Richard Henry Lee

Richard Henry Lee was an American statesman from Virginia who made the motion for independence from Great Britain at the Second Continental Congress.


Richard Henry Lee was born into a prominent Virginia family on January 20, 1732. Several family members served as military officers, diplomats and legislators. After school in England, he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and later was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, where he proposed the colonies should be independent from Great Britain. Though he originally opposed the Constitution, he helped push through the Bill of Rights.

Early Life

Richard Henry Lee was born into an eminent Virginia family on January 20, 1732, at Stratford Hall in Westmoreland, Virginia. His father, grandfather and his four brothers all served as military officers, diplomats and legislators. Richard was tutored at home and then sent to Wakefield Academy in England for his formal education. After graduation, he traveled in Europe, and then returned to Virginia in 1752.

Life of Public Service

In 1757, Lee married Anne Aylett. The couple would have four children survive into adulthood. Lee began his life of public service that same year as justice of the peace, and in 1758 he entered the House of Burgesses. Though not one of the early firebrands, like Patrick Henry, when he first entered the assembly, Lee gradually gained position and influence, as his oratorical skills matured and events provided opportunities for young, brilliant men of conviction to shape a nation.

Legislator and Activist

After the conclusion of the Seven Years War, the British Parliament enacted a series of tax measures to pay for the war and secure Britain's hold on the colonies, beginning with the Stamp Act of 1765. Leaders in several colonies objected, declaring this was taxation without representation. Lee is credited with authoring the Westmoreland Resolutions, publicly objecting to the Stamp Act. Though Parliament repealed the act except for the tax on tea, the Stamp Act sent an ominous warning that the British government was supreme in all cases whatsoever. For the next several years, things remained relatively peaceful between the American colonies and the British Parliament.

The Call for Independence

In April 1774, the British Parliament passed a series of laws labeled the "Intolerable Acts" by irate colonists. In August, Lee was appointed to the Continental Congress, and with his great oratorical skills, he, along with others, began to move American thinking from subservience to independence. In 1776, Lee offered the Resolution for Independence to the Committee of the Whole at the Second Continental Congress. The resolution declared "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." By July, the Congress had voted for independence.

Senior Statesman

Lee served in the Virginia House of Delegates during the War for Independence, but was frequently absent due to ill health. At war's end, in 1783, he served in Congress under the Articles of Confederation and was unanimously elected president of the Congress. Though he supported the 1787 Federal Convention in Philadelphia, he worried that the new Constitution had too much power over the states and lacked a bill of rights. These arguments were put forth in a series of "Letters of a Federal Farmer," which became a textbook for the opposition during the ratification process. Though the letters' author is unknown, scholars have long believed it was Richard Henry Lee. More recently, Melancton Smith of New York has been considered. It's also possible both men collaborated on the articles. 

In 1789, with the Constitution ratified, Richard Henry Lee served as senator from Virginia, helping shepherd the passage of the Bill of Rights. In declining health, he retired from the Senate and public service to his family and the comfort of his home in Chantilly, Virginia. On June 19, 1794, Lee died at the age of 62.

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