Richard Henry Lee, Signer of the Declaration of Independence and the “Cicero” Who Advocated for a Bill of Rights

Richard Henry Lee - Colonial Williamsburg - almanack/people/ bios/biolee.cfm

Richard Henry Lee – Colonial Williamsburg –

Richard Henry Lee, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born on 20 January 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He was the seventh of eleven children of Thomas and Hannah Lee and a descendant of Colonel Richard Lee, the first of the Lees to arrive in America. Colonel Lee was a lawyer and planter and the largest landholder in Virginia with some 13,000 acres. 

“Today the different branches of the Lee family are known as: “Cobb’s Hall”, “Mount Pleasant”, “Ditchley”, “Lee Hall”, “Blenheim”, “Leesylvania”, “Dividing Creek”, and “Stratford”. These were the estate names of the descendants of Richard Lee I that are still referred to today when talking of Lee descendancy. An interesting note is that Lee had patented somewhere in the neighbourhood of 15,000 acres (61 km²) on both sides of the Potomac, in Maryland and in Virginia. Part of this land later became George Washington’s Mount Vernon. When he divided his estate among his children, he also left them the products of the several plantations including white indentured servants, Negro slaves, livestock, household furnishings, silver, and many other luxuries.

“Notable descendants of Richard Lee I include signers of the Declaration of Independence Francis Lightfoot Lee and Richard Henry Lee, Revolutionary War general Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, Confederate Civil War generals Robert E. Lee, Richard Taylor, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, Stephen D. Lee, and George Washington Custis Lee, Richard L. T. Beale, Richard Lucian Page; President of the United States Zachary Taylor, Chief Justice of the United States Edward Douglass White, Governor of Maryland Thomas Sim Lee.” (Colonel Richard Lee) To those interested in the NFL, we can even make a connection to Eli and Peyton Manning, the quarterbacks for the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos, respectively. Captain Charles Lee Sr., who was one of Colonel Lee’s ten children of the “Cobbs Hall” sector, married Elizabeth Medstand, the daughter of Thomas Medstand and one of the Manning family’s ancestors. (Colonel Richard Lee)

Richard Henry Lee attended Wakefield Academy in England before returning to America. In 1757, he married Anne Aylett and set up residence at Chantilly. He also became a justice of the peace in 1757 and joined the Virginia House of Burgess in 1758. He quickly became a great defender of colonial rights, a not-so-popular stance in the early days of the “revolution.”

He led a group of “gentlemen” in confronting the British-appointed collector of stamps, and in 1766, he and many of his neighbors formed a boycott against British goods until the Stamp Act was repealed. His wife died in 1768, but he was not widowed long. In 1769, he married another Anne: Anne Pinckard. For the years between this second marriage and the beginning of the Revolutionary War, he built up his shipping business, specifically shipping tobacco to his brother William in London. 

 File:Richard Henry Lee Signature2.svg - Wikimedia Commons

File:Richard Henry Lee Signature2.svg – Wikimedia Commons

From the Stratford Hall website, we learn, “Tall, thin and aristocratic in appearance, Richard Henry Lee was a born orator. He used his hand, always wrapped in black silk due to a hunting accident, to emphasize the cadences in his remarkably musical voice. His oratory was legend – ‘That fine polish of language which that gentleman united with that harmonious voice so as to make me sometimes fancy that I was listening to some being inspired with more than mortal powers of embellishment’ was how one observer described him.

Confrontational by nature, Richard Henry possessed a fiery, rebellious spirit. These same qualities brought him fame as a leading patriot of the day and incited the wrath of his enemies. At one point, he was ‘outlawed’ by a proclamation of English Governor Dunmore.

“As a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses, Richard Henry’s first bill boldly proposed ‘to lay so heavy a duty on the importation of slaves as to put an end to that iniquitous and disgraceful traffic within the colony of Virginia.’ Africans, he wrote, were ‘equally entitled to liberty and freedom by the great law of nature.’ Such words, coming as they did in 1759, have been called ‘the most extreme anti-slavery statements made before the nineteenth century.'”

According to Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, “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.

“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.” (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

“By 1774, the flames of the Revolution, so faithfully fanned by the Lees, ignited the reluctant southern colonies. The call for an inter-colonial congress was made, and Richard Henry was chosen as one of the seven-man Virginia delegation to the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Once there, he was able to bridge the gap between the vastly different worlds of New England and the South. At the house of his sister, Alice Lee Shippen, he strengthened the bond with John and Samuel Adams and created a long-lasting friendship that transcended divisive regionalism and helped to unite the colonies as one nation.

“In the spring of 1776, Richard Henry, now joined by his brother Francis Lightfoot, took his seat in the second Continental Congress. Sensing what lay ahead, he wrote confidently to his brother William, ‘There never appeared more perfect unanimity among any sett of men, than among the delegates.’

“In three months as delegate, Richard Henry served on 18 different committees – none as important as his appointment to frame the Declaration of Rights of the Colonies, which led directly to the writing of the Declaration of Independence. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry was accorded the well-deserved honor of introducing the bill before Congress:
…that these united Colonies are, and ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance from the British crown, and than all political connection between America and State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved…” (Stratford Hall)


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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4 Responses to Richard Henry Lee, Signer of the Declaration of Independence and the “Cicero” Who Advocated for a Bill of Rights

  1. Judith Thomas says:

    It always gratifying to see our ancestors have the b…..s to stand up to those that wanted to drag down the new America …… a pity we don’t have some of these men now! Great article, look forward to reading more….. I have several signers [Richard is one] in my family tree and will be glad to read even more about them. Thank you for the post….Judith

    • You are fortunate, Judith, to claim Richard Henry Lee as family. “Jeffers” is part of my name for we are related to Thomas Jefferson. I’m certainly enjoying these articles on the signers. I’m doing one on each on his birthday (or as close as possible). I’d love hear more tales from you on your family tree.

      I’ve found a new love of history…the years leading up to the Revolutionary War and the years afterwards when American got down to business. I’ve highlighted 8 of the signers to date.

      • Judith Thomas says:

        Well hello cousin …. we hail from connection to Thomas Jefferson also … I also claim George Ross [signer], George Read, Thomas Keen, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee……. I have about 11,000 people in my tree right now …. going back to John of Gaunt and in some instances to 900’s …….have a Wiki article on Richard Henry Lee if you want it … however, knowing how thorough you are … you probably already have it. Will look and see if I have anything that is interesting……Judith

    • Excellent, Judith. I’ve gone back to the early 1500s, but I haven’t traced much for the last year or so. I need to get back at it.

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