Tab menu  
Library > Founding FathersRichard Henry Lee
Richard Henry Lee
Section header
Introduced the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress
Quotes on the Second Amendment
Click on image to view a larger version.
Quotes on the Second Amendment:

"To preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of people always possess arms, and be taught alike especially when young, how to use them." (Richard Henry Lee, Walter Bennett, ed., Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican, at 21,22,124 [Univ. of Alabama Press,1975])

"A militia, when properly formed, are in fact the people themselves...and include all men capable of bearing arms." (Richard Henry Lee, Additional Letters from the Federal Farmer [1788] at 169)

"The constitution ought to secure a genuine militia and guard against a select militia. ...All regulations tending to render this general militia useless and defenseless, by establishing select corps of militia, or distinct bodies of military men, not having permanent interests and attachments to the community ought to be avoided."
(Richard Henry Lee need complete cite)

[Back to top]

Tall, thin and aristocratic in appearance, Richard Henry Lee was a born orator. He used his hand, always wrapped in black silk due to a hunting accident, to emphasize the cadences in his remarkably musical voice. His oratory was legend ― "That fine polish of language which that gentleman united with that harmonious voice so as to make me sometimes fancy that I was listening to some being inspired with more than mortal powers of embellishment" was how one observer described him.

Confrontational by nature, Richard Henry possessed a fiery, rebellious spirit. These same qualities brought him fame as a leading patriot of the day and incited the wrath of his enemies. At one point, he was "outlawed" by a proclamation of English Governor Dunmore.

As a member of Virginia's House of Burgesses, Richard Henry's first bill boldly proposed "to lay so heavy a duty on the importation of slaves as to put an end to that iniquitous and disgraceful traffic within the colony of Virginia." Africans, he wrote, were "equally entitled to liberty and freedom by the great law of nature." Such words, coming as they did in 1759, have been called "the most extreme anti-slavery statements made before the nineteenth century."

In 1765, enforcement of the Stamp Act began. In response, the Lee brothers, led by Richard Henry, rallied 115 men of Westmoreland County at Leedstown on the Rappahannock River, a few miles south of Stratford. All signed the Westmoreland Resolves, co-authored by Richard Henry. The document threatened "danger and disgrace" to anyone who paid the tax. Among the signers were Richard Henry, Thomas, Francis Lightfoot, and William Lee and the four brothers of George Washington. The signing of the Westmoreland Resolves was one of the first deliberate acts of sedition against the Crown and one that placed both Richard Henry and the state of Virginia at the vanguard of the coming revolution.

In 1768, Richard Henry proposed the systematic interchange of information between the colonies. As a result, the Committees of Correspondence were formed and became a major force uniting the Americans in their desire for independence. Receiving first-hand information on the decisions of the King and Parliament from his brothers, Arthur and William, now in London, he served as a communications commander for the colonies.

By 1774, the flames of the Revolution, so faithfully fanned by the Lees, ignited the reluctant southern colonies. The call for an inter-colonial congress was made, and Richard Henry was chosen as one of the seven-man Virginia delegation to the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Once there, he was able to bridge the gap between the vastly different worlds of New England and the South. At the house of his sister, Alice Lee Shippen, he strengthened the bond with John and Samuel Adams and created a long-lasting friendship that transcended divisive regionalism and helped to unite the colonies as one nation.

In the spring of 1776, Richard Henry, now joined by his brother Francis Lightfoot, took his seat in the second Continental Congress. Sensing what lay ahead, he wrote confidently to his brother William, "There never appeared more perfect unanimity among any set of men, than among the delegates."

In three months as delegate, Richard Henry served on 18 different committees ― none as important as his appointment to frame the Declaration of Rights of the Colonies, which led directly to the writing of the Declaration of Independence. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry was accorded the well-deserved honor of introducing the bill before Congress: "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 connexion between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."

He followed this motion 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 deliberate? 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 meanwhile, 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, 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 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, Thomas 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 previous 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 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.

Subsequently, Lee was again elected a delegate to congress; but during the session of 1778 and 1779, due to ill health, he was obliged frequently to absent himself from his arduous duties and which he could no longer sustain. From this time, until 1784, Lee declined accepting a seat in congress, believing that he might be more useful to his native state by holding a seat in the Virginia assembly.

He was strongly opposed to the adoption of the federal constitution without amendment. 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.

About the year 1792, Mr. Lee, enfeebled by his long attention to public duties, and by the infirmities of age, he retired until June 19, 1794, when he died at age 63.

(Stratford Hall Plantation)

[Back to top]
Privacy Policy
Image Information:

NPG.74.5 Richard Henry Lee by Peale
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Duncan Lee and his son, Gavin Dunbar Lee
All rights reserved.

Copyright © NPG (
For more information, contact the NPG Office of Rights and Reproduction.

[Back to top]
Privacy Policy

Contact us

Library sidebar
James Madison
Founding Fathers
Bill of Rights