee of Correspondence wrote to their agent in London, that the clergy, “wanted an opportunity of feasting as largely as they could on all, both rich and poor.”22

But when Lee entered the House of Burgesses and heard the petitions in favor of a new Two Penny Act the resolution of what had become known as the Parson’s Cause was still four years in the future. Unfortunately, speeches in the House were not recorded and therefore, a definitive accounting of the procedure whereby the Two Penny Act was passed is impossible. Lee did, however, leave a manuscript in his hand defending the Two Penny Act entitled “Reasons of Council against Mr. Camm.” Whether it was Lee’s work or simply Lee’s transcription cannot be ascertained. However, the document is an important statement of political philosophy developing within the Virginia legislature during the early days of Lee’s tenure. “A power given by the Crown to make Laws implies a power to suspend, or even repeal former laws,” wrote the author, “otherwise, a Country at the distance of 3,000 miles might be subject to great calamities. . .&3160;. for which reasons such power is lodged in the Legislature.”23

Later, Reverend Cam, in the process of becoming a staunch Loyalist, would respond gleefully to controversy surrounding Lee, depicting him as “One of our most active, flaming and applauded sons of liberty,” who “will find it difficult hereafter to deceive any body into an opinion of his Patriotism.”24

As was customary, Lee as a leading member of the House, was associated with both personal causes as well as those designed to aid his constituents in Westmoreland County. With the passage of an act, for instance, dedicated to building a tobacco warehouse at Stratford, Lee was selected to carry it to Council for their approval. Of a more personal nature, was a petition entered by Richard Henry and his sister Hannah Corbin shortly after her husband’s death. The pair sought to change the stipulations regarding the sale of inherited lands to pay Gawin Corbin’s debts, that is the right to sell different lands than those named in Corbin’s will.25

Lee’s penchant for choosing the opposition and his peculiarly well-developed sense of opportunity would lead to one of the earliest and most controversial speeches of his career, that regarding the slave trade. In the November session, 1759, the House of Burgesses resolved to bring forward a “Bill to Oblige the Importers of Negroes for their awn Use to pay a Duty. Members Richard Henry Lee, George Wythe and Louis Webb were to prepare the bill for discussion. To an assembly of planters, fully dependent upon slave labor for operation of their plantations, the bill was controversial because it raised the already elevated price of slaves for purchase. The bill in effect was designed to increase the price of slaves thus limiting slave importations, particularly for smaller planters less able to afford higher costs.

Following the custom according bills three readings before deliberation, it was presented by Lee on the tenth, and twelfth of November. When time came, on the thirteenth for the bill to be discussed at its third reading, some indication of its volatility is evident in the Journal of the House. While the Journal does not record debates, it is manifest from the record that the discussion lasted for an unusually long time. On the first day in which the House resolved itself into a committee for discussion of the bill, the Burgesses after an extremely lengthy debate ran out of time, thereby requiring another day for deliberations. Again resolving itself into a committee on the fourteenth and again devoting extra time to its discussion, the bill was finalized and was then accepted by the House. On the fifteenth, the revised and amended bill was read again, and ratified by the House which then ordered Richard Henry Lee to carry it to the Council for approval.26

In presentation of the bill, Lee the talented orator, delivered a fiery and provocative speech to the House regarding the slave trade. To be sure, there was nothing surprising about his personal anti-slavery sentiments, except perhaps, their public espousal at such an early date. His argument against the slave trade was predicated upon a perception common within Virginia, namely that slavery inhibited the advancement of Virginia’s civilization. The importation of slaves, according to Lee, posed a “danger, both to our political and moral interest.” other colonies he asserted were outdistancing Virginia, despite the inferiority of their soils and climates, and the reason to him seemed obvious. “That with their whites they import arts and agriculture, whilst we, with our blacks, exclude both.” Furthermore, according to Lee, slaves were dangerous for the envy with which they viewed the “privilege and luxury” surrounding them. Classical Rome provided Virginians with a lesson, for Sicily, “was more cruelly laid waste by the war with the slaves” than by the Carthaginians. Lee also incorporated a moral appeal for the benefit of those Christians, who “encourage those poor, ignorant people, to wage eternal war against each other.” But his moral and ethical argument was clearly secondary to his economic argument. In Lee’s view slavery was simply inimical to Virginia’s economic and cultural growth and therefore the importation of slaves either should be strictly limited or entirely halted.27

Lee’s antislavery convictions were faithfully representative of Virginia philosophy as well as illustrative of his peculiar knack for anticipating popular, ethical, and political concerns. Though recognizing the difficulty of controlling freedmen, planters frequently discussed the desirability of ending the institution. Visitors to Virginia echoed the planters’ own view that slavery was symptomatic of, and partially responsible for, the growing indolence and profligacy stigmatizing planter culture. Planters “seem grieved at having slaves, and are constantly talking of abolishing slavery,” observed the Marquis de Chastellux in 1782, continuing “the sway held over them [slaves] encourages vanity and sloth.” Slaves made them “vain and imperious,” claimed Burnaby. George Mason, in a letter to George Washington and George Fairfax discussed “the ill Effect such a Practice has upon the Morals & Manners of our People,” declaring that it was “one of the first Signs of the Decay, & perhaps the primary Cause of the Destruction of the most flourishing Government that ever existed.” Mason fortified his remarks by allusions to the Roman example.28

These views were approvingly shared by Arthur Lee. During his residence in Williamsburg, Arthur published the first part of an essay on slavery in the 19 March 1769 edition of the Virginia Gazette. The sequel was never published because of its inflammatory nature. Repeating many sentiments of an earlier address, his Essay in Vindication of the Continental Colonies of America, written while still in Edinburgh, Arthur restated themes common to Richard Henry’s earlier address to the House of Burgesses. Slavery, he opined, was “dangerous to the safety of Community . . . destructive to the growth of arts & Sciences,” and “produces a numerous very fatal train of Vices.”29

The arguments proposed by Richard Henry in the House of Burgesses in 1759, were at the time familiar in Virginia. So the young Burgess, while joining a controversial cause, was by no means alone in his progressive sentiments. Rather, he was in solid accord with several leading political figures, thus revealing again his characteristic knack for anticipating the drifts and tendencies of political causes.

Sharing with his family a finely developed sense of moral rectitude, Richard Henry frequently engaged in public battles for idealistic causes. Self-righteousness permeated his writings. Permanently affected by his fraternal relationships and the seemingly interminable struggle for his siblings’ inheritance, Lee was always righteously indignant over what he perceived as abuses of privilege. Envious of others’ privileges, his actions were at least partially influenced by his anger. Although sanctimonious and self-evidently ethically correct in his views, Richard Henry, in his bitterness, was often blatantly opportunistic. Disappointed repeatedly in his bid for lucrative public appointments, he shamelessly foraged for alternative sources of income.

These antipathies caused partially by his failure to attain financial security, and partially, in time, by his exhaustion due to the exceptionally heavy workload which he had maintained during his tenure in the House prompted Lee in defiance of his assertions to embark on a scheme to sell slaves. While seemingly hypocritical behavior on his part, selling slaves was revelatory of a crucial feature of Lee’s persona. Whatever the firmness of his conviction, he was, and would remain, a professional politician, perhaps Virginia’s first true professional. As a politician, decisions he reached in the private sphere were often ethically and morally at odds with his public persona. The slavery issue is just such a case in point.

Despite his public disavowal of slavery, like other planters, Lee maintained slaves on his own plantation. In fact, of 410 slave owners within Westmoreland County, only seventeen owned more than Richard Henry who retained forty-three slaves on his Chantilly plantation. Inheriting from his father forty slaves over ten years old and several others under that age, Richard Henry owned approximately the same number of slaves throughout his lifetime.30 Owning slaves in and of itself would not have been cause for criticism, for even the most vociferous of the planters regarding slavery as an evil held slaves. Lee, however, went further than the majority of his fellow planters and formulated a plan for selling slaves.

Writing to William Lee in July 1772, after recommending to him “with true paternal warmth” the care of his “dear boys,” Richard Henry vented his anxieties over his ever precarious finances. With five children already and apparently believing his wife was pregnant with twins, he asked that William, again try to find for him a place of profit. His dissatisfaction with the rewards from his position in government was becoming increasingly evident. Writing wearily to Landon Carter, Lee referred to the Roman belief that a good citizen should serve his country for seven years, “I have done so twelve,” he claimed, adding, “I have found it an hard service.”31

Lee’s weariness was justifiable. Retaining his position of leadership in the House throughout his tenure, he was always one of the most powerful and most respected of the Burgesses. This niche had been reached by hard work. In the November session, 1769, for instance, Lee served on the standing committees of Religion and Morality, Propositions and Grievances, and the Courts of Justice. This did not preclude his involvement in several other ad hoc committees.32 His weariness is reflected in the plans he outlined in his letter to William, offering to sell for him a consignment of slaves, telling William “he would be extremely glad to be employed on reasonable terms,” for the “Planters are nearly out debt and Negroes are become valuable here.”33

This business proposition did not reflect a philosophical change in heart, for in March 1772, Lee had again, within the House of Burgesses served on a committee addressing the issue of slavery importation. In December 1770 the King had issued instructions to the governor proscribing the encroachment of laws limiting the importation of slaves into Virginia. The House, however, in 1767 and 1769 had passed further acts both for extending and raising the duties on slaves—in effect a limitation.34 Burgesses were therefore upset by the King’s orders and in response appointed a committee in March of 1772 to pursue the issue, imploring the King to remove all restraints upon the governors for passing “Acts of the Assembly, which are intended to check this pernicious Commerce.” Given his previous anti-slavery proclivities, Richard Henry was logically appointed to this six man committee.35

Arthur Lee, in Landon, evinced surprise over having seen the petition from the Virginia House. From the style of it he believed it had been written by his brother and given his own anti-slavery stance, he was hurt that he had not been informed of a “measure of such magnitude.” In an unusually critical tone Arthur warned Richard Henry that he should be exceedingly careful. “It will certainly wear an awkward appearance,” Arthur continued pointedly, “that a strenuous opposer of this trade, should be an Agent in it.” Presumably, Richard Henry had already considered the repercussions. He intended, however, to pursue the plan anyway, offering as his only defense, “You should know in general I have always thought the trade bad,” adding, “but since it will be carried on, I do not see how I could in justice to my family refuse any advantage that might arise from the selling of them.” Furthermore, he disavowed to his brother any participation in writing the petition to the King, a dubious disclaimer given his membership on the committee. In his private life, Lee evinced no undue concerns over the moral aspects of the slave trade.36 And the political opportunism and self-serving behavior that he demonstrated in this issue, would be repeated throughout his career.

Clearly, Richard Henry Lee earned a public reputation for hard work, for dedication to popular causes and for his personal, if not political, moral rectitude. His devotion to Virginia and his commitment to public service were demonstrated by the formidable work load that characterized his entire public career. His contributions to Virginia government and to the movement for independence are demonstrably remarkable. But on numerous occasions Lee’s public and private personalities were manifestly separate. As a private man, Lee was devoted to his children, in succession to his two wives, and to his brother’s and sisters, finding within his domestic world, strength and security. Publicly, Lee was, undoubtedly a man ahead of his times, for, he was a professional politician, who though he would not have been out of place in succeeding centuries, was a uniquely political creature in mid-eighteenth century Virginia.


1 Westmoreland Co. Court Order Book, 1752–55, 287, in Oliver P. Chitwood, Richard Henry Lee: Statesman of the Revolution (Morgantown: West Virginia University Library, 1967), 245; Jack Greene “Foundations of Political Power in the Virginia House of Burgesses, 1720–1776.” WMQ 16 (1959), 485–506.

2 A. G. Roeber, “Authority, Law, and Custom: The Rituals of Court Day in Tidewater Virginia, 1720 to 1750,” WMQ 37 (1980): 29–52; Marcus Whiffen, “The Early County Courthouses of Virginia,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians XVIII (1959); Marcus Whiffen, The Public Buildings of Williamsburg: Colonial Capitol of Virginia (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg, 1958), 149–164.

3 for ex. Landon Carter, The Diary of Landon Carter of Sabine Hall, 1752–1779 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1965), I:93, 460, II:971.

4 Albert Porter, County Government in Virginia: A Legislative History, 1607–1904 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1947), 42–99; Charles S. Sydnor, American Revolutionaries in the Making (New York: Free Press, 1966), 74–85 Roeber, “Court Day,” 29–54.

5 Richard Henry Lee II, Memoir of the Life of Richard Henry Lee (Philadelphia: M. C. Carey and I. Lea, 1825), I:12; Oliver P. Chitwood, Richard Henry Lee: Statesman of the Revolution (Morgantown: West Virginia University Library, 1967), 14.

6 Lucille Griffith, Virginia House of Burgesses (Northport, Alabama: Colonial Press, 1963), 63–71; Robert E. Brown and B. Katherine Brown, 1705–1786: Aristocracy or Democracy (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1964), 125–167.

7 John Gilman Kolb, “The Flame of Burgessing: Elections and the Political Communities of Colonial Virginia, 1728–1775,” (Ph.D. diss. University of Iowa, 1988).

8 Kolp, “Flame of Burgessing,” 74–76; 331–339; Sydnor, American Revolutionaries, 45–59.

9 William G. Stanard & Mary N. Stanard, Colonial Virginia Register (Baltimore: Baltimore Genealogical Publishing Co, 1965), 146.

10 Jonathan Boucher, Reminiscences of an American Loyalist (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1967), 61; St. George Tucker, “Notes of St. George Tucker,” WMQ 22 (1914): 256; Tucker to William Wirt in William Wirt Henry, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence and Speeches (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), I:163–164; John Adams, Diary and Autobiography (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), II:113; Adams to Richard Henry Lee II. 24 Feb. 1821. Works, C. F. Adams ed. (New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1969), 10:395–396; Silas Deane to Elizabeth Deane. 10–11 Sep. 1774 Paul Smith, Letters of Delegates to Congress (Washington: Library of Congress, 1976), I:62; Edmund Randolph, History of Virginia (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1970), 186.

11 John Adams, Diary, 3 Sep. 1774; Randolph, History, 184; Wirt, Life of Henry, 67; St. George Tucker to William Wirt, Henry, Life163.

12 R. H. Lee to William Lee. 17 Dec. 1769 Ballagh, Letters, I:38.

13 JHB, 1758–1761, 21 Sep. 1758, p. 16.

14 Stanley Pargellis, “The Proceedings of the Virginia House of Burgesses,” WMQ 8 (1927): 73–86; 143–157; Greene, “Foundations,” 485–506; Griffith, “House,” 16–21; William Byrd II to Micajah Perry. 3 Jul 1728, Correspondence of the Three William Byrds of Westover, Virginia, 1648–1776 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977. I:370; Andrew Burnaby, Travels Through the Middle Settlements in North-America . . .Notes on the State of Virginia (New York: W. W. Norton, 1954), 27–28; William Byrd, “A Progress to the Mines in 1732,” Writings of Colonel William Byrd of Westover, Esquire (New York: B. Franklin, 1970), 343–378.

15 R. H. Lee to Arthur Lee. 20 Dec. 1766. mss UVA; R. H. Lee to William Lee. 7 July 1770. Ballagh, I:45.

16 Pargellis, “Proceedings,” 73–86, 143–157; Jack Greene, “Political Power,” 484–506.

17 JHB, 1758–1761, 15 Sep.; 20 Sep; 27 Sep.; 29 Sep; 12 Oct. 1758. pp. 5, 12, 27, 31, 44.

18 JHB, 1758–1761, 23 Feb.; 28 Feb. 1759, pp. 57, 70.

19 Robert Douthat Meade, Patriot Henry: Patriot in the Making (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1957), I:115–120; Clergy of Virginia to the Bishop of London. 1756. JHB, 1761–1765, xlii.

20 JHB, 1756–1758, 15 Sep.; 18 Sep.; 21 Sep.; 23 Sep. 1758, 5, 11, 17, 21.

21 James Maury to Rev. John Camm. 12 Dec. 1763. in Ann Maury, Memoirs of A Huguenot Family . . . ( New York: George P. Putnam), 418–424; Meade, 114–134; Wirt, 42–46; Richard Beeman, Patrick Henry: A Biography ( New York: McGraw Hill, 1974), 16–20.

22 Committee of Correspondence to Edward Montague. 12 Dec. 1759. “Proceedings of the Committee of Correspondence,” VMHB 10 (1903): 348.

23 mss. UVA.

24 Rev. John Camm to Mrs. McClurg. 24 Jul. 1766. WMQ 2 (1894), 238.

25 JHB, 1758–1761, 9 Apr. 1759; 9 Mar. 1761, pp. 123, 201.

26 JHB, 1758–1761. 8 Nov.; 10 Nov.; 12 Nov.; 13 Nov. 14; 15 Nov.; 1759, pp. 141, 143, 144, 146, 148.

27 Richard Henry Lee Address on Slavery in Lee, Memoir, I:17–19.

28 Marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1953), II:439, 435; Burnaby, Travels, 26; George Mason to George William Fairfax and George Washington. 23 Dec. 1765 in The Papers of George Mason, 1725–1792 Robert Rutland ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970), I:61.

29 Arthur Lee Address on Slavery in Richard K. MacMaster ed., “Arthur’s Lee’s ‘Address on Slavery’,” VMHB 80 (1972), 153.

30 Will, 30 July 1751, Thomas Lee, mss UVA; “Slave Owners, Westmoreland County, Va., 1782,” VMHB 10 (1903), 229–235.

31 R. H. Lee to Arthur Lee. 9 Jul 1770, Ballagh, Letters, I:52; R. H. Lee to Landon Carter. 18 Apr. 1771 mss UVA.

32 JHB, 1766–1769, 9 Nov. 1769. pp. 227–229.

33 Richard Henry Lee to William Lee. 12 July 1772. Ballagh, Letters, I:69–76.

34 JHB 12 Dec. 1766; 28 Mar. 1767; 21 Dec. 1769. Hening, Statues,

35 JHB 1770–1772, 20 Mar. 1772. p. 257.

36 Richard Henry Lee to William Lee. 13 May 1773. quoted in Chitwood, Lee, 21.

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