Fifth son and seventh of 11 children, Lee was born in 1732 along the Potomac shore at Stratford Hall. His initial tutorial education was supplemented by extensive study at Wakefield Academy, in Yorkshire, England, and a tour of northern Europe. He sailed home about 1751 at the age of 19, the year after his father's death, and resided with his eldest brother Philip Ludwell at Stratford Hall. In 1757 Richard Henry married. About this time, he began building and soon occupied Chantilly, about 3 miles to the east on land leased from his brother. In 1768 Richard Henry's wife died, leaving four children; the next year, he remarried, a union that yielded five more offspring.
Lee meantime, following family tradition, had committed himself to politics. In 1757, at the age of 25, he became justice of the peace for Westmoreland County. The following year, he moved up to the House of Burgesses and sat there until 1775. One of the first to Oppose Britain, he early allied with Patrick Henry. As a protest against the Stamp Act (1765), Lee drew up the Westmoreland Association (1766), a nonimportation agreement signed by some of the citizens of his county. The next year, he denounced the Townshend Acts. And a year later he proposed in a letter to John Dickinson of Pennsylvania that the individual colonies set up committees to correspond with each otheran idea that did not come to fruition for 5 years.
In 1769, when Lee and Henry penned an address to the King protesting several actions of Parliament, the Royal Governor disbanded the House of Burgesses. Lee thereupon met with other patriots at Raleigh's Tavern and helped frame the Virginia Association, a nonimportation agreement. Many other colonies formed similar associations, but in 1770 Parliament repealed most of the duties and the protest spirit subsided.
In March 1773, when anti-British feeling flared once again, Lee, Henry, and Jefferson, who had entered the House of Burgesses in 1769, organized a Virginia committee of correspondence and invited the other colonies to do likewise. Learning of the British closing of Boston Harbor in May 1774, they persuaded their colleagues to declare, as a protest, a day of fasting and prayer. The Royal Governor again dissolved the burgesses. The Revolutionaries reconvened at Raleigh's Tavern, drew up a new nonimportation agreement, and resolved to appeal to the other colonies for an intercolonial congress. But, before such action could be taken, Virginia received an invitation from Massachusetts to send representatives to a congress to be held in September at Philadelphiathe First Continental Congress. Virginia's first provincial assembly met in August and designated seven Delegates, including Lee and Henry.
Lee's outstanding congressional act was the introduction on June 7, 1776, of the resolution for independence from Britain, seconded by John Adams. This document, Lee's condensed redraft of one forwarded him by a convention that had met in Williamsburg on May 15, proposed severing relations with Britain, the forming of foreign alliances, and preparation of a plan for confederation. On June 13, or 2 days after a committee was appointed to draft the Declaration, Lee journeyed back to Virginia, apparently because of illness in the family. He did not return and sign the Declaration until sometime subsequent to the formal ceremony on August 2. Like his brother Francis Lightfoot, in 1777 he also subscribed to the Articles of Confederation. After 1776, however, his influence in Congress waned, and 3 years later ill health forced his resignation.
As a State legislator (1780-84) Lee joined the conservative faction, which represented the interests of the large planters. A Member of Congress again in the period 1784-89, he served in 1784-85 as its President. In 1787, though elected to the Constitutional Convention, he refused to attend and led congressional opposition to the Constitution, especially because of the absence of a bill of rights. Although he was well aware of the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation, he and others feared a stronger Central Government. Lee's "Letters of the Federal Farmer to the Republican," the collective title for two pamphlets outlining his objections to the Constitution, epitomized antifederalist sentiment.
In 1789 Lee entered the U.S. Senate, but because of failing health resigned in 1792, the year after the Bill of Rights was incorporated into the Constitution. He died in 1794, aged 62, at Chantilly. His grave is in the Lee family cemetery near Hague, Virginia.
Drawing: Oil, 1784, by Charles Willson Peale, Independence National Historical Park.
Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004