Richard Henry Lee

January 20, 1732–June 19, 1794

Richard Henry Lee was a Founding Father who is most well-known for introducing the Resolution for Independence to the Second Continental Congress on June 7, 1776.

Richard Henry Lee, Illustration

Richard Henry Lee was a Founding Father and introduced the Resolution for Independence that led to the Declaration of Independence. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Biography of Richard Henry Lee

Richard Henry Lee was a Founding Father, planter, and politician from Virginia, best known for introducing a resolution on June 7, 1776, during the Second Continental Congress — the Lee Resolution — that called for the colonies to declare independence from Britain. Lee signed the Articles of Association, Declaration of Independence, Olive Branch Petition, and Articles of Confederation. He served as the 6th President of the Confederation Congress. The Land Ordinance of 1785 was passed during his term. Lee opposed the Constitution because it created a centralized government and lacked a Bill of Rights. After Virginia ratified the Constitution, Lee was elected as one of the state’s first Senators. He resigned in 1792 due to poor health and died in 1794.

Quick Facts About Richard Henry Lee

  • Date of Birth: Richard Henry Lee was born on January 20, 1732, at his family’s home, Stratford Hall, in Stratford, Virginia.
  • Parents: Lee’s parents were Colonel Thomas Lee and Hanna Harrison Hudwell Lee. His father was the Royal Governor of Virginia from 1733–1750.
  • Siblings: His brother, Francis Lightfoot Lee, was also a Founding Father and signed the Declaration of Independence.
  • First Spouse: He married Anne Aylett on December 5, 1757. They had six children, four of who survived infancy. Anne died on December 12, 1768.
  • Second Spouse: In June or July 1769, Lee married Anne Gaskins Pinckard. They had seven children, four of who survived infancy.
  • Date of Death: Lee died on June 19, 1794, at Chantilly Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia.
Lee Family Mansion, Stratford House, Birthplace of Robert E Lee
This illustration depicts Stratford House, where Richard Henry Lee grew up. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Important Facts About Richard Henry Lee

Richard Henry Lee was an early advocate of ending the practice of Slavery in Virginia, but still enslaved people. In 1759, Lee, along with George Wythe and Louis Webb, prepared a bill for the House of Burgesses to limit the importation of slaves. Lee gave a speech to the House of Burgesses and said a law was needed that would, “Lay so heavy a tax upon the importation of slaves as effectually to put an end to that iniquitous and disgraceful traffic within the Colony.” Although he worked to end the practice, he enslaved people for his entire life. 

Richard Henry Lee was known as the “American Cicero.” Some of his contemporaries in Congress referred to him as the “American Cicero” for his public speaking ability, debate skills, and adherence to his principles. Marcus Tullius Cicero was a Roman lawyer, writer, politician, and orator who opposed the tyranny of Caesar. He is famous for his orations on politics and society, as well as two important books on government, known today as The Laws and The Republic.

Richard Henry Lee introduced the “Resolution for Independence” that led to the Declaration of Independence. On May 15, 1776, Edmund Pendleton, the President of the Virginia Convention, gave a speech to the Convention that called for independence. The Convention passed resolutions that suggested Congress declare independence from Britain. Instructions were sent to the Virginia delegates in Philadelphia. On June 7, 1776, Lee introduced his resolution, which called for Congress to declare independence, form foreign alliances, and prepare a plan to unite the colonies. Lee’s motion was seconded by John Adams and on July 2, 1776, the first part of the Lee Resolution — independence — was approved by Congress. The other parts of the resolution were approved later on by Congress.

Early Life and Career of Richard Henry Lee

  • Richard Henry Lee was born at Stratford Hall, the ancestral home of the Lee Family, and also the birthplace of Robert E. Lee.
  • In 1748, at age 16, Lee left Virginia for Yorkshire, England, to complete his formal education at Wakefield Academy.
  • In 1757, he was appointed to his first public office, Justice of the Peace for Westmoreland County.
  • In 1758, Lee was elected to the House of Burgesses.
  • Lee helped expose a financial scheme run by a political rival, John Robinson, which boosted Lee’s reputation.
  • In 1768, he lost four fingers on his left hand when he was hunting and his rifle exploded. He wore a black silk glove in public for the rest of his life.

Richard Henry Lee in the American Revolution

  • In 1765, he petitioned to be the Stamp Agent for Virginia but decided against it.
  • He led a protest against the Stamp Act and then helped write the Leedstown Resolutions, also known as the Westmoreland Resolves, which he signed and vowed to oppose the act and its enforcement.
  • On July 25, 1768, Lee wrote a letter to John Dickinson and suggested the idea of Committees of Correspondence for all the colonies.
  • Lee proposed the formation of a Virginia Committee of Correspondence for communicating with the other colonies, which was approved on March 12, 1773.

Richard Henry Lee in the American Revolutionary War

First Continental Congress

John Adams, Portrait
Lee formed an alliance with John Adams (above) and Samuel Adams, which favored independence.

Second Continental Congress

  • Lee signed the Olive Branch Petition.
  • On June 7, 1776, he introduced the Lee Resolution — or the Resolution for Independence — which called for the 13 Colonies to dissolve the connection with Great Britain, take measures to form foreign alliances, and prepare a plan for the unification of the colonies. Lee’s motion was seconded by John Adams. The resolution was passed by Congress on July 2, 1776.
  • The Declaration of Independence was the announcement that explained the reasons for declaring independence from Great Britain. The language was approved on July 2 and copies were printed and distributed over the course of the next week.
  • Most of the delegates, probably including Lee, signed it on August 2.
  • He signed the Articles of Confederation, which established the Confederation Congress.
  • Lee was involved in the Conway Cabal, which may have been nothing more than rumors. Essentially, John Hancock, Robert Morris, and others accused another faction in Congress, led by Lee, John Adams, and Samuel Adams, of trying to replace George Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army with Horatio Gates.
  • He played a role in having Silas Deane recalled from France, and sending John Adams in his place. It created an intense rivalry between Lee and Deane that eventually led to Deane accusing the Lee family of giving information to a British spy.
Declaration of Independence, Committee of Five, Trumbull
This painting by John Trumbull depicts the Committee of Five presenting the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Richard Henry Lee in Virginia

  • Lee resigned from Congress in 1779 and went back to Virginia.
  • He joined the Westmoreland County Militia as a Colonel and led his men to victory in a small skirmish called the Battle of Stratford Landing on April 1781.

Richard Henry Lee After the American Revolutionary War

  • In 1783, Lee was elected to the Confederation Congress.
  • He served as President from November 1784 to November 1785.
  • In November 1785, Lee resigned from Congress due to poor health.
  • In 1787, Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph asked him to attend the Constitutional Convention, however, Lee declined.
  • The same year, he returned to Congress and helped draft the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which established the Northwest Territory.
  • Some historians consider Lee to be the author of the collection of Anti-Federalist essays called “Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican.” Regardless, Federalists were critical of Lee and he withdrew from the debates on ratification.
  • Virginia ratified the Constitution on June 25, 1788, and Lee, along with William Grayson, were elected as the first Senators, for a four-year term.
  • Lee was an advocate for early amendments, including the Bill of Rights.

Significance of Richard Henry Lee, Founding Father

Richard Henry Lee is important to the history of the United States because he is a Founding Father. He helped shape the foundation of the United States by signing the Articles of Association, submitting the Resolution for Independence, and signing the Declaration of Independence. He also played an important role in the development of the state of Virginia.