Richard Henry Lee, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born on January 20, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He was born into a noble Virginian family. His ancestors for "several generations were distinguished for wealth, intellect and virtue." Lee was born within a month and a few miles of George Washington.
Richard was sent to England at an early age to be educated. He attended Wakefield School in Yorkshire and became known as "a thoughtful and industrious student." He was particularly interested in ancient history and read every historical item that he could find. He received an early indoctrination in the "ideas of republicanism" and was very "attached" to those "principles of civil liberty" by the time he finished his education.
When Lee returned to Virginia at nearly nineteen years old, he applied himself to "literary pursuits" and "athletic exercises of the day." When he was about twenty years old, he formed a military corps and became the commander of it. When British General Braddock came from England in 1755, young Lee presented himself and his volunteers to become part of the expedition against the French and Indians along the Ohio. The General proudly refused the services of Lee and his corps, and Lee returned home "mortified and disgusted."
General Braddock did accept the services of Major George Washington and a militia from Virginia. Washington, who was well acquainted with war with the Indians, modestly tried to give advice to the haughty General. The advice was rejected with the comment, "What, an American buskin teach a British General how to fight!" If General Braddock had listened to Major Washington, he might have avoided disastrous defeat and lived to fight another day.
Lee was appointed in 1757 to be the county justice of the peace by the royal governor. The other judges had such confidence in Lee that "they petitioned the Governor so to date Mr. Lee's commission, that he might be legally appointed the President." The people had such confidence in Lee's judgment and integrity that many of them, from their death beds, made him the guardian for their children. Lee was elected to be a member of the House of Burgesses of Virginia about the same time. He was only twenty-five years old and did not engage much in the debates there.
The first time that Lee took part in a debate was when a proposal was made to "lay so heavy a duty on the importation of slaves, as effectually to stop that disgraceful traffic." Lee had strong feelings in favor of the measure, and his speech expressing his feelings "astonished the audience" as well as revealing his "powers of oratory."
Not long after this experience, Lee showed "his fearlessness and independence of spirit" when he "undertook the task of calling to account Mr. Robinson, the delinquent treasurer of the colony." Apparently, there were many members of the House of Burgesses, part of the "old aristocracy of Virginia," who wasted their estates with "extravagance and dissipation" and then borrowed already paid treasury notes from Mr. Robinson to keep up their expensive life styles. Mr. Robinson apparently thought he was safe from punishment because of the large number of members of the House of Burgesses and because no one would dare confront him about it. He must have been shocked when Mr. Lee called him on his corruption and his prosecution was successful.
Lee also fearlessly expressed his feelings about the way the British Government treated the colonists. He organized the first group in Virginia to oppose British oppression when the "Stamp Act" was passed. Lee was the first man in Virginia to stand publicly in opposition to the Stamp Act. Even though he was ranked with aristocracy because of his birth, education and social standing, he was one of the first to break down the distinctions between the wealthy class and the working class. Patrick Henry joined him in this effort. The "stormy eloquence" of Henry contrasted greatly with the "sweet-toned and persuasive rhetoric" of Lee, but together their power was "irresistible."
Lee was credited with suggesting the system of "Committees of Correspondence" in Virginia although there was a similar proposal about the same time in Massachusetts. At any rate, "the proposition was almost simultaneous in the Assembly of both Provinces." Lee was able to acquire a great deal of knowledge about the secret movements and opinions of the British Parliament through frequent letters from his brother, Arthur Lee, who was a "distinguished literary character in London" as well as an "associate with the leading men of the realm." The early "political intelligence" from Arthur was "generally so correct" that information from the Virginia Committee was readily accepted by the Committees in other colonies. It was through this "secret channel of correct intelligence" that Richard Henry Lee learned very early that nothing less than complete political independence would stop Britain from oppressing Americans. When other men were considering the possibility of independence, Lee was prepared in his mind and heart to accomplish it as quickly as possible.
Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, George Washington, and Peyton Randolph were appointed to the General Congress in August 1774, and the Congress convened on September 5, 1774. Lee was convincing and persuasive and moved the more timid delegates to "act and speak out boldly for the rights of the colonists. His conduct there made a profound impression upon the public mind, and he stood before his countrymen as one of the brightest lights of the age."
When Lee returned to Virginia, he was elected as a member of the House of Burgesses and made his influence known there. He was elected to be a delegate to the 1775 General Congress and wrote the instructions and commission to General Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Lee was put on the most important committees in the Congress and wrote the second "Address" of Congress to the people of Great Britain.
On a short recess from Congress, Lee was active in the work of the Virginia Assembly and was instrumental in bringing to light the true purposes of the "conciliatory measures of Lord North, which were to deceive and divide the American people." He destroyed the last bit of confidence in royalty, and Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of the province, tried many times to silence the patriot.
Lee was again a delegate to the General Congress in 1776. On June 7, 1776, following his own "judgment and feelings" as well as being obedient "to the express instructions of the Assembly of Virginia," Lee introduced the following resolution. "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."
This resolution was considered as the "special order of the day, for the first Monday in July," and Thomas Jefferson was appointed as chairman of a committee given the responsibility to write a Declaration of Independence. In addition to Thomas Jefferson, members of the committee included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston.
Richard Henry Lee was not a member of the committee because he immediately asked for a leave of absence to care for ill family members. The document was presented to Congress on July 1. After several amendments, it was adopted on July 4, 1776, by the unanimous votes of the thirteen united Colonies.
Lee continued to be actively and tirelessly involved in Congress until 1779 when he, as a lieutenant, led the militia of Westmoreland County in defending Virginia. Lee was once accused of being a Tory because "he received his rents in produce, instead of the depreciated continental currency." He demanded that the Virginia Assembly investigate the charges. After the investigation Lee received a "resolution of thanks for his many services in and out of Congress, and by his immediate re-election to a seat there."
Lee was a delegate to Congress in 1783. There he was unanimously elected President of that body and thanked at the end of his ably performed service. Lee was not a member of any legislative assembly charged with ratifying the Federal Constitution, but he, along with Patrick Henry and others, powerfully opposed the ratification by Virginia unless it had amendments. Upon the adoption of the Constitution as the supreme law of the land, Lee "cheerfully" carried it into effect and was the first Senator from Virginia under the new Constitution. He held the office of Senator until the "infirmities of age compelled him to retire from public life." He enjoyed the quiet of his retirement and "the fruits of a well-spent existence."
Grateful Americans "crowned" him with "honor and reverence," and the nation truly mourned his death at age 64 on June 19, 1794.
"Mr. Lee was a sincere practical Christian, a kind and affectionate husband and parent, a generous neighbor, a constant friend, and in all the relations of life, he maintained a character above reproach. `His hospitable door,' says Sanderson, `was open to all; the poor and destitute frequented it for relief, and consolation; the young for instruction; the old for happiness; while a numerous family of children, the offspring of two marriages, clustered around and clung to each other in fond affection, imbibing the wisdom of their father, while they were animated and delighted by the amiable serenity and captivating graces of his conversation. The necessities of his country occasioned frequent absence; but every return to his home was celebrated by the people as a festival; for he was their physician, their counselor, and the arbiter of their differences. The medicines which he imported were carefully and judiciously dispensed; and the equity of his decision was never controverted by a court of law."
Facts and quotes are from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, pp. 166-173.
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