Richard Henry Lee

Richard Henry Lee (1732-1794), American patriot and statesman, led early resistance in Virginia to British rule. He introduced into the Continental Congress the resolution declaring American independence.

Richard Henry Lee was born into a family long prominent in Virginia's history. Stratford, the family home, in which Lee was born on Jan. 20, 1732, was one of the stateliest mansions in Virginia. Lee received an education befitting a wealthy planter's son—private tutors at home and then Wakefield Academy in England. By the age of 26 he was already a justice of the peace in Westmoreland Country and a member of the House of Burgesses.

One of Lee's first speeches in the House, an impassioned denunciation of the slave trade, helped establish his reputation as an orator, second only to Patrick Henry. With Henry he shared leadership of the "progressive" faction in the House and led the colony's vigorous opposition to the new British tax measures after 1764. Lee also achieved prominence by exposing the embezzlements of John Robinson, who, for 3 decades Speaker of the House and treasurer of the colony, had used public funds to finance his friends' business ventures.


Revolutionary Patriot

Between 1766 and 1776 Lee developed a reputation throughout the Colonies as a flaming "Son of Liberty." In the House of Burgesses he drew up the memorials to the Crown and the Lords protesting the Stamp Act, and he gave strong endorsement to Patrick Henry's famous Virginia Resolves. Lee was not averse to employing direct action, organizing a boycott against the stamps in Westmoreland Country and leading an armed party against the local stamp distributor. The Townshend Acts renewed Lee's militancy. He strongly supported the boycott of British goods and wove cloth on his own looms and pressed his own grapes for wine. Anticipating the need for a broader opposition to British measures, he proposed a system of intercolonial committees of correspondence among "lovers of liberty in every province."

Lee was one of the most active and influential members of the First and Second Continental Congresses, serving on the committees that drew up the Declaration of Rights, the Address to the King, the Memorial to the People of British America, the Address to the People of Great Britain, and the letters to the people of Canada and Florida. He also helped draft the commercial interdict against Britain known as The Association. By this time he was well known as the "Cicero" of America. John Adams described him as a "tall spare man … a scholar, a gentleman, a man of uncommon eloquence."

By 1776 Lee and Adams had become the leaders of the movement for independence. Lee admired the British Constitution but felt that its equipoise had been destroyed by ministerial corruption. In any case, he believed that Britain had "already put the two countries asunder" by Parliament's American trade ban of December 1775. In July, Lee proposed an economic declaration of independence, throwing open American ports to the trade of the world; but Congress did not act on Lee's suggestion until almost a year later, when it also recommended the formation of independent state governments, an action Lee had already urged upon Virginia. Lee's three famous resolutions of June 7, 1776, followed logically: American independence, an alliance with France, and a plan of interstate confederation.

For the remainder of his stay in Congress (1774-1780, 1784-1787), Lee served on the committee to negotiate foreign alliances, chaired the committee that drafted the formal ratification of the Articles of Confederation, and helped secure Virginia's cession of western land claims.


The Antifederalist

Lee resisted efforts to give Congress the power to regulate commerce and to impose customs duties. He viewed commerce as an enemy to virtue and the breeder of the mercantile aristocracy that had corrupted Europe. He felt that a Congress with an independent income would threaten the liberties of the states. Lee approved the Northwest Ordinance because of its property guarantees and the Articles of Confederation because of their guarantees of liberty. He believed that social happiness was to be found in "a wise and free republic and a virtuous people." For these reasons he viewed the Constitutional Convention with suspicion and declined to serve as a delegate.

Lee wrote the most thoughtful, skillful, and powerful of the Antifederalist polemics, Letters from the Federal Farmer (Oct. 8-13, 1787), voicing his fears of a consolidated government and the "formidable combination of power" vested in the president and Senate; he also protested the inadequacy of representation of all interests in the House and the absence of a bill of rights. Lee saw the issue as a contest against both aristocracy and democracy on behalf of the vast majority of "men of middling property." In the end he accepted the Constitution because it was "this or nothing," and he served as one of Virginia's first senators in the new government. He died on June 19, 1794, never quite reconciled to the Constitution despite the Bill of Rights, which he had helped to add to it.


Further Reading on Richard Henry Lee

A full collection of sources is James Curtis Ballagh, ed., The Letters of Richard Henry Lee (2 vols., 1911-1914). Lee's "Farmer's Letters" can be found in Paul L. Ford, ed., Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States (1888). His work in the Continental Congress can be traced in the appropriate volumes of W. C. Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (34 vols., 1904-1937). The most recent biography of Lee, more political than personal, is Oliver P. Chitwood, Richard Henry Lee: Statesman of the Revolution (1967). Lee receives considerable attention in Burton J. Hendrick's readable and critical account. The Lees of Virginia: Biography of a Family (1935).


Additional Biography Sources

Matthews, John Carter, Richard Henry Lee, Williamsburg, Va.: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1978.