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Richard Henry Lee (1732-1794)

45 min

Students will:

  • understand Lee’s views on the slave trade and slavery
  • appreciate Lee’s role as a leader of the American opposition to British tyranny
  • explain the importance of virtue in Lee’s political theory
  • analyze the reasons for Lee’s opposition to the Constitution

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Richard Henry Lee.

    Richard Henry Lee was a Virginia planter and one of the leaders of the opposition to British tyranny during the 1760s and 1770s. He was one of the first Americans to call for independence from Great Britain. As a member of the Second Continental Congress, Lee introduced the resolution that led to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. He was also an outspoken opponent of the Constitution. In his Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican, Lee voiced his concern that the Constitution lacked a bill of rights and gave too much power to the central government. Some of the Federal Farmer essays were published as a pamphlet, and thousands of copies were sold. Lee served as a senator in the first Congress under the new Constitution, where he was a leading supporter of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which were ratified in 1791 and became known as the Bill of Rights.


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 moneygrubbing 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.

Ask the students to imagine that they are in charge of the New York publishing firm that printed some of the Federal Farmer essays as a pamphlet. Tell the students that there is room for only five essays in the pamphlet. Which five of the ten excerpts would work best as topics for these essays?

Ask the students to choose one of the excerpts from the Federal Farmer letters and to compose their own paragraph-long Federal Farmer letter based on the idea expressed by Lee in the excerpt.

Ask the students: How might Richard Henry Lee have reacted to the following developments in American history, had he lived long enough to observe them?

  • The United States Congress’s banning of the importation of slaves (1808)
  • The Civil War between the North and the South (1861–1865)
  • The abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment (1865)

Student Handouts

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