Yep, life is unfair. Doors open advancing careers, but sometimes doors slam in the face of others climbing the ladder to success. Political service is public service, and those who enter that field are expected to be committed to the greater good and not toward personal advancement. Sure, but honors and rewards can always been seen on the horizon of those who lead.
Our Founding Fathers, dedicated to principles of liberty, included those who succeeded and those who fell to the wayside. The first five Presidents succeeded because they were leaders in the creation of the new nation and Constitution. Others, such as Alexander Hamilton, were rewarded with honors due to political or military service. But some, equally as devoted to the cause of the new nation, felt the doors slamming in their faces. Politics is a two-edged sword, to use a different metaphor. Not every wound is received on the battlefield.
One Founding Father who experienced the injustice of political scheming and who knew that he would be slighted by history was Richard Henry Lee. That last name—Lee—and the family’s honor became famous enough. But it would be a shadow honor for Richard Henry Lee.
During the War for Independence itself, the Lee name would be most noticed because of a cousin, named Henry Lee, but better known as “Light Horse Harry” Lee. He would earn his fame on the battlefield and it would be his words, not cousin Richard Henry’s, that would be remembered. “Light Horse Harry” made the statement when George Washington died that he was “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Even Light Horse Harry’s fame would be eclipsed. First it was his own failings. Although successful on the battlefield, Harry’s blunders in handling money and hitting the bottle too much ruined his post-war career. Both Lees would have been largely forgotten but for a conflict that centered for four years on the actions of Harry’s son Robert Edward Lee. That Lee-scion was, of course, the beloved General Lee of the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War.
What turn of fate or fortune cut Richard Henry Lee from greater fame? It was a battle of the Virginians. Both combatants were tall (over six feet tall) red-haired politicians supporting the cause of American independence. Both were backed by Virginia which had already put forth resolves calling for a break with, rather than reconciliation with, the English Crown. But even men united on one point are often at odds on other points, often on matters more personal. Richard Henry Lee’s nemesis was Thomas Jefferson, who himself was more a pawn of Lee’s political adversaries.
War had begun in the colonies in April of 1775 at Lexington and Concord. For a time, it was viewed as a family affair that could be resolved with a bit of ball and powder to be followed by serious talk between representatives of King George III and the representatives from the colonies. By the next year, the goals had changed. There would be no reconciliation and the only clear course, for an increasing number of leaders, was independence.
On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee stood up on the floor of the Continental Congress and proposed a motion. He said,
Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
The Congress decided that rather than immediately approving Lee’s resolution, it should draft a declaration of independence. So a committee was then appointed for this task. Certainly, Richard Henry Lee was in position to be the first appointee. But in the internal hubbub of politics and the tendencies of committees appointing committees to be muddled and misguided, Lee was pushed aside.
At this point in the process, the Virginian put forward for being on the committee was Benjamin Harrison, a forgotten man whose descendants included two U. S. Presidents. Harrison and his ally, Carter Braxton, had a long standing political grudge against Lee and his family. Politics being what it is, Harrison was not a popular choice for the New Englanders. He was, according to Paul Nagel in his book The Lees of Virginia, “ponderous and arch-conservative.”
That led to an agreement to pick another Virginian, with Lee still being excluded from consideration. A third Virginian was then put forward and accepted. He was Thomas Jefferson, one of the quieter members of the Congress and one of the younger Virginians at the conference.
Jefferson then joined John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and John Livingston to make up the committee assigned to writing the declaration. Being that a camel has been defined as a horse designed by a committee, it is well that John Adams issued a decree. Jefferson, Adams said, should write the basic paper. The committee would then critique it. John Adams had, somewhat knowingly, cast Jefferson in one of the greatest roles in American history.
What of Richard Henry Lee then? He had worked hard for independence only to be humiliated. His brother Thomas beckoned him to return to Virginia to work on the state’s new constitution. Thomas said, “Let us have the satisfaction to see you here assisting in the great work of this convention.” Lee consented and returned home to work at the state level and to attend to his ailing wife. His national career had peaked, as had his optimism. His tendency for the rest of his life was to view the political state of the nation in mostly negative terms.
Lee did sign the Declaration that he was excluded from helping to write. He did serve as one of the Presidents of Congress under the Articles of Confederation. He also served as a U. S. Senator from Virginia during the years 1789-1792.
History is constructed on facts, but is fueled by endless speculation. What if Richard Henry Lee, rather than Jefferson, had written the Declaration of Independence? What words could he have come up with to equal Jefferson’s cribbed Lockean concepts? Would Lee have possibly been Washington’s Secretary of State, Adams’ Vice President, and the United States’ third President?
How Richard Henry Lee would have confronted problems with British impressment, the ideology of the French Revolution, and the chance to buy the Louisiana Territory is unknown. Even more unknown is what would have become of the career of that later Lee family member who had to decide whose army he would command in 1861.
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