Tall, thin and aristocratic in appearance, Richard Henry Lee was a born orator. He used his hand, always wrapped in black silk due to a hunting accident, to emphasize the cadences in his remarkably musical voice. His oratory was legend – “That fine polish of language which that gentleman united with that harmonious voice so as to make me sometimes fancy that I was listening to some being inspired with more than mortal powers of embellishment” was how one observer described him.
Confrontational by nature, Richard Henry possessed a fiery, rebellious spirit. These same qualities brought him fame as a leading patriot of the day and incited the wrath of his enemies. At one point, he was “outlawed” by a proclamation of English Governor Dunmore.
As a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses, Richard Henry’s first bill boldly proposed “to lay so heavy a duty on the importation of slaves as to put an end to that iniquitous and disgraceful traffic within the colony of Virginia.” Africans, he wrote, were “equally entitled to liberty and freedom by the great law of nature.” Such words, coming as they did in 1759, have been called “the most extreme anti-slavery statements made before the nineteenth century.”
In 1765, enforcement of the Stamp Act began. In response, the Lee brothers, led by Richard Henry, rallied 115 men of Westmoreland County at Leedstown on the Rappahannock River, a few miles south of Stratford. All signed the Westmoreland Resolves, co-authored by Richard Henry. The document threatened “danger and disgrace” to anyone who paid the tax. Among the signers were Richard Henry, Thomas, Francis Lightfoot, and William Lee and the four brothers of George Washington. The signing of the Westmoreland Resolves was one of the first deliberate acts of sedition against the Crown and one that placed both Richard Henry and the state of Virginia at the vanguard of the coming revolution.
In 1768, Richard Henry proposed the systematic interchange of information between the colonies. As a result, the Committees of Correspondence were formed and became a major force uniting the Americans in their desire for independence. Receiving first-hand information on the decisions of the King and Parliament from his brothers, Arthur and William, now in London, he served as a communications commander for the colonies.
By 1774, the flames of the Revolution, so faithfully fanned by the Lees, ignited the reluctant southern colonies. The call for an inter-colonial congress was made, and Richard Henry was chosen as one of the seven-man Virginia delegation to the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Once there, he was able to bridge the gap between the vastly different worlds of New England and the South. At the house of his sister, Alice Lee Shippen, he strengthened the bond with John and Samuel Adams and created a long-lasting friendship that transcended divisive regionalism and helped to unite the colonies as one nation.
In the spring of 1776, Richard Henry, now joined by his brother Francis Lightfoot, took his seat in the second Continental Congress. Sensing what lay ahead, he wrote confidently to his brother William, “There never appeared more perfect unanimity among any sett of men, than among the delegates.”
In three months as delegate, Richard Henry served on 18 different committees – none as important as his appointment to frame the Declaration of Rights of the Colonies, which led directly to the writing of the Declaration of Independence. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry was accorded the well-deserved honor of introducing the bill before Congress:
…that these united Colonies are, and ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance from the British crown, and than all political connection between America and State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved…
The bill was adopted on July 2 – the formal act that dissolved the ties with England. Two days later, on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was ratified – the American Revolution became a reality.