Signers of the Declaration of Independence
A Band of Brothers
Thomas Lee’s sons Richard Henry Lee (1733-1794) and Francis Lightfoot Lee (1734-1797) were the only brothers among the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence. Their older brother Thomas Ludwell Lee was an active member of the Virginia Convention which instructed the Virginia delegation to make the resolution for independence from Great Britain. Younger brother William Lee in London verbally challenged his brothers at every turn to take action against Britain’s powerful parliamentary regime which imposed tariffs to keep the colonies under tight control. The youngest Lee brother, Arthur Lee, also in London, wrote pamphlets against the injustices of Parliament to inspire public support for independence of the colonies. These five Lee brothers were described by John Adams as, “That band of brothers, intrepid and unchangeable,. . .[who] stood in the gap in defense of their country, from the first glimmering of the Revolution on the horizon, through all its rising light, to its perfect day.”
A Resolution for Independence
On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, senior member of the Virginia delegation to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, presented a three-part resolution, “that these United colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.” John Adams seconded this first formal move of the colonies toward independence. This day—important in its own right as the initial action for the transition of the colonies from rebels to an independent republic—is celebrated with a Lees & Independence event each year at Stratford.
The Committee of Five
Congress postponed consideration of the resolution and appointed a committee of five men (Committee of Five) to create a document presenting the case for independence. However, Richard Henry Lee was not selected as a member of this eminent committee—an appointment which one introducing such a resolution might take for granted.
Historians offer various theories as to why Richard Henry Lee was not selected to be a member of the Committee of Five. Paul Nagel, author of The Lees of Virginia, suggests that his controversial alignment with the New Englanders, political infighting among the Virginia delegation, and his abrasive personality were primary factors. Nagel proposes that years of animosity between the James-York River region delegates and Richard Henry Lee, who earlier had exposed their profits from the corrupt financial practices of Speaker John Robinson, had finally took their toll. The majority of the Virginia delegation insisted that Benjamin Harrison, rather than Richard Henry Lee, be on the committee. The more radical New Englanders, who had favored Richard Henry’s participation and disliked the arch-conservative Harrison, pushed for another Virginian to take his place—Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, the most skillful writer on the committee, had the honor of drafting the Declaration of Independence, which was “tweaked” by other committee members and Congress before assuming its final form. Other accounts say that Richard Henry Lee, humiliated and disheartened by his omission from the committee, left Philadelphia with the explanation that he had been summoned home to Virginia because of his wife’s illness and because he was needed to help prepare Virginia’s constitution.
To assess the situation fairly, one must look at Richard Henry’s correspondence to see that he attended Congress in Philadelphia until December 1775, after which he journeyed home to Chantilly. He was back in Congress by March 13, 1776, explaining to Landon Carter that he had “after an absence of many months, obtained leave to pay a short visit to his family, where I had been but a few days when the public business called me to Williamsburg and Mrs. Lee’s illness occasioned a summons from thence. She was but recovered before I was compelled to return to this place.” To his brother Thomas Ludwell Lee dated 28 May, Richard Henry set forth his intention of waiting for Col. Nelson’s arrival at Congress before returning home for a few days of rest and then attending the Convention in Williamsburg. Writing Landon Carter again on June 2 (five days before his famous resolution for independence) Richard Henry told of his plans to “be in Virginia in 10 or 12 days.” He left on June 13 as stated in a letter of that date to George Washington. Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Richard Henry on July 16, 1776, said that he hoped Richard Henry would return to Congress “before the 11th of August & when I propose going. Otherwise the colony will be unrepresented.” Jefferson suggested that Lee return immediately, but at least in time to attack the proposed plan of alliances “from Alpha to Omega.” Jefferson’s letter, in which he states that he is “sorry that the Convention of Virginia did not accept my resignation here, the state of Mrs. Jefferson’s health obliges me to persist in it [his resignation],” stressed that Congressional delegates could not resign, or leave, without permission. The delegates seem to have adopted an informal tag-team approach to ensure that Virginia would always be represented. Richard Henry Lee’s departure soon after his resolution was, according to the primary sources available, pre-planned and not made as a hasty gesture of sulking.
Richard Henry Lee, armed with keen intelligence, superb oratorical skills and an overabundance of self-confidence, never hesitated to defend himself verbally or in writing. His own correspondence does not refer to any reasons, other than a planned break from his duties to visit his family and attend the Virginia Convention. According to Richard Henry Lee biographer Kent McGaughy, Lee was more interested in “matters that affected Virginia’s most immediate problems—specifically, the scheduled appearance [on June 24] before the Virginia Convention of representatives of the Grand Ohio Company, who were seeking to promote their interests in western lands.” Richard Henry Lee and his allies—a majority in the Virginia Convention—were able to assert Virginia’s exclusive claim to western lands. He knew that the task of drafting a formal declaration of independence was in good hands, but was more concerned that his state should adopt a new plan of government unlike the form proposed by Carter Braxton, his arch-enemy in Virginia and Congress. McGaughy suggests that “it was the widespread circulation of Braxton’s proposal that explains Lee’s rapid departure from Philadelphia…”
When Congress reconvened on July 2, it adopted the Lee resolution almost unanimously—New York did not cast a vote. Immediately, Congress began to shape the Declaration document to its final form, which was officially adopted on July 4—the day of its annual celebration in the United States. Richard Henry Lee, on receiving copies of the original draft and approved declaration sent to him by Jefferson on July 8, commiserated with Jefferson on the changes, but assured him that, “the Thing is in its nature so good, that no Cookery can spoil the Dish for the palates of Freemen.” Congress ordered that, when the Declaration was printed, it should be signed by every member. While most members of Congress signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776, Richard Henry Lee was absent from the official signing and added his name in the space left for him on September 4. The seriousness of signing their name to the Declaration was shared by the members of Congress, who, by this act of treason, risked death by hanging for themselves, and poverty and dishonor for their families.
In Richard Henry Lee’s absence, Francis Lightfoot “Frank” Lee, who had signed the Declaration in August, carried on the work of the Virginia delegation to keep Congress steadfast in its stance on separating from Britain. Frank urged Richard Henry’s return to Philadelphia, notifying him when his enemies headed back to Virginia. Together the Lee brothers sacrificed their time, health, and reputations in order to bring about an effective system of government for the new nation.
The two Lee brothers, who so ardently believed in freedom that they bravely signed the Declaration of Independence, would later become the only two brothers to sign the Articles of Confederation. Today Richard Henry Lee is more often remembered as one of the only brothers to sign the Declaration rather than being the firebrand orator whose resolution sparked the colonies into action.
Burial Sites of the Signers
In 1794, Richard Henry Lee, who grew up at Stratford and built his home Chantilly on the eastern part of the property, was buried in the Lee Family Cemetery at Hague, Virginia, on the ancestral property now referred to as Burnt House Field. His simple ledger is engraved with a quote from George Mason’s letter of 18 May 1776 imploring Richard Henry to return to Virginia to assist in drawing up a plan for a new government: “We cannot do without you.” The small brick-walled cemetery is located on Mount Pleasant Road (Rt. 675) just off of Coles Point Road (Rt. 612).
His brother, Francis Lightfoot Lee, was originally buried in the local parish graveyard in 1797 and his body later moved to his wife’s (Rebecca Tayloe) family cemetery at nearby Mount Airy. Mount Airy is privately owned by descendants of the Tayloe family and the gravesite is not accessible to the public.