Review: First Founding Father: Richard Henry Lee and the Call for American Independence by Harlow Giles Unger

ERW Book Reviews (1)

A member of one of Virginia’s first families, Richard Henry Lee was a critical voice in America’s struggle against Great Britain. Born at the family home, Stratford Hall, in Westmoreland County, Lee was educated in England. In 1758, he entered Virginia’s House of Burgesses. Seven years later, Lee’s efforts on the road to independence began.

In response to the recent passage of the Stamp Act, Lee co-authored what became known as the Westmoreland Resolves. The document condemned fellow colonists who paid the related tax as well as the British Parliament. As tensions rose with Britain, Lee proposed a means for the individual colonies to communicate with one another. This idea birthed the Committees of Correspondence. In 1774, Lee was elected to the Continental Congress which met in Philadelphia. It was here in the early summer of 1776 that Lee suggested a bill for the colonies to break all allegiance with England and form a United States. The proposal was the basis of the Declaration of Independence.

Lee remained in Congress throughout much of the American Revolution where he was a staunch supporter of fellow Virginian and commander of the Continental Army, George Washington. Coordinating with his brothers Arthur and William overseas, Lee was able to procure badly needed supplies for Washington’s men. The Lee brothers were crucial in diplomatic efforts which eventually led to foreign nations entering the war against England.

Later in life, Lee found himself at odds with his old friend Washington over the ratification of the new Constitution. Along with fellow statesmen George Mason and Patrick Henry, Lee became one of the most outspoken members of the Antifederalist Party in Virginia. Nevertheless, Lee continued his service to the new country as a Senator from 1789 to 1792. He passed away at his home in Westmoreland County in June, 1794.

unger first founding father
First Founding Father: Richard Henry Lee and The Call for American Independence by Harlow Giles Unger

Harlow Giles Unger, an avid chronicler of the Founding Fathers, has brought a relatively forgotten one in Richard Henry Lee back to life in First Founding Father: Richard Henry Lee and the Call for American Independence. It is a thoroughly researched narrative. Relying on a wealth of primary material, Unger weaves together an excellent portrait of both Lee the man and Lee the politician. The narrative is fast paced and highly readable. One could easily complete it in the course of a weekend if not a full week. Unger traces the history of the Lee family, Richard Henry’s early years, his time in the House of Burgesses and as a member of the Continental Congress. He also delves into the background and the formation of Lee’s political views. Unger contends that Lee was the primary author of Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican, which has remained a matter of debate amongst historians and countered the Federalist Papers. Also included in the book are two appendices. The first includes the full text of the Westmoreland Resolves, followed by a list of the signees. It is followed by an examination of John Trumbull’s 1818 painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Unger’s work will appeal to those interested in major figures of the Revolutionary Period along with the Federalist Era. It is highly recommended.

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