Richard Henry Lee of Virginia: A Portrait of an American Revolutionary

By Tillson, Albert H., Jr. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Richard Henry Lee of Virginia: A Portrait of an American Revolutionary


Tillson, Albert H., Jr., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Richard Henry Lee of Virginia: A Portrait of an American Revolutionary * J. Kent McGaughy * Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004 * xx, 248 pp. * $75.00 cloth * $27.95 paper

According to J. Kent McGaughy, Richard Henry Lee has been poorly understood and unfairly portrayed in his own lifetime and since. Rather than a cynic who espoused liberty and devotion to the public good while secretly pursuing his private interest, Lee was a "conservative revolutionary" whose ideology and practice consistently reflected the economic world of tobacco cultivation and western land investment that underlay his family's fortune and prominence.

Throughout Lee's adult years he and his siblings were the political and economic adversaries of a group of wealthy and well-connected planters, initially led by Speaker-Treasurer John Robinson, who dominated the provincial government and sought grants of trans-Appalachian land in conjunction with powerful allies in England and the Middle Atlantic colonies. As Britain began to regulate the colonies more rigorously in the 1760s, and as his provincial rivals constructed a network of transatlantic alliances to pursue their speculative activities, Lee sought connections with leaders in England and elsewhere in the colonies to counter the threats to American liberty and his family fortune. He particularly feared that his rivals might undermine Virginia's claims to the trans-Appalachian west. In the First and Second Continental Congresses, these conflicts fundamentally shaped the positions of Lee's radical coalition and their more moderate accommodationist opponents, for the latter were often tied to his economic competitors. For McGaughy, this clash of economic interests determined the Lee family's course in state and national politics throughout the Revolutionary War and the following years.

Although the economic interests and conflicts McGaughy describes are familiar to Revolutionary scholars, his attempt to connect them into a causal chain that explains Lee's trajectory through the era is unpersuasive. For example, given the scarcity of surviving documents, our knowledge of the Virginia assembly's factional alignments is less clear than McGaughy suggests. His contention that Lee's anxiety regarding the Currency Act of 1764 produced his stronger opposition to Speaker Robinson that year is unsupported by the cited documentation, as is his depiction of Lee as predominantly concerned with the Quebec Act's adjustment of the colonies' western territories at the First Continental Congress. …

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