11 Ways to Live Wisely Like a Wise Lee

“There was Miss Ladonia too, Cousin Anne Butler Berkeley, with all her Brothers & Sisters. 25 Misses Nelson & as many Misters &c. &c. &c. &c. I returned to Norfolk with them at night. Saw there Uncle Edmund, Cousins Richard B. Lee, John Lee U.S.N., Sally, Nancy, Randolph, Tom Turner, & in fact if I was to mention them all you would cut your throat in despair.”

So wrote Robert E. Lee in describing a Lee family reunion for his brother. In my summer as the Education Intern at Stratford I have had the opportunity to research the Lee family and, like Robert, I have learned that sometimes it is best to handle explanations of them and their complex history with a sense of humor. In that vein, and inspired by internet pop culture, I have compiled a tongue-in-cheek list of some pieces of wisdom offered by Lee voices and actions throughout Stratford’s history.

Lee family tree

1. Flattery will get you far.
Richard Henry Lee was a strong believer that “a little well applied flattery” to the right people will “ply them up” and make them amenable to your cause. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, among other accomplishments, so who are we to argue?
2. You, too, can recover from being a spinster…at age 26.
Alice Lee put her life on hold while waiting for her older brother Phil to settle her inheritance. When Alice finally wed William Shippen at St. Mary La Strand Church in England, the parish records indicate that she was a “Spinster.” She was twenty-six years old.
3. If you’re not annoying your siblings, you’re not doing your job.
The only thing the famous “Band of Brothers” (Richard Henry, Francis Lightfoot, William, and Arthur) loved more than each other was annoying their older brother, Philip. William, in particular, is known to have vexed Phil by charging the man for things that were free to his other brothers and once sending him a servant that “had no trade at all,” was “an immense eater,” and cost Phil more than he was worth. Oh, brothers…
4. When in doubt of appropriate style, build your new house in the shape of your initial.
Whether “H” stands for “Hannah [Ludwell Lee]” or for Georgian architectural symmetry, who can say? Actually, this fun conjecture is largely an apocryphal story, but if I could build a house in the shape of an “S,” I would.
5. Money will make you happy.
“Why should you venture into the uncertain ocean of commerce for that which you already possess, a genteel independent fortune?” – Richard Henry Lee to his brother, William. In other words: you have money, don’t lose it.

This is one of Stratford’s publicly-allowed pictures of Lee that I used to make a meme playing on the wording of his most famous quote “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow fond of it.”

6. Money will NOT make you happy.
“Good God, what trouble does not having been born to a fortune give me – how much has the reverse fatigued the possessor of Stratford [Phillip Ludwell Lee].” – Arthur Lee. In other words: money hasn’t made Phil happy and probably wouldn’t make Arthur happy even if he had it.
7. Whatever you do, don’t get buried alive.
Lee family relative Hannah Bushrod Washington specifically wrote in her will that after her family thought she was dead they were to make extra-certain that she was dead by allowing her body to rest in bed until it smelled. “Putrefaction” never seemed so comforting.
8. Be sure to announce your arrival with trumpet fanfares.
Phillip Ludwell Lee loved music. He supposedly hired trumpeters to ride on top of his coach and burst forth triumphantly whenever he reached his destination.
9. It’s not a good party until your friends are forced to leave early from exhaustion.
Philip Fithian, tutor at Carter home Nomini Hall, was quite surprised by the length and variety of entertainment at Richard Lee’s “anniversary feast” at Lee Hall. He writes that it was so raucous that Lee had to implore his guests “to stay the proposed time,” another day or two, and not leave early. Cheers!
10. Being nice to your relatives is important. Especially when they are your neighbors, spouses, business partners, political allies, will executors, etc.
Phillip Ludwell Lee wrote to his cousin, Richard Lee of Lee Hall: “When one person was tied by blood to another, as I am to you, nothing shall be wanting on my part to make us enjoy a constant and harmonious friendship.” Is it just me, or is the only thing missing from the end of that statement “or else”?
11. Don’t forget to call your mother!
It seems fitting to close this list with a reminder that the Lees had to deal with things familiar to people from every generation and walk of life, including a mother’s lament that her children do not call, write, or otherwise communicate with her enough. In a letter to her son, Sidney Smith Lee, Ann Hill Carter Lee writes: “I… now have arrived at the disagreeable point in my letter, the obligation I feel to chide you for never writing to your Mother…” Maternal guilt trips are indeed timeless.

-Sandra Jensen, Education Intern