Richard Henry Lee of Virginia: A Biography, by Mary Elizabeth Virginia, Chapter 7

Richard Henry Lee of Virginia: A Biography

Chapter 7
The Congressman

The actions of the Continental Congress, and Lee’s career within that body have been thoroughly chronicled by several competent historians, and in the context of this study, do not require a detailed recital. Several episodes, nevertheless, which unfolded while he was in Congress, illustrate the continuities in his political and personal behavior, from Burgess to Congressman, and therefore do require explication. In Congress he deployed his skills in a broader, completely novel arena, replete with rich opportunities, and as it happened, with accompanying perils. Throughout Lee remained the quintessential politician, and as such, found himself embroiled in controversy on several occasions. The tally of his achievement, however, upon war’s end, is notably impressive. Again, despite great costs to his reputation, he demonstrated his professionalism and dedication to his chosen profession—politics.1

Throughout his years in the House of Burgesses, Richard Henry Lee had exhibited remarkable drive, ambition and stamina. Entering the House in 1758, he had immediately risen to a leadership position, remaining one of the top Burgesses during his entire tenure. Election to the First Continental Congress was an affirmation of his fellow Burgesses’ respect and confidence in him which were undiminished despite the potentially damaging effects of the Mercer affair and Lee’s early accusations of mismanagement of Treasury funds, pursued during the height of the powerful Robinson’s popularity. At most junctures in his career, Lee had exhibited remarkable foresight, anticipating popular political events and seizing upon issues that were controversial but that would ultimately increase his political strength. In his role as the consummate professional politician, Lee’s public actions however, on important occasions conflicted with his sincerely expressed private ethics.

Joining in the First Continental Congress, Lee was fortunate in that his reputation as a principal proponent of the rights of colonists as they perceived them under the English Constitution had preceded him. Along with the majority of delegates, to be sure, he initially hoped for reconciliation with England, but only if all personal and political rights of colonials could be assured. As early as 1764, however, Lee had discerned that independence might, indeed, be the ultimate outcome of the British measures.2

Leaving for Philadelphia in late August 1774, Lee arrived with three of his fellow delegates—Randolph, Harrison, and Bland—on the afternoon of 2 September. Congregating in the City Tavern, Sr. informal meeting place for the newly arriving Congressmen, Lee met for the first time, among others, the inimitable John Adams. It was an auspicious beginning, for the two colleagues would become inextricably bound by their mutual respect and by their dedication to what was evolving as the American “cause.” Adams, often acerbic in his criticism, on this occasion was laudatory in his description of the men from Virginia, writing, they “appear to be the most spirited and consistent of, any.“ Lee, on that occasion, explicitly described his views, and Adams recorded them, finding in Lee a kindred spirit who adamantly declared that all offending legislation—Revenue Laws, Boston Port Bill, Massachusetts Government Act, Quebec Bill—had to be repealed, and that all troops had to be removed, and abstinence for all dutied articles had to be practiced. According to Adams, Lee claimed it was “Time to make vigorous Exertions.”3 Adams was duly impressed.

Elected with overwhelming support by the Virginia convention, Lee entered Congress at the zenith of his career. For two years he worked tirelessly for Congress just as he had for the House of Burgesses, and with John and Samuel Adams, he fought uncompromisingly for American rights. All three were seemingly tireless in their service, and were thus instrumental in convincing others, ultimately, of the need for declaring independence. When word arrived in May 1776 that the Virginia Convention had, in fact, voted in favor of independence and had sent instructions to its delegates to propose the matter to Congress, it was fitting therefore that Lee make the proposal. On the 7 June, in a resolution that was seconded by John Adams, Lee did indeed move for independence. And in this, Lee and Adams, and their respective colonies were firmly united.

That Jefferson, not Lee, was chosen by Congress to write the Declaration of Independence has long perplexed historians, many viewing it as an intentional slight towards Lee. Logically, as presenter of the motion Lee would have been chosen to write the Declaration. That he was not chosen led one historian to declare he was “publicly humiliated.”4 Confusion over the issue has been largely the result of explanations provided by John Adams. George Wythe had informed Adams that Lee had many enemies in Virginia because he was still resented for having uncovered the Treasury scandal. On another occasion, Adams recorded that Jefferson was “sett up to rival and supplant” Lee since Lee was .not believed by most of his Colleagues.” Elsewhere Adams wrote that Jefferson was selected because he had the most votes, since delegates had bound together in order to insure the exclusion of yet another Virginian, Benjamin Harrison.5 All of these statements are misleading, for they are merely Adams’ recollections and opinions and none is borne out by a careful examination of events.

There is no evidence that Lee was intentionally excluded from the drafting of the Declaration. Rather it was by his own choice for he desired to return to Virginia in order to participate in the formation of Virginia’s new state government. In fact, several colleagues had urged hi, return to the state. “We can not do without you,” wrote George Mason on 18 May, adding “I speak with the Sincerity of a Friend” in assuring that “your absence can not, must not be dispensed with.”6 John Page, Thomas Ludwell Lee, and Patrick Henry all expressed similar desires for Lee’s return.7 On 28 May, Lee had expressed his intention to return to Virginia and after a few days at Chantilly, to attend the Virginia Convention in Williamsburg. He was, at that time, merely awaiting his replacement, Colonel Thomas Nelson. He also informed Landon Carter of his intention to be in Virginia by the middle of June.8 Lee was merely following his stated plans to return to Virginia, when congress appointed Jefferson to write the Declaration.

After his Declaration had been altered in Congress, Jefferson sent Lee a copy of the original document along with the revised one asking Lee for his opinion. In Lee’s letter to Jefferson on 21 July 1776 lies the clearest indication that Lee was unaware of any slight in not having been author of the Declaration. For in a truly sympathetic manner, he commiserated with Jefferson over the Congressional revisions, telling Jefferson, “It is wonderful, and passing pitiful, that the rage of change should be so unhappily applied,” continuing, “However the Thing is in its nature so good, that no Cookery can spoil the Dish for the palates of Freemen.” There was no hang dog animosity in Lee’s response and there is no indication anywhere in the record that he felt slighted.9

While it is simplistic to view Congress as consisting of Radicals and Conservatives, several men in the first Congress, nonetheless, consistently supported measures that allowed no compromise with England. These sane men ultimately recognized the inevitability of independence, working tirelessly, frequently behind the scenes, to convince the more moderate Congressman that independence was essential to insure the liberties of Americans. The Adamses—particularly John—and Richard Henry Lee were the members who actively pursued a path leading to independency. While there were no political parties per se, Congress still was not an inchoate conglomeration of shifting factional alliances. Rather, voting patterns attest to the consistency of alliances between delegates. These alliances were something other than regional coalitions, and in fact, members of individual colonial delegations frequently voted at odds with each other.10 The Adamses and Lee constituted one of the most important of the voting blocs in Congress, never losing their original affinity for each other and remaining closely allied throughout the sitting of the Congress. This alliance would have personal, as well as political, repercussions for the Adamses and Lee.

The connection between the Massachusetts Adamses and Virginia’s Lee had begun in the previous year when Samuel Adams and Richard Henry Lee had begun corresponding thereby informing each other in detailed letters of the events in their respective colonies.11 The upshot was that Samuel and John Adams and Richard Henry Lee soon discovered that they shared a fundamental agreement regarding the nature of the imperial conflict and the measures appropriate for its resolution. The Lee-Adams connection in Congress, however, was not popular with many Virginians who viewed Lee’s affinity with the New Englanders with suspicion. Rivalries existed between the northern and southern colonies from the first, which anticipated one of the first deeply divisive issues that emerged in the Constitutional Convention over the basis of representation—whether it was to be reckoned on population or by colony.

But there were several other sources of rivalry between the colonies, with some, for instance, resenting Massachusetts for her role in precipitating the crisis by her greater radicalism and resort to violence during several crises. Social, political and economic differences also contributed to misunderstandings for there was already in the eighteenth century a keen awareness of distinctions between northerners and southerners. But Lee, farsighted as usual, recognized the need for colonial unity, flatly declaring that ”America can only be conquered by disunion.”12 Regardless of such visions, sympathies for New England were a factor in his near removal as a delegate to Congress, for there were charges in the House of Burgesses that he had “favored New England to the injury of Virginia.” Although Lee dismissed the accusation as “futile and false,”13 he would later avow during a period of great personal frustration that the “aristocratic south suits not my disposition, and is inconsistent with my ideas of what must constitute social happiness and security,” adding that he was interested in “the establishment of a wise and free republic in Massachusetts Bay, where I hope to finish the remainder of my days.”14 Nonetheless he was unalterably an aristocratic Virginian, and it is unlikely that his statement was anything other an a peevish outburst.

In 1777, Lee once again, became embroiled in controversy, this time over a conversion scheme he had designed for collecting rents for his western lands. As a consequence his political motivations were challenged. Late in November 1776, Lee wrote to Jefferson, who was then in Virginia, asking for his intervention in countering “malignant and very scandalous hints and innuendos” which had been uttered against Lee in Virginia’s House of Delegates.15 By May, it was obvious that he would have to leave Congress to attend to the affair personally, for he was still under attack in Virginia, and was as a result in danger of losing his seat in Congress. The controversy arose when Lee had refused to accept payments from his tenants in paper money, demanding, instead, payment in tobacco, or payment in paper money that was equivalent in real terms to hard currency. Consequently, he was charged with contributing to the depreciation of paper currency.16

Calling the calumnies against him a “wicked industry,” the most “malicious that the deceitful heart of Man ever produced,” Lee vented his outrage over the matter.17

On the same day, he furnished a detailed defense of his actions in a letter to Patrick Henry, written before he returned to Virginia. “I love that cause [America] & have faithfully exerted myself to serve it well,” wrote Lee who cited his patriotism in order to justify his behavior. Referring to his large family, whose support was dependent entirely on rents, Lee asserted that the excessive emissions of paper money, which were constantly falling in value, “would render my small income . . . totally insufficient.” Therefore in August 1775, he had proposed to his collector that there be a change in the payment of rents. The proposal, wrote Lee, was tendered when emissions of money for this war were scarcely begun,” and therefore he could not accurately be described as depreciating a currency “not yet in being.” Lee also reported that the tenants themselves in Loudon petitioned in August 1775 to have their rents changed to payment in tobacco. Since he then was in Congress, he disclaimed knowledge of these affairs until March 1776 when he had for over a year received no recompense from his tenants. Only then, he noted, had he requested Richard Parker to propose to the tenants a conversion of their rents to tobacco, to which all but one or two agreed.18

Justifying his actions on behalf of his large family and his need for income, the same justifications he invoked each time he sought political office or considered embarking on any other money earning scheme—such as his plans to sell slaves—Lee in his account to Henry is both misleading and self-serving. He failed to mention, for instance, that he first proposed his conversion plan one month after the Virginia House of Delegates had enacted a law allowing for the emission of paper currency, a law specifically stating that paper currency was to be “current between all person within this colony.” While it is true, as Lee claimed, that these “emissions had scarcely begun,” he still knew that his plan was illegal.19

And in May 1776, two months after Parker began trying to collect converted rents from his tenants, the House passed an act for the further emission of notes—this time including strict injunctions designed to prevent fraud. According to the Act, the Treasury notes were to be received in lawful tender at face value and large fines were to be levied against anyone demanding a greater price or exchange in gold or silver or was taking “any allowance for the value thereof.”20 Lee’s rent conversion scheme was patently illegal.

What is more, Lee clearly anticipated legal difficulties regarding the issue, for he wrote on 10 January 1776, prior to Parker’s implementation of his plan in March, a paper on the nature of contracts, inscribing on the cover his purpose: “To avoid future law suits, Reason for desiring the rents to be now settled in sterling.” Within his paper, he noted that contracts made under an existing law must be honored under that law, apparently anticipating the stipulations in the May Act against demanding gold or silver in payment of debts. Constructing his own defense, he further recorded that “there was no money but Gold & Silver that was legal tender.” To avoid a “multiplicity” of Lawsuits he then proposed an agreement to be entered into with the tenants that the rents be paid in Sterling “deducting 25 per Cent from the Current money to make it Sterling.”21

Obviously the problem of Virginia’s already depreciating currency was not seriously worsened by Lee’s actions with a handful of his Northern Neck tenants. Notwithstanding, Lee surely understood that his attempts to collect rents in tobacco and Sterling was at the very best an action that would generate criticism from his tenants, and at the worst one that would instigate lawsuits. While he may have feigned surprise at the extent of the criticism directed at him, he had been fully apprised of the difficulties inherent in implementing his plan, as early as 16 January 1777 in a letter from Joseph Blackwell, whom he had charged with collecting his rents. Almost entirely unsuccessful, Blackwell wrote to Lee that he had been “riding Round and Round your Tenants & debtors and pushed them all I could to get their Tobacco down,” however, continued Blackwell, “a great Impediment in collecting your debts has been owing to a sett of Vile men who has undertaken to Asperce your Charictor and telling your Tenants and others that you Indevour all you can to depreciate the Vallue of the paper currency.” In addition, Lee was informed that one of his tenants intended publishing in the Gazette a letter that Lee had sent regarding the conversion of rents. Blackwell informed Lee he had done everything in his power to silence his critics and to place his character in a “fair light” but “there is two many of them to be silenced.” Blackwell closed with a plea that Lee travel to virginia to personally attend his business.22 While the letter alluded to did not appear in the Gazette, it apparently was circulated, for a member of the House attested to having viewed it.23

While Lee was being charged with depreciating the paper currency, he was simultaneously fending off renewed accusations of favoring the interests of New England over those of Virginia. To these charges, he more eloquently and plausibly defended himself. “Our enemies, & our friend too know that America can only be conquered by disunion,” wrote Lee and to the charge that he neglected the interests of Virginia, he “defied the poisonous tongue of Slander to produce a single instance,” of it, adding, “Indeed I am at a loss to know wherein their interests clash.”24

For all his foreknowledge, Lee was appalled by the challenge to his integrity, repeating that he had served his country to the best of his abilities with “fidelity & industry, to the injury of my health and fortune, and a sequestrations from domestic happiness.”25 Therefore he felt compelled to leave Congress, traveling to Williamsburg on 15 June in order to answer charges within the Virginia House of Delegates—though not until after the matter had been addressed in the House.26 While the Journal of the House of Delegates, unfortunately, does not record the issue directly, the debate, apparently occurring sometime in May 1777, was heated. Though admitting he was not very fond of Lee, Colonel John Bannister, a member of the House voiced his disapproval of the issue being examined while Lee was absent, calling it a dangerous precedent. The charges against Lee were perceived to be extremely significant giver, Lee’s “eminent station,” as “one of the first guardians and trustees of the rights of America.” It was the sentiment of the House that Lee was “charged with the affairs of the United States, and thereby bound to promote their interest in every respect.” The reasoning was that a violation of trust occurred when Lee contributed to the depreciation of Virginia’s paper currency and that consequently he ought not to be entrusted again with the public office of Congressional Delegate.27

On 14 May 1777 a petition was filed in the House by inhabitants of Mecklenburg County containing a stipulation probably referring to Lee. The petitioners’ intent was to unite against Scottish factors who refused to accept paper currency in payment of debts, but also they claimed not “to exculpate many of their own countrymen, who esteem gold and silver so much more than paper as to demand a very considerable advance in exchanging the one for the other.” Appearing just as Lee’s rent conversion was in the process of being debated, this part of the petition seems to have been addressed towards that issue.28 When voting for the new delegates to the Continental Congress proceeded on 22 May, Lee’s transgressions were actively condemned. On four separate votes taken, for selection of delegates, Lee’s showing was poor. Serially he received two, nine, eleven and ten votes respectively and even on the balloting for the last member, he came no closer to election than third place.29 As a gauge of his popularity and of public approval, the ballots confirmed that Lee, had fallen dramatically in the estimation of his fellow delegates from, the time of his first election.

Upon his arrival in Williamsburg, after his reputation had been battered in the House, Lee went before that body in an attempt to exculpate himself. Support for him had already arrived in the form of a letter of resignations from delegates Francis Lightfoot Lee and Mann Page, Jr, to George Wythe. The two were understandably appalled by the possibility that during their absence in the service of their country, they could “in an instant be deprived of what we esteem most valuable, our Reputation.”30 But if their indignation was well founded, their fears were not, for addressing the House, Lee was brilliantly successful, arguing his case with “graceful eloquence . . . manly firmness, equalness of temper, serenity, calmness and judgement.” After several witnesses were examined, he was exonerated and the House officially thanked him for his “faithful services.” Speaker of the House, George Wythe, added a personal message, telling Lee that after observing his conduct he thought Lee was truly patriotic, exerting his singular abilities and zeal in promoting the good of his country. Lee graciously acknowledged the resolution of the House and two days later, after the resignation of George Mason, he was once again elected as a Congressional Delegate.31 Along with the successful conclusion to the episode, the House chose simply to ignore the impassioned resignations of Francis Lightfoot Lee and Mann Page, Jr.32

Lee was officially vindicated and his reputation was salvaged: nonetheless, the incident is yet another example of recurrent disjointedness of Lee’s private and political personas. For Lee had knowingly ensnared himself in a situation that was neither legal nor ethical, once again justifying his actions by reference to the financial needs of his large family. Always the consummate politician, he had gambled on a shady economic opportunity and then deployed his impressive presence and oratorical skills to convince his colleagues of his innocence, and thus cleansing his reputation. But this time, though officially exonerated, Lee could not regard his reputation as unscathed. He had gratuitously made himself vulnerable to his enemies: and, in actuality, the issue of the rents marked a turning point in his career. By May 1778, the erosion of his popularity is evident in the new election o delegates to congress: Lee was next to last on the list.33 After observing the order of the balloting, Governor Patrick Henry wrote sympathetically to Lee that it was an effect of the “rancorous malice, that has so long followed you.”34 True enough, but Lee had brought it on himself.

In Congress, too, Lee’s popularity was ebbing, while the strength of his enemies was in full flood. Exhibiting a southern planter’s suspicion of financial activities, Lee along with Adams and his allies, was concerned with impeding the growing influence of Robert Morris, the distinguished financier and delegate from Pennsylvania. With extensive financial and commercial dealings that also embraced an interest in the Philadelphia based Willing, Morris & Company and with a membership on the Congressional Secret Commercial Committee, Morris and several associates, one of them Silas Deane, were entrusted to manage Congress’ financial affairs as well as much of its commercial business.35 Though there is no evidence of any embezzlement of Congressional funds, Morris and his associates did channel, and thereby misappropriate, public money to finance ventures in which they had private interests.

Lee’s natural distaste for, and distrust of, financial dealings predisposed him to be wary and skeptical about Morris, and in July 1777 in an attempt to weaken Morris’s influence the Lee-Adams group initiated a reorganization of the Secret Committee of Commerce to include more members than Robert Morris and Robert R. Livingston, who were previously the only delegates on the committee. This step was construed as an unwarranted attack on Morris’ personal integrity.36 These interactions and attendant skirmishes were further complicated by the fact that several of the men figuring most prominently in the Congress’ financial transactions—Morris, Deane, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Bancroft—were also actively involved in western land speculations under the aegis of the Vandalia or Grand Ohio Company. This was a matter of some pertinence to Lee, for his family’s interest in the west had repeatedly been thwarted in attempts to secure land grants made to the original Ohio Company, founded by Thomas Lee. Disabused by the failure of the Ohio Company, Lee was generally unsympathetic to other western land schemes.

Such rancor and resentments eventually were to find a target in Silas Deane who was part of a trio in 1776 having been designated by Congress as official American emissaries to France: the other two members were Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee.37 The subsequent Lee-Deane affair evolved out of fundamental differences primarily between these two commissioners, their personal relationships, their understanding of one another’s missions and diplomacy, and their individual relations with French officials and agents. Deane’s official mission was political. In this connection, like his colleagues, he too was charged with soliciting French aid, covert or otherwise, with securing arms, and a commercial pact with France. But that was not the full extent of his activity. While operating on a private commission from Robert Morris, he was simultaneously attempting privately in discussions with the French to locate and purchase articles that could be channeled profitably into the trade with American Indians.38

For his part, Arthur Lee, originally acting in London as a colonial agent for Massachusetts, then as an agent for the Continental Congress, for two years prior to appointment to the French commission had been negotiating with the French chargé d’affaires in England, the famed dramatist turned spy, Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais. Lee and Beaumarchais had formulated plans for a bogus company through which Americans could be supplied with French arms and materiel. But relations between the two men were strained. Arthur was an amateur diplomatist at best, impatient, and fanatically eager for the French immediately to commit themselves. Beaumarchais, subtle and clever like his masters, Louis XVI and the foreign minister Comte de Vergennes, were cautious and patient, against taking untimely steps that might prematurely provoke their enemy Great Britain. Beaumarchais’ intelligence to his masters reflected his dislike for, and distrust of, Lee. With Beaumarchais and Lee, this ill-matched pair, confusion arose in their negotiations over what was to be the precise nature of promised French aid. Lee, and through him Congress, were led to believe it was to be tantamount to a Royal gift; Beaumarchais later claimed it had been well understood between Lee and himself that it would take the form of a loan.39

Meanwhile, Silas Deane arrived in France on 7 July 1776 and as an officially appointed commissioner immediately entered into negotiations with Beaumarchais who discovered an easy affinity for this American and hence began fresh negotiations with him for the covert purchase of desperately needed French arms and supplies. Lee, still in London, disgruntled over Beaumarchais’ seemingly cavalier transferal of negotiations to Deane, decided to visit Paris in August 1776.40 while Lee was there, Deane jealously guarding his own role as official commissioner, complained to Beaumarchais that Lee’s presence jeopardized their deliberations and even requested Lee’s friends to convince him neither to get involved nor on .any consideration to Appear in Publick.” What was left unspoken was Deane’s fear that Arthur Lee would interfere with his private affairs. Embittered Lee returned to England.41

Then on 16 December 1776 Arthur received official documentary notice of his own appointment to the commission and again set off for Paris. But before Lee arrived in the French capital to resume his mission, Franklin who had himself arrived only a few weeks earlier and Deane had already effected a working arrangement through a series of aides, many of them like Edward Bancroft, English spies. Present on the scene again, Arthur was appalled by what he perceived as the lax informality and the absence of strict accounting procedures that marked Franklin and Deane’s conduct of official affairs. Indeed, he was alarmed, for though petulant, impatient, and quick-tempered, Arthur was a painfully honest man and what he observed in Paris not only angered him but also aroused his profound suspicions. Aware of Arthur’s assessment of the situation, his brother William wrote counseling caution, exhorting Arthur to be patient for .the ground is ticklish.”42

Arthur Lee was uncharacteristically patient. For several months he kept his suspicions to himself. But he was largely excluded from affairs in France, as Deane and Franklin pursued their own paths and his inactivity, stimulating his sense of responsibility, soon made him restless. Franklin, empowered by Congress to treat with Spain, gratefully relinquished that position to Lee who left Paris in 1777 to attend the Court of Spain.43 From there he went to Prussia, and therefore was absent from Paris when his brother William, newly commissioned as Congressional commercial agent to France, arrived in Paris intending to assume his duties.

William likewise encountered difficulties with Deane and Franklin. Having been appointed in January, William had never personally received his commission which had been sent to Thomas Morris, Robert Morris’ brother who had been entrusted with Congress’ commercial affairs, and apparently been held by him for several months. Though Lee had been informed of his appointment by Deane in April, with no official commission actually in hand, Deane and Franklin had been reluctant to have him undertake his duties.44 Meanwhile, Deane was already involved with elaborating a series of shady commercial dealings, including privateering and purchasing of war supplies with the British spy Edward Bancroft, and he was understandably reluctant to allow William to probe into his affairs. In addition, Franklin and Deane, though they were usurping a Congressional prerogative, had already established Franklin’s nephew, Jonathan Williams as commercial agent.45

The Lee brothers were highly suspicious of Deane’s activities, and Arthur Lee on several occasion wrote of his conviction that Deane was employing public money for his and others’ private purposes. Deane’s private and public financial dealings were, in fact, inextricably linked. On one occasion, for instance, seeking to profit at the expense of Congress, Deane split a cargo of saltpetre and gunpowder between himself in his official capacity and a New York mercantile firm. Deane similarly funded some of his own dealings with prizes taken by American privateers. He had been charged with disposing of them. Citing discrepancies in Deane’s financial account, Arthur and William accused both Deane and Franklin of embezzling funds, engaging in profiteering, and disclosing information to the British.46

Congressional clarification of these complex dealings, attitudes, and activities required that the principals involved be pulled from their European arena. To that end, on 21 November 1777, Richard Henry Lee moved in Congress tot the recall of Silas Deane,47 securing the appointment of John Adams as his replacement. Arriving in Paris April, Adams was, if anything, even more appalled than Arthur Lee by the state of affairs. Writing of the relationships of the various commissioners, aides and agents, he opined in frustration “It is a Rope of Sand. . . . What shall I say? What shall I think?” and further lamenting the sorry state of financial affairs, adding, “There never was before I came, a minute Book, a Letter Book or an Account Bock—and it is not possible to obtain a clear Idea of our Affairs.”48 But ultimately, it was neither Lee’s anger nor Congress’ suspicions over Deane’s financial dealings that resulted in Deane’s recall, but rather Deane’s own poor judgment in his practice of indiscriminately signing contracts with French soldiers for high ranking command in the American army.

By the time Deane appeared for a hearing in front of Congress on 15 August 1778, the affair had precipitated a Congressional crisis. “The Storm increases,” wrote delegate Gouvernor Morris to John Jay, “and I think some one of the tall Trees must be torn up by the Roots.”49 writing to his wife, Congressional delegate Joseph Reed was thankful that his own reputation had not suffered while all around him were “Rocks & Precipices.”50 The issue proved to be virtually impossible to resolve, the absence of accounts, the mutual accusations and recriminations by and of Deane and Lee obfuscated efforts to unravel the affair or bring reason to bear upon it.

Further beclouding any true reckoning of the matter, Congress had been split into two discernible and hostile factions. Rallying to Deane’s defense were Robert Morris and several other delegates with notable financial and commercial interests, while leading the attacks against Deane were the Lees and Adamses. Trying to cleanse his reputation, Deane lashed out at Arthur in a letter, declaring he had never known Lee to be “satisfied with any person,” charging that his public and private dealings “almost constantly ended in a dispute, sometimes in litigious quarrels.” Deane even characterized Arthur as a man having “at last arrived on the very borders of insanity.” To the Pennsylvania Packet, he contributed additional stinging diatribes against Lee, inveighing that both Arthur and William “gave universal disgust.” In congress he formally charged Arthur, depicting him as “extremely disgusting to a gallant and patriotic people and prejudicial to the character of the country he represents.”51

The normally mild tempered Francis Lightfoot Lee, in an effort to shield his family’s impugned reputation responded in the Packet, asking the public to suspend judgment while the matter was under investigation. The “wickedness of Deane b his party exceed all belief,” Richard Henry wrote to Arthur, who was still in France. And in December Francis Lightfoot wrote to Richard Henry in frustration, “Publications still continue in abundance to blacken the Lees.” Deane, had in fact even resorted to having handbills printed .the better to dispose of his infamous Libel both against Congress and our family.” Exasperated he continued, “I do not wonder at your disgust at the wickedness b folly of mankind,” adding, “ I have so much of the same feelings,” Writing of the accusations levied against Arthur, Francis Lightfoot vehemently declared, “the Party sucked it in, as nectar of Ambrosia.” Angry and disillusioned by the assaults made on their repute, the Lee brothers continued trying to vindicate their family name. Because of poor health, however, Richard Henry Lee, at this critical juncture had returned to Chantilly, thereby hindering his attempts to exonerate his brother.52

The aspersions cast against Arthur Lee’s character by association had affected all of the Lee’s, but they also precipitated a more specific attack on Richard Henry. A British spy, Dr. John Berkenhout, who was a friend of Arthur’s from the Medical school at Edinburgh, reestablished communications with Lee in 1777, hinting that he had some information about England and America, and writing Lee that he had dreamt of “harmony.”53 Arthur promptly reported the letters to Franklin and Vergennes, and at the time, nothing came of the matter.

But traveling to the United States in 1778, Berkenhout had sought out Richard Henry introducing himself as a friend of Arthur’s, and telling him that he intended to move with his family to America, “a country of freedom,” where he would pursue his work as a physician. Lee knew nothing of Berkenhout’s mission and had no reason to suspect he was spying for England. For .his tale was plain probable,” wrote Lee of the “artful knave” Berkenhout.54 Nonetheless, however flimsy a business, Deane used the issue to further discredit the Lees, particularly to blunt their accusations that he and Franklin were consorting with known British spies. By writing on 10 October a series of six questions under the pseudonym “Querist,” Deane implied that Richard Henry’s associations with Berkenhout were treasonous, at the same time challenging the loyalty of William Lee, by asking if he were not, after the war had already begun, Alderman of London, and of Arthur Lee for corresponding with Berkenhout on political issues. Deane had earlier led Vergennes to believe that Arthur was working as a double agent—spying for England by passing information to Lord Shelburne, a personal friend of Arthur’s.55

Writing from Chantilly, where he was still confined in January due to his poor health, Richard Henry responded to “Querist,” in the Virginia Gazette, answering each of Deane’s charges individually. Also responding through the pages of the FS Lee described his meeting with Berkenhout and proclaimed his innocence in the matter. Richard Henry clearly had been duped by Berkenhout with his apparently sincere claims of having a strong attachment to America—he even provided Lee with a pamphlet he had written, espousing support for American independence. Lee’s innocence in the matter is evident—after all, it was Congress who had allowed Berkenhout freedom of movement throughout Philadelphia for more than a week before suspecting his actions—but his defense had little positive effect for several of his adversaries in Virginia exploited the opportunity to permanently discredit him. Old charges of his depreciating Virginia currency and of his preference for New England, this time further aided by Lee’s alleged involvement in the Conway Cabal—wherein critics of Washington, particularly from New England had led a clandestine move for his replacement—again surfaced and Lee’s political standing sank to a new low. Tired and vexed, Richard Henry discerned the common truth about lies, that “the improbability of a malicious story serves but to help forward the currancy of it—because it increases the scandal,” continuing, “the world, like Romish Priests are industrious to propagate a belief in things they have not the least faith themselves; or like the pious St Austin who said he believed some things because they were absurd and impossible.”56

Lee’s influence in Congress was also demonstrably declining. In December 1778, Francis Lightfoot Lee observed that Deane had made great progress in “the Art of intriguing” and had formed a “very dangerous party who think it necessary to their designs, to remove all the old friends of Liberty and Independence.”57 The Lee’s repute was further undermined by the well-intentioned but impolitic Thomas Paine who wrote to the Pennsylvania Packet in Lee’s defense, accusing Deane and Beaumarchais of conspiring to defraud Congress while dealing in supplies to the government. Using official documentation, Paine overstepped the bounds of his office within the Committee of Foreign Affairs by disclosing private business in the public press. He flatly contradicted Vergennes who claimed France had made no gifts to the United States prior to their alliance. Because of Paine, for the first time, Conrad Alexandre Gerard, newly appointed French ambassador to the United States, entered the fight, openly condemning Paine and speaking in Deane’s defense.58

The war of words continued throughout 1778 with supporters of Deane slowly gaining influence and power within Congress. By the beginning of April 1779, an angry, disillusioned, and weary Richard Henry Lee submitted his resignation to the Virginia House of Delegates. “I am really injured in my health,” and had long neglected his family he told Jefferson, but added to these reasons, he bemoaned his persecution by the “united voice of toryism, peculation, faction, envy, malice, and all uncharitableness.”59 It was at this juncture that Lee threatened to move to Massachusetts Bay. But Lee was no New Englander, the Virginia planter was merely inveighing over the acid-drenched events of the past year.60

Having entered congress at the zenith of his career, Lee enjoyed the confidence of his fellow Virginians and the respect of Congressional Delegates. For two years in that body he worked tirelessly for American rights and was rewarded on 8 June 1776 when he was personally able to move for independence. But over the course of the next three years his reputation was repeatedly tarnished, partially as a result of his rent conversion scheme, to be sure, but largely because of the actions of his brothers William and Arthur. Lee never again regained the level of prominence with which he entered Congress in 1775. His career was far from over, however, and he would return to Philadelphia once again in 1784, on that occasion to be elected its President.


1 Works on the Continental Congress are too numerous to list, however, several remain standard and useful, including: Edmund Cody Burnett, The Continental Congress (New York: MacMillan, 1941); Lynn Montross, The Reluctant Rebels: The Sotry of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (New York: Harper Brothers, 1950); Jack N. Rakove, The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretative History of the Continental Congress (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins,1979); H. James Henderson, Party Politics in the Continental Congress (New York( McGraw-Hill, 1974). For Richard Henry Lee’s Congressional career, see: Paul C. Chadwick. “Richard Henry Lee and the Continental Congress, 1774–1779,” (Ph.D. dissertation, Duke University, 1965).

2 R. H. Lee to —, 11 May 1764. James C. Ballagh, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee (New York: Da Capo Press, 1970) I:7.

3 John Adams, Diary, 29 Aug. 1774, Paul Smith ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789 (Washington: Library of Congress, 1976), I:7.

4 Paul Nagel, The Lees of Virginia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 100.

5 John Adams, Diary and Autobiography (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), III: 367–368, 293.

6 George Mason to R. H. Lee. 18 May 1776 The Papers of George Mason, 1775–1792 Robert Rutland ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970), I:271.

7 John Page to R. H. Lee. 12 Apr. 1776; Thomas Ludwell Lee to R. H. Lee. 13 Apr. 1776. mss UVA; Patrick Henry to R. H. Lee 20 May 1776 in William Wirt Henry, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), 411.

8 R. H. Lee to Thomas Ludwell Lee. 28 May 1776; R. H. Lee to Landon Carter. 2 June 1776, Ballagh, Letters, I:196, 199.

9 R. H. Lee to Thomas Jefferson. 21y Jul 1776. Ballagh, Letters, I:210.

10 Henderson, “Structure of Politics in the Continental Congress,” Essays on the American Revolution Stephen G. Kurtz and James H. Hutson, eds. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973), 159–160.

11 R. H. Lee to Samuel Adams. 4 Feb. 1773, Ballagh, Letters, I:82–83; S. Adams to R. H. Lee 10 Apr. 1773. Richard Henry Lee II, Memoir of the Life and Correspondence of Richard Henry Lee . . . (Philadelphia: H. C. Carey and I. Lea), 87–89.

12 R. H. Lee to P. Henry. 26 May 1777, Ballagh, Letters, 1:301.

13 R. H. Lee to P. Henry. 26 May 1777, Ballagh, Letters, I:300.

14 R. H. Lee to John Adams. 8 Oct. 1779 in Ballagh, Letters, I:155.

15 R. H. Lee to T. Jefferson, 3 Nov. 1776 in Ballagh, Letters, I:223.

16 John Bannister to Colonel Theodorick Bland. 10 June 1777, The Bland Papers, Charles Campbell, ed. (Petersburg: Edmund and Julian Ruffin, 1840–43.), I:57.

17 R. H. Lee to John Page. 26 May 1777. Ballagh, Letters, I:295.

18 R. H. Lee to P. Henry. 26 May 1777. Ballagh, Letters, I:297–302.

19 William W. Hening, The Statues at Large . . . (Richmond: J. & G. Cochran, 1821), IX:67–69.

20 Hening, Statutes, IX:147–148.

21 Richard Henry Lee. On the Law of Contracts. 10 January 1776. mss UVA.

22 Joseph Blackwell to R. H. Lee 16 Jan. 1777. mss UVA.

23 John Bannister to Theodorick Bland. 10 June 1777. Bland Papers I:57.

24 R. H. Lee to P. Henry. 26 May 1777. Ballagh, Letters, I:301–302.

25 R. H. Lee to P. Henry 26 May 1777, Ballagh, Letters, I:302.

26 R. H. Lee to Arthur Lee. 30 Jun 1777 mss UVA.

27 J. Bannister to T. Bland. 10 June 1777. Bland Papers, I:57.

28 Journal of the House of Delegates . . . (Richmond: Thomas W. White, 1827), 14 May 1777, 8.

29 JHD 22 May 1777, 25–27.

30 Francis Lightfoot Lee and Mann Page, Jr., to George Wythe. 10 June 1777. mss UVA.

31 JHD 1777, 93–94.

32 JHD 20 June 1777, 22 June 1777. 84, 94.

33 JHD 29 May 1778, 27.

34 Patrick Henry to R. H. Lee 18 June 1778. Official Letters of the Governors of the State of Virginia, Vol. 1: The Letters of Patrick Henry (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1926), 291.

35 Secret Committee Minutes of Proceedings. 4 Mar 1776. Smith, Letters, 3:329.

36 Chadwick, “Lee,” 232.

37 For a detailed account of Lee’s part in the Lee-
Deane affair see: Louis Potts, Arthur Lee: A Virtuous Revolutionary (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1901), 145.

38 Joseph Alsop, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis and Robert Morris to Silas Deane. 1 Mar. 1776, Robert Morris to Silas Deane. 30 Mar. 1776, in Smith ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 3:313; 466–468.

39 Potts, Arthur Lee, 150–155; Committee of Secret Correspondence Statement. 1 Oct. 1776. Smith, Letters, 5:273; Samuel Flagg Bemis, A Diplomatic History of the United States (New York: Holt & Co., 1950), 23.

40 Arthur Lee to Silas Deane. 28 July 1776 in B. F. Stevens ed., Facsimiles of Manuscripts in Europe, 1773–1783 (London, 1898), no. 467.

41 Silas Deane to Count de Vergennes, 22 Aug 1776; Silas Deane to Conrad A. Gerard. 22 Aug 1776. “The Deane Papers,” Collections of the New York Historical Society 1:221.

42 Extract from Letter of 1 May 1777. A. Lee to William Lee. mss. UVA; William Lee to Arthur Lee. 6 Aug. 1777. Worthington Ford, ed. Letters of William Lee, 1766–1712 (New York: Burt Franklin, 1968), I:204.

43 Benjamin Franklin to Arthur Lee. 21 Mar. 1777.

44 John Ross to Silas Deane. 19 July 1777; William Lee to the Secret Committee. 1 Sep. 1777, Ford, Letters, I:201, 231–235.

45 Edward Bancroft, “Narrative of Deane’s Mission,” 14 Aug. 1776 Stevens, Facsimiles, no. 890; Silas Deane to Jonathan Williams. 4 July 1777; William Lee to Silas Deane. 17 Dec. 1777; William Lee to Richard Henry Lee. 24 Nov. 1777. Ford, Letters, I:197–198; 288–289; 273.

46 Arthur Lee to Samuel Adams, 25 Nov. 1777. mss. Houghton Library, Harvard; A. Lee to R. H. Lee. 25 Nov. 1777. transcript UVA; Potts, Arthur Lee, 1601–16; Thomas P. Abernethy, “Commercial Activities of Silas Deane in France,” AHR, 34 (1938), 477–485; W. Lee to R. H. Lee. 24 Nov. 1777; Ford, Letters, I:271–279; A. Lee to R. H. Lee. 29 Nov. 1777 mss. Houghton Library, Harvard: A. Lee to R. H. Lee. 22 Dec. 1777; A. Lee to R. H. Lee. 6 Jan. 1777 mss. UVA.

47 R. H. Lee to Samuel Adams. 23 Nov. 1777. Ballagh, Letters, I:353.

48 John Adams, Diary, 2:304–305.

49 Gouvernor Morris to John Jay. 16 Aug. 1778 Smith, Letters, 10:455.

50 Joseph Reed to Esther Reed. 16 Aug. 1778 Smith, Letters, 10:458.

51 Deane to President of Congress, 12 Oct. 1778, “The Deane Papers,” New York Historical Society Collections, 1886–1889. III:13–21; Pennsylvania Packet 5 December; Dec. 1778. Deane’s charges against Arthur Lee. mss Houghton Library, Harvard.

52 Francis Lightfoot Lee to the Public. 7 Dec. 1778. reprinted in Smith, Letters, 11:298; R. H. Lee to A. Lee. 27 Oct. 1778, Ballagh, Letters, I:445; F. L. Lee to R. H. Lee. 22 Dec. 1778. mss. UVA; R. H. Lee to F. L. Lee. 10 Jan. 1779. mss. UVA; F. L. Lee to R. H. Lee. 15 Dec. 1778. mss. UVA; F. L. Lee to R. H. Lee 25 Dec. 1778. mss. UVA.

53 Berkenhout to A. Lee. 25 Dec. 1778. mss. Houghton Library, Harvard.

54. R. H. Lee to George Bryan. 4 Sep. 1778. Smith, Letters, 10:571–572; R. H. Lee to Samuel Adams. 18 July 1780 Ballagh, Letters, I:169.

55 Pennsylvania Packet, 10 Oct. 1778 or Samuel Adams to James Warren, 11 Oct. 1778. Cushing ed., Writings, 4:68–72; Potts, Arthur Lee, 198.

56 R. H. Lee to the Editor of the Virginia Gazette; 16 Dec. 1778 R. H. Lee to the printer of the Pennsylvania General Advertiser, mss. UVA; 19 Jan. 1779, Ballagh, Letters, II:5; Richard Parker to R. H. Lee 12 Mar. 1779. mss. UVA; 26 Mar. 1779; Carter Braxton to John Ross. 26 Dec. 1778, Deane Papers, III:128–129; James Lovell to William Whipple. 7 Jul y1777. Smith, Letters, 7:316; R. H. Lee. Chantilly Account Book. between April–August 1778. mss. Huntington Library. Br. 52.

57 F. L. Lee to R. H. Lee 10 Dec. 1778. Smith, Letters, 11:325.

58 Deane Papers, III:86–100.

59 R. H. Lee to T. Jefferson. 2 May 1779 Ballagh, Letters, II:54–55.

60 R. H. Lee to J. Adams. 8 Oct. 1779. Ballagh, Letters, II:155.

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