The Real Arthur Lee

If we had to name the Stratford Lee who was the most underappreciated in the past and virtually unknown in the present, it would have to be Arthur Lee.  Born in 1740, Arthur was just a child when his parents died.  He must have shown a great potential for learning because his eldest brother, Col. Phil, sent him to the University of Edinburgh for a degree in medicine…and Phil was not inclined to waste money.  After earning his degree in medicine, Arthur quickly lost his taste for the practice and moved to London to study law.  Even this pursuit was abandoned as Arthur, using pen names, became a prolific and patriotic pamphleteer in support of the American cause of independence.

During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress named Arthur Lee its secret agent in London, and later sent him to join Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane as a Commissioner to France.  Due to a controversy where Lee questioned the scruples of Deane and Franklin, both Deane and Lee were recalled.  Deane made vicious accusations against the Lee brothers, who felt that the family name had been irreversibly tarnished.  It wasn’t until some of Deane’s papers were made public and the correspondence of King George III was published in the late nineteenth century that Arthur Lee’s suspicions about Deane proved to be correct.  By that time, however, everyone who had been involved in the scandal was long dead.


  • In 1767, Arthur challenged James Mercer to a duel in Williamsburg in order to defend the honor of his brother, Richard Henry Lee. Richard Henry had insulted the Mercer family by parading an effigy of Mercer as stamp collector in—of all places—Montross, Virginia. A battle of newspaper articles by the Lees and the Mercers in the Williamsburg Gazette ensued.  Mercer didn’t show up for the duel, but later walloped Arthur Lee in a Williamsburg coffeehouse.


  • In 1776, Arthur Lee and his brother William attended the famous dinner party at the Dilly residence in London where the unlikely guest list included Dr. Samuel Johnson, James Boswell and John Wilkes. Wilkes was a radical Whig politician and a good friend of Arthur…both natural opponents of Johnson, a noted Tory who disliked any idea of American rebellion. Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, detailed the lively discussions around the table, in which the guests assumed awkward, but non-combative, roles.  In spite of his fire-brand style of writing, for once Arthur Lee, described as “the chief incendiary of Virginia” by a member of Parliament, held his tongue.


  • In 1778, the Continental Congress became embroiled in a bitter dispute that pitted Arthur Lee’s supporters against those of Silas Deane. The President of the Continental Congress, Henry Laurens of South Carolina, resigned in protest after Congress would not censure Deane. After Deane attacked the Lee brothers, Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, retaliated in defense of the Lees and resigned his position as Secretary of Foreign Affairs.  Newspaper accounts of the controversy raged throughout America.  It seems that Deane’s friends—financier Robert Morris, the powerful Gouverneur Morris, prestigious Ben Franklin and others who had profited from Deane’s financial schemes—won the battle of public opinion.  After Deane traveled to Europe in 1779 for the stated goal of proving his innocence, he never returned; some of his private letters were intercepted and published, leaving little doubt that Deane had indeed used his position for profit at the expense of his country.


Arthur Lee died in 1792 at his home Lansdowne in Urbanna, Virginia.  In all of the adversity encountered by Arthur and his brothers, they were steadfast in support of their country and each other.   John Adams, who knew the Lee brothers well, aptly described Arthur Lee: “This man never had justice done him by his country in his lifetime, and I fear he never will have by posterity.  His reward cannot be in this world.”