Richard Henry Lee in many ways personified the elite Virginia gentry. A planter and slaveholder, he was tall, handsome, and genteel in his manners. Raised in a conservative environment, Lee was nonetheless radical in his social and political views. As early as the 1750s, he denounced slavery as an evil, and he even favored the vote for women who owned property. Lee was also among the first to advocate separation from Great Britain, introducing the resolution in the Second Continental Congress that led to independence.
Though Lee was a planter, politics was his true calling. He reveled in backroom bargaining and during the imperial crisis he learned how to utilize mob action to resist British tyranny. In denouncing British transgressions, Lee’s oratory was said to rival that of his more renowned fellow Virginian, Patrick Henry. Lee was an ally and friend of Samuel Adams, who shared the Virginian’s aversion to money-grubbing and ostentatious displays of wealth. Like Adams, Lee neglected his financial affairs and often struggled to make ends meet. At one point in his life, he was forced to live on a diet of wild pigeons.
Lee believed that good government required virtue, defined as self-sacrifice for the public good. He rejected the idea held by some Founders that the proper design of governing institutions was all that was needed to protect liberty. Nevertheless, a poorly constructed government could destroy virtue and, as a consequence, liberty. This is why Lee opposed the Constitution of 1787, which in his opinion dangerously concentrated power in the federal government. Lee has sometimes been credited with authorship of the Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican, a series of newspaper essays published anonymously in Virginia in 1787-1788 by an opponent of the Constitution. Though this is still a matter of much debate among historians, the views of the Federal Farmer undoubtedly mirror Lee’s own quite closely.
“I know there are [those] among you who laugh at virtue, and with vain ostentatious display of words will deduce from vice, public good! But such men are much fitter to be Slaves in the corrupt, rotten despotisms of Europe, than to remain citizens of young and rising republics.” – 1779