Richard Henry Lee (1733-1794)

Lee, Richard Henry

Richard Henry Lee, known by contemporaries as the "Cicero" of the American Revolution, was a politician and planter from Virginia who was indispensible to the founding of the United States. Lee was the driving force behind the creation of the intercolonial committees of correspondence; drafted and introduced the resolution that declared American independence; served as president of the Continental Congress; and was elected Virginia's first United States Senator.

Born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on January 20, 1732/33, Lee entered the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England, in 1748. Both of Lee's parents died while he was at Wakefield, prompting his oldest brother, Phillip Ludwell Lee, now head of the family, to demand his immediate return home. Instead, Lee defied his brother and left England for Europe, which he toured for at least a year before returning to Virginia in 1751. His first public office was an appointment as Justice of the Peace for Westmoreland County in 1757. The following year, he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Lee's first speech in the legislature was an impassioned one in support of a duty to slow the importation of slaves. Lee used it as an opportunity to condemn the entire institution as contrary to Christian values. He quickly gained a reputation as one of the most eloquent and zealous political actors in the colony.

In 1764, Lee learned of the impending Stamp Act. His initial reaction was to apply for one of the Stamp distributor jobs that the act would appoint for each colony (Benjamin Franklin also applied)—an action for which he would be later called to account. His fellow Virginian George Mercer—who was in London at the time—was awarded the post instead. As the constitutional implications of the act became more apparent, Lee turned into one of its most vocal opponents. In November he convinced the House of Burgesses to protest it with messages to the King and Parliament that laid the groundwork for all future opposition to parliamentary impositions by arguing that the British constitution guaranteed that subjects could not be taxed without their consent. In September 1765, he staged a mock, ritual hanging of Mercer and George Grenville, the prime minister who introduced the Stamp Act. On February 27, 1766, he went even farther, organizing more than 100 of his neighbors to attach their names to the virulent Leedstown (or Westmoreland) Resolves, which he drafted. The resolves pledged its signers to prevent the Stamp Act from going into effect "at every hazard, and, paying no regard to danger or to death," and to make sure that anyone who attempted to enforce it would face "immediate danger and disgrace." In 1766, however, Lee's early attempt to secure a Stamp distributor job was revealed, requiring him to vindicate his position in letters to men such as George Wythe. Once he explained, Lee never spoke of the matter again.

After suffering an accident in 1768 that cost him several fingers on his left hand (which was thereafter swathed in a black silk handkerchief, something he occasionally employed for dramatic effect in his oratory) and the imperial crisis cooled, Lee concerned himself with other sorts of transatlantic affairs, such as establishing his younger brothers in London—William as a merchant for Virginia tobacco and Arthur as a lawyer and something of a watchdog for Virginia's interests. Yet politics remained at the front of his mind. In 1769, he joined with George Washington and 86 other burgesses to sign George Mason's non-importation association to protest the Townshend Duties, even though they did not go as far as Lee had wanted. He also tried in 1770 for a more influential political position, urging his brothers in London to lobby to have him appointed to the Governor's Council (an earlier attempt, in 1762, had been unsuccessful). But Arthur had earned such enmity among officials, such as Lord Hillsborough, that William had "little hopes" of success. According to William, "American patriots are not at all pleasing to ye present ministry." Throughout the imperial crisis, Lee's brothers remained a constant, though not always accurate, source of information for Lee about American affairs in London.

Lee also struck up a correspondence with John Dickinson in Pennsylvania and Samuel Adams in Boston, advocating a more reliable system for exchanging intercolonial information. In March 1773, Lee—with the help of Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and several others—put his idea into action when they created the first intercolonial Committee of Correspondence, approved by the House of Burgesses on March 13. Lee happily informed Dickinson on April 4 that the Virginia assembly "adopted a measure which from the beginning of the present dispute they should have fixed on, as leading to that union and perfect understanding of each other, on which the political salvation of America so eminently depends." He added, "You will observe, sir, that full scope is given to a large and thorough union of councils" and expressed his hope that "every colony on the continent will adopt these committees of correspondence and enquiry." Adams wrote to Lee on April 10 that "the reception of the truly patriotic resolves of the House of Burgesses of Virginia gladdens the hearts of all who are friends to liberty."

The pace of the constitutional crisis considerably quickened in the spring of 1774 as Americans anticipated the reaction of the British government to the Boston Tea Party. News of the first of the Coercive Acts, the Boston Port Act, reached Williamsburg in May while the House of Burgesses was in session. Thomas Jefferson later recalled that he, Lee, Henry, and a few others then retreated to the Council chamber to examine John Rushworth's Historical Collections—a set of books about the English civil wars with which Lee was likely familiar—for a precedent to use in expressing opposition. They settled on establishing June 1, the day that Boston's port was set to close, as a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer for the burgesses, an order for which was adopted by the House on May 24. Upon learning of the move, the governor, Lord Dunmore, did the only thing within his power to do, which was to dissolve the assembly on May 26. He feared that more strident measures challenging the authority of Parliament were sure to follow. Those measures, written by Lee, did, in fact follow, when they were presented to a large collection of now former burgesses the next day. Meeting in the Raleigh Tavern, they agreed to a new association to ban the importation of British goods and called for a continental congress, declaring "that an attack, made on one of our sister colonies, to compel submission to arbitrary taxes, is an attack made on all British America."

In August, Lee was chosen with six others to represent Virginia in the First Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in September. There he built on his epistolary relationship with Samuel Adams to become fast friends and political allies. Lee proposed an extension of Virginia's non-importation association to all the colonies to be followed a year later by a ban on exporting any goods to Britain. Later, in 1775 and 1776, he was among the first to embrace Thomas Paine's Common Sense to target the King, rather than Parliament, as the focus of colonial ire and, along with Adams and his cousin, John, identified independence from Great Britain—rather than any form of reconciliation—as the only possible means of preserving American freedom. Through his brother, Thomas Ludwell, a member of the Fifth Virginia Convention meeting in Williamsburg, he lobbied from Philadelphia for the Virginians to vote for independence so that the Congress could act on it. On May 18, 1776, Thomas Ludwell was able to report from Williamsburg that the convention adopted a resolution to direct its representatives in Congress to push for independence, "to the infinite joy of the people here." Therefore, on June 7, Lee introduced the resolution that declared "the United colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States," which passed on July 2.

Lee continued to serve in Congress until May 1779, during which time he helped frame the first American government through the Articles of Confederation. It was not a period without troubles, however, as Lee and his brother, Arthur, were embroiled in a controversy over Silas Deane, a diplomatic representative of Congress serving in Europe and accused of using his public office for private gain, which led to his recall. Poor health forced Lee to return to Virginia where, in 1780, he took a seat in the House of Delegates—then in the midst of revising the entire body of Virginia's laws—meeting in the new capital of Richmond. He remained in Virginia until 1784 when he was well enough to return to Philadelphia, where he was chosen president of the Congress. In 1787, Lee helped draft the landmark charter for the Northwest Territory. That same year he declined to participate in the Constitutional Convention and strenuously opposed the document that it produced. Believing that the Constitution would permit, if not invite, the sort of abuse of governmental authority that had led to the Revolution in the first place, Lee worked with his old ally, Patrick Henry, to defeat its ratification in Virginia. When it narrowly passed, Henry helped ensure that Lee was elected to the first United States Senate, where he was instrumental in drafting the Bill of Rights. On April 18, 1792, he was elected president pro tempore of the Senate (to preside over the body in the absence of the Vice President and serve as third in the line of presidential succession) but ill-health forced him to resign in October. Lee then returned to Virginia, where he died on June 19, 1794. The epitaph on Lee's gravestone is a statement made by George Mason in a letter to Lee on May 18, 1776, asking him to return to Virginia to help create its new government: "We cannot do without you."

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