Founding Fathers - Richard Henry Lee

Richard Henry Lee

Born: January 20, 1732 (Westmoreland County, Virginia)

Died: June 19, 1794 (Westmoreland County, Virginia)

If you've been following this blog for a while, you may remember our study of Francis Lightfoot Lee several months ago.  Today we will dig into the story of his brother, Richard Henry Lee, to complete the only pair of siblings to both sign America's founding document.  As the fifth son of the 11 children who were born to Colonel Thomas Lee and his wife, Hannah, Richard was born just two years ahead of Francis but had a different upbringing.  All of the Lee children were initially educated at their family home, a tobacco plantation named Stratford Hall, but Richard was the last of the sons to be sent to England for additional studies.  While attending Wakefield Academy in 1750 he received news that his parents had died, leaving his oldest brother Phillip in charge of the family.  Richard was directed to return home, but he decided first to travel through Europe for a period of time, and did not reach Virginia again until 1751 at the age of 19.  After helping settle the family estate, he followed in his family traditions of military and public service.  During the French and Indian War he raised a company of men intended to assist British General Braddock, but the support was declined and the general was killed in 1755.  In 1757 Richard received an appointment as the Westmoreland County justice of the peace, and also married Anne Aylett, with whom he would have four children.

One year later, in 1758, Richard Henry Lee began his first elected position as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses.  Despite having received land and slaves as an inheritance, Lee's first political speech was used to support a heavy import tax intended to sharply hinder the expansion of slavery, and to denounce the institution as contrary to Christian ideals.  His zeal and eloquence quickly drew attention.  Allying himself with Patrick Henry, Lee quickly began to oppose British attempts to tax the colonists, and in 1766 he forged a confederation of landowners pledging to avoid the use of any imported goods until the Stamp Act had been repealed.  By 1768 he became one of the first to recommend the creation of committees of correspondence throughout the colonies, but circumstances led to the suggestion being delayed by nearly 5 years.  That same year was hard for Lee, as his wife died and he suffered a hunting accident that cost him four fingers from his left hand.  Left with four young children and an ever-present glove or silk wrap to cover his injury, Lee made the best of the situation.  He began using his crippled hand as a prop during speeches to create dramatic emphasis, and remarried the following year, this time to a widow and mother of two named Anne Pinckard.  In addition to the six total children they brought to the union, the couple had an additional five children to bring the total to 11.

In 1769 Richard Henry Lee joined Patrick Henry in written opposition to several acts of Parliament and the Royal Governor responded by dissolving the House of Burgesses.  Many of the patriotic members then met at a local tavern in Williamsburg and created the Virginia Association, dedicated to uniting for nonimportation of British goods.  Many of the acts were quickly repealed, but the colonists had experienced a taste of revolution.  Although Lee was forced to take a leave of absence from public life that year when a hurricane damaged much of the tobacco trade infrastructure along Virginia's Northern Neck, he returned two years later to help create the intercolonial Committee of Correspondence to organize resistance to the Crown.  When Boston Harbor was closed in 1774, the House of Burgesses declared a day of fasting, praying, and mourning, and the Royal Governor once again disbanded the group.  Lee attended both the First and Second Continental Congress, where his fiery speech drew comparisons to Cicero and he was able to meet and befriend men like Samuel Adams with whom he had shared many letters.  On June 7, 1776, Lee made his defining contribution to the proceedings, submitting a resolution that the colonies declare themselves independent of Britain.  He was unable to be present for the final vote due to an illness in the family that required his return to Virginia, but signed the document sometime later upon his return to Philadelphia.

The remainder of Richard Henry Lee's term in Congress was embroiled in controversy, as he was instrumental in recalling a diplomatic representative from Europe named Silas Deane, who was thought to be using his influence for personal gain.  Factions supporting Deane fought against those supporting Lee throughout 1778, but the following year Lee's failing health caused him to resign his position and return to Virginia.  For the next five years he served in the Virginia House of Delegates, which was busy rewriting their state laws to align with the Articles of Confederation, and also served in the Virginia Militia in defense of the area surrounding his family home.  Once the war was over and his health had improved, Lee was once again elected to Congress in 1783 and was soon named the body's President.  His most important action was drafting the charter for the Northwest Territories, which became the modern states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.  Although elected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Lee feared the centralization of power being proposed and refused to attend.  When he was unsuccessful in defeating the document's ratification, however, he willingly accepted his election to the first United States Senate, where he quickly set about advocating for amendments to protect states and individuals, many of which passed and became the Bill of Rights.  One year later, in 1792, poor health once again forced Lee to resign his position, and this time he retired permanently from public life.  Returning home to Chantilly-on-the-Potomac, the estate he had helped defend from being burnt by the British just 12 years before, he lived his final two years before passing away in 1794 at the age of 62.

The signature of Richard Henry Lee can be found as the seventh name in the third (center) column beneath the Declaration of Independence.


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