His resolution “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States,” approved by the Continental Congress on this day in 1776, was the first official act of the United Colonies that set them irrevocably on the road to independence. It was not surprising that it came from the pen of Richard Henry Lee (1732-1794); as early as 1768 he proposed the idea of committees of correspondence among the colonies, and in 1774 he proposed that the colonies meet in what became the Continental Congress. From the first, his eye was on independence.
A wealthy Virginia planter whose ancestors had been granted extensive lands by King Charles II, Lee disdained the traditional aristocratic role and the aristocratic view. In the House of Burgesses he flatly denounced the practice of slavery. He saw independent America as “an asylum where the unhappy may find solace, and the persecuted repose.”
In 1764, when news of the proposed Stamp Act reached Virginia, Lee was a member of the committee of the House of Burgesses that drew up an address to the King, an official protest against such a tax. After the tax was established, Lee organized the citizens of his county into the Westmoreland Association, a group pledged to buy no British goods until the Stamp Act was repealed. At the First Continental Congress, Lee persuaded representatives from all the colonies to adopt this non-importation idea, leading to the formation of the Continental Association, which was one of the first steps toward union of the colonies. Lee also proposed to the First Continental Congress that a militia be organized and armed, the year before the first shots were fired at Lexington; but this and other proposals of his were considered too radical at the time.
Three days after Lee introduced his resolution, in June of 1776, Congress appointed him to the committee responsible for drafting a declaration of independence. Alas, he was called home when his wife fell ill, and his place was taken by his young protégé, Thomas Jefferson. Thus, Lee missed the chance to draft the document--though his influence greatly shaped it and he was able to return in time to sign it.
He was ultimately elected President, serving from November 30, 1784 to November 22, 1785 when he was succeeded by the second administration of John Hancock. Elected to the Constitutional Convention, Lee refused to attend, but as a member of the Congress of the Confederation, he contributed to another great document, the Northwest Ordinance, which provided for the formation of new states in the Northwest Territory.
When the completed Constitution was sent to the various states for ratification, Lee opposed it as anti-democratic and anti-Christian. However, as one of Virginia’s first Senators, he helped assure passage of the amendments that, he felt, corrected many of the document’s gravest faults: the Bill of Rights. He was the great uncle of Robert E. Lee and the scion of a great family tradition.