Washington and Lee University

Richard Henry Lee, Rhetoric and Rebellion


The fundamental characteristic of Richard Henry Lee's rhetoric was the intelligent reflection of his social and intellectual environment. He became a political leader by conforming to the leadership role expectations of mid-eighteenth century Virginians, achieving and then solidifying his position by ably defending the local power structure against a series of challenges posed by British efforts to co-ordinate and finance the administration of a vast empire.

Lee's rhetoric from 1764 to 1774 clearly illustrates his society in its confrontation with crisis. His political aims and goals typified those of his society. Knowledgeable and proud of his British intellectual heritage, Lee believed the inherited rights of Englishmen decreed that Virginians should govern their own internal affairs. He was “jealous” of the liberty of the colonies, and at the same time proud of England's constitutional monarchy and established church, believing those elements of government “happily poised” in balance. Throughout the period his thinking about English government changed in only one respect. Reflecting current opinions of and in his society, Lee came to believe a conspiracy existed among the British ministers. In his view, they were duping the King of England and destroying the beloved English constitution by subversion.

In the traditional English pattern, Lee was patriotic. As Englishmen believed they should, Lee loved his country and worked hard to serve it. But, as with other Virginians, Lee's patriotism had two objects: England and Virginia. Since Virginia clearly stood highest in his affections, events inevitably made Richard Henry Lee a “Patriot.” Virginians loved their families as their country. Family, the primary social institution in Virginia, held the first position among Richard Henry Lee's values. Significantly, he commonly used the image of parent and child to portray the colonies' connection to Britain.

In the decade preceding 1775, colonists in North America learned to think of themselves as Americans.1 Lee concurrently developed pride in America, but his pride in being American never equaled that of being a Lee or in being a Virginian. Nor did the affection he held for “America” ever attain the level of the love he once had for England.

Lee's personal characteristics as revealed in his rhetoric indicate he was in one sense a Virginia puritan. He viewed the world in moral terms. Every dispute involved two sides, right and wrong, good and bad. He regularly described these sides in blacks and whites. He saw no greys. The slave traders were not simply supplying a lucrative market; Lee called them “more cruel” than the “savage Saracen.” In making their paper money legal tender, the Burgesses had not legislated in their own self-interest; they proceeded with integrity and uprightness, protecting their constituents from unjust proceedings. Those who had misrepresented the House actions Lee described as self-interested and designing. Lee did not think George Mercer merely made an error of judgement in becoming stamp distributor; he was an execrable monster. In contrast, the Westmoreland Associators bound themselves by the ties of “religion and virtue” to oppose a law violating the “sacred” principles of the British constitution. Archibald Ritchie was not simply trying to save a few dollars for his business in clearing a loaded ship; he was attempting to bring “ruin” on the “good” people of Virginia. British ministers were not simply ordinary humans wrestling with an administratively unmanageable empire; they were “vain, weak” men of “universal selfishness,” employing “Ministerial cunning” in a plan of “tyrannical oppression.” Repeatedly, Lee described them as “evil” men set out to enslave the wise, brave and honest Americans.2

In other senses of that word, however, Lee was no puritan. His character displayed a hint of austerity, but it only suggested the kind of person he might have become in a different milieu. He was pious; and certainly he seemed more interested in issues and ideas than frivolity. He had great affinity for Samuel and John Adams and the colony they represented. But he was not self-effacing, not especially frugal and certainly not humble. On the contrary, he was ambitious and confident. His opponents, whom he more often created by his manner than by his goals, described him less charitably. They labeled him arrogant, ruthless and self-serving. Nor was Lee introspective. He was typically Virginian in being fond of society. He enjoyed his family, his Maderia and the fellowship of his friends. He knew his society well because he was of it.

The political philosophy that guided Richard Henry Lee to lead a colonial rebellion illustrates how aptly the description “Expedient-Monger” fitted him. He acted according to a practical, not very unified set of political principles not really deserving the label of philosophy. His political beliefs were not particularly original, being quite typical of his society. Neither were his beliefs especially consistent, except for their basic foundation. His ideas, aims and objects changed from time to time, according to popular explications of the prevailing theories. For instance, in all his opposition to the stamp tax he made no distinction between internal and external taxes, but when Franklin, Pitt and Dickinson made the idea popular, Lee accepted it. He accepted the navigation laws and British regulation of colonial export trade, not realizing the inconsistency of accepting external controls while rejecting internal controls in a society, which lived on its exports.

Nor did his perception of the political situation always coincide with reality. For example, he believed that the English constitution was “happily poised” to separate powers and prevent tyranny, and concurrently thought that a ministerial conspiracy within the government was destroying the perfect balance. Similarly he failed to recognize the actual power possessed by the House of Burgesses in Virginia. He sought appointment to the Council because, misled by popular opinion and a Councillor's prestige, Lee incorrectly believed it to be a more powerful office than that of an influential Burgess.

The foundation of Lee's political thinking, however, never changed in the period from 1758 to 1774. He consistently defended the existing power structure in his society and championed the legislature, which reflected it. He offered many and varying explanations, or rationalizations, for the power of the Virginia legislature, but his belief in it never faltered. His pragmatism allowed him to revise political beliefs in response to the exigencies of each new situation while maintaining the same philosophical foundation.

Labels do not fit Richard Henry Lee, especially those so often applied. He was both radical and conservative, at once liberal and reactionary. Lee's philosophical foundation was essentially conservative, if conservative means to preserve what exists. If, however, in order to preserve what he considered the fundamental aspect of his political existence he had to take radical action to destroy another part of the existing political order, he did not hesitate. If to be liberal is to defend individual freedom, Lee's desire to preserve the existing social structure was liberal because his society accorded considerable freedom to the property holder while its social and economic structure provided relatively wide opportunities for property acquisition.

Lee supported “liberal” legislation when it did not threaten the power structure he was psychologically committed to maintain, and opposed “liberal” laws which threatened it. His attitude toward slaves and the slave trade illustrates. He sought to halt slave importation and deplored the excision from the Declaration of Independence of Jefferson's stinging indictment of the British Crown for not allowing Virginians to stop the trade.3 Notably, unimpeded importation could be seen as a threat to large owners of slaves, and the men who controlled Virginia society were large slaveholders. At the same time, Lee supported the ideal, but not the actuality of eliminating “Demon Slavery.”4 He reacted idealistically to the inconsistency of America's objections to the stamp law and her own countenancing of slavery. Yet Lee never suggested acts which would limit the owner's right to his slaves or his freedom to treat them as he wished.

Lee's activities all through the decade of the sixties provide similar examples. He supported the issuance of paper money during wartime. Paper money made it possible for all Virginians, common men and gentry alike, to support the forces needed to defend their property. In 1763 he argued for maintaining the Virginia paper as legal tender because it had been established as legal at the outset. He did not confront the question of whether or not the legal tender provision was wise. Instead, he used the occasion to defend the colonial Assembly's right to legislate as it pleased. He argued that one man should not hold both the offices of Speaker of the House and Treasurer of the Colony. By doing so he supported a liberal measure, which theoretically helped achieve separation of powers. At the same time, the legislation did not threaten the power structure.

Similarly, Lee took liberal positions when he defended the rights of the King's colonial subjects: their right to have immediate access to their representatives; their right to have the representative pay a portion of every tax he laid on the other citizens; their right to dispense with standing armies. Ail of these things he defended as he defended the right of the Virginia legislature to control the colony's internal affairs. Naturally he did not oppose Britain's right to make navigation laws and to control the commercial development of the entire empire. He saw the mercantile system as no threat to the Virginia planters who dominated the society.

Lee supported cooperation among the colonies as long as the resulting unity was controlled by the various colonial legislatures. He worked hard to achieve unity of the colonies in order to defend the legislatures' right to legislate as they pleased. But he opposed Joseph Galloway's 1774 plan for an American Parliament and the later proposals for a national government supreme over the states.5 Unity that threatened the power of the Virginia legislature threatened the existing power structure in Virginia. Lee opposed that kind of unity.

Finally, and always, Lee argued against taxation without representation, a liberal position supporting the power of the Virginia legislature. He instinctively accepted a belief articulated by another Virginian in 1819. The power to tax, wrote John Marshall, “involves the power to destroy.”6 Lee knew that. If Parliament had the power to tax colonials or to suspend colonial legislatures when they refused to tax the colonials for Parliament, then Parliament had the power to destroy both the leaders and their constituents. Nothing could have been more natural for Richard Henry Lee than to oppose that power, and he willingly took radical action to oppose it.

Whenever he addressed Virginians Lee effectively utilized their beliefs and values to achieve his persuasive goals. He understood the values of his society because he shared them; but more than that, he knew how to use affections and emotions to motivate. His use of the slavery image to characterize the relation of the colonies to England was well-calculated to strike a responsive nerve and create fear of British laws. He appealed to religion, always invoking God on “our” side. He appealed to Virginians' pride in crediting them with possessing a purer, less corrupted religion and society than their decadent parent state. He complimented them on having forebears brave and persevering enough to conquer a wilderness. He praised Virginians' willingness to face dangers to preserve the heritage their ancestors had fought to win, and lauded his contemporaries' wisdom in recognizing the dangers. He reminded hearers that freedom was secure only so long as the power to tax resided in local legislators who could be “turned out” of office if they did “wrong.” He appealed to Virginians' desire for order in their society and their affection for law. In every controversy he emphasized the legality and constitutionality of the propositions he espoused and the actions he sought.

Lee knew the importance of eloquence. Vividly aware that men could be swayed by the power of moving language well expressed, he never discounted the power of verbal persuasion, written or oral. He sought public distribution for addresses, protests, remonstrances, resolutions, letters and newspaper reports. He urged wide dissemination of “right” thinking and endeavored to prevent “wrong” thinking from going unanswered. He helped bring the “free” press to Williamsburg. He answered “insolent” writers or encouraged his friends to do it.7 He made sure that all “good” activities were reported in the proper perspective. Copious use of adjectives insured that the reports inspired by Lee and published in newspapers, handbills, or circulated in private letters always cast events in the proper light. Lee pressed for exposure of all “wrong” thinkers, lest the “poison, unattended by its antidote . . . be used for the destruction of the Body Politick.”8

Yet language alone, Lee believed, could not achieve the goals he sought. Ritchie could not just repent his desire to use stamps; he must recant publicly. Lee worked diligently to preserve the 1770 Nonimportation Association—when he hoped would correct the “shameful” abuses of its predecessor by including a means of enforcement. He helped form committees to enforce the associations formed in the mid-seventies; the committees policed compliance in their counties by publishing the names of violators. Lee understood the power of social pressure and willingly employed it.

His attitude toward influencing actions of the English government displayed the same conviction that words alone would not persuade. Though he always advocated sending addresses and protests to the home government, after 1765 he did not expect the papers to secure acceptance of his persuasive goals by King or Parliament. Often the papers, though addressed to the English officials, were primarily intended as rhetorical instruments in America. He sought to have the addresses published as statements for “History” to use in teaching later generations and to solidify American resistance to British control. Following the Parliamentary threat to suspend the New York legislature and passage of the Townshend taxes, Lee was convinced the English could only be moved by economic force. He constantly pressured his fellow Virginians to apply that force. He both capitalized on opportunities presented unexpectedly and planned carefully to create opportunities to make his colleagues and neighbors aware of the need to resist the English attempts to “enslave” America.

Significantly, whether when he wrote persuasive appeals or when he worked to promote the Associations he believed so important, Lee seldom worked alone. From his experience as a member of a large, gregarious family, and from years of experience in the House of Burgesses, Lee acquired a respect and talent for committee work. Not surprisingly, he first suggested committees of correspondence among the colonies. Even more characteristic, he acted in accordance with his own suggestion and initiated correspondence with “Patriots” such as John Dickinson and Samuel Adams.

Lee's endorsement and promotion of Mason's suggestion for committees to police the Association of 1770 were the logical culmination of his philosophy and experience. “Let the virtuous work together to shed the full light of proper publicity on both good and bad deeds” might well be stated as the credo which guided the steps of Richard Henry Lee as he defended his world against both external and internal enemies.

The events of the 1760s culminated in the creation of a government and the forging of a nation. Richard Henry Lee's rhetoric, because it promoted the rebellion, which led to open warfare by 1775, significantly influenced that process. Neither Lee, nor most of the other “Patriots,” nor most of the British consciously sought that war. Few on either side desired it even as they spoke and acted in ways that made the bloodshed, the suffering and the resulting separation inevitable.

In times when some would overthrow the established order, using violence if necessary to achieve their aims, the study of Lee's rhetoric is especially useful. The study has implications of importance, both for those who would revolt and for those who would avoid violent change. Those who desire the violent or non-violent restructuring of our society would do well to study Virginia in the American struggle for independence. From that study they would learn that knowledge of the structure of government does not always reveal the sources of governmental power, and that restructuring government does not always restructure society. Perhaps most importantly, they would learn that forces once set in motion can create results the initiator cannot predict or control. For example, Virginians in 1776 could assert “That all men are by nature equally free and independent,” even though most of them owned other men as property.9 Could Richard Henry Lee have foreseen the use those words would one day have, he probably would have stood beside Robert Carter Nicholas in seeking elimination of the phrase from Virginia's Declaration of Rights, instead of supporting the men who argued for the inclusion of Mason's portentous words. 10

For those who would avoid violent change, the lessons of Richard Henry Lee's rhetoric and the rebellion it helped create have even more importance. Divisions existed between the American colonists and the British officials from the beginning of the conflict with England. The men on both sides of the Atlantic who swore allegiance to the British King came from two widely different cultures, though they did not perceive the vast differences. The Virginians believed they swore fidelity to the same constitution, the same religion and the same intellectual heritage as the British. But they were wrong. The American was no longer an Englishman living in America; he was an American. The fact profoundly affected the debate which neither side won. The men on either side of the ocean defined the colonies' relationship to England from their own perspective and declared it “right” the way they saw it. Moreover, the determination of both the British and the Americans to prove their own perception correct was reinforced by a fundamental fact: the constitutional relationship defined a power relationship. Hence, try as they would, until men on both sides risked the compromise of power, they would not convince each other of the “Rights” of either side; and their rhetoric, ostensibly aimed at each other, only contributed to hardening each position. Restatement followed restatement, solidifying the opinions of those who said again and again, “we are right, we have our Rights.” So they did not listen. Rhetoric to Lee and his Virginia colleagues, as well as to the British, meant to assert, to declaim, to prove. It did not carry an equal obligation to receive the opponents' rhetoric, to listen, to attempt to understand. Neither side was willing to risk compromise, to take a chance of being changed.

Those who would avoid violent change must listen, must risk a compromise, for as before, change will occur. The choice is not whether but how. We may learn from the events leading to the American war for independence; or we may make the same mistakes as Richard Henry Lee, who wanted peaceful union with his “Mother Country,” but whose entire public life before 1775 served the forces which led Virginia into war.


1. Richard L. Merritt, Symbols of American Community 1735–1775 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), pp. 140, 179–82.

2. Richard Henry Lee, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, ed. James C. Ballagh (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1912), I, 5, 8, 26, 34, 41, are merely a few examples of many possible, cited hereafter as RHL, Letters.

3. Richard Henry Lee to Thomas Jefferson, 21 July 1776, RHL, Letters, I, 210.

4. Richard Henry Lee to Landon Carter, 15 August 1765, RHL, Letters, I, 11–12, contains a statement agreeing with Carter that slavery is an evil institution.

5. L. H. Butterfield (ed.), The Adams Papers: Diary and Autobiography of John Adams (New York: Athenaeum, 1964), II, 143. Adams notes that Lee responded first after Galloway's motion was seconded. Lee said, “This plan would make such Changes in the Legislatures of the Colonies that I could not agree to it, without consulting my Constituents.” Lee's concern that the government set up by the constitution of 1787 was too powerful in relation to the States led to two publications: Observations leading to a fair examination of the system of government proposed by the late convention; and to several essential and necessary alterations in it. In a number of letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican (New York: Thomas Greenleaf, 1787); An Additional number of letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican; leading to a fair examination of the system of government, proposed by the late Convention; to several essential and necessary alterations in it; and calculated to illustrate and support the principles and positions laid clown in the preceding letters (New York: Thomas Greenleaf, 1788).

6. Cited from his opinion in McCulloch vs. Maryland in 1819, Walter F. Dodd (ed.), Cases and Materials on Constitutional Law: Selected from Decisions of State and Federal Courts (St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co., 1949), p. 369.

7. The allusion is to a letter not cited above in which Lee indicated he had resolved not to let an “insolent” letter from London go unanswered and had sent a reply to the newspaper. Similarly he turned to print to influence Virginia's constitution writers in 1776. Lee, who was in Congress at the time, first wrote some ideas of his own, but upon seeing John Adams' “Thoughts on Government,” asked Adams' permission to have it published and sent the pamphlet immediately to Virginia. He asked Patrick Henry to use Adams' ideas in countering the “Contemptible little Tract,” of Carter Braxton. Throughout the war, Lee recommended items to Jefferson for publication, RHL, Letters, I, 41–45, 179, 190, 401–2; II, 220–21; Butterfield, The Adams Papers, III, 331–32.

8. RHL, Letters, I, 32.

9. Robert A. Rutland (ed.), The Papers of George Mason 1725–1792 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970 , I, 287.

10. Ibid., pp. 271–75; RHL, Letters, I, 203.

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