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Lee, Arthurlocked

(20 December 1740–12 December 1792)
  • Louis W. Potts

Lee, Arthur (20 December 1740–12 December 1792), polemicist and diplomat, was born at “Stratford Hall” in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the son of Thomas Lee and Hannah Harrison Ludwell, leading Virginia planters. Arthur was one of eleven children. His two eldest brothers, Philip Ludwell Lee and Thomas Ludwell Lee inherited the substantial family wealth (30,000 acres) and prestige when both parents died in 1750. The “Stratford Lees” developed a distinctive family perspective on life; this, combined with the ideals instilled in them by their formal education, propelled them to the highest levels of the provincial elite.

Two aspects of Arthur’s childhood marked him for life. In a family noted for its superior training, he became the best schooled. His education included six years (1751–1757) at England’s Eton College; study at the University of Edinburgh (1761–1764), where he received an M.D.; and training at London’s Inns of Court (1770–1774), which garnered him a law degree. As he recited his Greek, fathomed the history of the Roman republic as etched by Sallust, or fashioned strategy for petitions to the king, Lee craved attention, respect, and praise. Lee gleaned many of his values and goals from his formal training in the classics and from the Real Whigs, who profoundly distrusted power and politicians and who, in English oppositional politics between the 1720s and 1740s, were critics of the monarchy and the court party. Such schooling also channeled his energies toward public controversies. In politics Arthur Lee could exhibit his scholarship and gain distinction.

Lee’s perceptions, most prominently his self-image as an ascetic and his profound distrust of others, originated in his youthful experiences. His parents paid little attention to his upbringing. Their deaths further reinforced Arthur’s sense of abandonment. Moreover, when Philip Ludwell Lee took charge of family affairs, bitter intrafamilial strife arose. Arthur, learning that he could not trust a brother, was deeply scarred; he came to believe that the world was filled with avaricious and cunning opponents. Some of Arthur Lee’s contemporaries were impressed by his upright and bold stances; John Adams (1735–1826) spoke of Lee’s “Virtue … Honour and Integrity.” Others, like Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), believed that Lee’s difficult disposition bordered on insanity.

Lee early sensed his bifurcated identity as an Anglo-American. His response was to value autonomy, for himself and fellow Americans, above all else. While at Edinburgh he was a ringleader of a student protest against lax degree standards. When the faculty voted for stricter regulations, Lee gained a measure of self-righteousness and perhaps undue faith in protest movements.

Lee penned the first of his political pamphlets, An Essay in Vindication of the Continental Colonies of America, in 1764. It attacked both slavery and British imperial policy. In 1767 Lee published antislavery essays in both the Virginia Gazette and the Pennsylvania Chronicle. Later in London he communed with Granville Sharpe, Britain’s leading abolitionist. Lee had little sympathy for Africans, but feared that the tobacco trade on which the slave system was based rendered colonials too dependent upon Britain.

From 1764 through 1776 Lee contributed profusely to political journalism on both sides of the Atlantic. From poems to pamphlets, under at least ten identifiable pseudonyms, he lambasted British tax policies and a standing army. His ten American newspaper essays over the signature of “Monitor” were second only to John Dickinson’s (1732–1808) in the 1767–1768 counterattack on the Townshend duties that Parliament assessed on colonial imports of basic goods. Lee and Dickinson reputedly wrote “The Liberty Song” that from 1768 onward rallied American resistance to parliamentary taxation.

When Lee returned to Britain in late 1768 he established himself as “Junius Americanus,” whose vituperative attacks sought to humiliate the friends of the king. Often these barbs were accorded front-page status by the London press. The Massachusetts Assembly in 1770 subsidized publication of two dozen of his screeds in “The Political Detection.” As animosities mounted from 1774 to 1776, Lee produced six more pamphlets. These more mature efforts were less pedantic and more cooly reasoned.

Arthur Lee envisioned himself as the lynchpin between the American resistance movement and the opposition in British politics. In the former sphere he carried on extensive correspondence with the so-called “old Revolutionaries,” such as his brother Richard Henry Lee in Virginia and Samuel Adams, firebrand in Massachusetts. Out of these exchanges came the Committees of Correspondence, formed to unify the spirit of resistance. When the Continental Congress met, the Adams-Lee axis formed the most radical camp.

In the British sphere Arthur Lee established friendships with both the earl of Shelburne, whom Lee unrealistically hoped could seize the first ministry and alter imperial policy, and John Wilkes, the London demagogue around whom oppositional forces rallied from 1768 to 1774. Lee also frequented the coffeehouses with Catherine Macaulay, Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, and other radical thinkers in England. He became secretary in the Bill of Rights Society, the radical support group for Wilkes, but failed to place American demands for autonomy high on Wilkes’s agenda. Such frustrations led Lee by 1775 to look forward to a war for American independence.

Among Lee’s acquaintances in Britain, none was more pivotal than Benjamin Franklin. Both were Fellows of the Royal Society, members of the American Philosophical Society, and noted for their catholic interests. From 1771 to 1774 Lee assisted Franklin in the colonial agency for the Massachusetts House. Lee helped Franklin to obtain the explosive correspondence between Thomas Whately of the British government and colonial representatives of the Crown, which was used to unseat Thomas Hutchinson as governor of Massachusetts. Lee also witnessed Franklin’s humiliation in March 1774 when, following the Boston Tea Party, Franklin was charged before the Privy Council with plotting American independence. Yet personal and political differences fatally split Lee and Franklin. Where Lee was an unbending fanatic, the aged sage was pragmatic and conciliatory. Lee always believed Franklin’s patriotism was superficial.

In early 1777 Franklin, Lee, and Silas Deane of Connecticut formed the diplomatic corps of the fledgling United States. For more than eighteen months previously Lee had acted as an intelligence agent for Congress. Moreover, in clandestine and chaotic negotiations with a French agent, the playwright Caron de Beaumarchais, he had initiated plans to funnel covert aid to the American rebels. In 1777 Beaumarchais found Deane to be more attuned to the profit-making aspects of the scheme. When Lee alerted Congress that the shipments could best be termed gifts, Beaumarchais was enraged. In turn, the French ministry became convinced that Lee was anti-French, if not still partial to the British.

Lee practiced what become known as militia diplomacy. Ever restless, he chafed as French officials put off American pleas for alliances. In the spring of 1777 he ventured over the Pyrenees to Spain, but the Spanish headed him off at Burgos lest he embarrass them by appearing at the Spanish court to demand recognition. Nevertheless, Lee gained Spanish promises to send funds and supplies to the American rebels via Havana. When he returned to Paris his colleagues suggested he venture to the court of Frederick the Great. On this Prussian mission Lee was further embarrassed when agents of the British minister stole his diplomatic papers. Even in February 1778, as the French came forward to negotiate alliances with the Americans, Lee proved vexing to his colleagues. Adamantly he proclaimed he would never sacrifice American independence, whether to the British or the French. Moreover he was certain that Deane and Franklin had condoned the activities of their secretary, Dr. Edward Bancroft, whom Lee knew to be a British spy.

In March 1778 Deane was recalled by Congress and replaced by John Adams. Lee sought to unseat Franklin from his position at the center of the American diplomatic corps. Arthur and his brother William Lee created turmoil throughout Europe by claiming that Franklin was overly tolerant of numerous American agents who profited from public accounts. Congress split when Deane and Conrad Alexandre Gerard, the first French minister, arrived in America in July 1778. Ultimately Franklin gained sole possession of the French post, Adams was dispatched to Holland, and John Jay (1745–1829) was named in Lee’s stead to Spain. Lee felt defamed.

In 1781 Lee was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates and in turn went to Congress from 1782 to 1785. In congressional debates he was a vociferous opponent of nationalists and commercial-minded folk headed by Robert Morris (1735–1806). In the winter of 1784–1785 he was a member of the negotiating team dispatched to Fort Stanwix and Fort McIntosh to negotiate Indian treaties. Ironically, between 1785 and 1789 he served as the administrative successor to Morris on the Board of Treasury, which tried to direct national finances. In that position he recognized the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation. Nevertheless, from 1787 to 1789 he was a mild Antifederalist. Failing to gain an appointment in George Washington’s presidential administration, Arthur Lee returned to his plantation near Urbanna, Virginia. He designated the place “Lansdowne,” in honor of Shelburne. There this energetic and eccentric bachelor died.


The bulk of Lee’s manuscripts may be found at the University of Virginia. Other writings are at Harvard University and the American Philosophical Society. Episodes from his diplomatic career can be traced in Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols., 1882–1889). Alvin R. Riggs, The Nine Lives of Arthur Lee, Virginia Patriot (1976), offers a brief profile. Louis W. Potts, Arthur Lee, a Virtuous Revolutionary (1981), covers the public career fully as well as offering a personality profile. Arthur’s place in the family is depicted in Paul C. Nagel, The Lees of Virginia (1990).