Lee was born in Westmoreland County to Thomas Lee and Hannah Harrison Ludwell Lee on January 20, 1732. He was the fourth of Thomas and Hannah Lee’s eight surviving children. He spent most of his childhood in the Northern Neck of Virginia at Stratford Hall, the great house of the Lees, which was completed in 1740 and is now primarily recognized as the birthplace of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Little is known of Richard Lee’s childhood at Stratford; he received a rudimentary education at Stratford Hall through a family tutor, Alexander White, and learned a variety of skills, such as riding horseback and handling the small boats that traveled along the rivers and creeks of the Northern Neck. Once the teenaged Lee had mastered these skills, his father allowed him to deliver messages to neighboring planters so that he could connect with these prominent men on his own merit.
During this period Lee’s personal relationship with his older brother was strained. In 1754 he and his siblings brought suit against Philip Lee for not immediately dividing Thomas Lee’s estate according to the will. The lawsuit failed—Philip Lee had wanted to settle his father’s debts before dividing up his property—though the younger Lees did successfully petition the court to have their cousin Henry Lee appointed as their legal guardian. The siblings’ relationship was never fully restored, but, ultimately, the shared goal of protecting the Lee family’s economic interests and defending their father’s political legacy united Richard Henry Lee and his brothers.
Rise to Political Prominence
The Lee brothers entered the political sphere in 1755, when Philip Lee was appointed to the House of Burgesses, and in 1757 Richard Henry Lee was appointed to his first public service position: justice of the peace for Westmoreland County. The following year, Philip Lee was appointed to the governor’s Council, and Richard Henry Lee won election to the seat in the House of Burgesses vacated by his eldest brother. His brothers Thomas Ludwell Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee soon joined him there as the representatives from Stafford and Loudoun counties, respectively. Together, the Stratford Lees became a formidable voting bloc, working closely with Virginia’s new lieutenant governor, Robert Dinwiddie, to implement policy.
Lee made some powerful enemies in the House, many of whom he inherited from his father. In his political career, Thomas Lee had focused on extending and stabilizing Virginia’s western boundary, both to increase the colony’s agricultural profits and to encourage Indian trade. In 1747 he established the Ohio Company of Virginia to help achieve that goal, but was met with opposition from a faction of politicians from the James River region who, feeling that Lee’s policies favored the Northern Neck, established a competing land company.
The leader of the James River faction was John Robinson, who by the time Richard Henry Lee entered the House of Burgesses had held the offices of speaker of the House and treasurer of the colony for more than twenty years. Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie thought that allowing one person to hold both offices concentrated too much power in the hands of a single member of the House of Burgesses, and Lee led an attempt to separate the two offices. The effort failed, and Lee became a marked man in the eyes of Robinson and his supporters. The rivalry between the Robinson and Lee factions in the House continued to develop until finally a major scandal erupted. As treasurer, Robinson was responsible for collecting paper currency for taxes and then destroying it; instead, he loaned it to his friends, returning the paper money to circulation—with nothing to back it. Early in the 1760s, Lee voiced his suspicion of this practice, but it was only confirmed after Robinson’s death in 1766, when the books were opened and it was revealed that the treasury was nearly 100,000 pounds short. Lee’s role in exposing this corruption earned him the enmity of several more prominent Virginians, including Carter Braxton, Benjamin Harrison, and Edmund Pendleton.
During Lee’s tenure in the House, the British government began to institute a series of policies that strained relations between Crown and colony. Among the more significant developments were the implementation of the Proclamation of 1763, which cut off Virginia’s access to the Ohio River Valley; the Currency Act (1764), which forbade the use of paper currency for the payment of private debts; and the Stamp Act (1765), which imposed a tax—to be paid in specie, not paper currency—on all paper products. The combined effect of these measures led Lee (who, upon first hearing of the Stamp Act, had asked to be considered for the position of Virginia’s stamp distributor) toward a more radical posture that would eventually place him at the front of the colonial push for independence. Lee was on the committee that, in December 1764, drafted a letter to King George III warning him against imposing direct taxes on Virginians; in September 1765, after the Stamp Act began to be enforced in Virginia, Lee led a protest against the act in Westmoreland County. Lee further incited Westmoreland residents against the British when he helped draft the Westmoreland Resolves, a document in which he and more than 100 other signers swore to oppose the Stamp Act and its supporters, without “regard to danger or death.”
Shortly after he launched his political career, Lee married Anne Aylett, also of Westmoreland County, on December 3, 1757. In the following years, he established his own residence at Chantilly-on-the-Potomac, a neighboring estate to his birthplace, Stratford Hall. The couple eventually had four children: two sons and two daughters. In 1768, Lee’s personal life changed considerably. Early that year, while hunting on his property, Lee’s rifle exploded in his arms, costing him all four fingers on his left hand. The wound was cauterized to stop the bleeding and once it healed, Lee cut away the scar tissue. For the rest of his life, Lee wore a black silk glove in public to conceal the injury. In December 1768 his wife died of “a severe Pluerisy.” The following year, Lee married Anne Gaskins Pinckard, who had also recently lost a spouse, and with whom he would have three daughters and two sons.
In August 1769, a hurricane swept up the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River, destroying Stratford Landing—a hub of the Virginia tobacco trade—and several tobacco inspection warehouses operated by the Lee family. The damage was so great that Lee took a leave of absence from the House of Burgesses to help oversee the repairs, and did not return until after the 1771 session.
The American Revolution
After years of unresolved conflict between colonial governments and Parliament, Virginia joined with other colonies to form a continental congress. Lee was elected as a delegate from Virginia. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in September 1774, Lee met John Adams and Samuel Adams. The three men formed a formidable political alliance that dominated Congress for several years. During the first Congress, Lee supported an economic boycott against British goods; he also called for the formation of militia units and wanted Congress to provide arms and ammunition for these units. Lee, however, saved most of his invective for the Quebec Act (1774), which stripped away Virginia’s longstanding claim to the Ohio River Valley and gave that land to Quebec. Lee characterized the Quebec Act as the worst grievance, for it threatened Virginia’s position as a leader in the tobacco trade: without access to additional quantities of fresh, fertile land, the future of tobacco as a cash crop was in jeopardy. Consequently, men like Lee, who represented planter interests in Congress, took the lead in denouncing the measure in the strongest possible terms.
Congress launched its boycott against British-made goods, agreed to convene again in May 1775, and disbanded. When the Second Continental Congress gathered, the delegates were focused on news of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, which had taken place in Massachusetts nearly two weeks earlier. Lee and the Adamses bided their time as the more moderate delegates sought reconciliation with the British government. When reconciliation failed, the stage was set on June 7, 1776, for Lee to present his motion to declare independence before Congress. The debate over Lee’s motion became so vehement that the president of Congress, John Hancock of Massachusetts, tabled the motion and scheduled the debate to resume on July 1, 1776. In the interim, Congress appointed a committee that included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, and John Adams to draft a formal declaration of independence on the chance that the motion would pass. It did, on July 2, 1776, and two days later Congress approved Jefferson’s final draft of the Declaration of Independence—a decision that led to the establishment of a new nation.
The Lee-Deane Imbroglio
Soon afterward, however, Lee became the target of a series of vicious rumors. First, Hancock and Robert Morris, a congressional delegate from Pennsylvania, spread the story that Lee, John Adams, and Samuel Adams were attempting to unseat George Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental army. Furthermore, Lee was accused of trying to devalue Virginia’s wartime currency by refusing to accept paper money from his tenants as rent payment. (Lee had, in fact, allowed his tenants to pay their rent in wheat and tobacco instead of paper money, with the intention of enabling his impoverished tenants to pay rent at all.)
By 1778, the attacks on Lee had spread to his extended family. His brother Arthur Lee was in France with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, of Connecticut, trying to solicit support for the war in America. In the previous year Arthur Lee had expressed to Richard Henry Lee his suspicion that Deane was using his political position to improve his own business interests; in Philadelphia, Richard Henry Lee successfully led a movement to recall Deane from France and send John Adams in his place. An outraged Deane defended his behavior before Congress in August 1778, and as he did, the legislative body divided into two camps: those who supported Deane and those who supported Lee. The political battles that followed almost completely derailed the Continental Congress; its president, Henry Laurens of South Carolina, even resigned. Things got particularly nasty in December 1778, when Deane and his supporters accused the Lee family of corruption and releasing sensitive information to a British spy. Finally, in January 1779, Deane and his political allies formed an alliance with France that threatened to obliterate Virginia’s claim to the lands that Britain had taken away via the Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act of 1774. Lee was ultimately able to preserve Virginia’s existing western boundary, but at a high emotional cost.
Disgusted and exhausted, Lee resigned his seat in Congress in the spring of 1779 and returned to Chantilly-on-the-Potomac. In Virginia, Lee helped develop a plan to defend the Potomac River against a potential British invasion, reactivated his commission as a colonel in the Westmoreland County militia, organized supplies for the Continental Army, and, in 1780, resumed his seat in the House of Delegates. Lee led his militia unit to victory in April 1781 when they fended off a British landing in a skirmish known locally as the Battle of Stratford Landing. In October 1781, he celebrated as news of British surrender arrived at Chantilly-on-the-Potomac.
Postwar Political Career
In 1783, Lee accepted another appointment to Congress and from November 1784 to November 1785 served as its president. In this role, Lee oversaw efforts to pass the Land Ordinance of 1785, which established a national policy for settling and selling lands in the trans-Appalachian West, and awaited news of the negotiations between John Jay, the American secretary of foreign affairs, and the Spanish foreign minister, Don Diego de Gardoqui, regarding Americans’ right to navigate the Mississippi River. In November 1785 Lee resigned his seat in Congress, citing poor health, and returned to Virginia. He stayed out of politics for some time, tending instead to the needs of his family. He also promoted George Washington’s efforts to establish the Potomac Company, which sought to raise money to construct canals linking the Potomac and Ohio rivers.
Early in 1787, Virginia governor Edmund Randolph asked Lee to return to politics by attending the Constitutional Convention, where intercolonial representatives were to discuss amendments to the current plan of government, the Articles of Confederation. Though Lee declined, he did accept an appointment to Congress in June of that year. After arriving in New York City in August 1787, Lee helped draft the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which established the Northwest Territory in present-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota.
In September 1787, a copy of the proposed constitution arrived from Philadelphia. Upon reading the document, Lee recognized its strengths over the existing Articles of Confederation and suggested a short list of amendments, as well as the addition of a bill of rights that would be largely an echo of George Mason‘s Declaration of Rights (1776). On October 16, 1787, Lee wrote a letter to Governor Randolph that was later published in the Virginia Gazette under the title “Observations on the Plan of Government Proposed by the Convention. By R. H. Lee, Esquire.” Although the document, according to James Madison, did “not appear to be a very formidable attack on the new Constitution,” it did identify Lee’s antifederalist leanings. It also led to the widely held but mistaken belief that Lee authored a series of anonymously penned antifederalist essays collected under the title Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican. Supporters of the new plan of government quickly branded Lee an opponent, and he became their target. The bitter invective that characterized much of the public debate over the proposed constitution shortened Lee’s role in the ratification debates; in January 1788, he withdrew from the public debate, preferring to offer advice away from the public eye.
On June 25, 1788, Virginia ratified the U.S. Constitution; on November 8, Richard Henry Lee, along with William Grayson, was appointed to the new United States Senate for a four-year term. In his new role, Lee advocated for the constitutional amendments he had initially suggested. He tried to re-create his political partnership with his old ally (and current president of the Senate) John Adams, but Lee’s insistence on favoring a limited government drove the former friends apart. Ultimately, however, Lee gained a reputation in the Senate as a moderate and clear-headed lawmaker.
During this period, Lee’s health declined considerably, and he often missed legislative sessions. In autumn of 1792, after learning that he was being considered for another term in the Senate, Lee wrote a letter to the House of Delegates asking to retire. He had “grown gray in the service of [his] country,” Lee wrote, and now suffered from “infirmities that can only be relieved by a quiet retirement.” He died at home on June 19, 1794.