Washington and Lee University

Francis Lightfoot Lee: Virginia Gentleman and Forgotten Patriot

In studying the American Revolution, we often emphasize the Washingtons, Jeffersons, and Franklins and overlook the less conspicuous men who, as a group, were equally important in transforming the British colonies in North America into the United States of America. While our prominent leaders played a critical and indispensable role in the Revolution, they could not have succeeded without the aid, support, and ideas of the less famous patriots who were gentleman farmers, tradesmen, or merchants, and leaders on the colony and community levels. These men were not professional politicians, generally speaking, and held military, executive and judicial posts and served in legislatures and patriotic organizations and assemblies more out of a sense of duty and obligation than a desire for gain. Francis Lightfoot Lee is one of these many forgotten patriots who served their country with dignity and have been relegated too frequently to footnotes or omitted altogether. He, as well as others like him, deserves consideration for the important part he had in Virginia during the Revolutionary period. He is a worthy subject for study as a representative of the men serving behind the scenes and on local levels who deserve recognition for the vital part they had in making thirteen British colonies into a new nation.

John Adams once remarked that “the family of Lee . . . has more men of merit in it than any other family” (XXI, p. iii). Coming from an Adams, that was quite a compliment, but the Lee family is probably one of the few families in American history that can rival the Adamses in intelligence, courage, and patriotism. The Lee family came to Virginia when Richard Lee of Shropshire, England (XXIII, p. 49), settled here in the 1640s (XXIII, p. 51). It is recorded that he served as magistrate on the York County bench in 1646 (XXIII, p. 51) and as a magistrate on the York County bench in 1646 (XXIII, p. 51) and as a burgess for York County in 1647 and for Northumberland around 1650 (XXIII, p. 52). He was a member of the Council in 1651 (XXII, p. 5) and Secretary of the colony iLee, but also by another brother, Thomas Ludwell Lee. The attempt to break Robinson's powerful grip on Virginia politics failed (XXV, p. 3), but it was with this attempt that Francis Lightfoot and his brothers established themselves in Virginia politics. Any thought of opposing Robinson required a generous amount of political courage, but then, the Lee brothers were not noted for cowardice.

Though there is no mention of Francis Lightfoot ever speaking on the floor of the House of Burgesses, he did serve on numerous committees, including standing and quite a few ad hoc committees. Between 1758 and 1765 he served on the Committee of Propositions and Grievances during four sessions and on ad hoc committees for both military and civil matters. The military committees were appointed to handle matters pertaining to military conduct (IV, 23 Sep 1758), reimbursement for supplies (IV, 4 Oct. 1758, 17 Mar 1759), and petitions for financial help from disabled veterans of the French and Indian War (IV, 9 Nov 1759). Other committees on which Lee served were formed “for encouraging Arts and Manufactures” (IV, 26 Mar 1759), to consider a bill that would enable the people of Loudoun County to pay their “public Dues and Officers Fees in Money” rather than tobacco (IV, 14 Mar 1759), and to consider petitions, one concerning the repair of the church organ at Williamsburg (IV, 7 Mary 1765), and another requesting that a bounty be offered for wolves (IV, 6 May 1765). However, Lee's legislative career was not limited to what we might consider dull or petty petitions. In 1766 his brother, Richard Henry, again confronted John Robinson, and this time managed to stir up a major scandal. And Francis Lightfoot was again his brother's ally.

Robinson, as Treasurer of the Colony, was to burn the paper money that had been issued during the French and Indian War as he received it in payment of taxes. Virginia was having economic troubles at the time, and as paper money became more and more scarce, many established planters were hard pressed, some to the point of bankruptcy (XIX, p. 115). Richard Henry Lee demanded an investigation of the Treasury. It seemed that Treasurer Robinson had been loaning the outdated paper currency to his friends rather than retiring it in an effort to rescue them from economic ruin. Robinson died in the summer of 1766, but the scandal grew (XXV, p. 30). A committee including Francis Lightfoot and Richard Henry was appointed to investigate the Treasury (IV, 17 Nov 1766). In their preliminary report of December, 1766, they showed that a sum of £100,000 was missing. Some of the money had been paid back to Robinson and he had failed to credit it to the treasury. In the final report of April, 1767, over £102,000 was shown to be missing (XXV, p. 30). The Lees made political enemies in demanding an investigation, for the list of borrowers included some notable and influential me. For example, William Byrd III owed £14,921, and Carter Braxton owed £3,848. After Robinson's death and the investigation of the treasury, the offices of Speaker of the House and Treasurer were separated for the duration of the colonial government (XIX, p. 116).

Representing Loudoun County in the House of Burgesses through 1768, Lee served on the Committee for Propositions and Grievances during another session of the legislature (IV, 7 Nov 1766), and spent two sessions on the Committee of Privileges and Elections (IV, 7 Nov 1766, 31 Mar 1768). He was also appointed to ad hoc committees. One of these committees was appointed in connection with a petition concerning an estate settlement (IV, 4 Apr 1768), and another was to consider the petition of Edward Westmore, “Keeper of the public Gaol,” concerning the garden of the jail (IV, 8 Apr 1768).

The period during which Lee represented Loudoun in the House of Burgesses saw the rise of Serious tensions between the colonies in America and Great Britain. When studying American history, one is constantly reminded of the significance of the role that land and frontier development have played in shaping our history. To the American colonial, and, perhaps, to the Virginian to an even greater degree, land meant independence, wealth, power, and the establishment of a niche in society. And expansion meant increased trade—new and greater sources of raw materials and a greater demand for finished products. In December, 1761, royal orders forbade land grants which would encroach on Indian rights. This effectively ended the activities of the Ohio Company, and was, as William W. Abbot puts it, “a blow to land speculators generally” (XIV, p. 59). In September of 1763, a group of planters gathered at the home of Thomas Ludwell Lee and formed the Mississippi Company. The group included the Lee brothers, Francis Lightfoot, Richard Henry, Thomas Ludwell, and William; the Washington brothers, George, John Augustine and Samuel; and the Fitzhugh brothers, William and Henry. Arthur Lee joined later. Concerned over the land policies of the British and the future of the western lands of Virginia, the company petitioned the throne for 2,500,000 acres of land at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers (XXI, p. 118). But the royal Proclamation of October, 1763, doomed the venture before the petition even reached the throne. The Proclamation of 1763 closed the region west of the Alleghenies and north of the Ohio to settlement, in an effort to end Indian hostilities (XIV, p. 60). The Mississippi Company did not disband immediately, however. In April of 1768 an announcement in the Virginia Gazette requested the presence of all members of the company at a meeting at Westmoreland Courthouse. The announcement was signed by Francis Lightfoot Lee, Thomas Ludwell Lee, and Richard Parker (XIII, 14 Apr 1768, supplement, p. 2). In 1774, Virginia's western lands as far south as the Ohio River were annexed to the Province of Quebec by the Quebec Act, yet another blow to men for whom land and expansion were so important (XXI, p. 121).

Britain's land policies were not the only source of the growing discontent in Virginia. In 1764, Parliament, pressured by British merchants who were fearful of the inflation induced by the issuance of paper currency in Virginia and other colonies to help finance the late French and Indian War, passed an act which forbade the future issuance of paper currency in the colonies (XIV, p. 60). This helped bring on Virginia's economic troubles, mentioned earlier in connection with the investigation of John Robinson. Another problem, also left over from the French and Indian War, involved the standing army maintained in the colonies by the British. John Richard Alden, in his The South in the Revolution, 1763–1789, says that the British “assumed that the redcoats were to be maintained for the protection of the colonists, a proposition arguable in 1763, dubious in 1765, very doubtful in 1768, and indefensible after 1779” (XV, p. 55). At any rate, the colonists resented the presence of the troops, but they resented even more intensely the taxes levied on them to finance the troops, and the fact that they had no voice in the matter. The Stamp Act was passed by Parliament in 1765 and placed duties on almost every type of paper in daily use, such as licenses, newspapers, and clearance papers for ships. The act stated that the duties would be paid in gold or silver and that those who refused to pay the tax would be tried in admiralty or common law courts, without a jury. The enforcement portion of the act applied not only to violations of the Stamp Act, but to violators of “all parliamentary enactments, whether for trade regulations or revenue” (XXVI, p. 83). Francis Lightfoot Lee was violently opposed to the act, and made his views known. The following appeared in the Virginia Gazette in 1766.

Loudoun, April 5, 1766

The subscriber requests it as a favour of all his Acquaintances, That they will never take any LETTER directed to him out of the POST OFFICE, as he is determined never willingly to pay a Farthing of any TAX laid upon this COUNTRY, in an UNCONSTITUTIONAL Manner.

(XIII, 16 May 1766, p. 3)

Lee had already taken his stand earlier that year when he signed brother Richard Henry's Westmoreland Resolves, declaring with the other signers, “We do determine at every hazard, and paying no regard to danger or death, we will exert every faculty to prevent the execution of the said Stamp Act.” The document is also signed by Francis Lightfoot's and Richard Henry's brothers, Thomas Ludwell and William, and their cousins, Richard Lee and John Lee, Jr. (XVIII, p. 137). Concerning the Westmoreland Resolves, Cazenove Gardner Lee wrote:

This revolutionary document was the first one of outright defiance to be drawn up and signed, and constituted the first organized opposition to British authority in America. In spirit, content, and purpose it spelled sedition, and when we consider what the penalties could be for those signing it, we more than ever stand in awe of the daring of the man who drew it and those who put their names to it.

There can be no mistaking its purpose, no doubt as to the identity of its “associates.” They signed their names for the edification of future generations, and then proceeded to make those names worthy of remembrance. Their Resolves should rank with the Declaration of Independence, for they displayed a higher degree of moral courage than did the signers of this document, who had the backing of any army and the united force of public opinion behind them (XXII, p. 136).

All Virginia boastfulness, FFV snobbery, and ancestral pride aside, this Lee's statement still has merit. The signers of the Westmoreland Resolves were willing to back up their views with action. A group of seventy members of the Westmoreland Association forced Archey Ritchie, a Scottish merchant residing in Virginia, to make public apology and turn over stamped paper with which he intended to clear his ship. Ritchie handed over the paper and took an oath to not promote the sale or use of stamp paper. The paper was burned on the spot (XXV, p. 27).

Doomed from the beginning by massive colonial resistance, the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766 after being in effect for only four and a half months (XIV, p. 62). In the House of Burgesses, Francis Lightfoot Lee was appointed to a committee to

prepare Inscriptions for the Obelisk intended to be raised to express the Gratitude of this Colony to the several noble and worthy Patriots who distinguished themselves, in both Houses of the parliament of Great Britain in procuring the repeal of the Stamp Act (IV, 4 Dec 1766).

But this was not the end of the “unconstitutional” taxes. In 1764, parliament had passed the Revenue or Sugar Act, which raised the customs duties on cloth, sugar, indigo, coffee, and alcohol, and established a Vice Admiralty court at Halifax, Nova Scotia, for enforcement of the act (XXVI, p. 81). Then in 1767 the Townshend Acts levied new taxes on imported glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea (XXVI, p. 93). Having been dissolved by Governor Botetourt for their stand on parliamentary supremacy and their denunciation of the rumored plan by which colonists accused of treason would be transported to England for trial, the House of Burgesses met privately on May 18, 1769, and called for a boycott on British goods.?They hoped that the economic pressure would force the repeal of the Townshend Acts (XIV, p. 64). Francis Lightfoot Lee had no part in these proceedings, nor was he present. Indeed, he was not, for the first time since 1758, even a burgess. Lee was occupied with mattes which would always be much more important to him than politics.

On March 16, 1769, the following announcement, in the delightful style of an era gone by, appeared in the Virginia Gazette:

On Thursday last was married FRANCIS LIGHTFOOT LEE, Esq; to Miss REBECCA TAYLOE, daughter of the Honourable JOHN TAYLOE, Esq; a lady whose many amiable accomplishments, and inestimable virtues, render her a very worth[y] object of affection, and present the most pleasing prospect of permanent happiness in the married state (XIII, 16 Mar 1769, p. 2).

He was thirty-five, and she was seventeen (XVII, p. 108). Rebecca Tayloe was sixteen when Lee fell in love with her. Her father was a planter from the Northern Neck and a member of the King's Council, who, like so many other planters involved in politics, had his family join him to “spend the season” in Williamsburg. Lee, in the capital city as a burgess for Loudoun, was considered “the catch of Williamsburg,” and Miss Tayloe was one of the belles of colonial society (XVII, p. 107) The two were very happy together, and their courtship and marriage seem to have been one of the major events in the social news of 1768 and 1769. John Tayloe was devoted to his daughter, and did not want her to move very far from him. As a wedding gift, he gave his daughter and her new husband a parcel of land on his Richmond County plantation, Mount Airy. He also built a fairly large home for them, which they named “Menokin” (XVII, p. 108). Brother William, on hearing the good news in far-off England, wrote to Francis Lightfoot, “I give you joy in being under your Own Vine, your happiness there we have not forget to toast,” and spoke nostalgically, and perhaps with a bit of homesickness, of “the good old Virginia custom of a House Warming” (VIII, 9 Aug 1771).

Judging from his surviving letters and most biographical sketches on him, Lee was never particularly fond of politics. His real love was his home and farm. He was quite interested in agriculture, and as a horticulturist he had a nursery where he experimented with different types of trees and plants (XVII, p. 109). His brother-in-law, Landon Carter, mentions Lee twice in his diary in connection with agriculture. The first entry concerns Lee's methods of preparing manure for his fields and also relates a rather amusing theory of Lee's. Lee, according to Carter, did not believe in the use of carts and plows in farming. He felt that they encouraged laziness in the field hands, and that a better crop could be had if the farm equipment used was limited to hoes in the hands of busy men. His brother, “Col. Phil,” had proven this to be true over at Stratford, he said (I, 12 Apr 1770). The other entry involves a discussion between Lee and Carter on turning peas under to fertilize the soil (I, 21 Oct 1774).

While Lee's main desire was to live the life of a farmer, he was also involved in several business ventures. One of these was the Nomony Fulling Mill, “at the head of Nomony river in Westmoreland county, where all different branches of FULLING, DRESSING, SHEARING, and DYING, will be executed, in the best manner, and at the most reasonable rates.” This advertisement which appeared in two editions of the Virginia Gazette went onto say that

As the subscribers have been at a considerable expense in procuring the materials complete, and a fuller perfectly acquainted with the business, it is expected that those who favor the mill with their custom will, when they send for their cloth, send money to pay for it, the profits of a fulling mill being by no means sufficient to support the expense of keeping accounts and collecting small debts. The particular sums may be known from the fuller, when the cloth is sent to the mill.

(XII, 21 Sep 1769, p. 3)
(XIII, 7 Sep 1769, p. 3)

How long the mill remained in operation is not possible to ascertain, for no mention of it appears later, except in a letter from brother William some four months after the advertisement appeared. In this letter William noted the articles for the mill, which he was shipping to Francis Lightfoot from England. He also expressed his hopes that the articles would arrive in good condition, for someone else might want them, even if his brother was no longer interested (VIII, 5 Dec 1769).

Another business venture in which Lee was involved was the tobacco trade. In England, William Lee was a partner in the trading firm, DeBerdt, Lee, and Sayre, concerned primarily with tobacco, and Francis Lightfoot acted as an agent for the company on this side of the Atlantic (VII, William to F. L. Lee, 9 Dec 1769). Brothers Richard Henry and “Col. Phil” were also involved, but Francis Lightfoot seems to have been more concerned with making the accounts balance in William's favor, as the following letter from William to Frank testifies:

. . . you will see there is a balance due to you of £63.18.9 on which I can't help making this remark, how different you are from the generality of Virginia correspondents in making an apology for drawing for less than you have a right to, when they are generally drawing for three times as much, particularly my good friend the Old Squire [probably Philip Ludwell Lee], who has kept me in continual advance ever since I have been in England. . . . (VII, 9 Aug 1771).

The year 1770 saw William continually complaining to Francis Lightfoot that “Col. Phil” was constantly drawing on his account and was slow to pay the money back (VIII, 20 Apr, 13 Jul, 7 Sep 1770). Francis Lightfoot was not only responsible for William's business accounts in Virginia, but also for his personal affairs (VIII, William to F. L. Lee, 16 Jan 1770). On numerous occasions (to say he was a prolific writer would be a gross understatement) William expressed sincere gratitude for Francis Lightfoot's endeavors on his behalf. But as relations between Britain and the colonies deteriorated, courts in the colonies were often suspended, making it impossible for merchants to collect long overdue debts. William was one of the unfortunate merchants caught in this trap, and in 1775 wrote to Francis Lightfoot:

I have no doubt but your affection for me will induce you to exert yourself in procuring every possible remittance you can this winter, as I am convinced the American trade can never again recur to its former channel. If the times will permit and our bloodthirsty Ministers do not interfere, I will endeavor to see you like the swallows for next summer. . . . (VIII, 23 Sep 1775).

Neither the “times” nor the “bloodthirsty Ministers” did permit, however, and the financial situation worsened. Less than a year later, William wrote to Frances Lightfoot, again asking for help in collecting debts and asking him to seek assistance from his father-in-law, Col. Tayloe (VII, 11 May 1776). As late as 1791, Francis Lightfoot wrote to William, who had come home from England to “Green Spring” at Jamestown, that he was still trying to collect money owed to William since before the Revolution (VI, 28 Dec 1791). William was, by this time, in dire economic straits, another patriot who had sacrificed his “fortune” and, indeed, much of his “sacred honor” for a cause in which he believed.

Another business undertaking in which Francis Lightfoot Lee participated was a “Patriotic Store.” The plan was concocted by Landon Carter, John Tayloe, and Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee. Carter, at least, felt that the store would save participating planters as much as fifty percent on imported supplies (XXV, p. 59). News of the store appeared in the Virginia Gazette in January of 1771. The purpose of the plan was to form a cooperative by which to avoid the British duties on imported goods. A planter could become a voting member of the cooperative by purchasing a fill subscription for 20 pounds sterling. Smaller shareholders could band together in groups and receive one vote per group if their combined subscriptions amounted to 20 pounds sterling. Once the store had subscriptions amounting to 6,000 pounds, directors would be chosen who would purchase supplies worth that amount. The goods would then be sold in this country at the original price plus the actual cost of importation, the “expense of store keeping,” and ten percent “profit to those who advance the money for the prosecution of this most useful undertaking.” No one would be allowed to buy more goods in a year than the manager of the store felt were necessary for the support of the subscriber's family. Membership in the cooperative was to be open to “any number of persons who have a reasonable property and fixed residence in the colony, and are not factors for any merchants at the time of subscribing.” The aforementioned originators of this “patriotic scheme” were joined by Richard Parker, Samuel Hipkins, “and many other well disposed Gentlemen of Richmond, Westmoreland, Northumberland, Lancaster, and the adjacent counties” (XIII, 31 Jan 1771, p. 1). The project failed for lack of funds (XXV, p. 59).

Though not active in politics for most of 1769, Lee did belong to a political society. He was a member of the “Society of the Supporters of the Bill of Rights,” which, as described by Burton J. Hendrick, had the “idealistic purpose of spreading the doctrines inherent in the Magna Carta, and the more practical one of paying off the debts of their tempestuous defender, Wilkes” (XXI, p. 166) and to work for the reform of Parliament (XV, p. 112). Described by Norman K. Risjord as a “rascally slanderer, a drunkard, and a whoremonger,” John Wilkes was also a popular hero in England and America. Wilkes edited a radical newspaper, The North Briton, and was arrested by virtue of a general warrant for his criticism of the king in 1763. His effects were searched and his papers seized. He was released from jail since he was a Member of Parliament, but the House of Commons ousted him and he went into exile. According to Norman K. Risjord, the whole affair endangered the “fundamental rights of Englishmen, including the legitimacy of general warrants, freedom of the press, and the privileges of parliament,” in the view of the defenders of Wilkes (XXVI, p. 188). Also belonging to the Society were Arthur and Richard Henry Lee, Joseph Warren, and John and Samuel Adams. They not only supported Wilkes politically, but also made material contributions for his defense (XXI, p. 166).

When Lee married and moved from Loudoun to Richmond County, only one regular session of the Virginia legislature went by in which he was not a burgess (IV, 1766–1769, p. 181). Richmond County voters immediately elected their new neighbor to represent them in the House of Burgesses in the November Session of 1769 (XII, 28 Sep 1769). It is not known why Lee did not run for office. It may have been that he did not want to be away from his wife, or it may have been because of his health. Lee seems to never have been overly healthy, for there are numerous letters and diary entries which mention his poor health which may have been a factor in his sometimes sporadic attendance as a legislator. In 1771 William wrote to him:

I am afraid the violent spell you had sometime ago has left a weakness behind, for there does not seem to be in your last [letter] that same cheerfulness of spirit for which you were once remarkable, or pray, has matrimony tamed your Worship? (VIII, Mar 1771)

And on hearing of Francis Lightfoot's election as a burgess from Richmond County, William wrote,

I am happy that you have fully recovered from so dangerous an illness and that you have again undertaken to serve your Country in this critical time, so much good sense and true merit should not lie dormant when America stands in such need of all her patriot sons (VIII, 5 Dec 1769).

Representing Richmond County until 1776, Lee was again active primarily in committee work. During this period, he served on the Committee for Religion, to consider “all matters and things relating to Religion and Morality” (IV, 6 May 1774, 18 Feb 1772); the Committee of Privileges and Elections, the purpose of which, according to the Journal of the House of Burgesses, was to insure proper procedure in elections and consider “all such maters as shall or may come in Question touching returns, elections, and privileges” (IV, 18 Feb 1772, 5 Mar 1773, 6 May 1774) and the Committee of Propositions and Grievances (IV, 18 Feb 1772, 6 May 1774).

Since Lee's activity in the legislature was limited almost entirely to committee work, we must consider the nature of the colonial legislature, in order to understand the importance of the work of Lee and other colonial legislators. In some ways the colonial assembly was quite different from our present state legislature. The House of Burgesses regularly acted on a wide range of local issues and private concerns, and performed a variety of functions, including many of the functions of our present courts, county boards of supervisors, welfare bureaus, and veterans administrations. If a private citizen or group of citizens of the colonial period felt that a new road or bridge was needed, they petitioned the Assembly. If a man wanted to settle a land dispute or seek financial assistance from the government, as veterans of Indian wars and the French and Indian War often did, he petitioned the Assembly. If there were some irregularity or special circumstance in an estate settlement, those involved petitioned the Assembly. To give a specific example, the various committees on which lee served received for consideration an estate settlement, a bill for improving the militia, a bill for the “more effectual keeping the Public Roads and Bridges in repair,” a petition concerning the relocation of Spotsylvania Courthouse, and the petition of a certain John Pitt, who wished to erect a gate across a road to a public tobacco inspection warehouse, all in a single day (IV, 3 Mar 1772). But Lee was also active in a more revolutionary vein.

In 1770, the colonists won a partial victory when the Townshend Acts were repealed. The duty on tea, however, remained in effect (XIV, p. 64). Protesting the remaining tea tax and the hated Courts of Admiralty, the members of the House of Burgesses and a number of Williamsburg merchants entered into an Association on June 22, 1770. The Association agreed not to import, buy, or sell items taxed by Parliament. The Association contained an extensive and explicit list of articles, which were not to be brought into Virginia and specifically mentioned, it is interesting to note, slaves as a forbidden import unless they had already been in America for at least twelve months. The Association set up a committee in each county, which was to publish the names of Associates who did not abide by the agreement. Francis Lightfoot Lee was one of many who affixed their signatures to the document (IV, 1770–1772, pp. xxvii–xxxi).

Setting up their own private “committee of correspondence,” with Arthur and William in England and Francis Lightfoot and Richard Henry Lee in Virginia, the Lee brothers kept each other well informed of developments on both sides of the Atlantic. In July of 1770 William wrote to Francis Lightfoot from London:

You must rub up your muskets for the ministry are determined to rule you with a rod of iron, but they are as yet at a loss how to go about it, if you all are firm. A good deal will depend on the spirit and conduct of Virginia and I really think they will be afraid to go to extremities if they find all America makes the cause of Boston their own. You have not a real friend here but Lord Chatham and Bate, they have always been consistent and if you are not unanimously determined and explicit in your complaints, I dread the consequences (VII, 13 Jul 1770).

And several months later William again wrote to Francis Lightfoot concerning the planned boycott on imported goods:

. . . Friends here hope the body of the people will force the merchants to send the goods back, which would be a decisive stroke in your favour. . . . Bribery and corruption prevail so universally here, that it seems a settled plan to buy their influence in the Colonies, therefore you must expect while things continue as they are here to see every post of honor and profit with you held out as lures to induce the betraying of your country . . . but remember that, when vice prevails and impious men bear sway, the Post of Honor is a private station (VIII, 7 Sep 1770).

In 1773 Francis Lightfoot Lee was one of a group also including Dabney Carr, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and Thomas Jefferson who met at the Raleigh Tavern, “to consult on the state of things,” as Jefferson later wrote, “not thinking our old and leading members up to the point of forwardness and zeal which the times requried,” as quoted by John Pendleton Kennedy in the preface to the Journals of the House of Burgesses (IV, 1773–1776, p. xi). The group decided that “unity of action” was required, and to that end, “a committee of correspondence in each colony would be the best instrument for intercommunication” (IV, 1773–1776, p. xi). They drew up resolutions to that effect, which also protested the transportation of Americans to England for trial, and were passed by the House of Burgesses when presented by Dabney Carr on March 12 (IV, 1773–1776, p. xi).

The East India Company, which was already in economic trouble, felt that their interests were being exploited while Parliament struggled to establish control over the colonies and lay a revenue duty on Americans. As a result, they decided to send cargoes of tea to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. There was protest in all of these cities (IV, 1773–1776, p. xiii), and on December 16, 1773, the famed Boston Tea Party took place (XXVI, p. 109). Colonial protest led to the so-called Intolerable Acts. These included the port Bill, which closed the port of Boston; a bill which abolished the Massachusetts government; the Administration of Justice act, which protected royal officials if they committed a crime while enforcing trade laws and made provision for them to be transported to England for trial; and the Quartering Act, which allowed British troops to appropriate barns and unused buildings if they were not provided with barracks by colonial officials (XXVI, p. 111).

When the news of he closing of the port of Boston reached Virginia, the Virginians were infuriated. John Pendleton Kennedy again quotes Jefferson:

The lead in the House, being no longer left to the old members, Mr. Henry, R. H. Lee, Fr. L. Lee, three or four other members, whom I do not recollect, and myself, agreeing that we must boldly take an unequivocal stand in the line with Massachusetts, determined to meet and consult on the proper measures. . . . We were under conviction of the necessity of arousing our people from the lethargy into which they had fallen, as to passing events; and thought that the appointment of a day of general fasting and prayer, would be most likely to call up and alarm their attention. . . . We cooked up a resolution, . . . for appointing the first day of June, on which the Port Bill was to commence, for a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer, to implore Heaven to avert from us the evils of civil war, to inspire us with firmness in support of our rights, and to turn the hearts of the King and Parliament to moderation and justice. . . . R. C. Nicholas moved it in the House of Burgesses; the first of June was proposed, and it passed without opposition (IV, 1773–1776, p. xv).

When the bill was passed by the burgesses, Governor Dunmore dissolved the assembly since the bill was “conceived in such terms as reflects highly upon his Majesty, and the Parliament of Great Britain” (IV, 1773–1776, p. xvi). He then postponed the assembly several times until May, 1775. It was at this time that the burgesses met privately and formed the Williamsburg Association (XXII, p. 144). On May 27, 1774, the burgesses, Francis Lightfoot Lee among them, officially protested “taxes, imposed without the consent of the people or their representatives,” and advised the colonists not to use tea, since it carried with it the unconstitutional revenue duty. The burgesses also protested the closing of the port of Boston, and, feeling that the East India Company was trying to force the tea tax on Americans by arbitrarily shipping cargoes of tea to American ports, decided to “recommend it strongly to our countrymen, not to purchase or use any kind of East India commodity whatsover, except saltpetre and spices. . . .” The burgesses also recommended that the Committee of Correspondence consult the other colonies on the question of appointing delegates “to meet in general congress” (IV, 1773–1776, pp. xiii, xiv). They also called for a convention of county representatives, to be held in Williamsburg on the first of August (IV, p. 173). Such feelings were not unique to the assembly, for many localities seemed to be of the same mind.

The voters of Richmond County met at the courthouse on June 29, 1774. The Virginia Gazette reported the proceedings. The men appointed Francis Lightfoot Lee and Robert Wormeley Carter, their “late representatives” to be their “deputies” at the assembly to be held in Williamsburg on the first of August, and gave them instructions to conduct themselves according to the resolutions to which those at the meeting agreed. The Richmond County gathering resolved that it was the right of Americans to be taxed only by their “provincial assemblies,” and that taxes imposed on the colonies by Parliament violated their constitutional rights since they were not represented in that body. They resolved to “respect the Bostonians in their sister colony of Massachusetts Bay, as suffering in the common cause of British America,” and that the closing of the port of Boston be considered “an avowed intention to reduce all America to a state of slavery.” The group favored a boycott of all imports from Great Britain and the West Indies until the “total repeal” of the Boston Port Act and

all the several acts of the British parliament laying taxes on Americans for the purpose of raising a revenue, and those other acts made against the rights of the people of Massachusetts Bay, on account of their virtuous opposition to the said revenue acts.

They agreed that if the “nonexportation plan” went into effect, the “gentlemen of the bar” should not bring suit or continue any suit for the recovery of debt, since it would be “utterly inconsistent with such scheme for a man to be compelled to pay without the means wherewith he may pay.” The men pledged their support of the tea embargo, and further resolved that they would neither buy any East India Company goods other than saltpeter, nor export any of their own produce out of the colonies. The group promised to abide by any resolutions made by the assembly at Williamsburg or by the “congress of the several colonies on the continent” (XIII, 7 Jul 1774, p. 2; XII 7 Jul 1774, p.2).

Francis Lightfoot, writing to William in London, reported all of these events.

The late representatives who are to meet as deputies of the people on the first of August next, are taking the sense of their Counties, those who have already met, have unanimously agreed to put a total stop to their trade, and that no suit shall be commenced, nor further prosecuted, till all the revenue Acts and those in consequence of them are repealed. Maryland is doing the same. Several of our Counties are sending provisions to the people of Boston who are considered all over America as brothers laboring under a most unjust, wicked, and cruel persecution, for a cause in which we are all equally interested. Give my love to [Arthur], tell him I thank him for his letter and hope his mind will be something eased when he finds this Country awake to their rights as Men, and the descendants of Englishmen (VI, 3 Jul 1774).

County delegates, including Francis Lightfoot Lee and Robert Wormeley Carter for Richmond County, met as planned at Williamsburg on August 1, 1774. They chose delegates to the Continental Congress, and then went about forming a plan of economic coercion, which they hoped would pressure Britain into acquiescence. Tea was not to be either used, or imported, effective immediately. After November 1, 1774, medicines were the only goods, which could be imported from Britain, and the importation of slaves would be forbidden. If Britain made no attempt at reconciliation by August 10, 1775, all exportation to Britain would be halted (XV, p. 173).

With Dunmore still refusing to call the assembly into session, the House of Burgesses was not authorized to meet legally. But on March 20, 1775, a group of delegates from the counties and incorporated towns of Virginia convened in Richmond at St. John's Church, with Francis Lightfoot Lee and Robert Wormeley Carter again representing Richmond County. The Virginia Gazette again reported the proceedings. The delegates first resolved unanimously to approve the actions of the Continental Congress in “their unremitted endeavors to maintain and preserve inviolate the just rights of his Majesty's dutiful and most loyal subjects in America.” They voted their thanks to the Virginia delegates in particular, and also to the Jamaican assembly for their aid during the strained relations between Britain and her American colonies. The Convention instructed their committee of correspondence to “procure authentic information” as to whether or not the people of New York stood with the other colonies on the issue of American rights. There was some question concerning the matter, since the New York House of Representatives did not seem to concur with the New York delegation in Congress. They also resolved that county committees should solicit contributions to help relieve the “difficulties of our brave and worthy fellow subjects of Boston, now “difficulties of our brave and worthy fellow subjects of Boston, now suffering in the common cause of American freedom.”

The delegates decided that civil suits at the next General Court should not be prosecuted due to the “unhappy disputes between Great Britain and the colonies, and the unsettled state of the country,” and that only cases involving debt collection should be prosecuted. The Convention unanimously voted an official thanks to Governor Dunmore for his “truly noble, wise, and spirited conduct, on the late expedition against our Indian enemy,” and the men who participated in the expedition. They also called for an accounting of the colony's finances.

The Convention also adopted some more drastic measures which helped lead the way to independence. They resolved to form a new state militia, stating that a “well regulated militia, composed of Gentlemen and Yeomen, is the national strength and only security of a free government.” A standing militia would also take away Britain's excuse for stationing troops in the colony for defense purposes thus preventing Britain from taxing the colony to support an army. And so the delegates resolved to put the colony in a posture of defense, against England more than any other imminent dangers, and a committee was appointed to carry out the resolution. Accordingly, the militia committee proposed that the militia law of 1738, “An act for the better regulating of the militia,” be “put in execution,” since all subsequent militia laws had expired, apparently leaving the law of 1738 in effect. The committee reported that provisions for a disciplined militia, arms, and ammunition had been neglected, “to the evident danger of the community in case of invasion or insurrection,” and urged that each county form at least one company of infantry and one troop of horse, “to be in constant training and readiness to act on any emergency.” This action alone would soon cause trouble. Since it had been agreed that non-importation was essential to the preservation of American rights, the committee on arts and manufactures recommended that the colony provide itself with as many necessities as possible, including items such as wool, cotton, salt, saltpeter, gunpowder, iron, steel, and paper. This committee recommended “proper attention to the cultivation of hops and barley” in order to “render the consumption of foreign liquors less necessary.” The Convention resolved to investigate whether or not “his Majesty may, of right, advance the terms of granting lands in this colony.” And the Convention appointed seven delegates to the upcoming Congress, which would convene on May 10, 1775, in Philadelphia. It is interesting, considering the general mood of the Convention and the fact that these men had just appointed delegates to the Continental Congress, that the very next item in the Virginia Gazette is Lord Dumore's “Proclamation” that, according to the King's instructions, local authorities were to “use their utmost endeavors” to prevent the election of delegates to the Congress to be held in may (X, 1 Apr 1775, p. 2).

The Richmond Convention had at least one interesting result in addition to being the scene of Patrick Henry's “Libety or Death” speech, which involved Francis Lightfoot Lee (XIV, p. 67). Alarmed by the Convention's move to establish a standing militia, Governor Dunmore ordered fifteen barrels of gunpowder moved from the powder magazine in Williamsburg to the H.M.S. Fowey, in the York River on April 20 (XIV, p. 68). The action, of course, caused a tremendous uproar among the burgesses. In a proclamation on may 3, 1775, Dunmore attempted to pacify Virginians stating that he had removed the powder because of “apprehensions . . . of an intended insurrection of the slaves, who had been in large numbers, in the night time, about the magazine, and my knowledge of its being a very insecure depositary.” He said that he did it secretly at night because he “knew the temper of the times, and the misinterpretations of my design which would be apt to prevail if the thing should be known” (IV, 1773–1776, p. xvii). On May 1, however, he had written to Lord Dartmouth:

The series of dangerous measures pursued by the people of this Colony against Government, which they have now entirely overturned, and particularly their having come to a resolution of raising a body of armed Men in all the counties, made me think it prudent to remove some Gunpowder which was in a Magazine in this place, where it lay exposed to any attempt that might be made to seize it, and I had reason to believe the people intended to take that step (IV, 1773–1776, p. xviii).

The people of Williamsburg marched on the Governor's Palace, causing the terrified governor to move his wife and family to a ship in the York River for safety, even though Peyton Randolph and Robert Carter Nicholas quieted and dispersed the angry mob before any harm was done (IV, 1773–1776, p. xviii). Patrick Henry, leading the Hanover Independent Company, one of the new militia companies which Dunmore so feared, marched on Williamsburg demanding that the governor return the powder. Henry called off his militia company when Dunmore sent him 300 pounds in payment for the powder (XIV, p. 68). On May 8, 1775, Henry wrote to Francis Lightfoot Lee concerning the matter, evidently experiencing at least a little doubt as to what the public and official reactions would be to the daring step he had taken.

. . . Having designedly referred to the Convention[1] whether any of the money ought to be returned, lest presuming too much might be alleged against me, I trouble you, sir, with this, to be an advocate for the measure if you think it right. I suppose my attendance at the Congress may prevent me from being present at the Convention, where perhaps an attempt may be made to condemn the measure and misrepresent my conduct. . . . If any doubt remains as to the fitness of the step I have taken, can it lay over until I am heard? (IX, p. 288)

But Henry had little to worry about, for public opinion seemed to be with him.

When Dunmore finally called the House of Burgesses into session again on June 1, 1775, one of their first acts was to appoint a committee to prepare an address to the governor in response to a speech he had given earlier. Francis Lightfoot Lee was a member of the committee (IV, 2 Jun 1775). The governor had called the session to give the legislature “an Opportunity of taking the alarming State of the Colony into your Consideration, and providing Remedies against the Evils which are increasing the in,” and to exhort the House to find some satisfactory means by which they might satisfactorily “contribute towards the public Burden of the State, Burdens to which the Mother Country hath cheerfully submitted to secure the Colonies from the Encroachments of a dangerous and vigilant Enemy” (IV, 2 Jun 1775). What follows is an excerpt from the address to the governor, written by Lee and the other committee members and passed unanimously by the burgesses.

We assure your Lordship that we will pursue the most speedy Measures for defraying the Expenses of the late military Expedition against the Indians. That proper provision has not yet been made . . . cannot be justly imputed to any delay or neglect on our Part, this being the first Opportunity your Lordship hath been pleased to afford us of paying a proper Attention to their signal Services and giving them their due Reward.

. . . Our Endeavors to discharge these and other Important Duties to their Country were arrested and cut short by a sudden and unexpected Dissolution of the Assembly. Since this, my Lord, our Situation has undergone a total Change.

Money, my Lord, is not a plant of the native Growth of this Country. . . .

We will, my Lord, proceed forthwith to consider this and other matters with that Calmness and Impartiality which their great Importance may require . . . (IV, 5 Jun 1775).

Needless to say, the address did little to improve relations between the governor and the burgesses.

The House of Burgesses, still disturbed by the gunpowder incident, appointed a committee, of which Lee was a member, to investigate the powder magazine and the supplies it contained (IV, 5 Jun 1775). In a message recorded in the Journal of the House of Burgesses and beginning “We being appointed by the House of Burgesses,” the committee requested that the governor grant them access to the magazine, giving their reason that

. . . We understand that sundry Persons unknown to us broke open the Magazine, and took out several Arms, but we assure your Lordship that so soon as this transaction was known to the House some of the Members interposed and prevailed on such as were to be found, to return what they had taken, and we have Hopes that the rest may be yet reclaimed which we shall not neglect our Endeavors to effect (IV, 5 Jun 1775).

Dunmore, loathe to be of any assistance in the matter, sent the following message several days later in reply.

I have received a Paper without date or Signature, desiring I would direct the keeper of the Magazine, to give Access to some Persons, I know not whom, the Paper not saying who they, appointed by the House of Burgesses a Committee to examine into the State of the public Magazine. I send the said Paper, for the inspection of the House; and beg to be informed, whether the Persons, there alluded to, are authorized, as therein allowed, to desire Access to the Magazine (IV, 5 Jun 1775).

The burgesses replied with more than a hint of aggravation, listing the members of he committee by name, and restating explicitly and at some length their reasons for desiring access, feeling “very sensibly, my Lord, the weight of the Insinuation of your Message” (IV, 5 Jun 1775). In Dunmore's answer, he noted that the fifteen barrels of powder were removed at his command, and stated that he was “influenced” in his actions “by the best of motives.” He promised that the powder would be returned as soon as the magazine was “in a proper State” (IV, 5 Jun 1775). Nothing more is recorded in the Journal concerning the matter.

On June 8 Dunmore informed the burgesses that he felt Williamsburg was no longer safe and he was removing himself and his family to the Fowey in the York River. From here, he said, he would be quite willing to carry out the normal governmental functions if the House would be willing “to send to me, from time to time, some of their members, as occasion shall require” (IV, 8 Jun 1775). After considering the message, the burgesses appointed a committee, including Francis Lightfoot Lee, to draft a reply. Their answer expressed concern for Dunmore and his family and offered to pass any measure necessary to secure their safety. The burgesses also expressed appreciation that the governor was willing to try to carry on governmental affairs, but that due to the distance and inconvenience entailed it would be much more agreeable for him to return to Williamsburg (IV, 8 Jun 1775). Dunmore never returned to Williamsburg, attempting instead to recover his power through military raids. Unsuccessful, he finally left the coast of Virginia in May of 1776 (XIV, p. 70). Meanwhile, as the last session of Virginia's House of Burgesses was drawing to a close, Francis Lightfoot Lee was appointed to a committee to “enquire into the Causes of the late disturbances and commotions” (IV, 10 Jun 1775).

During Virginia's Convention of August, 1775, Francis Lightfoot Lee was elected to be a delegate to the Continental Congress “in the room” of Richard Bland, who resigned because of poor health (XI, 17 Aug 1775, p. 3). Jefferson and Henry had urged George Mason to run for the position, but he declined and nominated Lee (XXII, p. 153). Lee's career in Congress is rather difficult to follow in much detail, for his letters concern mainly military affairs and the general political issues rather than his own contributions. His service must have been satisfactory, however, for he was re-elected in 1776, 1777, and 1778. John Adams noted the arrival of Francis Lightfoot lee in Congress in his diary, commented that he was “a brother of Dr. Arthur, the late sheriff of London [William], and of Richard Henry, sensible and patriotic, as the rest of the family” (V, vol. I, p. 195).

Lee stood for re-election as burgess for Richmond County again in 1776, but was defeated (I, 1 Apr 1776). There is no mention of Lee's defeat in any available contemporary sources other than Landon Carter's diary, so there is no way of knowing the reason for the lack of support of the majority of Richmond voters. Carter, however, was quite bitter over the matter, especially since his son, Robert Wormeley Carter was also ousted. The two men were replaced by Hudson Muse and Charles McCarty whom Carter called a “worthless fellow” and a “most good-natured fool” (I, p. 45).

Carter felt that the voters were voting for replacements who would establish an “independence in which no Gentleman should have the least share” (I, p. 45), in which case he feared that the people would allow themselves to be ruled by demagogues who gained power by playing on the selfish interests of the people (I, p. 45). So it may have been that the majority of voters feared an over-powerful aristocratic rule. However, Carter inadvertently offered another possible explanation. He stated that Lee “was at the Congress an honour not easily obtained” (I, 1 Apr 1776) at the time of the election. It may have been that Lee would have won if he had been at home to campaign. Or it may have been that the Richmond voters wanted a representative who would spend more time tending to matters at home rather than sitting in Congress in far-off Philadelphia. At any rate, Carter was evidently not the only man upset over Lee's defeat. A man could run for burgess for a particular county only if he owned land in that county. Sometimes a friend would give a would-be candidate the required amount of land in a county other than the one in which the candidate resided. The gift made the candidate a landowner in at least two counties, allowing him to run for burgess for a county other than his home county. This was evidently considered a slightly underhanded maneuver, but it was done from time to time. Carter records an attempt at this scheme in which Ball, a landowner in Lancaster County, intended to give Lee the amount of land required in order to allow him to run for burgess of Lancaster.

I . . . heard the manouvers to carry Colo. F. Lee a Burgess to Convention in Lancaster. Ball by a deed of gift to make him a freeholder to be recorded in Court before. I said it would be lame and if Lee had the Spirit I took him to have, he would not so easily be baited into a service in which in his own County, he had been so insulted (I, 8 Apr 1776).

Evidently, Carter's faith in Lee was justified, for there is no further mention of the scheme, in either Carter's diary or any other sources consulted.

A relatively small number of Lee's letters survive. Most of them are from his years in Congress. While they shed little light on the actual details of Lee's role, they do provide an interesting insight into his personality and concerns.

One of Lee's correspondents was Landon Carter. Lee kept Carter informed of the latest military news and important developments in Congress. Carter, who was in favor of independence, had heard that independence had been introduced and voted down three times by Congress. Lee wrote and assured him that such was not the cause (V, vol. I, p. 416, 9 Apr 1776). Agriculture was another favorite topic between the two, and they seemed to be quite interested in the process of making sugar, both from cane and from corn (VI, Lee to Carter, 14 Jan 1777). Carter also asked for Lee's aid in having his grandson, Landon, appointed “Aid du Camp” to General Washington (I, 20 Feb 1776), and he wrote to Lee requesting the “receipt for salt petre” (I, 2 Feb 1776).

Francis Lightfoot also wrote regularly to Richard Henry when the two were separated. One rather amusing and timely comment he wrote to Richard Henry was, “I have received no letters from Richard these two posts. There is true rascality in the post office. I wish you could find it out” (VIII, 15 Dec 1777). Most of the correspondence between Francis Lightfoot and Richard Henry concerns the Silas Deane affair, an unfortunate set of circumstances which divided Congress and tainted permanently the reputations of Arthur and William Lee (who, according to recent studies seem to have been innocent of wrongdoing) and Silas Deane.[2]

Lee's prime concern in Congress seems to have been the Continental army. There are in existence at least two letters to Lee from Baron von Steuben. The Prussian Baron had come to America in 1778 and offered his services in training the pathetic American army (XXVI, p. 153). Lee had been a member of the Congressional committee that greeted the Baron on his arrival in America. The Baron had come to the United States with no “intention to accept any Rank or Pay,” but having given up a “revenue of about Six hundred guineas per Annum arising from places and posts of honour in Germany,” he “expected the U.S. would defray my necessary expenses whilst in their Service” (VII, Steuben to F. L. Lee, 13 Oct 1785). Steuben was seeking Lee's aid in collecting the money owed him.

On November 29, 1776, a letter from the War Office to the “Associators of Pennsylvania,” appearing in the Virginia Gazette. The letter warned Pennsylvanians of the proximity of an enemy fleet, and urged the defense of Philadelphia. The language used was strong, as the following excerpt will illustrate.

It is vain to hope for lenity from your inveterate foes. Their tender mercies are cruelty. The property of those who have acted as their friends is not safer than those whom they consider as their enemies. Devastation of every kind marks their footsteps.

The letter appears over the names of Benjamin Harrison, James Wilson, Edward Rutledge, and Francis Lightfoot Lee (X, 29 Nov 1776, p. 2). Lee also wrote and signed for the committee a letter to the governor of Maryland late in 1777, exhorting him to supply as much beef, pork, and salt for the army as possible (V, vol. III, p. 604).

In 1778, Lee helped frame resolutions which put forth limitations on the formation of new state governments. The resolutions also disapproved the actions of the “discontented subjects of the State of New York, Styling themselves the inhabitants of Vermont,” and “most earnestly recommended” that they “submit peaceably and quietly to the jurisdiction, government, and authority of the said State of New York” (V, vol. III, p. 345).

Francis Lightfoot Lee signed the Declaration of Independence, and he and Richard Henry were the only pair of brothers to do so. According to Harvey Thomas in The Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Francis Lightfoot considered affixing his signature to the document “more a deed of wisdom than of courage” (XXVII, p. 29). He was also a member of the committee that framed the Articles of Confederation. He felt that the United States should submit to no peace treaty with England that did not guarantee Americans free navigation of the Mississippi River and rights to the Newfoundland fisheries. He served ably in debates on the fisheries (XXII, p. 74).

Lee left Congress in the spring of 1779, hoping to leave public life and retire to Menokin. Even during his service in Congress, he had felt an obligation to serve his locality. He was appointed county lieutenant in 1777 (III, 26 Jun 1777) and again in 1780 (III, 28 Jun 1780). Soon after retiring from Congress, he was elected to the Virginia Senate, and served from 1780 until 1782 (XXII, p. 74). It was during this time that he wrote in a touching letter to his wife, Rebecca:

Your supply of cash, gave me pleasure, as it was one more instance, added to thousands, of your affection; but upon the whole I could not help being a little angry at your having disfurnished yourself; small as it was it might have been of some little use to you, here it is a drop in the ocean. Indeed, my dear, you must not suppose that I can have any enjoyment in which you have not a share (XXIII, p. 233).

In 1782 Lee finally gave up public life and retired to Menokin (XXII, p. 74). After retiring, he seems to have been fairly happy. After a visit to Menokin in 1790, one of his nephews wrote, “I find my uncle and aunt Frank as happily situated as it is possible in this world to be except their want of society which they have in themselves only” (XVII, p. 109). One might wonder at the “want of society,” for in the winter of 1785 William Lee's wife died, and Francis Lightfoot and Rebecca welcomed William's daughters, Portia and Cornelia, into their home. The girls remained with them as long as Francis Lightfoot and his wife lived (XXII, p. 237). One would also assume that Francis Lightfoot and Rebecca would continue to visit friends and relatives as long as they were able. Earlier, they had often visited Landon Carter and family at Sabine Hall (I, 21 Oct 1774), and Nomini Hall, home of Robert Carter and family (II, 19 Feb, 8 Oct 1774). Lee busied himself with plantation affairs, and most of his letters of this period pertain to business and attempts to collect long outstanding debts. Tired and in poor health, and with most of his wealth depleted, he wrote to William:

Mrs. Lee and myself are little fitted for the fatigues of travelling. . . . I have no reason to expect otherwise than a regular decline of the small portion of bodily powers that I at present possess; for the last twelve months. I feel the decline very sensibly. . . .

I am so very little in the world and find it so impossible to get anybody to do any business for me. . . . The world seems crazy, and we old people must scuffle with it, as well as we can, for our few days of existence. With the warmest wishes that you may recover a better state of health. . . . (XXIII, p. 234).

Francis Lightfoot Lee died about three years later in January of 1797. Thomas Lee Shippen wrote to a relative:

My poor Uncle Frank has paid his last debt to Nature, following Mrs. Lee who went a few days before him. I have no doubt but her death hastened his as her constant attendance upon him is said to have occasioned the illness which proved fatal to her (XXII, p. 239).

Lee never cared for public life. Fairly early in his career, he had written to William:

I set off to day for Loudoun to the election, which will be in 8 or 10 days. The people are so vexed at the little attention I have given them that they are determined it seems to dismiss me from their service, a resolution most pleasing to me, for it is so very inconvenient to me that nothing should induce me to take a poll, but a repeated promise to my friends there, enforced by those here who consider me as a staunch friend to Liberty. . . . (VI, [18 Jul 1770]).

At some later point he remarked with some disgust to Richard Henry, “What damned dirty work is this politics!”: (XVIII, p. 150). By the end of his career he was thoroughly disillusioned by politics, and possibly, by mankind as a whole. The Deane controversy, which sullied to some extent the names of all of the Lee brothers (XXV, pp. 323–25), was in a large part responsible for his disenchantment. The following excerpts, all from letters to Richard Henry Lee, are lengthy, but they were written by Francis Lightfoot Lee himself, and express his feelings so well that one hesitates to tamper with them.

. . . I am as heartily tired of the knavery and stupidity of the generality of mankind as you can be; but it is our duty to stem the Current, as much as we can and to do all the service in our power, to our Country and our friends. The consciousness of having done so, will be the greatest of all rewards. I have very little hope from the present race, they are too much infested with the vices of Britain, but by proper regulations to enlarge the understanding and improve the morals of the rising generation; we may give a fair opportunity to succeeding Patriots, of making their Country flourishing and happy. but this must be the work of Peace. in the meantime, we must struggle with the present degeneracy and present as much of its bad effects, as possible (VII, 12 Aug 1778).

I do not wonder at your disgust at the wickedness and folly of mankind. I have so much of the same feeling; that I am sure, there an be no condition in Life more unhappy, than to be engaged in the management of public affairs, with honest intentions, but hard as the lot is, it must be borne at least till things have got into a tolerable way (VII, 15 Dec 1778).

. . . Mean-ness and wickedness increase daily. If our brothers are not disgraced now, I am sure they will be e'er long; for they will always stand in the way of bad men, and no villainy will be left unpracticed to ruin them (VII, 25 Dec 1778).

It is hard to believe that these are the sentiments of the same man who, only seven years earlier, had believed that one should “laugh at the ridiculous, make use of the good, and forget the bad part of the World” (VIII, William to F. L. Lee, Mar 1771).

From all sources, both contemporary and modern, one is given the impression that Francis Lightfoot Lee was the type of man who would be valued as a friend. By all accounts, he was charming and witty; his friends enjoyed his company. He was kind and willing to risk everything for a cause in which he believed. He was not self-seeking or greedy; public office offered him nothing that he did not already have, and took from him the peace of his own fireside, which was so important to him. He loved his wife dearly. Though he must have had enemies somewhere, political as well as private, not a single derogatory remark has been found concerning him in the course of this study. He seldom spoke on the floor of the legislature, for he was inarticulate in public, but he quietly worked for his country. To be sure, he, like the rest of our forefathers, had human faults. But he was respected, by respectable men. And most important of all, he was honorable. He has been often neglected in favor of his more outspoken brothers, but he contributed no less. John Adams described him as “a man of great reading well understood, of sound judgement, and inflexible in the cause of his country” (XXII, p. 77). He was, in the ideal sense of both terms, a Virginia gentleman and a patriot.


[1.] The unsanctioned capacity in which the burgesses had been meeting since the House of Burgesses was dissolved by Dunmore (XXVI, p. 124).

[2.] The Deane controversy, though extremely interesting, is a complicated subject. It will not be treated here due to its lengthy and intricate nature and also because Francis Lightfoot Lee was not directly involved in it. The controversy concerned Francis Lightfoot Lee only in that it hurt him deeply to see the reputations of Arthur and William unjustly sullied. In his recent biography of Arthur Lee, Louis W. Potts maintains that the Lee brothers were innocent.

Return to Francis Lightfoot Lee: Virginia Gentleman and Forgotten Patriot