Richard Henry Lee - Portrait and Brief Bio

Richard Henry Lee-Portrait and Brief Bio

Richard Henry Lee (1732-1794), from Virginia, was an aristocrat who participated in many key events during the American Revolution. He:

  • Opposed the Stamp Act (in 1765);
  • Was part of the committee appointing George Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army (in 1775); and
  • Introduced the Motion which led to a Declaration of Indepdence from Britain (1776). 

Serving in the Continental Congress (1774-1780, 1784-1787), he tried to stop slaves from being imported into America. 

Although Lee was part of America's new national legislature, he did not trust a strong national government.  He feared that too much centralized power would have a bad impact on the rights and powers of individual states (and on the people who lived in those states). 

When it came time to vote on a national constitution, he opposed its ratification. In Lee's words:

To say that a bad government must be established for fear of anarchy is really saying that we should kill ourselves for fear of dying. (Lee to Edmund Randolph, quoted by Kevin Raeder Gutzman in Virginia's American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776-1840, at page 88.)

Lee did not understand why something as important as a new Constitution, intended as the foundation for a new federal government, was being pushed on the new thirteen states without guarantees of individual and states’ rights.

From a practical standpoint, he thought it illogical to sign a document, as important as the Constitution, before a Bill of Rights was actually part of the Constitution.

What if people agreed to the document, believing those protections for states and individuals would be included as Amendments, but the talked-about Amendments never materialized? What then?

Upset about the situation, Lee wrote to George Mason (another Founding Father who wanted the Constitution to contain explicit rights for individuals and states). Among his observations, about the rush to approve the Constitution without spelled-out protections, Lee said:

It was with us, as with you, this or nothing; & this urged with a most extreme intemperance – The greatness of the powers given & the multitude of Places to be created, produces a coalition of Monarchy men, Military Men, Aristocrats, and Drones whose noise, impudence & zeal exceeds all belief – Whilst the commercial plunder of the South stimulates the rapacious Trader. In this state of things, the Patriot voice is raised in vain for such changes and securities as Reason and Experience prove to be necessary against the encroachments of power upon the indispensable rights of human nature. (Gutzman, at page 88.)

With a slang word still used today, meaning something forced upon us against our will, Lee also observed:

It is certainly the most rash and violent proceeding in the world to cram thus suddenly into Men a business of such infinite Moment to the happiness of Millions. (Gutzman, at page 88.)

While we would choose less flowery words to make Lee’s point, people today still use the slang word “cram”—as in: “Why are you trying to cram this down our throats?!” That is the gist of Lee’s argument here.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5155stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Jul 17, 2018

Media Credits

Portrait (oil on canvas) by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). 

Image, courtesy U.S. National Archives. 

Information, and quote, from the Library of Congress:  Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789.


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"Richard Henry Lee - Portrait and Brief Bio" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Jul 17, 2018.
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