Call to Revolution by Richard Henry Lee
rilu Richard Henry Lee was an aristocratic planter, merchant, politician, and a member of the prominent and wealthy Lee Family of Virginia. Best known as the man who called for revolution by proposing the successful motion to declare independence from Britain. Although involved in controversy throughout his career, Richard was a key political figure during the revolutionary period and during the establishment of the government of the United States of America. He was always a loyal Virginian who helped establish Virginia’s borders and strongly supported westward expansion. Richard Henry Lee died at the early age of 62 but he accomplished much and was a true patriot and an American hero.
Born in Westmoreland County, Virginia on 20 January 1732 (his family Bible says 1733, but 1732 is what historians have set), Richard Henry Lee was one of eight children of Thomas Lee and Hannah Harrison Ludwell to survive until adulthood. He was one of four boys. The Lee clan was a large aristocratic family of wealthy Virginia planters who had a long history of public service. Richard’s grandfather, father and three brothers all served in military, diplomatic and political positions.
Richard spent most of his childhood in Westmoreland County in the Northern Neck of Virginia at Stratford Hall. Stratford Hall was completed in 1740 and became the “great house” of the Lee clan. Richard was educated by Alexander White, a family tutor, and he also learned the practical skills needed by a tidewater planter such as farming, horsemanship, and small boat navigation. There were few roads at that time so most travel was by boat on the extensive waterways. Once he had mastered the necessary boating skills, his father allowed him to deliver messages to area planters so that he could become known.
In 1748, teenager Richard departed Virginia and traveled to England for formal education at Wakefield Academy. His mother died in January 1750 and his father, who was acting governor of Virginia, died later the same year. News of the deaths did not reach England until 1751. His eldest brother, Philip, was also in England and asked Richard to accompany him back to Virginia, but Richard refused citing an ongoing romantic relationship. Philip left in a huff, and Richard spent more than a year touring Europe. He arrived in Virginia in 1753 and took up residence at Stratford Hall.
Philip’s relationship with his siblings became more strained during the settlement of their father’s estate, which resulted in contentious lawsuits. Philip being the oldest male was the primary legal heir which gave him control. Finally, their cousin Henry Lee was appointed their legal guardian. Their sibling relationship was never fully resolved but they did eventually unite to protect the family’s economic interests and to defend their father’s political legacy.
Following the Lee family tradition of public service, Philip was appointed to the House of Burgesses in 1755. Richard was appointed justice of the peace for Westmoreland County in 1757.
On 3 December 1757 Richard married Anne Aylett of Westmoreland County and began construction of their residence, Chantilly-on-the-Potomac near Stratford Hall. Richard and Anne had four children- two sons and two daughters.
Philip was appointed to the governor’s council in 1758 and Richard was elected to Philip’s vacant seat in the House of Burgesses. Brothers Thomas Ludwell Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee soon joined Richard in the House as representatives from Stafford and Loudoun counties, respectively.
The Lees became a powerful voting bloc that worked closely with Lieutenant governor, Robert Dinwiddie. Their political strength earned them powerful enemies in the House, and they also inherited enemies their father Thomas had made during his time in the House. Thomas had worked to extend and stabilize Virginia’s western border and formed the Ohio Company of Virginia to help achieve his goal to increase agricultural profits and encourage Indian trade. This was strongly opposed by a faction from the James River region who believed Lee’s policies favored the Northern Neck.
The leader of the James River faction was John Robinson who had held the offices of Speaker of the House and Treasurer of the colony concurrently for over 20 years. Lt. Governor Dinwiddie believed that was too much power for one man and Richard led a failed attempt to separate the two offices. That resulted in intense hatred by the Robinson faction and their rivalry with the Lee faction continued to grow and fester.
As treasurer, Robinson was responsible for collecting paper currency for taxes and destroying the old bills. Instead, he was loaning this cash to his friends. Although Richard Lee had previously voiced suspicion of this practice, the true extent of corruption was not revealed until Robinson’s death in 1766. The books were opened, and the treasury was found to be nearly 100,000 pounds short. Richard’s role in exposing this corruption earned him the enmity of those prominent Virginians that had profited from Robinson’s scam.
During the 1760’s the British Parliament began a series of policies that severely strained relations with the colonies. The Proclamation of 1763 cut off Virginia’s access to the Ohio River Valley; the 1764 Currency Act ended the use of paper currency for the payment of debts; and the Stamp Act of 1765 imposed a tax on all official paper products.
The British acts led Richard to a radical posture that would eventually put him in the forefront of the push for independence. He was on a committee that in late 1764 drafted a letter to King George III warning him about imposing direct taxes on Virginians. Lee led a protest against the Stamp Act in Westmoreland County that resulted in the “Westmoreland Resolves.” That document was signed by Lee and more than 100 others who swore to oppose the Stamp Act with no regard to “danger or death.”
In 1768 Richard was hunting on his property when his rifle exploded in his hands blowing off four fingers of his left hand. The wound was cauterized to stop the bleeding, and when it healed, he cut off the scar tissue. For the rest of his life, he wore a black silk glove to conceal the injury.
Richard’s wife Anne died in December 1768 of “a severe pluerisy.” The following year he married Anne Gaskins Pinckard, a widow. They would have five children – three daughters and two sons.
In August 1769, a hurricane swept up the Cheasapeake Bay and the Potomac River destroying Stratford Landing, which was a hub of Virginia tobacco trade. It also destroyed several tobacco warehouses operated by the Lee family. The damage was so extensive that Richard took leave from the House of Burgesses to oversee repairs. He did not return until the 1771 session.
In 1774, the American colonists realized that they needed to organize so they could present a united front to King George III’s government. To accomplish this, they formed a Continental Congress which convened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Richard Henry Lee was elected to be one of Virginia’s delegates arriving in Philadelphia in September 1774. There he met activists John Adams and Samuel Adams. Despite their sectional differences the three formed a powerful political alliance that dominated congress for several years.
Lee supported an economic boycott of British goods and formation of militia units that would be armed by congress. He led the planter’s attack against the Quebec Act which was passed by Parliament in 1774. This act stripped away Virginia’s claim to the Ohio River Valley and gave that land to Quebec. Virginia was the leader of the tobacco trade and needed access to new fertile land since tobacco depletes land rapidly and cannot support multiple generations. Congress organized the boycott of British goods, agreed to reconvene in May 1775, and then disbanded.
The Second Continental Congress convened on 10 May 1775, but the situation had changed. The revolution had started without them at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts on 19 April 1775. Despite the outbreak of armed clashes, there was a large group of moderates in Congress that sought reconciliation with the Crown. Lee and the Adamses laid low while the moderates attempted to reconcile but events had passed the moderates and they failed.
By letting the moderates make the failed attempt for peace, attitudes changed with most realizing war was inevitable. This played into the Lee-Adams plans and on 7 June 1776, Richard Henry Lee called for revolution by proposing the most momentous resolution in history: “Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from 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. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.”
The debate on Lee’s motion became so heated that John Hancock, President of Congress, had to table further debate until 1 July 1776. In a stroke of genius, Congress also appointed a committee to draft a formal declaration of independence. The committee members were, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert Livingston of New York, John Adams of Massachusetts, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut.
The Lee resolution passed on 2 July, and on 4 July 1776 the final draft of the Declaration of Independence was approved by Congress. Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee were the only brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence. A new nation had been established but it would take eight years of bitter and bloody war to secure it.
Soon after the adoption of the Declaration, John Hancock, and Robert Morris (Pennsylvania delegate) spread the story that Richard Henry Lee and John and Samuel Adams were trying to oust George Washington of his position of Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. They also accused Lee of trying to devalue Virginia’s wartime currency by refusing to accept paper money from his tenants for rent. (In fact, Lee allowed his tenants to pay their rent with grain and tobacco since they had little or no cash.)
By 1778, the attacks spread to Richard’s brother Arthur who was in France with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane of Connecticut trying to obtain support for the War. In 1777, Arthur Lee had informed Richard that he suspected Deane was using his position to enrich himself. Richard then led a successful movement to recall Deane and replace him with John Adams.
Deane was outraged and strongly defended himself. Congress divided into two camps-Deane supporters and Lee supporters and the political battles became so bad that the President of the Congress, Henry Laurens of South Carolina resigned. In December 1778, Deane and his supporters accused the Lee family of corruption and of releasing secret information to a British spy. The Deane faction then allied themselves with France and threatened to destroy Virginia’s claim to the Ohio River Valley. Lee was finally able to secure Virginia’s claims, but the political battles drained him physically and emotionally.
Lee was exhausted and disgusted by the highly personal and destructive fights in Congress, so he resigned his seat in the spring of 1779. He returned to his plantation, Chantilly-on-the-Potomac in Westmoreland County.
Once home Lee helped draw up plans to defend the Potomac River against the possibility of a British invasion. He was a colonel in the Westmoreland County Militia and organized supplies for the Continental Army and in 1780 resumed his seat in the House of Delegates. In April 1781, he commanded his militia unit in a skirmish that prevented a British landing in the Stratford area.
In 1783, Lee was again appointed to Congress and was president of that body from November 1783 to November 1785. During his tenure, the Land Ordinance of 1785 was passed. This ordinance established a national policy for settling and selling land west of the Appalachian Mountains.
Lee resigned his seat in Congress in November 1785 due to ill health and returned to Chantilly. Although he stayed out of politics, he did promote George Washington’s efforts to raise money for construction of canals to connect the Potomac and Ohio rivers.
In early 1787, Virginia governor Edmund Randolph asked Lee to attend the Convention which was to address the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation. Lee declined the appointment but was appointed to Congress in June 1787. Once in Congress he helped draft the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which established the Northwest Territory (present day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota) and set the rules and policies for the territory. This act was passed to encourage and assist orderly westward expansion and to set procedures for statehood.
The proposed United States Constitution drafted by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia became available in September 1787 and Lee participated in the Virginia ratification debates. Lee recognized that the draft was a vast improvement over the Articles of Confederation, and he proposed a short list of amendments and joined those insisting on a bill of rights. Lee wrote a letter outlining his opinions on the Constitution to Governor Randolph which was later published in the “Virginia Gazette.” James Madison noted the letter established Lee’s strong antifederalist leanings.
Publication of the letter led to the mistaken speculation that Lee was the author of a series of antifederalist essays entitled “Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican.” Federalist supporters of the Constitution branded Lee an “opponent” and made him their main target during the bitter debate. The vicious nature of much of the debate was so bad that Lee withdrew from the public eye.
Virginia ratified the US Constitution on 25 June 1788 and on 8 November, Richard Henry Lee and William Grayson were appointed to the new US Senate for four-year terms. As a Senator, Lee attempted to revive his political partnership with his old ally and president of the Senate, John Adams. However, Lee favored limited government and Adams favored a strong central government and the two could no longer agree.
Lee was a respected senator who earned a reputation as a clear-thinking moderate. However, his health was deteriorating rapidly causing him to miss many legislative sessions. His duties were becoming more than he could physically handle. When he learned in the fall of 1792 that he was being considered for another term, he knew he could not accept. He wrote a letter to the Virginia House of Delegates asking to retire. He said, I have “grown gray in the service of country” and suffer from “infirmities that can only be relieved by a quiet retirement.”
Lee left the Senate in late 1792 and returned to Chantilly where he died on 19 June 1794 at the age of 62. He was buried at Burnt House Field, the Lee Burying Ground on the site of the Lee mansion, Mount Pleasant, which was burned to the ground by arsonists in 1729.
Richard Henry Lee was a controversial man who contributed much to the establishment and early development of the United States of America. Like all the early patriots, he risked everything, including his life, to pursue a new form of government that had never been tried before. He exemplified the phrase “We the people.”