THE POLITICAL THOUGHT OF
RICHARD HENRY LEE
Holly Eileen Munchoff Kendig
In partial fulfillment of the
requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
As a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Richard Henry Lee witnessed the arbitrary power of the royal governor, and consequently came to favor a mixed government in which the advantages of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy were blended. The first challenge to British governmental control, the Stamp Act crisis, caught Lee in the embarrassing position of having at first applied for the position of stamp agent and then changing his mind. As a result, most of his activity during that crisis was confined to dnfending himself. In 1768, with the news of the Townshend Acts, Lee urged the formation of intercolonial committees of correspondence, a suggestion which would not be followed until 1773, when Virginia responded indignantly to the Gaspee incident in Rhode Island. Despite his criticisms, Lee still felt a close attachment to Great Britain and hoped for a resolution of differences. His affection for the mother country did not last, however. The Boston Port Bill was the turning point, after which Lee was aligned more with the “radicals,” or those urging stronger action than was generally accepted.
The Port Bill also inspired the movement for a general congress, suggested by Lee and others. The Congress became a reality in 1774, with the gathering of delegates to the Continental Congress, including Lee from Virginia. As the differences with the British multiplied, the Congress turned increasingly to economic pressure to force England to redress colonial grievances and worked toward non-importation and non-consumption agreements. By 1776, actual conflict with the British was an established fact, and Lee was advocating independence and confederation. In fact, Lee proposed the resolution for independence in June, 1776, resolving that the colonies “are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states. . . .” Lee was not on the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence, however, because he left the Congress immediately for Virginia.
Although Lee had developed a dislike of power in government and a suspicion of the ambitions of men, which extended back as far as his experiences with Virginia's royal government, his fear of tyranny did not carry over to the Confederation, which he felt left little room for abuse of power. Although it was probably poor health that kept Lee from serving in the Congress from 1780–1784, he spent that time working for the Confederation by trying to secure an agreeable cession of Virginia's western lands. It was also during these years that he endeavored to defeat the proposed impost in the Virginia Assembly and worked to organize the state militia under the threat of British attack. Yet in time he came to see the need for strengthening the central government in some particulars.
Elected again to Congress in 1784, and subsequently to the presidency of that body, Lee grew more receptive to a stronger central government. Although he had become committed to a change in government by 1787, when the results of the Convention were made public he was less than pleased. In protest, Lee wrote two pamphlets and many private letters criticizing the Constitution. He was not irreconcilably opposed, however, for he was prepared to accept the Constitution provided it was amended. Nonetheless, he was very disturbed about the pressure to adopt the new government without delay and sought a longer process of ratification to give the people time to evaluate the document. Nor did he accept all of the Federalist arguments regarding the need for a new government, particularly those which blamed the Confederation for what he felt were post-war problems. Many of Lee's criticisms of the Constitution centered around his fear of oligarchy. In particular, he questioned the small representation in the proposed House of Representatives, maintaining it would be dominated by the natural aristocracy. He placed more faith in state governments, considering them to be closer to the people and their wishes. Lee also worried about the abuse of power in government, and thus felt strongly that a bill of rights was imperative. His specific suggestions for a bill of rights were influenced by the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Unlike the extreme wing of Antifederalists who demanded amendments before adoption, Lee was open to compromise with regard to ratification. The federalists were able to secure adoption without compromise, however, and many Antifederalists lost influence. Yet there was still an Antifederalist majority in the Virginia Assembly, which elected Lee to the U.S. Senate. Amendments to the Constitution after ratification had been promised by many Federalists, and James Madison worked to keep this promise. He introduced amendements into the House of representatives in the first Congress, which were eventually approved by both houses. Although Lee was quite disillusioned with the amendments eventually passed, he seemed relatively satisfied with the new government.
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