Celebrating a Lee “President”

Did you know that Richard Henry Lee was a President? 

When the Articles of Confederation, the first attempt at a constitution for the states, was ratified on March 1, 1781, Samuel Huntington became the first President of the United States in Congress Assembled under the Articles.  The Articles of Confederation created a national government which limited the power of the states to deal with diplomacy and foreign policy.  The highest executive office under the Articles was that of the President of Congress Assembled—an office limited to a one-year term.

Richard Henry Lee held the office of President of Congress Assembled from November 30, 1784 to November 22, 1785 under the Articles of Confederation.  In this role, he oversaw efforts to pass the Land Ordinance of 1785—a policy designed by Thomas Jefferson for settling lands west of the Appalachians—and negotiations for navigation rights on the Mississippi.

Richard Henry Lee, along with Thomas Adams, John Banister, John Harvie and Francis Lightfoot Lee, had signed the Articles of Confederation for Virginia.  Virginia was the first state to ratify the Articles, and, in order to persuade Maryland to sign the document, had to cede the western land claims that Richard Henry Lee’s father Thomas Lee worked so hard to get when he was President of Virginia. 

There were four Presidents of the Continental Congress and ten Presidents under the Articles of Confederation before the present United States Constitution took effect on March 4, 1789.  Under the new government, the position of President of Congress was eliminated and the office of President of the United States was established and filled by a Virginian, George Washington.

Although Richard Henry Lee recognized the strengths of the newly proposed U. S. Constitution over the Articles of Confederation, he ardently opposed the adoption of the Constitution without amendments to protect individual freedoms.   The new Constitution gave Congress the power to tax and to regulate foreign and interstate commerce, and created an executive branch (to enforce acts passed by Congress) and a national court system.   Favoring limited government, Lee wrote about the balance of power: “It must never be forgotten…that the liberties of the people are not so safe under the gracious manner of government as by the limitation of power.”[i]  Many Americans at the time feared a strong central authority and thought of their state as their “country.”  This way of thinking was apparent in Richard Henry Lee’s writings when he used the words “the United States are…” rather than “the United States is.[ii] 

Richard Henry Lee served as one of the first Senators from Virginia under the new Constitution from March 4, 1789 to October 8, 1792, when he retired for health reasons.  For the second Congress, Lee was President pro tempore of the United States Senate. 

As a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Henry Lee risked his life and property for the freedom of the American colonies.  During his political career, he had to continuously challenge and defend attacks upon his reputation as well as those of his brothers.  Richard Henry’s participation in steering the course of government—long journeys to Congress in Philadelphia and Washington, as well as to the seats of Virginia’s legislature and accidents along the way[iii]—took a toll on his health.   Richard Henry Lee died in 1794 at his home Chantilly—old and infirm—at just age 62. 

[i], Richard Henry Lee, Memoir of the Life of Richard Henry Lee (1825), Vol. 1, 98. ALS Richard Henry Lee to Patrick Henry, dated May 28, 1789.  See also James Curtis Ballagh, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee (1914), Vol. 2, 284.  ALS Richard Henry Lee to Gen. William Whipple, dated July 1, 1783: “So long as the question shall be for increasing the power of Congress, I would answer with the change of a word only, as the discerning men of old did, when the Imperial Law was proposed to be introduced upon the ruins of the Common Law.  ‘Nolumus leges Confederationis mutare [We do not wish the laws of the Confederation to be changed].’”  

[ii] James Curtis Ballagh, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee (1914), Vol. 2, 279.   ALS Richard Henry Lee to George Wythe, dated February 28, 1783: “…I feel strongly the propriety of [preferring] giving preference to the Institutions of my own country to those of other states, and I am happy to be informed that sensible men in the neighboring Countries, entertain a proper sense of the benefits to be derived from your benevolent attention to the instruction of youth…”

[iii] In fall 1791, Richard Henry Lee’s carriage overturned en route to Philadelphia and the injuries he sustained prevented him from returning to the Senate until December 1791.