The Lees & The U. S. Constitution


Political Precedents

Beginning a Legacy

King Charles I of England

King Charles I of England

Sir William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia (1642- 1676), wielded much influence in the young colony. Under Berkeley, Virginia’s approximately 8,000 citizens with a reputation of being “none but those of the meanest quality and corruptest lives”1 grew to a respectable population of about 40,000 as a result of his establishment of a governing elite. Among these cavaliers were members of prominent families, such as the Carters, Culpepers, Hammonds, Custises, Pages, Harrisons, Masons, Madisons, and Washingtons. The majority of what has been referred to as the “cavalier migration” took place during the 1650s; throughout this decade, many were trying to escape an imposition of values from the Puritan oligarchy that had been recently established in England.2

Richard Lee, however, was one of the original 8,000. He arrived in Virginia in 1640, two years before Berkeley, around the age of 21. Richard did not come from a wealthy family; his mother descended from a family of clothiers, a trade his father was also involved in. He was smart though, and tradition says he came to the colonies with Sir Francis Wyatt, who was appointed by King Charles I as the first Royal Governor of Virginia. With this connection, Richard became a clerk of the quarter court in the Secretary of State’s office. He continued to climb, becoming Attorney General under Berkeley’s rule, then a member of the House of Burgesses, High Sheriff, a militia colonel, Secretary General, and member of the Council of State. He serves as an early example of a quintessential American ideal: the climber.

The Capitol at Williamsburg

The Capitol at Williamsburg

The House of Burgesses is one of the first instances of democracy in America, as a popularly elected legislature. The English king maintained rule over the colonies, but this system placed a check on his power, as is fitting of a limited monarchy. It was modeled after parliament and served to determine local laws and taxation. After its establishment in 1619, its first task was establishing a minimum price for tobacco.

The success Richard Lee achieved in Virginia made him an anomaly. Many other immigrants died from the mean living conditions and in Indian attacks, but the Lees proved to be an enduring family—especially in the political realm. Richard’s grandson Thomas Lee, and great-grandsons “Col.” Philip Ludwell Lee, Richard Henry Lee, and Francis Lightfoot Lee were all members of the House of Burgesses, too. These men, along with their relatives, also held other important offices, which were often military in nature. Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee were the only brother signers of the Declaration of Independence, and the ratification of the national Constitution was, in some fashion, a Lee family affair.

A Too Active British Parliament

Money, as it often does, created substantial problems in the colonies; though Britain won the French and Indian War (sometimes referred to as “Virginia’s War”), its national debt increased 300% during the conflict. To ameliorate its situation, Parliament passed the Sugar Act the following year, 1764, taxing foreign goods in the colonies, like sugar, wine, and coffee, while Americans objected to Britain’s “taxation without representation.” Without heeding the colonies’ complaints, parliament passed the Currency Act and the Stamp Act the following year, exacerbating the tension that was building between Britain and its American colonies.

26126-004-85F10D45Richard Henry Lee resisted the Stamp Act. He explained to a correspondent that taxing Americans without giving them a say in the matter contradicted the British constitution. He wrote the Leedstown Resolves in an effort to create a movement against the Stamp Act, against the “abject and detestable slavery” Richard Henry felt Britain was imposing upon the colonies with this act. His protest was signed on 27 February 1766 by men like Thomas Ludwell Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, William Lee, Richard Lee, Joseph Murdock, John Blackwell, and William Grayson. The document consists of six articles. Though the first article promises allegiance to King George the Third, it is also a promise that Virginians will do “the utmost of our power to preserve the laws, the peace and good order of this Colony, as far as is consistent with the preservation of our Constitutional rights and liberty.” And the Constitutional rights covered in the second article are the right to trial by jury and the right to representation in Parliament “who themselves pay a part of the tax they impose.” Thus, he guarantees that they will treat anyone who violates those rights “as the most dangerous enemy of the community; and we will go to any extremity, not only to prevent the success of such attempts, but to stigmatize and punish the offender.” The Stamp Act did violate the rights Richard Henry mentions in the second article, and he promised that “paying no regard to danger or to death, we will exert every faculty, to prevent the execution of the said Stamp Act in any instance whatsoever within this Colony.”3 And so, Virginia, along with other colonies, rebelled against the act by boycotting British goods. Britain met the colonies’ protests with the Declaratory Act. More trade laws followed, and America became more defiant.4

Virginians particularly felt the pains engendered by the Quebec Act, which gave Quebec all the real estate north of the Ohio River, because it took the colony’s power to dispense the property and gave it to London. The act angered land speculators (many of whom were members of the House of Burgesses) who had created land companies. By 1747, Thomas Lee of Stratford Hall was a founder and first president of the Ohio Company. His sons Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, along with other prominent men, invested heavily in these companies because they sought to claim the land west of the Appalachian Mountains for Virginia. When Thomas Lee died in 1750, he willed shares of the Ohio Company to his sons.

The Intolerable Acts, however, living up to their nickname, proved to be a tipping point. Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and others wrote a resolution disagreeing with the closing of the Boston Harbor and presented it in the Virginia House of Burgesses. These actions resulted in the Governor’s dissolution of the House of Burgesses. After this, Richard Henry suggested that all the colonies gather to discuss their qualms with Britain.

Richard Henry Lee

Richard Henry Lee

Richard Henry Lee, Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress, introduced a resolution for independence per instructions of the Virginia Convention, of which Thomas Ludwell Lee was a prominent member. Shortly after these events, the colonies declared their independence from Britain, and Virginia adopted a new constitution, written by George Mason.5 Thomas Ludwell was a major contributor to the revision of this document. He objected to Mason’s rigid phrasing in the preamble, feeling that it made their rights seem too limited. He wanted to ensure that the bill of rights would remain relevant over time and amendable by future generations. Though Thomas’ concerns were not heeded in this instance, he continued to vocalize his apprehensions. He put his attention on the bill of rights that “shall not be construed to limit other rights of the people not therein expressed.”6

Revolutionary Disagreement

Becoming U.S.

The first known use of the term “federalist” is in 1774. At the time, it was used to refer to one who was for the unification of the colonies. The word “antifederalist,” however, does not appear until more than ten years later, when both words developed their modern meanings. The years surrounding the creation of these words represent a time of drastic transition for the thirteen colonies. Though Thomas Nelson lamented, “We are now carrying on a war and no war. The British seize our property wherever they find frenchcannonit, either by land or sea; and we hesitate to retaliate,” by 1776, most Americans had been unified by the desire to separate from Great Britain. Nelson had called for the colonies to abandon their “squeamishness,”7 and Virginians answered him with a “[warmth] for independence.”8 The colonies banded together for the achievement of this admirable, common goal during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). During this time, the colonies ratified and operated under the Articles of Confederation.9 Under the Articles, Richard Henry Lee was President of Congress. Such cohesion, however, was not slated to last.

The Great Debate

In 1787, the approximate year of the first use of the term “antifederalist,” the Articles of Confederation ceased to be an effective system of government, and the new nation found itself in need of a new constitution. Naturally, everyone began taking stances on the format of the new government.

Time and oversimplification have made the debate regarding the ratification of the Constitution seem very two-sided: Federalists versus Antifederalists. The tension between these two parties tends to be based on how they are currently defined. Federalists, like George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Lee, and Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, were those who thought a strong central government best for the country and supported a speedy adoption of the proposed Constitution. Alternatively, antifederalists, like George Mason, Patrick Henry, Edmund Randolph, William Grayson, Arthur Lee, and Richard Henry Lee, were averse to the proposed Constitution’s ratification and favored strengthening state governments.

George Mason

George Mason

In reality, there was a third stance—the middle. Most of the country’s citizens fell somewhere between federalist and antifederalist in their views on the Constitution, including some of the men listed above. These are the men who took issue with the ultimatum: ratify it now just as it is or not at all. They felt that Congress should be able to carefully review and amend the document. Many fought for the inclusion of a bill of rights similar to that of Virginia’s state constitution. George Mason, though categorized as an antifederalist, was more a part of this moderate group; he wanted to revise the Constitution “clause-by-clause.”10 John DeWitt, another man not for the immediate ratification of the Constitution, seems to have agreed with Mason as “Language is so easy of explanation, and so difficult is it by words to convey exact ideas, that the party to be governed cannot be too explicit.”11 Hugh Blair Grigsby, a true antifederalist, criticized Mason because “anti-Federalists believed that the Constitution in its general scope was false to liberty.”12

An amendment process, however, would take time many federalists didn’t believe they had. George Washington argued, “it is the best Constitution that can be obtained at this Epocha, and that this, or a dissolution of the Union awaits our choice, and are the only alternatives before us.”13 Their concern was the loss of the nation. Though Virginians agreed that “coercion is necessary in every government,”14 antifederalists were more concerned with the potential loss of their freedoms; Patrick Henry, an antifederalist leader, stated the broad sentiment of his party well, “The first thing I have at heart is American liberty: the second thing is American union.”15

Antifederalists felt threatened by more than “so very obvious a defect”16 as the lack of a bill of rights. In the words of Elbridge Gerry:

My principle objections to the plan, are, that there is no adequate provision for a representation of the people—that they have no security for the right of election—that some of the powers of the Legislature are ambiguous, and others indefinite and dangerous—that the Executive is blended with and will have undue influence over the Legislature—that the judicial department will be oppressive—that treaties of the highest importance may be formed by the president with the advice of two thirds of a quorum of the Senate—and that the system is without the security of a bill of rights.17

Antifederalists feared the potential of the “necessary and proper” clause to expand congressional power—What are the chances an aristocracy or an oligarchy develops? How will taxation be handled? What if a standing army is created even during peacetime? They perceived that this Constitution would put the rights to free press and trial by jury at risk.

Money was, of course, an ongoing concern for all parties. The Constitution would give the new government the power to tax heavily and, following the war, Americans were indebted about three million pounds to British creditors. Nearly half of that amount was owed by Virginian planters.18 Because of this massive debt, Virginians were concerned that the Constitution would enable debt trials to be held outside of the locality in which the debt was gathered even though, as William Grayson explained, “it is a maxim in law, that debts should be on the same original foundation they were on when contracted.”19 On the federalist side, Alexander Hamilton’s solution for handling the nation’s debt to Britain was to establish a national bank. He figured it would instill a sense of confidence in the new government.

The press published fairly extensively the arguments of both sides of the ratification debate; the opinions of the public weighed heavily on the minds of the 18th-century politicians. To minimalize the effect of personal reputation on the reception of their arguments, most men published anonymously. They often used pseudonyms that are reminiscent of the Classical period to emphasize the foundations of their political beliefs. A conservative writer, for instance, may identify himself as Cato. Others identify themselves by the personae they assumed when they wrote, like the Federal Farmer.

The pseudonyms protected more than the beliefs. Pen names shielded politicians from accusations of libel, a common fear among antifederalist writers and an issue that is relevant to their concerns regarding both freedom of press and trial by jury. Federalist James Wilson responded to antifederalists’ qualms, “What is meant by the liberty of press is, that there should be no antecedent restraint upon it; but that every author is responsible when he attacks the security or welfare of the government.” Antifederalists held, however, that “When Government thinks proper, under the pretense of writing a libel, etc. it may imprison, inflict the most cruel and unusual punishment…etc. and the unfortunate citizen has no magna charta, no bill of rights, to protect him.”20

In light of later events, such as the Civil War, many assume that most Southerners were antifederalists because they fought for states’ rights. Indeed, many Southerners did identify with this party. In a period when a lot of Americans considered their state their country, unification required sacrifice. Virginia, for instance, had to give up significant claims of land when she ratified the U. S. Constitution.

A Lee Family Discussion

Antifederalist Lees

Arthur Lee

Arthur Lee

Francis Lightfoot, Arthur, and Richard Henry Lee, brothers and members of the first generation of Lees to be raised at Stratford Hall, are considered antifederalists. Francis was intelligent but thought politics was “damned dirty work.” Arthur and Richard Henry, however, were actively engaged in the Constitutional debates. Arthur Lee shared his opinions of the Constitution under the name “Cincinnatus.” In his letters, he very specifically addressed the threats the Constitution posed to freedom of press and trial by jury due to the distinct possibility that an oligarchy would form. Cincinnatus wrote to James Wilson, a framer of the Constitution, “that some material parts of the proposed Constitution are so constructed-that a monstrous aristocracy springing from it, must necessarily swallow up the democratic rights of the union, and sacrifice the liberties of the people to the power and domination of a few.”

Peter Zenger

John Peter Zenger

He based his argument on Zengerian principles. John Peter Zenger was a “patriotic printer”21 tried for libeling William Cosby in 1733, when the truth of the libel was not a viable defense. Thus, without any proof of innocence, to the judge’s displeasure, the jury ruled “not guilty.”22 If the jury were stripped of its power, Zenger would have been found guilty, and Americans would have to fear sharing their opinions because anything could be ruled libel. And so, Cincinnatus continues,

Upon a subject so momentous, the public has a right to the sentiments of every individual that will reason: I therefore do not think any apology necessary for appearing in print; and I hope to avoid, at least, the indiscriminate censure which you have, with so much candor and liberality, thrown on those who will not worship your idol- “that they are industriously endeavouring to prevent and destroy it, by insidious and clandestine attempts. Give me leave to suggest, that perhaps these clandestine attempts might have been owing to the terror of your mob, which so nobly endeavoured to prevent all freedom of action and of speech.”

Though Wilson held that liberty of the press was not in danger, “where general powers are expressly granted, the particular ones comprehended within them, must also be granted.” Cincinnatus explains,

If there should ever be an influential president, or arbitrary senate who do not choose that their transactions with foreign powers should be discussed or examined in the public prints, they will easily find pretexts to prevail upon the other branch to concur with them, in restraining what it may please them to call-the licentiousness of the press.

In essence—what if this proposed Constitution is ratified and there is another case like Zenger’s? Well, “This constitution is so admirably framed for tyranny, that, by clear construction, the judges might put the verdict of a jury out of the question… In this appellate jurisdiction, the judges are to determine, both law and fact. That is, the court is both judge and jury.” Arthur believed that the Constitution would make the press’ purpose “imposition, not information… it can only be a jury that will save any future printer from the fangs of power.” Arthur Lee, like many antifederalists, compared the ratification of the Constitution to slavery, and he believed that “When the people are fully apprized of the chains [Wilson has] prepared for them, if they choose to put them on, you have nothing to answer for… I can only lament it… You have varnished over the iron trap that is prepared, and bated with some illustrious names, to catch the liberties of the people.”23

In another letter to Wilson, Cincinnatus addresses the antifederalists’ worry that the Constitution would give the government power to create a standing army: “Some, indeed, might have suspected, that such a power, uncontrouled by any declaration, that the military should always be subject to the civil power, might be intended for the purposes of ambition. Your declaration has removed all doubt.” He accuses Wilson of trying to pressure Americans into believing a large army is the only way to secure the safety of the country: “as you now say ‘no man that regards the dignity and safety of his country can deny the necessity of a military force.’ You will next affirm, that no one, for the same reason, can deny the necessity of a large army.” Cincinnatus, however, contradicts the addressee because “The safety of the country, we have already experienced to depend upon the militia,” going on to cite other countries who have done well with a militia-type defense.

The above concerns are doubtlessly serious, but “the most exceptionable part of the Constitution [is] the senate.” Here, Arthur is referring to the typical, antifederalist complaint that the legislative and executive branches were too close. In fact, Cincinnatus argues, though Wilson does not acknowledge it, that the senate possesses the powers of the judicial branch, as well. He explains, “The senate shall have the sole power to try all impeachments. On this point then we are to come to issue whether a senate so constituted is likely to produce a baneful aristocracy.” Arthur seems to fear developing the monarchy of America’s mother nation or the oligarchy that controlled colonial Virginia. But the selection of the senate by the legislature, the length of a term in senate (four or six years), the opportunity for the senate to extend its power, and so on, are features of the Constitution that may have fostered the type of government antifederalists wished to avoid. He closed this letter by stating that he believes it is for these reasons that “a member of the convention, of high and unexceeded reputation for wisdom and integrity, is said to have emphatically declared, that he would sooner lose his right hand, than put his name to such a Constitution.”24

Richard Henry Lee

Richard Henry Lee

Richard Henry also published his reservations about the Constitution. In fact, even though he could not attend the Philadelphia or Virginia convention due to poor health, he was so vocal in his beliefs that many have attributed (and some still attribute) the writings of Federal Farmer to his pen. There is, however, no proof to truly legitimize this notion. Though he was compared to “one of Plutarch’s men,”25 he published a letter to Governor Edmund Randolph using his real name. His arguments are reminiscent of the concerns he addressed in the Leedstown Resolves. Though Richard Henry conceded that the House of Representatives may be considered “a mere shred or rag of representation,” his opening lines are a criticism about the blurring of the branches of government:

It has hitherto been supposed a fundamental maxim, that, in governments rightly balanced, the different branches of legislature should be unconnected, and that the legislative and executive powers should be separate. In the new Constitution, the President and Senate have all the executive, and two thirds of the legislative power. In some weighty instances, (as making all kinds of treaties, which are to be the laws of the land,) they have the whole legislative and executive powers. They, jointly, appoint all officers, civil and military; and they (the Senate) try all impeachments, either of their own members or of the officers appointed by themselves… and can the most critic, if a candid one, discover responsibility in this potent corps?

Like Arthur, Richard Henry wished to deter the creation of an aristocracy, which is “perhaps the most grievous system of government.” Again, however, he made a concession, albeit, a fairly paradoxical one:

The answer to these objections is, that the new legislature may provide remedies! But as they may, so they may not; and if they did, a succeeding assembly may repeal the provisions. The evil is found resting upon constitutional bottom; and the remedy, upon the mutable ground of legislation, revocable at any annual meeting.

Supporting his brother’s argument, Richard Henry lamented that trial by jury, an integral part of ensuring Americans’ liberties, would be limited under this new form of government, “as power is unnecessarily given in the second section of the third article, to call people from their own country, in all cases of controversy about property between citizens of different states to be tried in a distant court, where the Congress may sit.”

As this public letter goes on, some “us versus them” tensions that would become more prevalent immediately before and throughout the Civil War are noticeable. Richard Henry disliked that “a bare majority of votes could enact commercial laws; so that the representatives of the seven Northern States, as they will have a majority, can, by law, create the most oppressive monopoly upon the five Southern States,” noting cultural differences between the North and South that would make such a situation undesirable because “how feeble, sir, is policy, when opposed to interest, among trading people!”26 To mollify his concerns, Richard Henry proposed amendments, but he received criticism from federalist Valerius for attempting to exploit “the supposed weight which your name, might perhaps carry.”27

Richard Henry also wrote many personal letters to the same effect as his public letter. A correspondence written on October 1, 1787, to George Mason, similarly, contains a concession—“The Constitution has a great many excellent regulations in it, and if it could be reasonably amended would be a fine system.” His stance, however, did not waver as he continued to iterate, “I think ‘tis past doubt, that if it [Constitution] should be established, either a tyranny will result from it, or it will be prevented by a civil war. I am clearly of opinion with you that it should be sent back with amendments reasonable, and assent to it withheld until such amendments are admitted.”28 The next day, he sent a similar note to William Shippen stating, “I find it impossible for me to doubt, that in its present State, unamended, the adoption of it [Constitution] will put Civil Liberty and the happiness of the people at the mercy of Rulers who may possess the great unguarded powers given.”29 As he found the Stamp Act to be a form of slavery inflicted upon the colonies by Britain, so did he feel that the Constitution would be a “form of elective despotism: Chains being still Chains, whether made of gold or iron.”30

He made an argument for a bill of rights in a letter sent to Adams on October 5 that “It is in vain to say that the defects in this new Constitution may be remedied by the Legislature created by it. The remedy, as it may, so it may not be applied—And if it should a subsequent Assembly may repeal the Acts of its predecessor.”31 He uses analogy in a personal letter to Randolph to emphasize the imperative of a bill of rights, “for to say that a bad government must be established for fear of anarchy, is really saying that we should kill ourselves for fear of dying!”32 To him, the unamended Constitution was like slavery or death because the merging of legislative and executive powers “[prevents] all Responsibility, [and] are such radical objections, as render this plan inadmissible, in my opinion without amendments… The acquisition of power unlimited, not the security of Civil liberty appears to be the object.”33 Richard Henry makes all of the classic antifederalist arguments. He wanted to protect the rights and liberties of the people. So strong a central government as the Constitution would form would put their freedoms at risk because

Both reason and experience prove, that so extensive a territory as that of the United States, including such a variety of climates, productions, interests; and so great difference of manners, habits, and customs; cannot be governed in freedom—until formed into states, sovereign, sub modo, and confederated for the common good.34

RatificationmapUltimately, the Constitution was ratified in 1788 with a promise that amendments would be applied after the fact. A series of amendments was proposed at the Virginia Convention; the Senate applied but weakened them substantially. These circumstances frustrated Richard Henry. He considered the hope for adequate alterations after ratification to be a “delusion” that “the greater part of those who arrogated to themselves the name of Federalists” had been aware of from the beginning. He draws on his previous analogy to explain the ratification was like dying and assuming “the doctor who wished our destruction, would afterwards restore us to life.”35 His fears regarding taxation, a standing army, trial by jury, and freedom of press were still alive and well. William Grayson agreed, the altered amendments “will do more harm than benefit.”36

Federalist Lees

U. S. Supreme Court Judge Charles Lee

U. S. Supreme Court Judge Charles Lee

Thomas Ludwell from the Stratford line of Lees, and Charles, Richard Bland, and Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, brothers from the Leesylvania line, are characterized as federalists. With regard to the conversation surrounding the Constitution’s ratification, “Light-Horse Harry” may be the most significant federalist Lee. Though he avidly supported the Constitution, as “It was my fortune to be a soldier of my country. I saw what the honorable gentleman did not see—our men fighting… I have seen proofs of the wisdom of that paper [proposed Constitution] your table. I have seen incontrovertible evidence,”37 he too fell more toward the middle, agreeing with Mason that the document should be scrutinized before it should be ratified.

Though Harry explained to Governor Randolph at the Virginia Convention that

The people of America, sir, are one people. I love the people of the north, not because they have adopted the constitution, but because I fought with them as my countrymen, and because I consider them as such. Does it follow from hence that I have forgotten my attachment to my native state? In all local matters I shall be a Virginian. In those of general nature, I shall not forget that I am an American,

Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee

Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee

the idea of disunion weighed heavily on Harry’s mind. In a letter to James Madison dated April 3, 1790, he wrote of the South as “slaves to the north.” He confesses,

I had rather myself submit to all the hazards of war & risk the loss of everything dear to me in life, than to live under the rule of a fixed insolent northern majority. At present this is the case, nor do I see any prospect of alteration or alleviation… But we are committed & we cannot be relieved I fear only by disunion. To disunite is dreadful to my mind, but dreadful as it is, I consider it a lesser evil than union on the present condition.38

Some historians suggest that this paradigm shift is the result of Harry’s personal financial situation. In late 1789, he had approached Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and inquired after information regarding low cost government securities. Harry heard gossip that their value would be increased under a potential funding policy. The information he was asking for was, of course, privileged, making his questions inappropriate. His curiosity was founded on the prospect of wealth. Knowing what was to transpire ahead of time could have made him a lot of money. But naturally, Hamilton could not answer him, and just as naturally, Harry took offense to the withheld information. Harry’s resulting change of heart led many of his peers to give him a different label: antifederalist. With this new perceived affiliation, he was elected Governor of Virginia in 1791, the year the Bill of Rights was finally put into effect.

Richard Bland Lee of Sully Plantation

Richard Bland Lee of Sully Plantation

Harry’s brother, Richard Bland Lee, was also active in the political realm at this time. He was elected to Congress in 1789. Richard had remained an ally of the Federalist Party. It was not long before Congress began to debate public finances, the same matter Harry had earlier tried to discuss with Hamilton. Hamilton reasoned that the national government should take responsibility for the debts of the states. Richard, understanding his brother’s feelings, voted against Hamilton along with a slight majority of Congress. Hamilton saw an opportunity to change this though. All he needed to do was sway four congressmen to change their votes. Thus, he took advantage of Virginians’ desire to have the U.S. capital built on the Potomac River. With this leverage, he altered the necessary votes—Richard’s among them. Richard’s constituents, however, still held his previous point of view that a national government assuming their debts was a threat to state power. As a result of his changing his vote, Richard was not reelected. Both brothers were criticized for their oscillating perspectives.

The public would have mixed feelings about Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee until his death in 1818. Many admired him, but many viewed him as a fickle leader with a sensitive ego who had to be in charge. His oldest son, Charles Carter Lee, characterized him sympathetically in a poem, “His was the soul so dauntless as to dare/ The attempt to free his country, but despair/ Made him an exile amiable and kind.”39

A New Precedent


Gen. Robert E. Lee on Traveller

Advocates and opponents of the Constitution could be found within state lines and families, and their debates have by and large carried on throughout recent history. Though no distinct boundaries existed between the two parties, the most notable manifestation of the tensions between Federalists and Antifederalists was the divide that occurred between North and South in the form of the Civil War. History classes often teach that this was a war about slavery. Though the Lees did own slaves, Richard Henry Lee spoke openly against slavery, stating that African Americans are “equally entitled to liberty and freedom by the great law of nature.”40 In fact, in many respects, the Civil War was a fight about freedom that was based on the argument over states’ rights. Because fairly different cultures developed on either side of the Mason-Dixon line, the argument for stronger state governments was revived during this war. What freedoms inherently belong to the people has remained a topic of debate. The Bill of Rights is still in the news. The first amendment,

Civil War at Gettysburg

Civil War at Gettysburg

in particular, is being reinterpreted every day. For instance, is flying the Confederate flag protected as freedom of speech? The fact that American society continues to discuss the Bill of Rights and what is or is not constitutional speaks to the sense of the men who demanded the Constitution be revised. Ultimately, the framers of the Constitution achieved what Thomas Ludwell Lee fought for when revising Virginia’s state constitution: an enduring document that can be adapted to an inevitably changing nation.

–by Mikki Stacey, Gettysburg College, Stratford Hall Summer intern 2015


1. David Hackett Fischer, “The South of England to Virginia,” in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 210.

2. Ibid 212-214.

3. Susan Godman Rager, “Leedstown Resolves: 1766,” Northern Neck of Virginia Law Page,” last modified November 14, 1997,

4. For more on Richard Henry Lee and the Stamp Act see: Paul C. Nagel, “Politics in Virginia,” The Lees of Virginia: Seven Generations of an American Family, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 77-85.

5. Richard Bland Lee, Thomas Ludwell Lee, James Madison, and Edmund Randolph also served on the committee tasked with creating Virginia’s constitution. Mason, however, found the group “according to custom, overcharged with useless members.”

Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate The Constitution, 1787-1788, (New York: Simon & Scr huster Paperbacks, 2010), 41.

6. For the text of the Virginia’s constitution visit:

7. “‘All America Looks Up to Virginia;’ Virginia and the Declaration of Independence,” The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, accessed June 19, 2015: 27 url:

8. Ibid, 28.

9. For the text of this document visit:

10. Jon Kukla, “A Spectrum of Sentiments: Virginia’s Federalists, Antifederalists, and ‘Federalists Who are for Amendments,’ 1787-1788,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 96, no. 3 (1988): 286, url:

11. Saul Cornell, The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism & the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 58.

12. Jon Kukla, “A Spectrum of Sentiments,” 286, url:

13. Ibid, 280.

14. Ibid, 283.

15. Ibid, 292.

16. “Cincinnatus I: To James Wilson, Esquire November 01, 1787,” Teaching American History, accessed June 29, 2015,

17. Saul Cornell, The Other Founders, 29.

18. For more information see: David Hackett Fischer, “The South of England to Virginia.”

19. Saul Cornell, The Other Founders, 66.

20. Ibid, 125.

21. “Cincinnatus I: To James Wilson, Esquire November 01, 1787.”

22. For more on the Zenger trial, visit:

23. “Cincinnatus I: To James Wilson, Esquire November 01, 1787,”

24. “Cincinnatus IV: To James Wilson, Esquire November 22, 1787,” Teaching American History, accessed June 29, 2015,

25. Saul Cornell, The Other Founders, 53.

26. “Lee’s Objections to the Constitution,” Teaching American History, accessed June 29, 2015,

27. Saul Cornell, The Other Founders, 76.

28. Richard Henry Lee, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee 1779-1794, ed. James Curtis Ballagh (Ney York: The Macmillan Company, 1914), 439.

29. Ibid, 441.

30. Ibid, 445.

31. Ibid, 445.

32. Ibid, 450.

33. Ibid, 457-458.

34. Ibid, 464.

35. Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate The Constitution, 454.

36. Ibid, 455.

37. Jon Kukla, “A Spectrum of Sentiments,” 279-280, url:

38. Henry Lee, letter to James Madison, April 3, 1790.

39. Paul C. Nagel, The Lees of Virginia, 185.

40. Ibid, 81.



“‘All America Looks Up to Virginia;’ Virginia and the Declaration of Independence.” The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Accessed June 19, 2015: 27 url:

“Cincinnatus I: To James Wilson, Esquire November 01, 1787,” Teaching American History, accessed June 29, 2015,

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posted 7/15/2015