Francis Lightfoot Lee (brother of Richard Henry Lee) was born on the fourteenth of October, 1734, at Stratford Hall plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia.He was the fourth surviving son of Thomas Lee and Hannah Harrison Ludwell Lee. After Lee’s parents died in 1750, he was left under the guardianship of his oldest brother, Philip Ludwell Lee. Philip Lee decided that Francis Lee was best suited for the life of a farmer and ended his formal education. Consequently, Lee was not educated in England, as his older brothers had been; his schooling never progressed beyond that acquired under the tutelage of a Reverend Craig, who lived at Stratford Hall in the mid-1740s. He was educated in the manner of an enlightened country gentleman.
The relationship between Lee and his oldest brother steadily worsened over the next few years. In 1754 Lee and his siblings brought suit against Philip Lee for not immediately dividing Thomas Lee’s estate according to his will. The lawsuit failed—Philip Lee had wanted to settle his father’s debts before dividing up his property—but Francis Lee and his younger siblings did successfully petition the court to have their cousin Henry Lee appointed as their guardian. When the familial discord threatened to undermine the Lees’ social and political position in colonial Virginia, Francis Lee set aside his differences with his oldest brother and focused on restoring the family’s rank in the colony. Although Lee’s relationship with his oldest brother remained strained, he developed a close bond with his other siblings, brothers Thomas Ludwell Lee, Richard Henry Lee, William Lee, and Arthur Lee, and sisters Hannah Lee and Alice Lee. When Philip Lee finally gave Frank Lee the land he had inherited in far-off Loudoun County, he eagerly took up residence there and was soon called to public service.
In July 1758, after Lee had established his residency in Loudoun County, he won election to the House of Burgesses. Lee joined his brothers Thomas Lee and Richard Henry Lee and his cousins Richard “Squire” Lee and Henry Lee to create a powerful voting bloc in the House. Lee himself, however, initiated little or no legislation other than items that specifically concerned his constituents—for example, he helped draft a bill that allowed Loudoun County residents to pay their taxes in money or commodities. He served, along with his brothers, on the Committee of Propositions and Grievances, and in 1766 was appointed to the Committee of Privileges and Elections. The most significant political development during Lee’s service as Loudoun County representative was the Stamp Act crisis of 1765 and 1766, during which he maintained an inconspicuous role other than to join the Westmoreland Association, formed to protest the act, and sign the Westmoreland Resolves, which outlined the association’s major arguments against the Stamp Act. Lee continued to represent Loudoun County until 1768.
In 1769, Lee married Rebecca Tayloe, the sixteen-year-old daughter of John Tayloe, of Mount Airy. Frank was in his thirties at the time. Rebecca Tayloe was one of the eight daughters of John Tayloe II. In providing his blessing, Rebecca’s father made a wedding gift to the couple of a plantation of 1,000 acres. Frank and Rebecca moved to Richmond County. He soon began overseeing the construction of a new residence, Menokin. That same year, residents of Richmond County elected him to the Virginia House of Burgesses; once again, he maintained an inactive role and attended sessions sporadically. He also served the county as a justice of the peace from 1770 until the collapse of Virginia’s colonial government in 1774, and, for a brief time in 1771, was justice of the peace for both Richmond and Loudoun counties.
The union with Rebecca was a marriage of love, and the letters they exchanged while Frank served in the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg reveal how much the separation cost them. He served reluctantly at first, preferring to spend time with his new wife and the building of their home, a Georgian mansion, Menokin. But as the Revolution neared, Frank cast his lot with the Virginia patriots.
He became a close associate of Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, though he preferred library discussions and back-room strategy to the limelight of public debate. Frank’s contributions to the formation of the American Republic, though subtle and often overlooked, were nonetheless critical. His staid countenance offered stability to the sometimes fractious debate among the delegates and, importantly, he modulated the fiery and sometimes divisive speech of his brother, Richard Henry. “He was,” as his youngest brother Arthur attested, “calmness and philosophy itself.”
Lee left Virginia for Philadelphia in 1775, after accepting an appointment to serve in the Second Continental Congress. There, he and Rebecca Tayloe Lee lived for a brief time with his sister Alice Lee Shippen and her husband, Dr. William Shippen, before leasing a house. As a member of Congress, Lee continued to watch with increasing concern the activities of Virginia’s Royal Governor, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore. When Lord Dunmore placed the colony under martial law and offered slaves and indentured servants their freedom in exchange for service to King George III, Lee moved more decisively in favor of declaring independence from Britain. As his first term in Congress came to a close, delegates to theVirginia Convention appointed Lee to a second one-year term in Congress, which he accepted in June 1776.
Frank Lee was a noted radical, on the side of Patrick Henry in opposing the Stamp Act. He Joined the group who called for a general congress and a Virginia Convention in 1774. He attended that convention and that year was sent to the First Continental Congress. He represented his state there until 1779, working on numerous committees.
Francis remained a member of Congress until 1779. He was also a member of the Virginia committee that framed the Articles of Confederation. He retired from the Congress in the spring of 1779 and returned to his home and enjoy his family. However, his fellow citizens again elected him to public office, this time to the Virginia Senate. When he retired for good, he spent his time in agricultural pursuits. He died of pleurisy at age 63. His wife also died of pleurisy within a week of Francis’s death.