Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia
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Richard Henry Lee

RICHARD HENRY LEE (1733–1794)

Fletcher, Anne, Richard Henry Lee (1732–1794). Oil painting on canvas, 30 x 25 in., Original by Charles Willson Peale. Virginia State Artwork Collection, Acquired 1927.

Richard Henry Lee was a prominent Virginia planter and a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress. Throughout the American Revolution, Lee played a pivotal role in politics. He introduced the resolution to declare independence from Great Britain and signed the Declaration of Independence. He was a prominent member of the House of Burgesses before the American Revolution and served in the House of Delegates during the war. Before, during, and after the war, he was a member of Congress and in 1789 was elected one of the first members of the United States Senate.

Lee was born on January 20, 1733, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, and was the son of Thomas Lee and Hannah Ludwell Lee, members of one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the colony. Lee was educated at home by a private tutor and from 1748 to 1753 at Wakefield Academy in England. He was elected to the House of Burgesses for the first time in 1758. About that time Lee married Anne Aylett. They had four children. His wife died in 1768, and Lee remarried a year later, to Anne Gaskins Pinckard. They had five children.

After initially making a serious mistake in applying for the post of distributor of stamps under the Stamp Act of 1765, Lee emerged at the forefront of resistance to Parliament's attempts to tax the colonies. He took part in organizing the February 1766 gathering of men in Westmoreland County who protested the Stamp Act, and in May 1774 he joined with Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and other burgesses to develop the colony's initial response to the Coercive, or Intolerable, Acts. Lee represented Virginia in the First and Second Continental Congresses. Early in June 1776, under the instructions of the fifth Virginia Revolutionary Convention, and as the senior member from Virginia present, he introduced a resolution to declare all of the colonies independent of Great Britain.

Lee served in Congress throughout much of the American Revolution and was president of Congress in 1784. He declined an appointment to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and opposed ratification of the Constitution of the United States. From 1789 to 1792 he was one of Virginia's first two United States senators. Lee resigned from the Senate because of poor health and died on June 19, 1794, at his Westmoreland County plantation, Chantilly.

Suggested Reading:

McGaughy, J. Kent. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia: A Portrait of an American Revolutionary. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, Publishers, 2004.