1902 Encyclopedia > Richard Henry Lee

Richard Henry Lee
American statesman and orator

RICHARD HENRY LEE (1732-1794), an American states-man and orator, born in Westmoreland county, Virginia, U.S., January 20, 1732, was one of six distinguished sons of Thomas Lee, a descendant of an old Cavalier family. After obtaining the foundation of a liberal education in England, and spending a little time in travel, he returned to Virginia in 1752, coming into possession of a fine property left him by his father, and for several years applied himself to varied studies. At the age of twenty-five he was appointed justice of the peace, and soon after was chosen a delegate to the house of burgesses. 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. In 1764 Lee had applied for a collectorship under the Stamp Act, which afterwards roused the determined hostility of the colonies, but on reflexion he regretted doing so, and became an outspoken promoter of the most extreme democratic ideas. In February 1766 he organized an association in Westmoreland, in accordance with Patrick Henry's famous resolution against the Act. At the winter session of the burgesses in 1766, Lee, with the aid of Patrick Henry, succeeded in carrying the house upon a test question against the united aristocratic elements of the colony. In 1767 he spoke eloquently against the acts levying duties upon tea and other articles, and in 1768, in a letter to John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, he made the suggestion of a private correspondence among the friends of liberty in the different colonies. Lee is said also to have originated, in a conversation with fellow burgesses in 1773, the plan of an inter-colonial or so-called continental congress, which was carried into effect next year. At this first congress in Philadelphia in 1774, Lee is said to have penned the address to the king, and is known to have prepared that to the people of British America, together with the second address to the people of Great Britain, directed by congress in 1775, both of which are among the most effective papers of the time. On June 7, 1776, instructed by the Virginia house of burgesses, he introduced in congress the resolu-tions declaring "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." Lee was in congress in 1778-80 and 1784-85, and was one of the first 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. He became a warm upholder 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, June 19, 1794. See Memoirs, by his grandson R. H. Lee, 2 vols., 1825.

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