First Founding Father

Richard Henry Lee and the Call to Independence


By Harlow Giles Unger

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Before Washington, before Jefferson, before Franklin or John Adams, there was Lee–Richard Henry Lee, the First Founding Father

Richard Henry Lee was first to call for independence, first to call for union, and first to call for a bill of rights to protect Americans against government tyranny. A towering figure in America’s Revolutionary War, Lee was as much the “father of our country” as George Washington, for it was Lee who secured the political and diplomatic victories that ensured Washington’s military victories. Lee was critical in holding Congress together at a time when many members sought to surrender or flee the approach of British troops. Risking death on the gallows for defying British rule, Lee charged into battle himself to prevent British landings along the Virginia coast–despite losing most of his left hand in an explosion.

A stirring, action-packed biography, First Founding Father will startle most Americans with the revelation that many historians have ignored for more than two centuries: Richard Henry Lee, not Thomas Jefferson, was the author of America’s original Declaration of Independence.


Frontispiece: Portrait of Richard Henry Lee by Charles Willson Peale, in the National Portrait Gallery.

List of Illustrations


Virginia’s Northern Neck

Northwest Territory


Frontispiece: Richard Henry Lee

1. Lee Family Coat of Arms

2. The First Richard Lee in America

3. Jamestown in 1640

4. Ruins of Jamestown

5. Thomas Lee

6. Stratford Hall

7. Colonel George Washington

8. Château de Chantilly

9. Richard Henry Lee

10. Francis Lightfoot Lee

11. Patrick Henry

12. Arthur Lee

13. William Lee

14. John Wilkes

15. Boston Tea Party

16. Samuel Adams

17. George III

18. Patrick Henry’s Call for Liberty

19. Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

20. Richard Henry Lee’s Declaration of Independence

21. John Adams

22. Thomas Jefferson

23. Signing the Declaration of Independence

24. Benjamin Franklin

25. Silas Deane

26. A “Continental”

27. Surrender at Yorktown

28. James Madison

29. Federal Hall in New York City

30. Richard Henry Lee’s Gravestone

31. John Trumbull’s Painting of the Signing

32. Key to the Signers in Trumbull’s Painting

33. Portraits and Signatures of the Signers

34. Copy of the Declaration of Independence with Signatures



First of the Founding Fathers to call for independence, first to call for union, and first to call for a bill of rights, Richard Henry Lee was as much a Father of Our Country as George Washington. For it was Lee who masterminded the political and diplomatic victories that ensured Washington’s military victory in the Revolutionary War. And after the nation took shape it was Lee—not James Madison—who conceived of the Bill of Rights our nation enjoys today.

Richard Henry Lee was a scion of one of Virginia’s—indeed, one of North America’s—wealthiest and most powerful families, a fabled dynasty akin to Europe’s Medici, Habsburgs, or Rothschilds. He and his blood—and relatives by marriage—ruled over hundreds of thousands of acres across Virginia, western Maryland, Pennsylvania, and present-day Ohio and Indiana; their fleet sailed the world carrying American tobacco to the farthest corners of the earth. At the peak of their wealth and power the Lees controlled Virginia’s government and economy and helped develop Virginia into North America’s largest, richest, and most populated British colony.

Needing nothing to fill his needs as a young adult, Richard Henry Lee absorbed a library of learning before entering public service—an avocation that became a lifelong commitment and turned him against his own class as he encountered government corruption and widespread deprivation of individual rights. His conflicts with corrupt officials and petty tyrants metamorphosed into demands for individual liberties, human rights, and, eventually, American independence from Britain. As a fledgling member of Virginia’s legislature, he shocked the South by declaring blacks “entitled to liberty and freedom by the great law of nature” and planting the first seeds of emancipation in Virginia.

Twelve years before Britain’s colonies declared independence, Lee was the first to threaten King George III with rebellion if he did not annul a new stamp tax. Later Lee worked with Boston’s firebrand activist Samuel Adams to organize committees of correspondence in each colony, uniting the independence movement and bringing colony leaders to Philadelphia for North America’s First Continental Congress.

In 1775 Richard Henry Lee stood with Patrick Henry demanding war with Britain, if necessary, to obtain redress of American grievances against Parliament’s governing ministry. A year later he invited his own execution on the gallows with a treasonous resolve before Congress “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.”

Three weeks later, on July 2, Congress approved Lee’s resolution declaring independence from Britain. Newspapers sent the news streaming across the nation and the world, with banner headlines proclaiming America and her people free of British rule and hailing Richard Henry Lee as Father of American Independence.

A year later, when British troops seized the capital at Philadelphia, Lee rallied a band of twenty congressmen, led them westward to Lancaster, then York, Pennsylvania, and while Washington held the remnants of his army together at Valley Forge, Lee kept the remnants of Congress together and reestablished the fledgling American government. Assuming leadership as de facto chief executive, Richard Henry Lee ensured the new government’s survival, supervising military affairs, foreign affairs, and financial affairs and ensuring the needs of Washington’s army. John Adams called Lee the Cicero of the Revolution, in contrast to George Washington, the unquestioned Cincinnatus.

Three of Lee’s brothers, bound by mutual love of country—and of their older brother—reinforced Richard Henry’s every effort. Francis Lightfoot Lee stood by Richard Henry as a firm ally in Congress, while Arthur Lee and William Lee served as surrogates in Europe, to provide intelligence, find financial aid, and work out secret deals to smuggle French arms, ammunition, and materiel to Washington’s army. The surreptitious shipments would supply Washington with 80 percent of his army’s needs for more than a year until French king Louis XVI recognized American independence and sent his army and navy to America to seal American victory and independence from Britain.

John Adams hailed the Lees as a “band of brothers, intrepid and unchangeable, who, like the Greeks at Thermopylae, stood in the gap, in the defense of their country, from the first glimmering of the Revolution in the horizon, through all its rising light, to its perfect day.”1

In 1779 Richard Henry Lee—forty-seven years old, with four fingers blown away by a flintlock explosion—displayed his heroism in battle, leading his home-county militia in a charge against British troops landing along the Potomac River near Lee’s home.

After the Revolution Lee joined Patrick Henry in opposing ratification of the Constitution, fearing that, without a bill of rights, it would concentrate the nation’s power and wealth in the hands of oligarchs. Although they lost their struggle, Lee continued the fight, winning election to the US Senate in the First Congress, where he led efforts to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution.

But after two years in the Senate, including service as president pro tempore, the struggle wore him down. Spent and ailing, he retired to his Virginia home and died two years later, surrounded by his wife and nine children. The words on his gravestone expressed their loss and that of the nation: “We cannot do without you.”


Evolution of a Dynasty

FOR ALMOST ALL OF HIS LIFE THOMAS LEE HAD BELIEVED—AND perpetuated—the family myth that the Lees had landed among the Norman knights at Hastings in 1066. Although his boys were fourth-generation Virginians, the Lee family’s evident importance in English history made it imperative that he send them “home” to England for a proper education—much as his own father had sent him there, and as his father’s father had sent his sons to English schools.

“Not one of the pupils has died here,” headmaster Joseph Randall assured Thomas Lee at England’s Wakefield School in 1744, when Lee was touring England in search of appropriate boarding schools for his younger sons. “This village,” Randall added, “is happily retired from those Temptations which Youth are exposed to in Towns… out of the reach… of vice… and corruptions of the age.”1

As important as the safety of its boys, Randall pointed out, the curriculum at Wakefield was identical to but less costly than its exalted competitor, Eton College, which Thomas Lee himself had attended as a boy. Although Henry VI had founded Eton in 1440 to educate poor boys without charge, it expected wealthy eighteenth-century parents to pay enormous sums—indeed, exorbitant sums—to educate, house, and feed its students.

That was to be expected for English noblemen grooming their oldest sons to rule the British Empire, but it seemed inappropriate for their younger boys, bound for only the military or the church—with little or no inheritance to take with them. Like members of England’s ruling class, Virginia’s Thomas Lee had routinely enrolled his oldest son and primary heir, Philip Ludwell Lee, in Eton several years earlier, but his next in line, Richard Henry Lee and his younger brother Thomas, would have to make do with a somewhat less costly education.

Under the universal rule of primo geniture, Thomas Lee would bequeath the vast Lee empire in America to his oldest son, leaving only scattered tracts in the wilderness to Richard Henry Lee and his four other younger sons. With the primary estate that Philip Ludwell Lee would inherit came a seat on Virginia’s ruling council of state, with powers second only to the royal governor. Richard Henry Lee and the younger boys would not share such powers and would need no academic or social credentials from Eton College to work their small plantations in the Virginia wilderness.

But the Lees, in fact, owned no armor and, although Thomas Lee would never admit it even to himself, neither he nor his forebears were high born. Their family name had metamorphosed over generations from de Lega—old French for “of the law” (perhaps a sheriff or notary by trade)—then de Le’, Leigh, and finally Lee. Subsequent generations were largely tradesmen: some peddled clothes, but one was a wine merchant who accumulated small royal land grants in America—all but worthless at the time—as token payments by the crown for his grapes.

Those grants, however, thrust the Lees into the landed gentry, and when Virginia settlers learned to grow tobacco and feed the sudden British craze for the weed, the value of Lee holdings soared—warranting a coat of arms. Described in heraldic terms as “fesse chequy and ten billets,”* it carried the title “Gentleman”—a rank above “Goodman,” or landowner who obtained his holdings from a king’s vassal rather than the king himself.

1. The Lee family coat of arms shows a “fesse chequy,” or wide checkered bar across the center of the shield, with ten “billets,” or vertical rectangles, above and below the central bar.

In 1640 Richard Henry Lee’s great-grandfather Richard took advantage of his rank by sailing across what Britons called “The Virginia Sea”* to claim his land grants and become the first Richard Lee in the New World.

2. The first Richard Lee in America sailed from Britain in 1640 with “headrights” to 1,000 acres in Virginia—a property he expanded to more than 15,000 acres before he died.

Before sailing, he bought enough slaves and indentured servants to acquire “headrights” to a thousand acres in York County, Virginia. Conceived earlier in the seventeenth century to ease labor shortages on Virginia’s tobacco fields, a landowner could obtain rights to an additional fifty acres from the Virginia Company of London for each person—each “head”—he brought to America to work the land. British taste for tobacco seemed limitless at the time, and headrights let Virginia plantation owners expand their properties and tobacco production by buying slaves or paying the passage of indentured white workers to come to America in exchange for a fixed number of years (usually five) of involuntary servitude on the buyer’s plantation. The impending outbreak of an English civil war made it a good time to leave.

With Virginia’s population barely 10,000 in the mid-seventeenth century, the 1,000 acres owned by Richard Henry Lee’s great-grandfather thrust him among Virginia’s largest property owners—and onto the governor’s Council of State, an oligarchy of property owners who ruled the colony. By 1653 Richard Lee had acquired enough headrights to claim 15,000 acres of tobacco land along the Virginia coast—including the site of present-day Mount Vernon.

Far from the Garden of Eden they had envisioned when they left England, the first Richard Lee and his family in America lived in an ugly collection of primitive log cabins north of the York River. Poisonous serpents outnumbered apple trees, and swarms of mosquitoes and other injurious insects harassed settlers day and night. Although the Lees lived within riding distance of the colonial capital at Jamestown, Powhatan Indians called the land theirs and burned Lee’s settlement to the ground three times in the years after his arrival, slaughtering dozens of slaves and servants. Lee himself survived each assault and kept rebuilding and expanding his empire.

3. Jamestown’s population in 1640 had spilled beyond its original triangle of protective walls, but Indian raids remained common.

Before the first Richard Lee died in 1664 (of natural causes), he sired ten children, including a second Richard Lee, who sailed to England to attend Eton as his father had done, then returned to America to rule over and expand the Lee family holdings. By then they included about seven dozen slaves, herds of cattle and sheep, parts of two shipping companies, and an interest in a tobacco trading company in London. In modern terms the Lee plantation was an “integrated” enterprise that combined growing, harvesting, shipping, and trading tobacco, then the most lucrative crop in the British Empire. Like his father, the second Richard Lee in America assumed political offices, privileges, and powers that came with his lands.

Although the second Richard Lee was born in Virginia, he—like other colonial “aristocrats”—called England “home” and remained English, heart and soul, a bulwark of the royal governor’s ruling oligarchy. When, therefore, a group of shabby, small-property owners from the frontier demanded government protection against Indian raids, the governor—with the support of Lee and other powerful plantation owners—refused. None was willing to disrupt the profitable trade they had established with friendly Indians who gladly exchanged skins and furs for rum.

Led by planter Nathaniel Bacon, the frontiersmen took matters into their own hands and formed a militia that marched to the Roanoke River and slaughtered Susquehannock Indians, whom they deemed responsible for the attacks. Declared a traitor by Governor Sir William Berkeley, Bacon responded by leading his men into Jamestown, setting the town ablaze, burning the governor’s home to the ground, and taking Richard Lee prisoner.

4. The ruins of Jamestown after planter Nathaniel Bacon retaliated against the royal governor for failing to protect nearby plantations against Indian raids. Bacon died shortly thereafter, and the governor hanged twenty-three of his followers.

Bacon died a month later, but Berkeley ordered men from a British naval squadron to crush the rebellion, freeing Richard Lee, hanging twenty-three insurgents, and seizing their properties. After British king Charles II learned of the rebellion, he recalled Berkeley to England, allegedly saying, “As I live, the old fool has put to death more people in that naked country than I did here for the murder of my father.”2 With that, the king calmed Virginia tempers with tax reductions and stepped up defenses against Indian incursions.

When the second Richard Lee died, his oldest son—the third Richard Lee—was still living in England, with no inclination to leave for the Virginia wilds. He never got the chance, dying a year later at thirty-nine without male heirs and leaving the Lee empire in America to his brother Thomas Lee, Richard Henry Lee’s father.

5. Thomas Lee negotiated the first peace treaty with hostile Indian nations at the historic Lancaster Conference, earning a royal land grant of 500,000 acres in the Ohio Territory.

Thomas married the wealthy American heiress Hannah Ludwell, whose dowry helped expand Lee-family holdings in Virginia to more than 50,000 acres. On January 29, 1729, however, raiders broke into their home as the Lees slept, stole their silver and other valuables, then set fire to the house, barns, and outbuildings. One servant died in the blaze, but Thomas and Hannah swept up their young son, Philip Ludwell, and daughter, Hannah, and leaped out a second-floor window to the ground. Pregnant with her third child, Hannah survived the fall but miscarried. The raiders escaped and were never found or identified.

The Lees moved north to higher ground on Virginia’s Northern Neck Peninsula and built a fortress-like home on the cliffs overlooking the Potomac River. Named Stratford Hall—the name of the first Richard Lee’s home in Britain—the new Lee manor and its austere exterior housed a palatial interior, where Hannah gave birth to six more Lees: Thomas, Richard Henry, Francis Lightfoot, Alice, William, and Arthur.

All but adjacent to Stratford Hall, Thomas Lee built a separate two-story brick schoolhouse—in effect, a small boarding school—and hired a well-educated Scottish clergymen to teach his boys reading, writing, literature, science, Latin, proper behavior, morality, religion, Bible, and catechism. Like other plantation owners, Thomas Lee had little time for “fathering” his boys. Supervision of his agricultural enterprise kept him busy most of the year, and obligations in the colonial legislature—the House of Burgesses—and the executive Council of State in Williamsburg occupied the rest of his time.

Unlike New England, where most villages boasted a church with a minister who taught local children on weekdays, almost nothing but plantations blanketed the South; the road out of one plantation led only to the road into the next. Slaves usually raised the master’s boys until they were five, when a tutor took charge of their upbringing and education until they were twelve and old enough to sail to England and attend boarding schools such as Eton or Wakefield.*

6. Stratford Hall, the magnificent home that Thomas Lee built on Virginia’s Northern Neck, housed a luxurious interior behind an austere, fortress-like exterior aimed at discouraging attacks by thieves and Indian raiders.

Richard Henry Lee and his brothers slept in a dormitory on the second floor of the Stratford Hall schoolhouse, adjacent to the tutor’s private quarters. More than just an instructor, their tutor served as a surrogate parent, ministering to the boys on Sundays, escorting them to social and sporting events, and teaching them a variety of social and recreational skills ranging from dancing to horsemanship. The tutor roused the boys at seven each morning for an hour of lessons before breakfast and morning chores. Lessons resumed at nine and, except for an hour for dinner, continued until five. In the hour of free play that followed, Richard Henry Lee—far more than his older brother Philip—embraced a leadership role that earned him the lifelong devotion of three of his younger brothers, Francis Lightfoot, William, and Arthur.

After the personal and financial disaster Thomas Lee had suffered with the loss of his first home, he decided to strengthen Virginia against Indian raids. All but seizing command of Virginia’s government from a timid royal governor, Lee organized a peace conference with leaders of the Six Nation (Indian) Confederacy in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in early summer 1744. Plying them with wampum, whiskey, rum, and rhetoric, Lee convinced Indian leaders to cede much of western Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the lands east of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the British. Language differences, however, left Thomas Lee convinced he had restored British control over territory Britain had claimed in 1609 that “extended to the South Sea” (Pacific Ocean)—or so he wrote to the king.

The king expressed his gratitude by granting Thomas Lee 500,000 acres in the Ohio Valley, with which Lee and a group of friends, including George Washington and his brothers, formed the Ohio Land Company, with plans to sell land to would-be settlers in the ensuing decades.

By then Thomas Lee had expanded his property adjacent to Stratford Hall from its original 1,500 acres to about 4,000 acres, with vineyards, orchards, tobacco fields, and fields of grain stretching to the horizon. And at its core stood the magnificent manor, Stratford Hall, atop a bluff overlooking the Potomac River, on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the northernmost of three giant peninsulas that reached eastward into Chesapeake Bay (see map, here). Below, on river’s edge beneath Stratford Hall, stood a mill, a warehouse, a landing for ocean-going transports, a ship’s store, and a fully equipped shipyard to build, repair, and service ships. Scattered about the property was housing for as many as one hundred slaves, servants, and workers, including weavers, carpenters, coopers, blacksmiths, shipwrights, millers, herdsmen, weavers, tailors, shoemakers, and other craftsmen. In effect, Thomas Lee—Richard Henry Lee’s father—had transformed a corner of Virginia into a thriving, self-sufficient, English waterfront community, which he intended bequeathing to his oldest son, Philip Ludwell Lee. With Philip already studying law in London, Thomas Lee went to England to see about educating his other sons and sought to enroll Richard Henry Lee in Wakefield School.

“A young nobleman or gentleman may have a room to himself and eat at a private table with the [Randall] family,” Wakefield headmaster Randall assured Thomas Lee. An additional £35 a year (just under $5,000 in current dollars) would assure him “the best masters” to teach him the basic curriculum, along with “natural philosophy [physics], fortification and gunnery, logic, dancing, fencing, music, and drawing.

“It must be observed,” Randall added, “that washing is not included in the board. The usual price is fourteen shillings (about $135 today) a year… for which they have three shirts a week. Each pupil finds his own sheets alternately with his bedfellow.”3

Randall’s presentation evidently convinced Thomas Lee, who enrolled thirteen-year-old Richard Henry. The boy was still there four years later in 1750 when both his parents died—his mother, Hannah, in January, his father, Thomas, in November. As expected, Thomas Lee left the bulk of his wealth to his oldest son, Philip Ludwell Lee, twenty-three by then and still at the Inner Temple in London studying law. As primary heir and executor of his father’s estate, he immediately returned to Virginia.

Richard Henry Lee was approaching nineteen and in his last year at Wakefield. With no responsibilities in the settlement of his father’s estate and far too late to attend the burial, he chose to finish his studies at Wakefield, then set off to see the Western world. He left for the continent after graduating and spent the next several years touring Europe—including France and especially Paris, which had evolved into a center of arts and letters. “Noblemen, judges, and men of finance perfected the art of conversation with philosophers, artists, and men of letters” in the many salons. The rarity of a visit by so polished and cultured an American as Richard Henry Lee made him a popular figure and left him with little inclination to return to the isolated Virginia hilltop of his childhood.4

Besides the family fortune, however, his older brother Philip Ludwell Lee had inherited the task of caring for his six minor siblings and managing their inheritances until they each reached the age of majority. Richard Henry had no choice but return to claim his share of the family wealth.

Thomas Lee had left his minor children with handsome, if not extravagant, assets in either land or money. He bequeathed his sons Thomas, Richard Henry, and Francis Lightfoot several hundred acres each—in Stafford County, Prince William County, and Loudon County, respectively. Each property came with thirty to fifty slaves along with more than adequate sums of money to build substantial homes. He left his two youngest boys, William, eleven, and Arthur, ten, £1,300 pounds ($175,000) each—enough to live on and even build modest homes when they reached their majority. In the meantime their oldest brother, Philip, was to raise the two “religiously and virtuously and, if necessary, bind them to any profession or trade, so that they may earn their living honestly.”5

As sole executor of the estate, Philip Ludwell Lee controlled the bequests of the four minor boys along with bequests of £1,000 each ($136,500 in current dollars) that Thomas left his two daughters as dowries to ensure marriages to husbands of standing. The older daughter, Hannah Lee, was already twenty-one when her father died and married a prosperous planter. His other daughter, Alice, fourteen, would later marry Philadelphia’s renowned physician Dr. William Shippen, the future surgeon general of George Washington’s Continental Army.

Twenty-year-old Richard Henry Lee sailed home to Virginia in 1752. More interested in scholarship than commercial trade or agriculture, he returned to his boyhood home at Stratford Hall, where his brother Philip—still unmarried—welcomed his brother’s companionship, giving him his own apartment along with access to the more than 300 books in the Stratford Hall library. While Philip focused on running the family enterprise, Richard Henry immersed himself in history, political philosophy, political science, and law, absorbing the works of John Locke, Sir William Blackstone, and the Baron de Montesquieu.


  • "In public awareness, Richard Henry Lee (1732-1794) has slipped into the cracks of historical anonymity; this book pulls him back into the light...A generous, well-documented account of the life of Lee, focusing on his varied roles in the birth of the United States...A sturdy, instructive biography of the 'first of the Founding Fathers to call for independence, first to call for union, and first to call for a bill of rights.'"—Kirkus Reviews
  • "[A] giant of the literature of American history...Harlow Giles Unger has crafted a portrait of Richard Henry Lee that not only allows the reader to get to know the man, but also offers a detailed look at society in 18th-century Virginia...Expertly crafted...Entertaining."—Roanoke Times
  • "While [Richard Henry] Lee's name may wander around somewhere in the back of our minds, this book, First Founding Father, will elevate him to the top of the list along with Washington, Franklin, [and] Jefferson...Unger paints a clear and detailed picture of Richard Henry Lee and his many contributions to the founding of the United States of America. For anyone who enjoys reading about American history, this book is most enjoyable, informative, and belongs on the library shelf."—New York Journal of Books
  • "One should always be skeptical when someone claims anyone was "first" at anything. However, Harlow Giles Unger makes a good argument that Richard Henry Lee came early to the ideas that triggered the American Revolution."—Milwaukee Shepherd Express
  • "Researched and indexed with scholarly accuracy, yet accessible to readers of all background, First Founding Father is highly recommended."—Midwest Book Review
  • "This wonderful man is brought to life in Unger's pages, which shine with appreciation and respect for a man who justly deserves them and deserves to be remembered as first among America's Founding greats."—San Francisco Book Review
  • "Richard Henry Lee was the first to call for independence and held the Continental Congress together during the conflict. This biography highlights his achievements."—Military Heritage
  • "Unger writes passionately and clearly describing the life of Lee and why he should not be forgotten as one our country's founding fathers."—Collected Miscellany
  • "Richard Henry Lee has not lacked for biographies, but none is as well executed as this one...[It] will inform both general readers and historians."—Choice Magazine

On Sale
Nov 7, 2017
Page Count
320 pages
Da Capo Press

Harlow Giles Unger

About the Author

Acclaimed historian Harlow Giles Unger is a former Distinguished Visiting Fellow at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. He is the author of twenty-six previous books, including twelve biographies of America’s Founding Fathers and three histories of the early Republic. He lives in New York City.

Learn more about this author