Richard Henry Lee: Quotes, Biography & Facts

Instructor: Matthew Hill
In this lesson we are looking at Richard Henry Lee. We will examine his service in the House of Burgesses, his role in the committee of correspondence, and his role in call for independence. Finally you can test your knowledge with a quiz.

Roots of a Leader

Richard Henry Lee played a central role in the formation of the United States. He served in the Virginia legislature, or the House of Burgesses, and promoted the creation of a committee of correspondence to promote stronger communication between the colonies. Most importantly (and what he's best known for) he was the first to call for a formal declaration of independence from Great Britain. Like many today, Lee was swept up in events beyond his control that demanded a great deal of wisdom and courage.

Lee was born to one of the most distinguished families in Virginia history. He was born in 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia on his father's Stratford Hall estate. His father Thomas served in the House of Burgesses, which was the Virginia legislative house, and his second cousin was Henry 'Light Horse' Lee III, who was the father of Robert E. Lee. Lee was tutored at home while young and then sent to England to complete his studies. While he was away, both his parents died in 1750. After completing his studies, he toured Europe for a while, and then returned home in 1752 to receive his inheritance.

At age twenty-five, he became the Justice of the Peace, which was an older term for police, in Westmoreland County, and also became a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. That same year he married Anne Aylett and built the 'Chantilly-on-the-Potomac' plantation a few miles from Stratford Hall. Anne died in 1768 and he remarried Anne Gaskins Pinckard. That same year his gun exploded in his hands and he lost four fingers. He suffered nerve damage and wore a wrap on his left hand for the rest of his life.

Stratford Hall. Boyhood Home of Richard Henry Lee
Stratford Hall

Lee in the House of Burgesses

Despite being a slave owner, the first bill he introduced in the House of Burgesses was against the transportation of slaves into Virginia and he suggested taxing it out of existence. He also stated that Africans were 'equally entitled to liberty and freedom by the great law of nature.' He embarrassed himself a bit when the Stamp Act was passed by the British crown, which taxed all American colonists for every piece of paper they used. Without fully understanding the act, Lee offered to act as a tax collector!

He reversed himself though when its implication became clear, and he co-authored the Westmoreland Resolves which stated the colonial case against taxation. Lee continually rose in status during this time. He was known as a powerful orator and he developed close ties with John Adams. In order to better expedite the flow of information, Lee proposed an inter-colonial forum which lead to the creation of the 'committees of correspondence' and he served on the Virginia Committee of Correspondence. He also supported economic boycotts against England and he favored the arming of militias in the event of conflict.

Lee's Resolution of Independence

In 1774, Lee was chosen as a Virginia delegate to the First Continental Congress. The incidents at Lexington and Concord sped up the call for independence but Lee, frustrated by the slow response, took a bold step. On June 7, 1776 Lee introduced a resolution for independence. The opening lines stated: 'Resolved, 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.'

A tough debate ensued, and John Hancock, the president of Congress, postponed formal debate until July 1, 1776 to let cooler heads prevail. In the meantime though, a five-man committee was formed to draft a statement of independence and on July 4, 1776, the official Declaration of Independence was completed. Fittingly, Richard Henry Lee was one of the signers for Virginia.

Congress Voting on the Declaration of Independence
Congress Voting on Independence

Resignation and Presidency

In 1778, due to a series of vicious and unsubstantiated rumors regarding his family, Lee resigned from Congress and returned to Virginia. He didn't rest, though. He diligently served in the state militia, prepared defenses for pending British attacks, worked in state politics, and even repulsed a British assault at the Battle of Stratford Landing. Lee returned to Congress in 1783 and served as its president for one-term. His main contribution was the promotion of the Land Ordinance of 1785 which formalized a national policy for settling western lands in the Ohio Valley. He resigned in 1785 due to poor health.

Richard Henry Lee
Richard Henry Lee

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