Golden Nuggets from U. S. History

The Blue Quill Series
Concord Learning Systems


Declaration of Independence: Whose idea was it?

Thomas Jefferson wrote the draft for the Declaration of Independence and Benjamin Franklin urged its adoption. Whose idea was it?

On June 7, 1776, Richard proposed that independence from Britain must be declared. He was an honorable man held in the highest esteem by Washington, Franklin, Madison, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and many others. Richard's family included important people: his father; Thomas -- brothers; Francis, William, and Arthur -- cousin; Harry -- and nephew; Robert.

Thomas had built Stratford Plantation, a massive homestead in Virginia, and the family was all American. But William and younger brother Arthur lived in England tending the European operation of the family export business of tobacco and other crops. The entire family was highly regarded, both in Virginia and in England... In fact, in July 1773 William was elected Sheriff of London, only the second American ever elected to such a prestigious position. He later became a London City Alderman, was eyeing a seat in Parliament, and looked forward to a promising political career. However, his situation changed as the British-American relationship deteriorated. Over the next few years William became increasingly vocal in his support for the rights of American colonists.

William's contributions to the American cause are often overlooked. At the risk of losing his life and fortune and with the possibility of being charged with treason, he passed along invaluable political information to his brothers in America. In September, 1775, five months after the battles of Concord and Lexington, Richard received a letter from William which included the passage,

"...it appears to me very certain that all American Commerce will be stopped for some years & God only knows when, or in what shape it will be revived... The parliament is to meet the 26th of next month when in my opinion the fate of this Country & America will be decided."

The American colonies declared themselves independent in 1776 and William abandoned his career as an Englishman to become a commercial agent for Congress in French ports. In the courts of Spain, France and Germany, William and his brother Arthur attempted to establish European support for the American cause and laid considerable groundwork for Benjamin Franklin's arrival in 1776 to conclude negotiations with France for the Treaty of Alliance. The treaty resulted in an immediate war between France and England and France's subsequent support to America provided supplies and troops for an American victory in the Revolutionary War.

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Tall, thin and aristocratic, Richard was a born orator. He used his hand, always wrapped in black silk due to a hunting accident, to emphasize the cadences in his remarkably musical voice. His oratory was legendary.

Elected to Virginia's House of Burgesses, Richard's first bill boldly proposed "to lay so heavy a duty on the importation of slaves as to put an end to that iniquitous and disgraceful traffic within the colony of Virginia." Africans, he wrote, were "equally entitled to liberty and freedom by the great law of nature." No one in Richard's family ever disagreed with these sentiments. Such words, coming as they did in 1759, have been called "the most extreme anti-slavery statements made before the nineteenth century."

Enforcement of the Stamp Act began in 1765. In response, Richard had led his brothers in rallying 115 men of Westmoreland County at Leedstown on the Rappahannock River, a few miles south of Stratford. All signed the Westmoreland Resolves, co-authored by Richard. The document threatened "danger and disgrace" to anyone who paid the stamp tax. Among the signers were Richard, Francis, William and the four brothers of George Washington. Signing the Westmoreland Resolves was one of the first deliberate acts of sedition against the British Crown and one that placed Richard, his family, and the state of Virginia at the vanguard of the coming revolution.

In 1768, Richard proposed the systematic interchange of information between the colonies. As a result, the Committees of Correspondence were formed and became a major force uniting the colonies in their desire for independence. Receiving first-hand information on the decisions of the King and Parliament from his brothers William and Arthur in London, Richard served as communications commander for the colonies.

By 1774, flames of the Revolution, so faithfully fanned by Richard's family, ignited the reluctant southern colonies. The call for an inter-colonial congress was made, and Richard was chosen as one of seven Virginia delegates to the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia. There, he was able to bridge the gap between the vastly different worlds of New England and the South. At the house of his sister, Alice Shippen, he established a bond with John and Samuel Adams and created a long-lasting friendship that transcended divisive regionalism and helped to unite the colonies as one nation. The trust and relationship thus established between Richard's family and the Adams of Massachusetts resulted in John and Samuel Adams' leadership in convincing the northern colonies to support Virginian George Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Washington was summoned to Philadelphia to receive the appointment and it was Richard who bestowed his commission and instructions.

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Cousin Harry was blonde, blue-eyed, and full of spirit. He graduated from Princeton in 1773 and returned home to prepare for war. His skill as a horseman, as well as his temperament, made him a natural cavalryman. He soon was commissioned as captain in the fifth group of Virginia Light Dragoons and was sent north to join the Continental Army. Leading his men in lightning raids against enemy supply trains, Harry attracted the attention and admiration of General Washington and was rapidly promoted. In a surprise attack at Paulus Hook, New Jersey, he captured 400 British soldiers with the loss of only one man. His adroit horsemanship had earned him the nickname "Light Horse" Harry. The surprise raid was successful due to Harry's admonition to his troops for absolute silence. Harry led an approach to enemy positions, surprised them with a sudden attack, and made an immediate withdrawal. Fellow officers quickly called for a court-martial for his failure to follow through and capture the area, but Washington explained in writing that "Light Horse" had followed explicit orders -- so, instead of a court-martial, congress awarded Harry a medal.

Later, Light Horse Harry served heroically under General Nathanael Greene, commander-in-chief of the Southern army, and the two men became close friends. Harry's tactics -- surprise, hit, run, and attack again -- were an important and valuable complement to Greene's strategy of harassment to wear down Cornwallis' forces in the South. Resigning his commission after the British surrender at Yorktown, Harry returned to Virginia to marry his cousin, the "divine Matilda" sister of Richard, Francis, William and Arthur. The wedding took place at Stratford, and it is said that General Washington contributed several pipes of his best Madeira to the festive occasion. Matilda had inherited Stratford (mansion and some land) in the division of her father's estate (the brothers received land) and lived there with her new husband. The dashing young cavalryman, however, was no farmer. His interests in the livelier arena of politics led to his election to the new Virginia House of Delegates. But sadly, after only eight years of marriage, Matilda died in 1790, leaving three young children and a husband desperate with grief.

Two years later, Light Horse Harry was elected Governor of Virginia, serving three one-year terms. While living in Richmond, he fell in love with Ann Hill Carter of nearby Shirley Plantation. In 1793 they were married and with his governorship behind him, he took his bride to Stratford. But family life was soon interrupted by his appointment to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Upon the death of President George Washington in 1799, Harry was asked by Congress to deliver a tribute to his beloved general, describing him for posterity:

"First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen... second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life."

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In the spring of 1776, Richard, now joined by his brother Francis, took his seat in the Second Continental Congress. Sensing what lay ahead, he wrote confidently to his brother William, "There never appeared more perfect unanimity among any set of men, than among the delegates."

During the next three months, delegate Richard served on 18 different committees. On June 7, 1776, he introduced a bill before Congress which contained the following:

"...That these united Colonies are, and ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance from the British crown, and that all political connection between America and State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved..."

He introduced the bill with a brilliant speech, saying in part:

"...why do we longer delay? Why still deliberate? Let this happy day give birth to an American republic."

However, Congress did not adopt the bill that day. Instead it appointed a committee to prepare a declaration. Because it was his bill, and according to congressional custom, Richard Henry Lee was to be chairman of the committee but he was summoned home due to serious family illness and Thomas Jefferson was appointed to take his place. The bill was adopted on July 2 -- the formal act that dissolved the ties with England. Two days later, on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was ratified -- the American Revolution became a reality.

Most members of the Continental Congress had pledged to sign the Declaration of Independence, including the two brothers from Virginia. When the final document was ready for signature, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, joined 54 other delegates to lay down their lives for freedom. The signatures of Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee was, in fact, a commitment of the lives and fortunes of the entire Lee family, including William Lee, Arthur Lee, and cousin Henry "Light Horse" Harry Lee, III. It is certain that if any of them had been captured by the British they would have been charged with treason.

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From 1778 through 1786 Richard Henry Lee's health deteriorated and he reluctantly declined national office but he participated, on and off, as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Nevertheless, from 1778 till the end of the war, he proudly monitored the exploits of his cousin, Henry "Light Horse" Harry Lee, III, including Harry's service under General Greene in the Carolinas. In September 1787, the proposed new Constitution was submitted to Congress and its lack of specificity to exclude from federal control all matters not spelled out in the Constitution provoked him to vigorously oppose its adoption without clarifying amendments. The tendency of the proposed Constitution, he feared, was toward consolidation. His opposition was not successful but under the new Constitution he was appointed as Virginia's first U.S. Senator and in this capacity he immediately offered several amendments which he hoped would lessen the dangers to the states from the central government. But, lacking the vigor of good health, he was unable to gain approvals.

Richard Henry Lee and his family's efforts were unsuccessful in adding states rights amendments for several reasons. Congress believed that amendments for individual rights (the Bill of Rights) were a higher priority. Congress believed that the federal government could never usurp states rights because U.S. Senators were appointed by state legislators and, therefore, their first allegiance was to those legislatures. The Constitution contained no provision for federal encroachment into unspecified state matters. The Constitution made no provisions for federal encroachment into the lives of citizens -- until the income tax Amendment of 1913.

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On January 19, 1807, in the large upstairs room at Stratford where so many Lees had come into the world, Ann Hill Carter Lee gave birth to Robert Edward Lee, the fifth son of Henry "Light Horse" Harry Lee, III.

Robert E. Lee was named after two of his mother's favorite brothers.

Philosophos Historia


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