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Richard Henry Lee

Richard Henry Lee portrait

Colonial Williamsburg

Richard Henry Lee portrait

Richard Henry Lee

Richard Henry Lee portrayed at Colonial Williamsburg.

  • Descendant of Richard Lee
  • Lifelong service in public office
  • Signed Declaration of Independence
  • Opposed ratification of the Constitution

Born to eminent Virginia family

Revolutionary statesman, brother of Francis Lightfoot, William, and Arthur Lee, Richard Henry Lee was the seventh of the eleven children of Thomas and Hannah Ludwell Lee, and a descendant of Richard Lee.

He was born January 20, 1732 at Stratford Hall, the family seat in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He received his elementary instruction from private tutors and completed his education at Wakefield Academy in England. Having finished his studies in 1751, he spent a few months in travel, then returned to Virginia, probably in 1752.

On Dec. 3, 1757, he married Anne Aylett, daughter of William Aylett of Westmoreland County. Around this time, he established his residence at Chantilly, an estate neighboring Stratford.

Political career begins in Virginia

His public service began in 1757, when he became a justice of the peace in his county, and in 1758 he entered the House of Burgesses. His part in the activities of the House was one of increasing importance until he had attained a position of influence in its counsels. As a defender of colonial rights, his politics were considered progressive.

He is said to have led a “mob of gentlemen” to confront the appointed collector of stamps and compel him to promise not to serve in his official capacity. Then, in February 1766, he drew the citizens of his own county into an “association” binding themselves to import no British goods until the Stamp Act should be repealed.

State and national appointments

In December 1768, his wife died, and in the following year he married Mrs. Anne Pinckard, widow of Thomas Pinckard and daughter of Col. Thomas Gaskins. During the relatively quiet period between 1768 and 1773 he engaged in shipping tobacco to his brother William in London.

Lee remained involved in politics. He was appointed delegate to the Continental Congress in 1775, and was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He served next in the Virginia House of Delegates in 1777, 1780, and 1785.

Led opposition to Constitution

When the Constitution was laid before Congress, Lee led the opposition to it. His chief concern was that the Convention, called only to amend the Articles of Confederation, had exceeded its powers.

He worried also that the Constitution lacked a bill of rights; that it was a consolidated, rather than a federal, government and therefore opened the way to despotism; and that the lower house was not sufficiently democratic. He insisted upon amendments before adoption. His arguments were set forth in a series of “Letters of the Federal Farmer” which became a textbook for the opposition.

Senator in a new government

Through the instrumentality of his friend Patrick Henry, Lee was chosen one of Virginia’s senators in the new government, and his chief concern in the Senate was to bring to fruition the amendments that he had advocated. Some of his propositions were embodied in the first ten amendments, and the verdict of time appears to have sustained their wisdom. In October 1792, broken in health, he resigned his senatorial seat and retired to Chantilly, where he died on June 19, 1794.

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