Richard Henry Lee (17331794), by Charles Willson Peale, c.1785
Lee, Richard Henry (17331794), revolutionary politician and planter in America, was born on 20 January 1733 in Westmoreland county, Virginia, the fourth of eight surviving children of and Hannah (17011750), daughter of Philip Ludwell of Green Spring, Virginia, and his wife, Hannah. Lee's father, who amassed great wealth from plantations, land speculation, and lucrative appointments, and who served on the prestigious governor's council, exposed his son to the privileged society of the Virginia gentry. From an early age Lee also had regular contact with Great Britain and the Atlantic world. He was educated at Wakefield Academy in Yorkshire, several brothers and a sister lived in England and on the European mainland, and he later sent his own sons for training in Europe. On 3 December 1757 Lee married Anne Aylett (d. 1768), with whom he had four children. The summer following her death, in December 1768, Lee married Anne Gaskins Pinckard, with whom he had five children.
Unlike most landholding gentry of his era, Lee rented out the land and many of the slaves from his inherited estate. Lee established a residence, Chantilly, on property leased from his family's estate in Westmoreland county, where he had entered politics by gaining appointment as a justice of the peace, in 1757, and winning election to the colony's assembly, the house of burgesses, the following year. A celebrated orator, Lee attracted attention in the assembly by proposing a ban on the importation of slaves into Virginia. Lee argued that reliance on slave labour discouraged the immigration of skilled artisans, and prevented the improvements in agriculture and commerce that he observed in northern colonies. Lee challenged the established leadership in the house of burgesses by recommending a broader franchise, proposing debtor relief, and calling for the investigation of the powerful house speaker, John Robinson, who was later discovered to have made illegal loans to some of the colony's most prominent families.
Following reports of an impending American stamp tax imposed by the British parliament, Lee in November 1764 offered in the house of burgesses the original motion to submit formal protests to the king and parliament. As the date for the enforcement of the Stamp Act (passed in 1765) neared, Lee staged in Westmoreland county an elaborate procession, which included his own slaves in costume, and a mock hanging of the appointed collector of stamp duties in Virginia. In February 1766 he organized the Westmoreland Association, which pledged its signatories to resist any use of the excise stamps, and led the associators into a neighbouring county, where they demanded that a recalcitrant merchant forswear use of the stamps. Lee and others successfully called for closing Virginia's courts in order to prevent use of the stamps and to bring economic pressure on British merchants to lobby for repeal of the Stamp Act. Following parliament's repeal of the act in 1766, a Virginia newspaper revealed that in 1764 Lee had applied for appointment as the colony's collector of stamp duties. The embarrassment, however, did little to undermine his influence as one of Virginia's principal leaders in the resistance to imperial policy.
In May 1769, when Virginia's royal governor dissolved the house of burgesses in response to its resolutions opposing parliamentary duties on the colonies, Lee joined with George Washington and Patrick Henry to convene an extra-legal session to organize commercial resistance. As they considered the sort of non-importation agreement in effect in other colonies, Lee also urged the non-exportation of tobacco, which would have prevented the common form of payment Virginian planters made on debts owed to British merchants. The former burgesses were reluctant to take so radical a step, but they signed an agreement not to import a large selection of goods from Great Britain. In June 1770 Lee presented and won approval for a revised association in an attempt to secure more effective participation from merchants.
Lee's regular correspondence with two of his brothers, William, a tobacco merchant active in London politics, and Arthur, also resident in London, gave him a confidential source of intelligence about parliament and ministerial policy toward the colonies. Lee also established a correspondence with Samuel Adams, the popular leader of patriot opposition in Massachusetts. Their communication led to the formal establishment in 1773 of the correspondence committees that laid the basis for a united opposition to British policy.
As the imperial crisis worsened in the spring of 1774, Lee developed a plan to close the Virginia courts to all debt actions, drafted resolutions recommending a congress of deputies from all the colonies, and sponsored a resolution for a fast day, which provoked a dissolution of the house of burgesses and led to another non-importation association. Lee was among seven delegates chosen to represent Virginia at the continental congress in September 1774. There he offered the original motion for an intercolonial association to halt all imports of British goods and, after a year's delay, all exports to Great Britain. In the succeeding congress Lee continued at the forefront of organizing a united American resistance, and, with John Adams, moved toward independence by suggesting that states organize new governments. On 7 June 1776 congress approved Lee's resolution, declaring these United colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States (Journals of the Continental Congress, 17741789, 5, 1906). After assisting in the drafting of a constitution for Virginia in June, Lee returned to the congress in Philadelphia and signed the Declaration of Independence.
Lee served in congress until 1779 and again in 17845, when he was elected president of the congress, and in 1787, when he helped to draft the charter of government for the Northwest Territory. Lee also served in the Virginia house of delegates, 17778, and for most sessions from 1780 to 1785. During the war Lee became involved in the bitter controversy surrounding Silas Deane, a commissioner of congress who served in Europe with Lee's brother Arthur, and whose questionable private ventures led to his recall by congress.
Lee remained a skilful legislator, but much of his public service in the years following independence became consumed with attacks on the supposed loss of American civic virtue, and Lee's defensive posture often seemed at odds with his vision and originality as an organizer of colonial resistance. In the 1780s Lee became increasingly suspicious of the power of a national congress and anxious about the divisions he perceived between commercial improvement in the northern states and the stagnancy of what he called the Staple States. He differed with old allies, such as Washington, who advocated granting congress the authority to raise revenue and regulate commerce. Lee retained an American continental perspective, however, and was convinced that the security of the new nation depended on the establishment of commercial ties with Europe. Lee declined a seat in the federal convention called to consider a new constitution in 1787, and, though he praised much about the resulting plan of government, he opposed ratification as long as the constitution lacked a bill of rights. It has been demonstrated that Lee was not, as long thought, the author of Letters from the Federal Farmer, published in opposition to ratification.
Lee served as one of Virginia's first senators in the federal congress that convened in the spring of 1789, and was elected the senate's president pro tempore on 18 April 1792. He retired from the senate on 8 October 1792 and resided at Chantilly until his death there, on 19 June 1794. He was buried at the Burnt House Field cemetery, Mount Pleasant, Virginia.
Bruce A. Ragsdale
P. Maier, A Virginian as revolutionary: Richard Henry Lee, The old revolutionaries: political lives in the age of Samuel Adams (1980), 164200 · P. C. Nagel, The Lees of Virginia: seven generations of an American family (1990) · E. J. Lee, Lee of Virginia, 16421892 (1895) · J. E. Selby, Lee, Richard Henry, ANB · The letters of Richard Henry Lee, ed. J. C. Ballagh, 2 vols. (191114) · Memoir of the life of Richard Henry Lee and his correspondence, ed. R. H. Lee, 2 vols. (Philadephia, PA, 1825) · Lee corresp., Virginia Historical Society, Lee MSS · Lee family papers (1966) [microfilm] · G. S. Wood, The authorship of The letters from the federal farmer, William and Mary Quarterly, 31 (1974), 299308
University of Virginia, Charlottesville, family papers [microfilm]
Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, family papers, corresp.
C. Willson Peale, oils, c.1785, Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania [see illus.]