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Page 3

Richard Henry Lee

1732-1794


   The motion, thus introduced by Mr. Lee, he followed by one of the most luminous and eloquent speeches ever delivered, either by himself or any other gentleman, on the floor of congress. "Why then, sir," (said he, in conclusion,) "why do we longer delay? Why still delibeate? Let this happy day give birth to an American republic. Let her arise, not to devastate and to conquer, but to reestablish the reign of peace and of law. The eyes of Europe are fixed upon us: she demands of us a living example of freedom, that may exhibit a contrast in the felicity of the citizen to the ever increasing tyranny which desolates her polluted shores. She invites us to prepare an asylum, where the unhappy may find solace, and the persecuted repose. She entreats us to cultivate a propitious soil, where the generous plant which first sprung and grew in England, but is now withered by the poisonous blasts of Scottish tyranny, may revive and flourish, sheltering under its salubrious and interminable shade, all the unfortunate of the human race. If we are not this day wanting in our duty, the names of the American legislators of 1776 will be placed by posterity at the side of Theseus. Lycurgus, and Romulus, of the three Williams of Nassau, and of all those whose memory has been, and ever will be, dear to virtuous men and good citizens."
   The debate on the above motion of Mr. Lee was protracted until the tenth of June, on which day congress resolved "that the consideration of the resolution respecting independence be postponed till the first Monday in July next; and, in the mean while, that no time be lost, in case the congress agree thereto, that a committee be appointed to prepare a declaration to the effect of the said resolution."
   On the day on which this resolution was taken, Mr. Lee ,was unexpectedly summoned to attend upon his family in Virginia, some of the members of which were at that time dangerously ill. As the mover of the original resolution for independence, it would, according to parliamentary usage, have devolved upon Mr. Lee to have been appointed chairman of the committee selected to prepare a declaration, and as chairman, to have furnished that important document. In the absence of Mr. Lee, however, Mr. Jefferson was elected to that honor, by whom it was drawn up with singular energy of style and argument.
   In the following month, Mr. Lee resumed his seat in congress, in which body he continued till June, 1777, during which period he continued the same round of active exertions for the welfare of his country. It was his fortune, however, as well as the fortune of others, to have enemies, who charged him with disaffection to his country, and attachment to Great Britain. The ground upon which this charge was made, was, that contrary to his former practice, previously to the war, he received the rents of his tenants in the produce of their farms, instead of colonial money, which had now become greatly depreciated. This accusation, though altogether unjust, and unwarrantable, at length gained so much credit, that the name of Mr. Lee was omitted by the assembly, in their list of delegates to congress. This gave him an opportunity, and furnished him with a motive, to demand of the assembly an inquiry into the nature of the allegations against him. The inquiry resulted in an entire acquittal, and in an expression of thanks to Mr. Lee, which was conveyed, on the part of the house, by their speaker, Mr. Wythe, in the following language: "It is with peculiar pleasure, sir, that I obey this command of the house, because it gives me an opportunity, while I am performing an act of duty to them, to perform an act of justice to yourself. Serving with you in congress, and attentively observing your conduct there, I thought that you manifested, in the American cause, a zeal truly patriotic; and as far as I could judge, exerted the abilities for which you are confessedly distinguished, to promote the, good and prosperity of your own country in particular, and of the United States in general. That the tribute of praise deserved, may reward those who do well, and encourage others to follow your example, the house have come to this resolution: that the thanks of this house, be given by the speaker to Richard Henry Lee, for the faithful services he has rendered his country, in discharge of his duty, as one of the delegates from this state in general congress."
   At a subsequent period, Mr. Lee was again elected a delegate to congress; but during the session of 1778 and 1779, in consequence of ill health, he was obliged frequently to absent himself from the arduous duties which devolved upon him, and which he could no longer sustain. From this time, until 1784, Mr. Lee declined accepting a seat in congress, from a belief that he might be more useful to his native state, by holding a seat in her assembly. In this latter year, however, the people of Virginia again honored him, by appointing him one of her representatives to congress, of which body he was unanimously elected president. In this exalted station he presided with great ability; and on the expiration of his time of service, he received the thanks of congress for his able and faithful discharge of the duties of president, while acting in that station.
   To the adoption of the federal constitution without amendment, although not a member of the convention which discussed its merits, he was strongly opposed. The tendency of the constitution, he apprehended, was to consolidation. To guard against this, it was his wish that the respective states should impart to the federal head only so much power as, was necessary for mutual safety and happiness. Under the new constitution, Mr. Lee was appointed the first senator from Virginia; in the exercise of which office, be offered several amendments to the constitution, from the adoption of which he hoped to lessen the danger to the country, which he had apprehended.

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Last modified January 2, 2004