1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lee, Richard Henry

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LEE, RICHARD HENRY (1732–1794), American statesman and orator, was born at Stratford, in Westmoreland county, Virginia, on the 20th of January 1732, and was one of six distinguished sons of Thomas Lee (d. 1750), a descendant of an old Cavalier family, the first representative of which in America was Richard Lee, who was a member of the privy council, and early in the reign of Charles I. emigrated to Virginia. Richard Henry Lee received an academic education in England, then spent a little time in travel, returned to Virginia in 1752, having come into possession of a fine property left him by his father, and for several years applied himself to varied studies. When twenty-five he was appointed justice of the peace of Westmoreland county, and in the same year was chosen a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, in which he served from 1758 to 1775. He kept a diffident silence during two sessions, his first speech being in strong opposition to slavery, which he proposed to discourage and eventually to abolish, by imposing a heavy tax on all further importations. He early allied himself with the Patriot or Whig element in Virginia, and in the years immediately preceding the War of Independence was conspicuous as an opponent of the arbitrary measures of the British ministry. In 1768, in a letter to John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, he suggested a private correspondence among the friends of liberty in the different colonies, and in 1773 he became a member of the Virginia Committee of Correspondence.

Lee was one of the delegates from Virginia to the first Continental Congress at Philadelphia in 1774, and prepared the address to the people of British America, and the second address to the people of Great Britain, which are among the most effective papers of the time. In accordance with instructions given by the Virginia House of Burgesses, Lee introduced in Congress, on the 7th of June 1776, the following famous resolutions: (1) “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 connexion between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved”; (2) “that it is expedient to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign alliances”; and (3) “that a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective colonies for their consideration and approbation.” After debating the first of these resolutions for three days, Congress resolved that the further consideration of it should be postponed until the 1st of July, but that a committee should be appointed to prepare a declaration of independence. The illness of Lee’s wife prevented him from being a member of that committee, but his first resolution was adopted on the 2nd of July, and the Declaration of Independence, prepared principally by Thomas Jefferson, was adopted two days later. Lee was in Congress from 1774 to 1780, and was especially prominent in connexion with foreign affairs. He was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates in 1777, 1780–1784 and 1786–1787; was in Congress again from 1784 to 1787, being president in 1784–1786; and was one of the first United States senators chosen from Virginia after the adoption of the Federal constitution. Though strongly opposed to the adoption of that constitution, owing to what he regarded as its dangerous infringements upon the independent power of the states, he accepted the place of senator in hope of bringing about amendments, and proposed the Tenth Amendment in substantially the form in which it was adopted. He became a warm supporter of Washington’s administration, and his prejudices against the constitution were largely removed by its working in practice. He retired from public life in 1792, and died at Chantilly, in Westmoreland county, on the 19th of June 1794.

See the Life (Philadelphia, 1825), by his grandson, R. H. Lee; and Letters (New York, 1910), edited by J. C. Ballagh.

His brother, William Lee (1739–1795), was a diplomatist during the War of Independence. He accompanied his brother, Arthur Lee (q.v.), to England in 1766 to engage in mercantile pursuits, joined the Wilkes faction, and in 1775 was elected an alderman of London, then a life-position. In April 1777, however, he received notice of his appointment by the Committee of Secret Correspondence in America to act with Thomas Morris as commercial agent at Nantes. He went to Paris and became involved in his brother’s opposition to Franklin and Deane. In May 1777 Congress chose William Lee commissioner to the courts of Vienna and Berlin, but he gained recognition at neither. In September 1778, however, while at Aix-la-Chapelle, he negotiated a plan of a treaty with Jan de Neufville, who represented Van Berckel, pensionary of Amsterdam. It was a copy of this proposed treaty which, on falling into the hands of the British on the capture of Henry Laurens, the duly appointed minister to the Netherlands, led to Great Britain’s declaration of war against the Netherlands in December 1780. Lee was recalled from his mission to Vienna and Berlin in June 1779, without being required to return to America. He resigned his post as an alderman of London in January 1780, and returned to Virginia about 1784.

See Letters of William Lee, edited by W. C. Ford (Brooklyn, 1891).

Another brother, Francis Lightfoot Lee (1734–1797), was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1770–1775. In 1775–1779 he was a delegate to the Continental Congress, and as such signed the Declaration of Independence. He served on the committee which drafted the Articles of Confederation, and contended that there should be no treaty of peace with Great Britain which did not grant to the United States both the right to the Newfoundland fisheries and the free navigation of the Mississippi. After retiring from Congress he served in 1780–1782 in the Virginia Senate.