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


Mary Elizabeth Virginia
A dissertation submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of
State University of New York at Buffalo
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy

Copyright by
Mary Elizabeth Virginia

To my husband, Sonny
and to my daughter, Anna


I wish to thank the State University of New York at Buffalo for the award of the Milton Plesur Dissertation Fellowship. My particular thanks go to Professor Paul C. Nagel for his positive encouragement in my undertaking this biography and for his generous comments.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1:The Setting
Chapter 2:The Background
Chapter 3:The Family
Chapter 4:The Burgess
Chapter 5:The Politician
Chapter 6:The Mature Politician
Chapter 7:The Congressman
Chapter 8:The Senator


Journal of the House of BurgessesJHB
Journal of the House of DelegatesJHD
Lee Papers in the American Philosophical SocietyAPS
Lee Papers in the Historical Society of PennsylvaniaHSP
Lee Papers in the University of Virginia LibraryUVA
Lee Papers in the Virginia Historical SocietyVHS
Northern Neck of Virginia Historical MagazineNNVHM
Pennsylvania Magazine of History and BiographyPMHB
Virginia GazetteVaGaz
Virginia Magazine of History and BiographyVMHB
William and Mary QuarterlyWMQ


Often viewed as an enigmatic figure, Richard Henry Lee, descendant of one of seventeenth century Virginia’s most successful and prominent families and an eminent Revolutionary leader in his own right, has never been fully understood by historians. A singularly successful member of the eighteenth century planter aristocracy, Lee was at once typical of that peculiar world and a unique product of the environment that created so many memorable leaders including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Lee was, however, somewhat out of place in eighteenth century Virginia, for in a political world dominated by men who, no matter how skilled, were nonetheless gentleman amateurs, Lee was foremost a professional politician. As such, he was self serving and opportunistic, often gambling with his public reputation by delving into questionable private dealings and relying afterwards on his extraordinary oratorical skills to convince his colleagues, and the public, of his good intentions. Yet his career requires no apology for he worked tirelessly in his elected offices and his professional achievements were numerous and noteworthy. As a politicians, he was remarkably adept at anticipating political and public causes, thereby leading Virginia through several of the most important issues facing the colony in the years immediately preceding the Revolution. In Virginia, therefore, he was one of the most important men of his generation.

In his private life, Lee found satisfaction and happiness in the company of numerous children and successively with his two wives. Intimate familial relationships including those with his siblings and with his neices and nephews help illuminate the nature and character of the man, thereby serving to explain his public behavior. His personality, character, and achievements were inextricably linked with the world that formed him, Virginia’s eighteenth century planter culture and can be best described, therefore, through an examination of the environment, both physical and social, in which he lived.