The Importance of the Library in Historic Restoration

By Clifford Waller Barrett

 

Address at the Dedication of the Jessie Ball duPont Memorial Library

Stratford Hall Plantation

Westmoreland County, Virginia

October 11, 1980

 

It is indeed a great day when a library is dedicated at a national shrine. Naturally, all of us who are devoted to the administration of our historic landmarks fully realize the importance of restoring them as faithfully as possible, maintaining them and making them available to the public at large under the best possible conditions. The ladies involved here at Stratford have performed nobly in this respect and have earned the commendation of all dedicated to this form of national service. 

But, beyond the restoration and the proper exhibition of the noble mansions that have housed the great men of our history, there is a further responsibility that devolves on the caretakers. This relates to the gathering of the published and written materials which reflect as faithfully as possible the patterns of the lives of the men themselves. Of course, we try to capture the essence of their daily lives by acquiring and exhibiting as many as possible of the household appurtenances, the furniture, china, silver, pictures present during the times of the builders and their descendants. How well this phase of curatorship has been done at Stratford becomes abundantly clear as one wanders through the elegant rooms of the mansion and, indeed, a candlelight tour gives one the eerie feeling that he is attending a reception given by Thomas and Hannah Lee.

But, as the saying goes, man does not live by bread alone and a faithful restoration of the domestic milieu, albeit appealing, only presents one side of the coin. We must strive to give our visitors some idea of the intellectual and the moral patterns of their lives, the course of their educations, the development of their characters and their philosophies. How can we best carry out this aim? I think the answer is by making available the kind of books they read, the papers they published, the recorded opinions of their peers and the historic commentaries on their lives and times, in fact, the kind of material that is gathered and preserved in a library. It is therefore a matter for rejoicing that this aspect of national shrine administration has been given a great impetus here by the gift of the Jessie Ball Dupont Library and that this is now coupled with the gift of books and papers relating to the Lees by members of that illustrious clan. May I add that, in my experience, the establishment of a facility of this kind invariably acts as a magnet for the flow of additional material.

I believe we can take satisfaction in the fact that administrators of our great Virginia houses have been aware of the importance of library facilities. At Monticello, for example, there has been a continuing effort to obtain the same editions of the books that were on the shelves in Mr. Jefferson’s time. The original volumes were dispersed after his death but a great many have been recovered and are now at the Library of Congress. At Mount Vernon, separate library quarters are used to gather all possible material relating to the building and remodeling of the mansion and the care of the gardens and farms. For the library room in the house itself, efforts are being made to secure as many as possible of the same editions of the books used by Washington, just as had been done at Monticello. At Gunston Hall there has been constructed a separate building with library facilities and considerable progress has been made in procuring books relating to George Mason. Kenmore now has a separate building with library space. So, all in all, the Old Dominion has made a significant advance in recent years in gathering and preserving materials that will further illuminate the lives of great Virginians.

Stratford, however, is a unique situation. Its history encompasses an entire family of distinguished men, as compared with houses that, essentially, relate to one individual such as Mount Vernon to George Washington, Monticello to Thomas Jefferson, Gunston Hall to George Mason, Montpelier to James Madison, Oak Hill to James Monroe and the John Marshall House in Richmond. A glance at the genealogical chart of the Lees, beginning with Thomas the builder, reveals the names of fourteen Lees who performed distinguished services for the State and the Nation. Six were born at Stratford. The only family whose record compares remotely with that of the Lees is the Adams family of Massachusetts.

This enviable record of service begins with the builder himself. Thomas Lee served on the Virginia Council as presiding officer and was referred to as the President of Virginia, thus capping a lifetime of public service. This progenitor built here at Stratford this mansion of dignity, elegant proportions and of such massive construction that it has withstood the ravages of nearly two and a half centuries. Of the other Lee houses—Mount Pleasant, Lee Hall, Belleview, Cobb’s Hall and Chantilly—all have disappeared.

It has been said of Thomas Lee that when he died in 1750, and I quote—from the eminent historian, Burton J. Hendrick—“most of the Virginians who were to become builders of the new United States—such as Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Wythe—were living, but they were young men or children, whose future even the most visionary prophet could not have predicted. When events, a dozen years after—were to call these paladins to their destined tasks, they were to find co-workers in a group of brothers, sons of Thomas Lee who at the time of their father’s death, were children at Stratford or schoolboys in England. When these [sons] did their part in establishing independence and hastening national expansion they were carrying into practice the new American sprit that was an inheritance from the first proprietor of Stratford.”

Of the sons of Thomas, perhaps the outstanding was Richard Henry Lee. As a young man he attempted to join Braddock and George Washington in the ill-fated expedition to the Allegheny. Lee, who had been born in the same month as Washington, was rebuffed and, thenceforth, he devoted himself not a legislative career that lasted from 1757 in the House of Burgesses, the Continental Congresses, the Congress and the Senate of the United States until his death in 1794. In the House of Burgesses his presence has been described as noteworthy with his slim and graceful figure of six feet, his left hand wrapped in a black silk handkerchief—he had lost the fingers in an accident—and he was acknowledged one of the finest speakers in the assembly. Saint George Tucker wrote—“the fine powers of language, united with that harmonious voice, made me sometimes think that I was looking at some being inspired with more than mortal powers of embellishment.”

At the Continental Congress Lee was considered seriously for the Chairmanship of the Committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. The palm went to Jefferson, but it should be noted that on July 2nd, two days before the adoption of the Declaration, a resolution proposed by Richard Henry Lee and seconded by John Adams was adopted. The measure stated:

That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, and they are absolved of all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them, and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be, totally dissolved. These words clearly foreshadow the preliminary phrasing of Jefferson’s famous Declaration.

‘During the debate an old Tory called out to Adams—

It is a machine for the fabrication of independence.”

Adams replied—

It is independence itself.” ’

Perhaps the unhappiest period of Richard Henry Lee’s life was during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 at Philadelphia and the Virginia Ratifying Convention at Richmond. He was unable to bring himself to sign the Constitution and at Richmond he entered the lists against his old friends, George Washington, James Madison, John Marshall and George Wythe. His efforts to prevent ratification failed and Virginia joined New York as the last two states to approve. Lee became one of the first two senators from Virginia to the new union.

Richard Henry’s brother, Francis Lightfoot Lee, was actively involved in Virginia in the struggle for independence and became a member of the Second Continental Congress where he strongly supported Richard Henry in the national effort. John Adams wrote in his diary—(Francis) Lee is a brother of our old friend, Richard Henry, sensitive and patriotic as the rest of the family.”

It is no denigration of the successful efforts of the venerable Benjamin Franklin to secure the aid of France for the Colonies to point out that the services of Arthur Lee were of the greatest assistance to him. Lee, the youngest brother of Richard Henry, was appointed by Congress to initiate these difficult negotiations. Arthur and his brother, William, older by one year, were established in London as physician and merchant and, like the signers of the Declaration, they were called upon to make notable sacrifices and undergo serious risks for the cause. Arthur fully understood the nuances of the relations between Spain under the rule of Charles III and France under his nephew, Louis XVI. He realized the necessity of getting joint action from the two nations and his conduct of these delicate negotiations paved the way for Dr. Franklin’s success. William supported these efforts by his mission to Germany and Austria.

As the Declaration of Independence passed into history and the war was in progress, the torch of the Lees was being handed to another branch of the family known as the Leesylvania Lees. The head of this branch was Henry, son of builder Thomas’s younger brother, Henry and Mary Bland. Incidentally, Mary was the sister of Richard Bland, the noted Virgnia statesman, pronounced by Jefferson—“the most learned and logical man of those who took prominent lead in public affairs.” Young Henry was fortunate in his choice of a wife, Lucy Grymes who, like other Lee wives became the mother of famous sons. Among her progeny were Henry (Light-Horse Harry) Lee, Charles Lee, Attorney-General of the United States and Richard Bland Lee, the congressman principally responsible for placing the Federal Capital in Washington.

Light-Horse Harry Lee brought about the joining of the two branches of Lees at Stratford by his marriage to Matilda, the daughter of the oldest of Thomas’s sons, Philip Ludwell Lee. In the absence of male heirs, Matilda inherited Stratford Plantation. Harry’s career had begun in a blaze of glory with a spectacular role in the Revolutionary War. From the beginning he enjoyed the friendship of George Washington. After the successful storming of a strong point located at what is now Jersey City he was promoted by the General to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. His subsequent exploits were performed in the Southern theatre under the command of General Nathanael Greene. Harry strongly favored pressing the campaign against the British troops in Georgia and the Carolinas. He felt that this would lure Cornwallis to move against Lafayette’s small forces in Virginia. The plan worked and Cornwallis moved on Virginia while Harry performed brilliantly at engagements at Fort Motte, Guilford Courthouse and Eutaw Springs. The final result was that Cornwallis, bottled up on the Yorktown peninsula and confronted by the junction of Washington’s and Lafayette’s forces, was obligated to surrender. In referring to the Southern campaign, General Greene wrote Congress in 1782—“I am more indebted to this officer (Harry Lee) than to any other for the advantages gained over the enemy in the operations of the last campaign and should be wanting in gratitude not to acknowledge the importance of his success.”                

         Harry now returned to his bride, Matilda, and Stratford. In 1788 he emerged as a strong supporter of Washington and Madison in urging the ratification of the new Constitution. His brilliant performance as a speaker and debater at the Convention in Richmond led to his election as Governor of Virginia for three terms. His beloved wife, Matilda, died in 1790, and three years later, he married Ann Hill Carter of Shirley Plantation, once again uniting the Lees with a famous Virginia Family. In 1794 Washington appointed him Major-General to lead the forces put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. Through his friendship with Washington he was elected to Congress in 1799 and his last gleam of fame came when he uttered his eulogy of Washington known to every schoolboy—“first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Thenceforth, his path lead steadily downward—unwise speculations, unpayable debts, imprisonment, exile and death on lonely Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia. Matilda, recognizing the utter incompetency of Harry in financial matters, had bequeathed Stratford to their son, Henry. This led to unmitigated disaster as Henry turned out to be a tragically unstable character. Through his actions, the reign of the Lees at Stratford was ended and the estate passed out of the hands of the family forever.

The vigorous and fruitful growth of the Lee clan, incalculably beneficial to the State and Nation now seemed arrested but there sprang up from that ancient root stock one more individual who earned lasting fame and whom we may justifiably call the noblest of them all. Robert Edward Lee. At this point we need not add one more panegyric to the thousands devoted to that great man, so beloved throughout the nation and so famed throughout the civilized world.

So, Ladies and Gentlemen, we salute the Lees at their home place, Stratford, and today we give thanks for an important step forward in the preservation of the records of that immortal clan in the dedication of the Jessie Ball Dupont Library. May we invoke Heavenly blessings on that great lady for whom it is named and prophesy for it a long and successful service.    

 

 

CLIFFORD WALLER BARRETT is internationally known as a bibliophile and philanthropist. A native Virginian, he is a member of a family renowned for many generations for intellectual prowess and civic service in his State. Mr. Barrett is a graduate of the University of Virginia and the founder of the Barrett Library of American Literature. The gift of his collection of Americana, including his rare assemblage of the manuscripts and works of Robert Frost, has added lustre to the already distinguished Alderman Library. Mr. Barrett is Honorary Library Advisor to the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association.

 

 

 

Source: Stratford Hall Archives

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2021 October 5