A Talk with Harlow Giles Unger, Author of FIRST FOUNDING FATHER

Who was Richard Henry Lee?

Richard Henry Lee was the father of American independence. Though unrecognized by most Americans today, it was Lee who stood in Congress four weeks before the date we now celebrate as Independence Day and moved “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.”

Thomas Jefferson had not even thought of union, let alone independence—nor, for that matter had Washington, Franklin, John Adams, or even Patrick Henry. None had used the word “united” or “independent.” Lee was first, making him the “First Founding Father.”


What was the Revolutionary War really about?

When Washington’s army moved against British troops in Boston, most Americans believed that the struggle was to achieve American autonomy under the British crown and flag—not independence. What Americans and their leaders sought was the right of each of American province to govern its own internal affairs—including taxes—leaving England’s Parliament restricted to dealing with foreign affairs and common defense. Most Americans sought reconciliation, not independence.

Despite popular sentiment for reconciliation, Congress voted on and approved Richard Henry Lee’s motion for independence on July 2, 1776, making that date our true Independence Day, with banner newspaper headlines confirming the vote and hailing Lee as Father of American Independence.

After seconding Lee’s motion, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that July 2, 1776 would become “the most memorable epoch in the history of America…solemnized with Pomp and Parade…from one end of this Continent…forever more.”  History and the American people, he predicted, would remember and celebrate forever the name of Richard Henry Lee.

To add luster to Lee’s concise declaration, however, Congress appointed a committee of five members to embellish it, but the older members were so exhausted they assigned the chore to young Jefferson, who copied Lee’s words verbatim as the core of the Declaration of Independence we know. John Hancock signed it on July 4, 1776 and, after Lee’s death, Jefferson usurped credit for writing the entire document.


Was Richard Henry Lee related to “Light Horse Harry” Lee?

Yes. The two were first cousins once removed, i.e., one generation removed. Ironically, one of “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s sons—Robert E. Lee—would gain more lasting fame for dividing the nation than Richard Henry Lee earned for uniting it as an independent nation.


How did the British government react to Lee’s motion for independence?

It condemned him as a traitor and sentenced him to death on the gallows for treason, along with other Founding Fathers such as John Hancock and Samuel Adams. All the Founding Fathers, after all, were British subjects when they combined to declare independence and wage war against the British government. From the British government’s point of view, they were indeed committing treason.


What turned Richard Henry Lee into a rebel leader?

Nothing in Richard Henry Lee’s formative years on his family’s enormous Virginia planation signaled his future as a leader of the American Revolution against Britain. Raised as a “southern gentleman” with his brothers in a family that ranked among America’s wealthiest, he went to England for his academic training. On his return he spent several years as a dilettante before joining his brothers and Virginia’s other “young lords” in the state assembly—the storied House of Burgesses. There, he discovered the ills of the world, becoming the sudden, unexpected champion of justice, fighting political corruption, embezzlement by high officials and, remarkably, slavery.


What was Lee’s Role in the Revolutionary War?

Just as America could not have won the Revolutionary War without the military victories of George Washington, America could not have won the war without the logistical, political, and diplomatic victories of Richard Henry Lee. As British troops swept into Philadelphia in September 1777, most members of Congress scattered in every direction to try to reach their homes. Richard Henry Lee, however, was determined not to let government fall. Combining promises, threats, and appeals to their deepest beliefs, he rallied a band of twenty resolute congressmen and led them westward to Lancaster, and then York, Pennsylvania. As Washington was holding the remnants of the army together at Valley Forge during the bitter winter of 1778, Lee held the remnants of government together in York during the darkest hours of the American Revolution.


What can you tell us about the relationship between Richard Henry Lee and his brothers?

Richard Henry Lee was one of eight siblings in a family whose parents died when Richard Henry was only 17. Left in charge of seven younger siblings, the oldest Lee turned the job of raising them to servants and unfeeling schoolmasters. Richard Henry stepped in as guardian and friend to his two sisters and four brothers, the youngest of the boys only ten and eleven at the time. All the boys grew up adoring each other and, during the Revolutionary War, Richard Henry was able to call on his two youngest brothers—both of them in England at the time—to establish America’s first espionage service.


How was the relationship between George Washington and Richard Henry Lee?

Both close and distant. Both had known each other as young men. Their plantations all but touched each other. But Richard Henry Lee was a dilettante, most interested in study, while Washington was a fierce outdoorsman, a surveyor, an explorer of the West, a powerful horseman, and courageous soldier. Circumstances brought them closer during the Revolution, with Lee serving as mastermind of the political and diplomatic battles while Washington masterminded the military battles. Without the power of command, Lee’s task was by far the more difficult. Congress had no power to tax and Lee, as leader of Congress, had no power to force any state to contribute men, arms and ammunition, or funds to the war effort. While Washington could command his troops to fight, Lee could only cajole his colleagues to contribute to the war effort.


What was Lee like as President of Congress?

The President of the Confederation of American States was the nation’s chief executive in name, if not authority. Indeed, the “President” did nothing but “preside” over the Congress—like the chair at any meeting—but with no authority. He could and did perform ceremonial duties as representative of Congress and occasionally signed measures on behalf of Congress, but it was, in the end, an honorific passed from one state leader to the next.

Lee was the sixth such Confederation President, but more than any of his predecessors he reveled in the role, wearing the finest clothes and ordering the finest foods and wines for his presidential table. He entertained like a king—not, however, to satisfy his own tastes, but to impress European emissaries with the status of the United States of America as equal to Old World nations in pomp, grandeur, and especially power—both economic and military. A secondary purpose was to display to members of Congress and the rest of the American political world the conduct the world would expect of the nation’s future leaders.


Why is Richard Henry Lee not as discussed or as well-known as other Founding Fathers?

He lived in a home that no longer exists and was too isolated when he lived to become a gathering place for national and world leaders. It stood on a lonely bluff overlooking the Potomac River, far from the nearest town.

In contrast, Washington’s Mount Vernon lay but a dozen miles from Alexandria—less than two hours on horseback. John Adams’s home was near Boston, and Jefferson’s aerie at Monticello commanded a full view of Charlottesville and the towering University of Virginia. While surviving family, friends, and admirers preserved the homes of these and other Founding Fathers, the departure of Lee’s wife and two sons after Lee died left the house empty, untended, and deteriorating. Visible and deserted at the top of a cliff, it was an easy target for British warships sailing up the Potomac River during the War of 1812. A derelict by then, it fell victim to the elements and rotted way, turning into dust that vanished into the wind off the Potomac River without leaving a trace.


Why did Lee oppose ratification of the Constitution and how instrumental was he in ratification of a Bill of Rights?

Lee objected to giving Congress unlimited powers to make whatever laws they want, to raise armies, and to tax without limits. Such taxing powers, he said, mirrored those of Britain’s Parliament which ignited the Revolutionary War. In addition, the failure of the Constitution to guarantee individual rights outraged him—as it did Patrick Henry.

Elected one of Virginia’s two first senators, it was he, not Madison, who demanded and wrote the first ten amendments to the Constitution known collectively as the Bill of Rights. Much as Jefferson usurped credit for writing the core of the Declaration of Independence that Lee had written a month earlier, James Madison gets credit for writing the amendments that Richard Henry Lee published in his Letters from the Federal Farmer two years before Madison considered presenting them to Congress.


You’ve written biographies of James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, John Marshall, Patrick Henry—a dozen Patriots and Founding Fathers in all. What drew you to Richard Henry Lee as a subject?

One-third of Americans don’t know why we fought the Revolutionary War and from whom we won our independence. Four out of five seniors at top U.S. colleges and universities earned grades of D or F on history questions drawn from a high-school curriculum—unable to identify Valley Forge, the Gettysburg Address, or the principles of the Constitution. Students can now graduate from every top college or university in the land without studying American history.

I believe historical illiteracy is less the result of student failure to study history than the failure of schools and colleges to teach it, and to do so they need a wide array of references. Works abound on history’s best known figures—Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson—but as instrumental as they were in securing American independence and liberty, they would not have succeeded without the brilliance and heroism of Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, James Monroe, John Marshall, and the other Founders and Patriots in the forefront of my books. Americans must know these and other great figures in history to understand how to govern in what the Founding Fathers designed as a self-governing nation.