Richard Henry Lee of Virginia: A Biography, by Mary Elizabeth Virginia, Chapter 6

Richard Henry Lee of Virginia: A Biography

Chapter 6
The Mature Politician

Not long after Virginians began celebrating their victory in the repeal of the Stamp Act, the colony was faced with two more crises that severely threatened its people’s confidence in the entrenched aristocracy and resulted in an expansion of the power base to include many of those whom Fauquier described as “hot and giddy young men.” Throughout it all, Lee relentlessly fought both to expose the corruptions of the entrenched James River aristocracy and thus to increase his own influence in the colony. His continuing experiences with his brothers over the settlement of his father’s estate had created a permanent distrust in Lee of both privilege and the concentration of power. And while several motivations account for his remorseless assaults on Robinson, underlying all of his activities was animosity and, even envy, nourished by his hatred of the abuse of privilege. In challenging the entrenched aristocracy—his own class—he repeatedly demonstrated his peculiar ability to anticipate the tide of political events and to assess trends. His extraordinary foresightedness, combined with relentless energy and hard work, as it will be shown, confirmed his status as a premier eighteenth century politician.

The first and the most severe crisis began on 11 May, 1766 with the death of Speaker John Robinson. It was, according to his obituary, a “calamity to be lamented by the unfortunate and indigent who were wont to be relieved and cherished by his humanity and liberality.”1 These were prophetic words, for almost immediately afterwards the rumors that had plagued the colony—and which Lee had tried so hard to confirm—were proven true. There was a deficit of over &3163;100,000 in the Virginia Treasury—money that had been illegally lent to Robinson’s friends and supporters.2

As a close colleague, a fellow member of the Loyal Land company, and a skilled lawyer, Edmund Pendleton was logically asked by Robinson’s distraught widow, to be executor of her husband’s estate—a Promethean task, given the size of the late Speaker’s debts and loans—and one that would require a lifetime to complete.3 Intuiting that the task would be lengthy and formidable, Pendleton immediately published a plea for the debtors to the Robinson estate to make payments.4 But no one, even Pendleton, comprehended the immensity of the deficit he would soon discover. When he was through with his computations, he would reveal the indebtedness to the Robinson estate totaled £138,708, while a simultaneous investigation of the treasury would reveal a deficit of £100,761. Robinson had loaned that amount to his friends and supporters.

Several hundred men were found to be indebted to Robinson, some for only a few pounds, but several for extraordinarily high amounts. To his close friend and business partner in the Chiswell Mine Company, William Byrd III, the notorious gambler, Robinson had loaned the single largest amount, £14,921. Most debts were for several hundred pounds, though several other debtors owed several thousand pounds. Tellingly, the greatest percentage of debts were held by Robinson’s friends and neighbors in counties adjacent to Robinson’s home in King William County. Quite patently, Virginia treasury funds had been used to oil Robinson’s vast political machine.5

The late Treasurer had also diverted some of the funds into his mining venture. In 1759, Robinson, William Byrd, John Chiswell and Governor Fauquier had entered into an enterprise to develop a mine on the New River, to which Robinson contributed more than his agreed share of the capital. In fact, over 18,000 was invested by Robinson in the Lead Mine company.6

Three-fourths of the money Robinson had loaned had cons from the Virginia Treasury. Governor Fauquier, defending Robinson even after his death, as news of his peculations was circulating, excused his behavior to the Earl of Shelburne, writing “Such was the sensibility of his too benevolent heart.” Fauquier had good reason to lament Robinson’s death, for his political support for the Governor had been consistent. “I had promised myself great assistance from him in the next Session of Assembly, to quiet the minds of the people and bring them to a just and proper sense of their duty,” wrote Fauquier to the Board of Trade, when informing them of Robinson’s death.7

Fauquier was not alone in his attempted exculpation of Robinson. Many others refused to condemn the “darling of the Country” even after the unprecedented extent of his peculations had been revealed.8 No less a man than his successor in the Treasury, Robert Carter Nicholas, himself scrupulously honest, wrote in 1766 “I never had the least doubt of his intention to charge himself every shilling . p. . it has given me pain to hear any thing like a peculation suggested.” Several years later, after the finances had

been thoroughly investigated, Nicholas again complimented the former Speaker and Treasurer, claiming the discrepancies were “ more owing to a mistaken Kind of Humanity and compassion for a Person in Distress, than any view to his own private Emolument.”9 But a law passed after Robinson’s defalcations had become known to the House, indicates that although the Burgesses did not view Robinson’s embezzlements as a criminal offense, they did perceive it as a serious breach of trust. Although there had been no laws concerning penalties for misuse of the office prior to Robinson, the law passed immediately after his demise provided for tightened security and checks upon the Treasurer. Furthermore, while not making it a criminal offense, diversion of Treasury funds under the new law carried severe penalties including the liability of the Treasurer to pay twice the sum to the Treasury within ten days of notification and restrictions against his holding further public office.10 Clearly, the majority of the House—for practical purposes—did not excuse or condone Robinson’s actions.

Many recent historians, however, have been inclined, like many of Robinson’s supporters, to explain away Robinson’s peculations. William Dabney, Robinson’s biographer, claimed many public officials in Virginia, since they were unpaid, used their office for self-interest, believing it was “legitimate remuneration” for their services. “Perhaps it was in this frame of mind that Robinson misused the treasury funds,” declared Dabney, adding, “It is entirely likely that if he had lived he would have paid back the money.”11 In a more sophisticated, though no less apologetic work, Joseph Ernst reasoned that, “Ironically Robinson had done the public a good turn by illegally re-circulating over £100,000 of paper,” continuing with a Keynesian argument that “lending out some £100,000 was a move which shrewdly anticipated a revival of the economy and repayment of the loans.” Furthermore, claims Ernst, Robinson made his loans to “entrepreneurs and practical businessmen,” thereby implying the Treasurer had laudable foresight, a man ahead of his times.12

But many of Robinson’s contemporaries were not so forgiving of the Treasurer’s peculations, including, predictably, Richard Henry Lee. The powers of government should be so divided, declared Lee in a speech to the House, as to prevent the concentration of too much power in the hands of one man. The lessons of antiquity had taught that “those who had liberty in view,” divided “with great care offices of power and profit.” According to Lee, the human propensity toward corruption was too great to allow so much power to reside in one man.13

At the time he agreed to be executor for the will, Edmund Pendleton had intended to settle the affair quickly, discharging the debts to the Treasury and enabling Robinson’s supporters to nominate their candidate, Peyton Randolph to the Speakership and hopefully to the Treasury. Robinson’s supporters clearly intended to remain in power, an objective that would best be served by a swift and tactful settlement of the estate. His supporters would meet with resistance, however, when they attempted to place their candidate in Robinson’s place, for the Lee faction quickly pressed their advantage to renew their bid to separate the offices and to introduce their own men into power.

Fauquier had been, for several years, resisting the Board of Trade in its intention to have the offices of Speaker and Treasurer separated. The Board had been placated during the war because of the expediency of Robinson’s support for Fauquier and therefore did not press the matter. With Robinson’s death, however, a new movement for separation seemed destined, finally, for success, owing partly to Fauquier’s reluctant approval.

If the House were to elect a Speaker who had distinguished himself as loyal to the Crown Fauquier wrote to the Board of Trade that he would support an act for keeping the positions in one hand. If, however, they were to elect a man who “has been remarkable for opposing all measures of Government,” he intended to have the positions separated. Fauquier was very likely referring to Richard Henry Lee, for he had written on 11 May 1766 to the Board of Trade that he had heard of two candidates for the office, Peyton Randolph and Lee. And while he could tolerate Randolph, he clearly did not want Lee in the position. When Robert Carter Nicholas apprised the Governor of his desire to vacate his seat in the House in order to become Treasurer, Fauquier immediately appointed him to that office. His relief in appointing the experienced and honest Nicholas—who though he ardently desired separation of the offices, was nevertheless, not one considered by Fauquier to be an undesirable “hot, young giddy” member—is palpable in his letter informing the Board of Trade on May 22.14

Due to his vast experience and his great integrity, Robert Carter Nicholas was eminently qualified for the Treasury. As a chief debt collector for a British mercantile house, as an accomplished lawyer, and as a Burgess he was active in most of the legislation pertaining to the colony’s currency issues.15 Claiming that he had applied for the position out of a sense of public service, Nicholas was doubtless encouraged to seek it by several opponents of the Robinson faction.16 Nicholas’s own role was not entirely passive, for he had written several letters soliciting support. To Richard Henry Lee, he bared his intentions, declaring, “this is a proper Season for a Separation,” since the Treasury “gave an undue weight to the Chair.” And his intention to remain as Treasurer was publicly reiterated in the Gazette. It would be the task of his supporters to accomplish the separation of offices and assure Nicholas of a permanent position as Treasurer.17 The matter of the Speaker, however, since the office was an elected one, was yet to be resolved.

Immediately after his appointment Nicholas began investigating the rumors of a mismanagement of the treasury. But the task was daunting and even before he examined the records his first step was to appeal, publicly, to the sheriffs and collectors who were believed to be in arrears.18 Soon, his investigations revealed that there were, indeed, large sums missing from the Treasury.

The public quickly became aware of the mismanagement through a series of articles appearing in newspapers. Between 1736 and 1766, the Virginia Gazette had been printed by Joseph Royle and had functioned as an arm of the government. Consequently, it had been prohibited from printing several controversial stories. News of Henry’s Stamp Act resolutions, for instance, was suppressed in Virginia. In May 1766, at the invitation of several Burgesses, a printer from Maryland, one William Rind, had been invited to begin a rival press in Virginia, which he also called the Virginia Gazette. In the meantime, Royle died and some of his employees took over the paper, immediately courting support of the Burgesses.

Thus began rivalry between the papers, resulting in several news wars. It was for this reason the Mercer-Lee affair received extensive press. Similarly, several articles regarding the Robinson scandal soon appeared. Thereafter, the papers seem nearly filled with scandal and the public became exceptionally well informed. Because of this competition, Virginians were also regaled with details of the second major scandal to rock the aristocracy and one that was intimately related with the Robinson affair.19

On 20 June 1766, as the public was being made aware of the Robinson’s embezzlements, an article appeared in Purdie & Dixon’s Gazette, provoking a second crisis in the colony. It was disclosed to the public that Colonel John Chiswell, Robinson’s father-in-law and partner in the Lead Mining Company, had in a fit of anger, murdered Robert Routledge on 3 June in a public ordinary. Chiswell, who was then apprehended and on his way to the public prison for trial, was taken by three judges of the General Court who thereupon admitted him to bail without hearing a deposition of the case. Although he was ordered to stand trial in Williamsburg, the bailment was considered by lawyers to be extralegal and therefore a scandalous abuse of aristocratic privilege.20 Furthermore, Chiswell and Robinson had been business partners and Robinson had been siphoning off public money to support their joint venture, the Lead Mine Company.

Robinson’s connections with Chiswell further discredited the Speaker to the public which began to equate the two matters as representative of corruption in the aristocracy. Richard Hartswell, for instance, wrote on 19 September of his distress over the Robinson’s breach of trust and over Rutledge’s murder. “Men in authority, especially the rich, have it more in their power to be of service to the publick than any others,” claimed Hartswell, continuing “they cannot justly be called crest men . . . if they are negligent herein” or sanction anything that “may be injurious to their country.”21 There were even accusations that Chiswell had bribed the judges.22 The matter was settled, in abeyance—unsatisfactorally—when Chiswell died suddenly while awaiting trial in Williamsburg. But it was not soon forgotten by the public. The Robinson scandal and the Rutledge murder case had profoundly shaken the public confidence in the aristocracy, and criticisms of “the confederacy of the great in place, family connections, and that more to be dreaded foes to public virtue, warm and private friendship” continued unabated.23

As the Chiswell and the Robinson affairs were being thoroughly explored in the rival presses, the House of Burgesses reconvened for the first time following the Speaker’s death on 6 November 1766. The first order of business, as usual, was election of a Speaker. Fauquier’s suspicion during the previous session that Lee was intending to seek the Speakership proved true, but Lee had been persuaded to abandon his plans in support of Richard Bland. A prominent member of the House, Bland had made his reputation during the Pistole fee and Stamp Act controversies. In a letter to Lee, immediately after Robinson’s death, Bland appealed to Lee’s “Sincere Friendship” in soliciting his support, confirming his belie. that the two offices should be separated to prevent any “unnatural influence in the House.”24 In his letter, he also revealed his plans of promoting a new loan office or public bank in order to discharge the public debt. Lee was obviously convinced, and on 6 November nominated Bland for the Speakership.25

Meanwhile, another faction labored to seat its candidate. Archibald Cary, a chief debtor to the Robinson estate, owing almost £3,975, and a strong supporter of the loan office that had been earlier recommended as a way to cover the loans Robinson had made, sought to have Peyton Randolph elected. Randolph, after he entered the House had quickly come under the influence of Robinson, becoming a protégé of sorts. Owing partially to Robinson’s backing, Randolph quickly rose to a level of leadership in the House shortly after he entered in 1748. Robinson’s chief supporters hoped to salvage some of their influence through the election of Randolph. It was this faction that won and Peyton Randolph was elected to the Speakership on 6 November 1766.26

The Treasury scandal and the death of Robinson, coupled with Fauquier’s new receptivity to Parliament’s instructions opened the door for a fresh movement aimed at separation of the offices. Once again, Richard Henry Lee led the fight in the House, this time with much greater promise of success. In a speech given to the House, Lee argued eloquently for the separation of offices, invoking numerous classical examples and citing England’s mixed constitution with its “powers of government, the places of honour, trust and power most carefully and minutely divided,” as an ideal form of government. “Why,” asked Lee, “should Virginia so early quit the paths of wisdom, and seal her own ruin .£.£. by uniting in one person the only two great places” that the assembly was empowered to bestow. In his speech, Lee addressed all of the arguments against separation that had been proposed in the newspapers. He firmly concluded that power should be divided among individuals for such “is the corruption of human nature, that those who have possessed the power have seldom wanted the inclination to destroy the liberties of mankind, and to erect their own greatness on the ruin of their fellow creatures.”27

After having led the movement for the separation of offices since he had entered the House in 1758, Lee was finally successful, and after a long period of deliberation the House voted on a resolution for separation. In a rare instance of recording the vote, the House passed the measure with sixty-eight in favor and only twenty-nine against. Lee had been vindicated and the great political machine of Robinson, representing the planters of the old tidewater—the James River area—had been severely weakened. Newer Burgesses, led by Lee and including colleagues from the Northern Neck and other, newer counties, increasingly emerged in positions of leadership. While there was no revolutionary change in power within the House, Lee’s actions and the exposed corruption of Robinson resulted in older members of the entrenched aristocracy being forced to share power with the younger men from the newer counties. And Richard Henry Lee was a principal leader of these new Burgesses.

After the initial furor over the mismanagement of Treasury funds had abated, the first half of 1767 was relatively peaceful in Virginia. Colonists were relaxed in the wake of their victory in gaining the repeal of the Stamp Act and they were generally willing to overlook the possible repercussions of the Declaratory Act. But a new crisis began brewing in 1767 and by the end of the year it was no longer possible for Burgesses to view the Stamp Act repeal as anything other than the first battle in the war for sovereignty.

England, still burdened with a staggering postwar debt, continued seeking new ways to force the reluctant colonists to contribute to the cost of empire. A seemingly ingenious plan was laid before Parliament by Charles Townsend early in 1767, the purpose of which initially was the same as with the Stamp Act, namely, to derive revenue in the colonies for support of the army. By April, however, Townsend publicly revealed a new purpose: his program was designed to pay the costs of the colonies, civil government, and by May, he had proposed the full plan which included a provision for supplanting the colonial legislative power of the purse over judges and magistrates. They were henceforth to be paid independently of the legislature.

There were several other features in Townsend’s Program including a new Revenue Act which would place a duty on several imports and the formation of an American Board of Customs Commissioners to be located in the colonies to enforce the Acts of Trade. Writs of assistance were to be used during suspected customs violations and vice-Admiralty courts would be established to try alleged offenses against trade regulations. Townsend’s plan seemed ingenious. It was to be initiated patiently with the colonies assuming an incrementally greater share of their own administration. Thus the precedent for their taxation would be slowly established. But experiences during the Stamp Act were not easily forgotten by colonists who, as Townsend initiated his plans, gradually formulated a policy of total non-compliance, culminating in 1770 in the Boston Massacre, and in 1773 with the Boston Tea Party.28

The colonists’ preliminary response to the Townsend program was slow to develop. News of his measures reached the colonies in the summer 1767 when the assemblies were cut of session, consequently the only early reactions came from individuals. Letters of protest that commenced appearing i newspapers and pamphlets also aided the cause. Between December 1767 and February 1768, the most cogent argument against the Townsend program was published in a series of letters by John Dickinson appearing in the Pennsylvania Packet, entitled, “Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer.” These popular letters were printed in pamphlet form and received widespread distribution in the colonies. By February, at the instigation of Samuel Adams and James Otis, the Massachusetts House of Delegates also wrote a circular letter to the colonies urging resistance.

Lee’s own response to the Townsend Acts likewise took shape slowly, partially because of his preoccupation with personal concerns. At the close of the relatively uneventful March 1767 session of the House of Burgesses, the only session for that year, during which he was involved in a series of mundane committee affairs, Lee returned to Chantilly where he remained for the rest of that year and for all of 1768. Early in 1768, he was the victim of a severe accident, which confined him to Chantilly for several months. While he was hunting swans, a gun misfired severing all of the fingers of his left hand. The injury, which plagued him, was a long time in healing, preventing him from traveling and attending the March, and possibly the November, session of the House of Burgesses.29 But during his convalescence he was not entirely idle for he initiated a correspondence with other colonial leaders, notably Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson, and began formulating his personal objections to the program.

Though he only belatedly grasped the full implications of the Townsend Revenue Act, Lee nevertheless, was enraged by the remainder of Townsend’s program. Writing to a friend in London that although the duties were not literally a violation of rights—Lee apparently accepted Townsend’s distinction between internal and external taxation—the restrictions England had placed on American trade, forcing the colonies to exclude other sources of manufactured goods, were, in his estimate, “arbitrary, unjust, and destructive of that mutually beneficial connection, which every good subject would wish preserved.” The act for suspending the New York legislature, after New York had refused to abide Ly the terms of the Mutiny Act, he added, “hangs, like a flaming sword, over our head, and requires, by all means, to be removed.” While at Chantilly, Lee maintained contact with the House, and anticipating the actions of the House, suggested a petition to the King requesting repeal.30

Immediately upon its return to session on 31 March, the House of Burgesses began formulating its resistance to the Townsend program, forming a committee of the whole House for discussion of the circular letter received from the Massachusetts’ House of Representatives urging general colonial resistance to the Townsend program. On 7 April the House decided on a course of action, agreeing that an address should be sent to the King, confirming their allegiance, thanking him for the repeal of the Stamp Act, but protesting that the Townsend duties were an infringement of colonial rights. Unusually obsequious, the House’s show of resistance had little force behind it and, in truth, most of the address was spent reaffirming allegiance to the King.31

Meanwhile, still in Westmoreland, Lee, on the introduction of his brother Arthur, initiated a correspondence with John Dickinson. Impressed with Dickinson’s “Letters,” he complemented him for the care he had taken “of our common liberty” and acknowledged his obligation to Dickinson.32 Living in Williamsburg at the time, Arthur Lee was equally incensed over the Townsend program writing his own series of ten articles, supplementary to Dickinson’s, entitled the “Monitor’s Letters,” and appearing in the Virginia Gazette between February and April, 1768. Richard Henry was so pleased with both sets of letters that he chose to publish a combined edition to which he wrote an introduction.33 Dickinson’s vehemence against the Townsend duties, claiming they were “nearly akin to the Stamp Act,” unquestionably influenced Lee’s own objections to the legality of the Acts.34

Having lost virtually a year of activity recovering from his accident, but formulating his political opinions and initiating a correspondence with Dickinson, Lee experienced more personal misfortune in December 1768 when his wife died of pleurisy. After suffering through the winter of 1768–69, during which his mourning caused him to be “so coverd with affliction . . . that I have thought but little of anything except my own unhappiness,” he returned in May for the opening of the new session of the House of Burgesses, immediately resuming a vigorous leadership role. Earlier, he had voiced his concerns over the coming session for he had apparently heard that in the new session, the House would receive word of the King’s rejection of the petition and of his enforcement of the Declaratory Act as well as that several members of the House supported dropping the issue. Lee’s concerns were no doubt encouraged by his brother Arthur, who having returned to London, was sending regular reports to Richard Henry of the “anti-American” ministry35 Voicing his worries over the pusillanimous response of the Burgesses, in a letter to Dickinson, Lee claimed it would be tacitly giving up colonial rights, “the poison, unattended by its antidote, may be used for the destruction of the Body Politick.”36 Dickinson replied with words of encouragement, for Virginia, had gained the “highest degree of reputation, among the other Colonies.”37 Lee’s concerns did not become manifest in the new session, for almost immediately after their return to the House, the Burgesses were faced with new crises, to which, unlike their pallid petitions regarding the Townsend duties, they responded promptly and aggressively.

The session opened on a sanguine note as the Burgesses were addressed by their new Governor, Norborne, Baron de Botetourt. For the first time, Virginia was to be governed by her appointed Governor, not his lieutenant as had been the traditional practice and the Burgesses, like the colony at large, were favorably impressed with the new man, who seemed to Lee to be possessed of “good sense, affability, and politeness.”38 The committee, of which Lee was a member, charged with presenting their opening address were particularly gracious and obsequious. But the promise of good relations went unfulfilled, for immediately thereafter, the Speaker laid upon the table for the members’ perusal a series of letters having been received from other colonies pertaining to the Townsend program.39 After delegating the matter to a committee, the House passed several resolutions relating to the Townsend program, reconfirming the legislature’s exclusive right to tax the colony and their right to petition the King for the redress of grievances. The Burgesses were especially incensed by the prospect of trials, minus juries, in the Vice-Admiralty courts, objecting to the removal of an accused for trial and forcefully stating colonists’ constitutional right to trial by jury.40 A committee of six men, including Lee, was formed to petition the King, this time, with a forceful statement of their outrage. Botetourt’s response was immediate dismissal of the House. Before being prorogued, it had met for only eleven days.40

Several of the Burgesses, however, did not return to their counties, but went instead to the private Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg where they agreed to enter an association to prevent the impartation of British goods.42 On 31 May, Lee sent Lord Shelburne a copy of the proceedings of the short session, justifying their actions as a “necessary and manly assertion” of rights guaranteed under the English Constitution.43 To Arthur, he was less reserved and more eloquent in signaling that, “The flame of liberty burns bright and clear.” Americans were “too wise, too brave, and much too honest, to be either talked, terrified, or bribed from the assertion of just, equitable, and long possessed rights.”44

When the assembly was reconvened in November, it immediately received news from the Governor that its Townsend duties were to be repealed, prompting the Burgesses to respond with a letter of thanks to the King.45 But the issue was far from moribund, for Parliament, in an effort to aid the failing East India Company, had retained the tax on tea, and several Burgesses, including Lee, strenuously denounced continuation of any portion of Townsend’s program. “The appeal,” Lee wrote, “is so evidently contrived to abuse America, that instead of appeasing, it has inflamed all N. America.“46 The tax on tea would remain a thorn in colonial sides.

Meeting in May 1770 for the new session, the House, with the issue still very much in the forefront, appointed on 21 June a committee to write yet another petition to the King asking for the complete repeal of the Townsend duties as well as the abolition of Vice-Admiralty courts. Once again, Lee was appointed to the committee, and as its chair, presented the committee’s petition.47

Meanwhile, on 22 June, a group of merchants and Burgesses convened in Williamsburg to design a new association pledged to support non-exportation in an attempt to force repeal.48 Boycotts had been started as early as January 1768, but compliance was waning by 1770. The genesis of their breakdown lay in New York, where an acute currency shortage, a distrust of and unwillingness to support rival Boston, and worsening unemployment resulted in merchants abandoning non-importation. By its nature, non-importation to be effective required solidarity and once New York abandoned it, the other colonies soon followed. Botetourt, wrote in December to the Board of Trade that “the Spirit of Association,” seemed to be “cooling every day.”49 “The assotiators [sic] here are not so numerous,” wrote William Allason, on 20 Oct. 1769, continuing .This Colony seems to have a name in opposing Revenue Acts but in fact its not merited.”50 The unraveling of the boycott was not limited to New York or Virginia, and by 1771 it was clear its failure was general.

A period of relative quiescence settled over the colonies from 1770–1772. Virginia, much like other colonies, was preoccupied with internal affairs, including settlement of the boundary with the Cherokee, and the aftermath of a devastating flood in 1771, called the “Great Fresh,” where after eleven days of rain, the banks of all the rivers overflowed, the James River rising as much as sixteen inches an hour.51 Lee similarly was absorbed by familial concerns, which included arrangements for his two sons to be sent to London for their education, and by efforts to uncover some lucrative position in order to keep offsetting their expenses.52

By 1772, however, the controversy again moved to the top of the agenda and the latent hostilities of the Burgesses began erupting. The burning of the a o w and the subsequent rumors that Parliament had empowered the investigating commission to transport suspects to England for trial, led to renewed concern about American liberties. In February 1773, Lee initiated a correspondence with another colonial leader, Samuel Adams, lamenting his lack of information and asking Adams’s aid in securing a truthful account of the Gaspee affair.53 Welcoming Lee’s overture, Adams responded, “I had long wished for a correspondence with some gentleman in virginia,” adding “I had frequently heard of your character and merit, as a warm advocate of virtue and liberty.” Promising that he would send him an accurate account of the pewee affair, Adams also suggested to Lee the possibility of establishing committees of correspondence within Virginia to foster communications between the towns effectively to “promote that general union, upon which the security of the whole depends.”54

But Richard Henry Lee had already considered the possibility of committees of correspondence. Unlike Adams, however, Lee proposed inter-colonial committees—apparently the first to do so, suggesting as early as 27 July 1768 to John Dickinson, that committees should be formed in all colonies and correspondence “should be conducted between the lovers of liberty in every province.” In March 1773, his plan was put into effect, and he net with Francis Lightfoot Lee, Thomas Jefferson, and Dabney Carr at the Raleigh tavern to organize just such a committee. This group had drafted a series of resolves outlining their plan that was then presented to the House on 12 March 1773. As it was designed, the business of the committees would be to gain “the most early and authentic intelligence” of all acts and resolutions of Parliament pertaining to the colonies, and to maintain a steady and frequent correspondence about such issues with all other colonies.55 Within the year, all the other colonies followed suit. And though it was not yet recognized the movement towards independence was drawing near.

As events exploded in Boston with the dumping of the tea into the Boston harbor and subsequent passage of the Coercive Acts, a group of Burgesses drafted a measure to invigorate the House. As in 1772, a small group including Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and Jefferson, me, privately, this time at the Capitol, to discuss the issue with an eye to introducing into the House a resolution for a day of fast and prayer symbolizing their sympathy with the plight of Boston. Introduced by Robert Carter Nicholas, the measure was passed, and the members were to convene at Bruton Parish church on 1 June where they would participate in prayers and hear a sermon “suitable to the Occasion.” Once more the Governor’s response was to prorogue the House.56

On the day before, Richard Henry Lee had intended to introduce into the House resolutions rigorously condemning the tea duty and Parliament’s punitive measures towards Boston. Furthermore, the resolves were glaringly devoid of the usual, obsequious pledges of loyalty to the King. Having been persuaded by many of the Burgesses to delay his presentation until the business of the House was completed for they knew of course, they were in danger of dissolution but believed it would not occur until they had attended to routine business, Lee had been denied the opportunity to present his resolves by the Governor’s dismissal. It was beyond doubt, claimed Lee that the measures would have been “assented to by a majority of an hundred to one” if this miscalculation had not prevented him from offering them. Clearly, Lee’s patience had run thin, writing to Arthur that “At this time of immense danger to America, when the dirty Ministerial Stomach is daily ejecting it foul contents upon us,” he opined, “it is quite necessary that the friendly streams of information and advice should be frequently applied to wash away the impurity.”57

The following day, eighty-nine members of the House met extralegally at the Raleigh tavern where Lee revealed plans for a general Congress. The former Burgesses signed an association in which they agreed that an attack made on a “sister” colony was to be interpreted as an attack on all of British America.58 When the Massachusetts House of Representatives called for a Continental Congress, suggesting it meet in Philadelphia on 1 September, Virginia promptly agreed. Twenty-five Burgesses who had remained in Williamsburg, called for a convention to meet on 1 August. When it convened for six days it formulated a non-importation policy, effective 1 November and non-exportation to take effect on 10 August 1775. Before it dissolved, the Convention elected Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison, and Edmund Pendleton as delegates to the First Continental Congress. Peyton Randolph as Speaker of the House of Burgesses naturally garnered the most votes from the Convention, Lee received the next highest number. It was a vote of confidence for Lee from the House, reflected in the merchant, Roger Atkinson’s observation that Lee was “ye 2nd choice & he would have been my 2nd choice,”59

Emerging from the Mercer affair with his reputation surprisingly unscathed, Richard Henry Lee, led Virginia through several of the most vital issues of the pre-war years. Whether relentlessly fighting for the separation of the offices of Speaker and Treasurer, initiating the investigation of Robinson’s Treasury, leading the movement of inter-colonial resistance towards English encroachments on American rights, or proposing committees of correspondence, Lee’s mark on Virginia politics was indelible and he neared the pinnacle of his career. His election to the Continental Congress, second in voting only to Peyton Randolph, confirmed his fellow Burgesses’ confidence in his leadership and rewarded several years of exhausting efforts in the House of Burgesses.


1 VaGaz (Purdie & Dixon) 15 May 1766.

2 No satisfactory account of the Robinson scandal exists. The most useful, for its detail and lists of debtors to the Robinson estate is found in David Mays, Edmund Pendleton, 1721–1801: A Biography (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952). Joseph A. Ernst, “The Robinson Scandal Redivivus: Money, Debts, and Politics in Revolutionary Virginia,” VMHB 77 (1969): 146–173 is also useful. Both, however, are biased in their approach, and are largely apologetic. Mays is sympathetic to Robinson’s malfeasance. Ernst’s work is largely an apology for Robinson citing the positive benefit of the scandal and in classically Keynesian argument implying that Robinson was farsighted, apparently knowing that he was acting for the greater good of the colony.

3 Mays, Pendleton, 179.

4 VaGaz (Purdie & Dixon) 13, 20 Jun 1766.

5 Mays, Pendleton, 184.

6 Pendleton’s List of Debtors to the Robinson Estate in Mays, Pendleton, 364.

7 Fauquier to Shelburne in Mays, Pendleton, 188; Fauquier to Board of Trade. 11 May 1766 JHB 1766–1769, p. xv.

8 Fauquier to Board of Trade. 12 May 1761, JHB 1758–1761, p. 294.

9 Robert Carter Nicholas to Printer. VaGaz (Purdie & Dixon) 5 Sep. 1766; 29 July 1773.

10 Hening, Statutes, VIII, 210–214. November 1766.

11 William M. Dabney, “John Robinson and the Fall of the Conservative Oligarchy,” Dargon Historical Essays (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1952), 60; Dabney, “John Robinson: Speaker of the House of Burgesses and Treasurer of Virginia,” MA thesis. University of Virginia, 1941, 67.

12 Joseph A. Ernst, “The Robinson Scandal Redivivus: Money, Debts, and Politics in Revolutionary Virginia,” VMHB 77 (1969), 160.

13 Speech to the House of Burgesses, 1766 or 1767. mss. UVA.

14 Fauquier to Board of Trade. 22 May 1766. JHB 1766–1769, xv.

15 William J. Lescure, “The Early Political Career of Robert Carter Nicholas, 1728–1769” (MA thesis. College of William and Mary, 1961).

16 R. C. Nicholas to Printer. 27 June 1766. VaGaz (Purdie & Dixon); Ernst, Money and Politics, 182.

17 R. C. Nicholas to R. H. Lee. 23 May 1766. mss UVA; R. C. Nicholas Advertisement. VaGaz (Purdie & Dixon) 23 May 1766.

18 23 May 1766 VaGaz (Purdie &38; Dixon)

19 Carl Bridenbaugh, “Violence and Virtue in Virginia, 1766,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 76 (1964): 14–15.

20 20 June, 4 July, 11 July, 18 July 1766. VaGaz (Purdie & Dixon).

21 Richard Hartswell to the Printer. 19 Sep. 1766. VaGaz (Purdie & Dixon): for a complete discussion of the Chiswell-Rutledge case see: J. A. Leo Lemay, “Robert Bolling and the Bailment of Colonel Chiswell,” Bach American Literature 6 (1971):99–142 and Carl Bridenbaugh, “Violence and Virtue in Virginia, 1766: or, The Importance of the Trivial,” 76 (1964): 3–29.

22 10 Oct 1766 VaGaz (Purdie & Dixon).

23 David Boyd to R. H. Lee 17 Nov. 1766. mss UVA; See also “The Sick Lady’s Case,” VaGaz 27 Nov. 1766 for a scathing report on n the condition of the colony.

24 Bland to R. H. Lee. 22 May 1766. mss UVA.

25 JHB 1761–1766, 6 Nov. 1766, p. 11.

26 Pendleton’s list of debtors, in May’s, Pendleton, 360; Cary to Colonel Preston. 14 May 1766 in Ernst, “Robinson Scandal,” 161; John J. Reardon, Peyton Randolph, 1721–1775: One who Presided (Durban: Carolina Academic Press, 1982), 7–8.

27 Richard Henry Lee, Speech in the House of Burgesses, three drafts in mss. UVA.

28 Peter D. G. Thomas, The Townsend Duties Crisis: The Second Phase of the American Revolution, 1767–1773 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987).

29 R. H. Lee to — 27 Mar. 1768. Ballagh, Letters, I:26.

30 R. H. Lee to —, 27 Mar. 1768 Ballagh, Letters, I:27.

31 JHB, 1766–1769, 5 Apr.; 7 Apr. 1768, pp. 149, 157.

32 R. H. Lee to John Dickinson. 25 July 1768. Ballagh, Letters, I:29.

33 R. H. Lee to Arthur Lee. 5 Apr. 1770. Ballagh, Letters, I:42.

34 Dickinson to R. H. Lee. 10 Aug 1768. mss APS.

35 A. Lee to R. H. Lee. 23 Dec. 1768; 29 Dec. 1768 get location.

36 R. H. Lee to John Dickinson. 26 Nov. 1768 mss. APS.

37 John Dickinson to R. H. Lee. date. mss. APS.

38 R. H. Lee to John Dickinson. 26 Nov. 1768. mss. APS.

39 JHB 1766–1769, 8 May, 9 May, 1769, pp. 189–190, 199–200.

40 JHB 1766–1769, 16 May 1769, p. 214.

41 JHB 1766–1769, 17 May 1769, p. 215–218.

42 William Wirt Henry, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), I:142; R. H. Lee to Arthur Lee. 19 May 1769. Ballagh, Letters, I:34.

43 R. H. Lee to Shelburne. 31 May 1769. Ballagh, Letters, I:37.

44 R. H. Lee to A. Lee. 19 May 1769. mss UVA.

45 JHB 7, 8 Nov. 1769, 226–227, 233–234.

46 R. H. Lee to William Lee. 7 July 1770. Ballagh, Letters, I:46.

47 JHB 1770–1772, 21 Jun; 27 Jun, 1770, p. 85, 101&38211;102.

48 JHB 1770–1772, xxvii–xxxi.

49Botetourt to the Board of Trade, 19 Dec. 1770. JHB 1770–1772, xxxi.

50 William Allason to William Gregory, 20 Oct. 1769. in Richmond College Historical Papers, 2 (1917): 142.

51 “The Great Fresh of 1771,” Virginia Cavalcade 1 (1952): 20; Richard Bland to Thomas Adams. 1 Aug. 1771 VMHB 4 (1885): 128.

52 see chap. 3, 44–48.

53 R. H. Lee to Samuel Adams. 4 Feb. 1773, Ballagh, Letters, I:82.

54 Samuel Adams to R. H. Lee, 10 Apr. 1773. in Lee, Memoir of the Life and Correspondence of Richard Henry Lee . . . (Philadelphia: M. C. Carey and I. Lea, 1825), I:87–89.

55 JHB 1773–1776, 12 Mar. 1773.

56 JHB 1773–1776, 24 May, 26 May, 1771, 124, 132.

57 R. H. Lee to A. Lee 26 June 1774; R. H. Lee to Samuel Adams. 23. Jun 1773 in Ballagh, Letters, I:114–118, 111–113.

58 An Association, Signed by 89 Members of the Late House of Burgesses. 27 May 1774. Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1973) 1:97–98.

59 R. H. Lee to Arthur Lee. 26 June 1774. Ballagh, Letters, I:116; Roger Atkinson to Samuel Pleasants. 1 Oct. 1774 in “Letters of Roger Atkinson,” VMHB 15 (1908): 355–356.

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