For a time, the careers of Thomas Lee’s youngest sons, William (1739-1795) and Arthur (1740-1792), seemed sure to eclipse those of their older brothers. Ingratiating themselves with the British aristocracy, they soon abandoned their promising careers as “Englishmen” and risked their lives and fortunes in the cause for American independence. Their contributions to the Revolution are often overlooked; their work frequently was done in secret and well away from the visible sphere of American politics. From their base in London, they gained access to invaluable information on the motives of King George III and Parliament, which, at the risk of treason charges, they passed on to their brothers in America.
Labeled “vagrant Americans” and “pestilent traitors” by an increasingly suspicious English Parliament, they were America’s first spies and worke tirelessly in that capacity for governmental as well as popular support for the American cause.
From their years in England, the brothers were well acquainted with British political and social life. In July 1773, to the astonishment of all, William Lee was elected Sheriff of London. He went on to claim the title of City Alderman, which made him a powerful American political figure in England. Eyeing a seat in Parliament, William became increasingly vocal in his support for the rights of the colonies and believed his political influence in the English capital would further the cause for independence. His brother Arthur, meanwhile, used entirely different methods to attain the common goal.
Well educated, Arthur Lee was considered an intellectual presence in London. Graduating with honors from Edinburgh University with a degree in medicine, he also studied law in London before abandoning these careers to write political tracts in support of the colonies. Under various pen names, Arthur was as prolific as he was patriotic. His pamphlets were distributed throughout Europe and America and served to rally sympathizers in support of the American cause. A 1775 editorial in the Virginia Gazette praised “the amiable Dr. Lee, admired by all for his literary abilities and excellent pieces in Vindication of the colonies, shines conspicuously as one of the first patriots of his age.”
With war imminent, the Continental Congress named Arthur its secret agent in London. In this role he made contact with the French agent, Beaumarchais, and initiated a flow of supplies between France and America. A few months later, Congress named Arthur, along with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, as Commissioners to the court of Versailles. It also made William its commercial agent in French ports. By June of 1776, both brothers were in Paris.
William later became commissioner to the courts of Berlin and Vienna. Arthur, in concert with Franklin and Deane, made overtures to the Courts of Madrid and Berlin. Neither Germany nor Spain intended to establish diplomatic relations with the new nation until France entered the war; thus their efforts to secure international support for the American cause proved futile.
The careers of William and Arthur were impeded by bitter debates with Silas Deane, each questioning the other’s allegiance to his country. The controversy divided Congress in a vituperative debate. The political infighting resulted in the reorganization of the diplomatic corps and all but one of the positions held by the two brothers were eliminated. Neither brother was ever reappointed to an important government post.
The Silas Deane affair seemed to have embittered not only William and Arthur but the Lee family as a whole. Accusations, though unproven and unfounded, tarnished the Lee family name. Ever courageous, the brothers defended one another with the same vigor and spirit that brought them so much respect and admiration in their pursuit of American liberty.