In the musical 1776, Richard Henry Lee is portrayed as an empty-headed, albeit good-natured, Virginia Cavalier. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was actually something of an intellectual, and one of the earliest advocates of independence. Born on January 20, 1732, his father was Thomas Lee who had served as de facto Royal Governor of Virginia before his death in 1750. Educated in England, Richard Henry Lee returned to America in 1752 and began to practice law. At the age of 25, he was appointed justice of the peace for Westmoreland County. Soon being elected to the House of Burgesses, he quickly became friends with fellow member Patrick Henry and shared his passion to resist British encroachments on American liberties. In 1766 he authored the Westmoreland Resolves, one of the earliest protests by the Americans against the policies of George III.
He was a delegate from Virginia at both the First and Second Continental Congresses. He achieved immortality with his resolution in favor of Congress declaring independence from the British Crown:
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.
Throughout the War he served in both Congress and the Virginia House of Burgesses. He was one of the first two Senators from Virginia after the adoption of the Constitution in 1789. He died on June 19, 1794.
I have always though that there is much wisdom contained in this quotation from Richard Henry Lee:
“The first maxim of a man who loves liberty, should be never to grant to rulers an atom of power that is not most clearly and indispensably necessary for the safety and well being of society.”