Why is Richard Henry Lee famous?

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Signers of the Declaration of Independence

Richard Henry Lee, National Portrait Gallery

Richard Henry Lee( January 20, 1732 – June 19, 1794 ) was born to rich aristocracy – his father was royal governor of Virginia, Thomas Lee, and his mother, Hannah Ludwell, was descended from Lady Berkeley, whose godmother was Elizabeth 1 of England. Thomas enjoyed the patronage of Lord Fairfax and his family. Shortly before his birth, Thomas Lee purchased land (1443 acres) and built the Georgian mansion of Stratford Hall, which still stands. Thomas and Hannah’s marriage was a love match, not just a union of social equals. Richard had a most favorable environment to begin life.

Stratford Hall

In the beginning, Richard studied at home, with private tutors. At about age thirteen, he traveled to Wakefield Academy in York, England, and remained there until about age twenty, furthering his studies. He returned to the Colonies in about 1752, having obtained an excellent classical education, and a view of the wider world. At some point during this time, he internalized the view that Africans were in fact people, deserving of freedom and rights. Slavery disgusted him.

Shortly after his return to the Colonies, he was elected to the House of Burgesses. At first, he didn’t do much. Perhaps his attention was diverted by the lovely Anne Aylett, of Westmoreland County. He began courting her, and they married. They had four children, but Anne only survived to age thirty-five.

As a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses, Richard’s first bill boldly proposed “to lay so heavy a duty on the importation of slaves as to put an end to that iniquitous and disgraceful traffic within the colony of Virginia.” Africans, he wrote, were “equally entitled to liberty and freedom by the great law of nature.” Such words, coming as they did in 1759, have been called “the most extreme anti-slavery statements made before the nineteenth century.”

stratfordhall.org

As conditions with Britain deteriorated, his considerable skills at oratory were employed to denounce the Stamp Act. Though it may not quite have the ring of Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty, or give me death”, Richard stated :

 “As the stamp act does absolutely direct the property of people to be taken from them, without their consent, expressed by their representatives, and as in many cases it deprives the British American subject of his right to be tried by jury, we do determine, at every hazard, and paying no regard to death, to exert every faculty to prevent the execution of the stamp act, in every instance, within the colony.” – Richard Lee

colonialhall.org

This was one of the statements of the Westmoreland or Leedstown Resolves. Richard was a co-author. Though the Resolves profess allegiance to King George and Britian, they make it clear that the Stamp Act and other attempts of Paliament to impose their will without representation are viewed as usurping the rights of Englishmen. The signers of the Westmoreland Resolves put Britain on notice that tyranny would not be tolerated – and made themselves targets of the Crown. The Resolves contained a clause that required the signers to come to each other’s aid in the event of reprisal.

It is perhaps difficult for us to imagine, in this age of instant communication, but coordination among the legislative bodies of the various colonies, who did not yet have any sense of unity in 1763, was slow, and difficult. Richard Lee became the “internet” of the colonies by proposing associations, correspondence committees, whose purpose was to influence and communicate the thinking and desires of the colonies, one to another. These committees became the lightning rod of independence, and a force for united action. The first such committees were formed independently by Sam Adams in Massachusetts, and Richard Lee in Virginia in 1768. Richard was a great supporter of Patrick Henry’s resolutions for independence, and made several speeches that helped move his fellow delegates in the direction of separation from Britain. Though the Stamp Act was repealed, partly due to the concerted action of the correspondence committees, Parliament retained rights to do as it pleased with regard to the Colonies.

Richard was elected as part of the seven man delegation from Virginia to the First Continental Congress. During his time there, he stayed at the house of his sister, and hosted John Adams, forming a fast friendship. Richard was already familiar, through his wife, with George and Martha Washington and the Jeffersons. His relationship with Adams helped to bridge the different worlds between the southern colonies and New England. Together, they formed a united front for independence.

By the Second Continental Congress,  it was apparent that all hope of peace and reconciliation with the mother country was at an end. Hostilities had commenced, and there was no turning back. Richard chaired the committee recommending the appointment of George Washington as commander of the Continental Army, and another committee whose task was to find sufficient saltpeter and munitions to supply the army with powder and weapons.

“Why then, sir,” (said Richard Lee, in conclusion,) “why do we longer delay? Why still deliberate? Let this happy day give birth to an American republic. Let her arise, not to devastate and to conquer, but to reestablish the reign of peace and of law. The eyes of Europe are fixed upon us: she demands of us a living example of freedom, that may exhibit a contrast in the felicity of the citizen to the ever increasing tyranny which desolates her polluted shores. She invites us to prepare an asylum, where the unhappy may find solace, and the persecuted repose. She entreats us to cultivate a propitious soil, where the generous plant which first sprung and grew in England, but is now withered by the poisonous blasts of Scottish tyranny, may revive and flourish, sheltering under its salubrious and interminable shade, all the unfortunate of the human race. If we are not this day wanting in our duty, the names of the American legislators of 1776 will be placed by posterity at the side of Theseus. Lycurgus, and Romulus, of the three Williams of Nassau, and of all those whose memory has been, and ever will be, dear to virtuous men and good citizens.”

colonialhall.org

In 1776, Lee offered the Resolution for Independence to the Committee of the Whole at the Second Continental Congress. The resolution, which came to be known as the Lee Resolution, declared “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.” By July, the Congress had voted for independence.

During the war, Lee was mainly active as a merchant, and supplier for the Continental Army. After the war was over, he opposed the Constitution, fearing that it granted too much power to a central government, and lacked guarantees of liberty to individuals. He supported the 1787 Federal Convention in Philadelphia. His arguments were put forth in a series of “Letters of a Federal Farmer,” which became a textbook for the opposition during the ratification process. Though the letters’ author is unknown, scholars have long believed it was Lee.  He heartily supported the Bill of Rights, and as a senator from Virginia, shepherded them through Congress.

After the passage of the Bill of Rights, his health was declining, and he retired to Sully Plantation, one of the Lee properties, in Chantilly, Virginia in 1792. Shortly, he received the following commendation from the legislature of Virginia:

“Resolved, unanimously, that the speaker be desired to convey to Richard Henry Lee, the respects of the senate; that they sincerely sympathise with him in those infirmities, which have deprived their country of his valuable services; and that they ardently wish he may, in his retirement, and uninterrupted happiness, close the evening of a life, in which he hath so conspicuously shone forth as a statesman and a patriot; that while mindful of his many exertions to promote the public interests, they are particularly thankful for his conduct as a member of the legislature of the United States.”

colonialhall.org

Richard Henry Lee died at his home June 19, 1794, at the age of sixty-two.

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