George Washington and the Lees of Virginia
Presentation to the Society of the Lees of Virginia
Mount Vernon, 14 May 2005
Frank E. Grizzard, Jr.
For George Washington, his relationships with members of the Lee Family of Virginia begin right here, at Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon was established in the 1730s by George's father, Augustine Washington, on a family patent that George's great-grandfather John Washington had acquired about 1674 or 1675. When Augustine Washington died in 1743, George Washington's half brother Lawrence inherited the property. Lawrence made a number of improvements before his death in July 1752, including building the original part of the mansion house. When Lawrence died the estate passed to his infant heir, Sarah, the one surviving child of four that had been born to Lawrence and his wife, Ann Fairfax. Under Lawrence's will, Ann received a life interest in Mount Vernon and the use of one-half of the property's slaves; the rest of his estate was left to Sarah. The will stipulated further that if Sarah died before her mother Mount Vernon would pass to George Washington. If Sarah died childless, part of the estate would descend to her mother and part would be divided between Augustine and George Washington. As it turned out, Sarah died in 1754 at age 4, childless, of course, and thereafter, considerable confusion arose regarding the distribution of the slaves. Ann remarried to George Lee (1714-61) of Mount Pleasant in the Nomini Creek neighborhood of Westmoreland County, the deputy clerk, justice, and burgess of Westmoreland, and a first cousin of Arthur and Richard Henry Lee. George Lee and Ann rented the Mount Vernon tract and 18 slaves to George Washington for her lifetime, at the rate of 15,000 pounds of tobacco, or £93 15s Virginia currency a year. The agreement was made in December 1754.
At this point, I want to draw your attention to the copies of the Mount Vernon lease between George and Ann Lee and Washington. The printed copy is the lease signed and recorded in the Fairfax County Courthouse on 17 December 1754. There are two copies of this lease, the original signed document owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association and the recorded copy in the Fairfax County Courthouse Deed Books. The photograph of the manuscript copy that you have is a third and different copy of the lease. It showed up recently out of nowhere, on our doorsteps at the Papers of George Washington; its existence was previously unknown. For nearly 250 years it had been in private hands. It too is signed by George and Ann Lee and George Washington and attested to by John Carlyle, George Johnston, and John Washington, well-known individuals from the period. It was also written in December 1754, but the day of the month was left blank, presumably to be filled in at the courthouse. What is interesting about the document, aside from the fact that it was previously not known to exist, are a few subtle changes in the wording of the text. It is not exactly clear why this copy was rejected in favor of the final copy, although it appears that George Washington's obligations were made more explicit in the recorded copy. We don't have time to compare the two documents, but I encourage you to do so at your leisure.
Although George Washington honored the terms of the Mount Vernon lease by paying the annual rent, young Sarah's death apparently caused some confusion about the status of her mother's interest in Lawrence's estate. Before the estate could be settled, a dispute arose between George Lee and the Washingtons about the interests of Lee and a child born to him and Ann. Few details about the dispute have come to light, but Lee's claims worried George Washington, who was mostly away from home commanding the Virginia Regiment. The dispute had arisen right in the middle of the two major campaigns of the French and Indian War. Washington wrote that Lee's claims were strong enough to “bring the whole personal estate in question—a matter of very great moment to me.” The business finally was settled several years later when three lawyers gave unanimous opinions that neither George Lee nor his and Ann's child had any rights or claims to property other than what Lawrence had stipulated in his will. Under the terms of Lawrence's will, Ann's life rights were clear, and they included no provisions for any of her children except Sarah, Lawrence's heir, now deceased. When Ann died in 1761, Mount Vernon became George Washington's outright by virtue of the provisions of his brother's will. Happily, George Lee and George Washington remained on good terms despite the dispute about Lawrence's estate, and continued to do business with each another.
Let's shift gears a little here and turn to George Washington's relationships with the Lee Family as a whole. First, his associations with family members were more extensive than with any other group of persons, except for the Washingtons themselves. More than 5 dozen members of the Lee Family of Virginia appear in Washington's Papers. (See Appendix.) That is about half the number of Washingtons who appear, but by far greater than any other group of people with whom Washington ever associated. The list of Lees that came into Washington's sphere include, of course, the more famous Revolutionary War Lees—Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Jr., brothers Francis Lightfoot Lee, Arthur, William and Richard Henry Lee—as well as their siblings, children, parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins.
The children of Henry Lee of Leesylvania especially became frequent visitors to Mount Vernon. Washington knew Light-Horse Harry Lee from the Revolution, of course, when Lee was one of Washington's favorite officers, and after the war the two had extensive land dealings. When Washington as president was comparing candidates for the command of the new military force that Congress authorized in 1792, he described Light-Horse Harry as having “a better head & more resource than any of them, but no economy, & being a junior officer, we shd lose benefit of good seniors who wd not serve under him.” Light-Horse Harry served in the Confederation Congress between 1785 and 1788, where he was a strong Federalist and supporter of Washington. Washington wrote one of his rare light-hearted letters to then Virginia governor Light-Horse Harry on the occasion of Lee's marriage to Ann Hill Carter of Shirley in July 1793, about a month after their wedding: “As we are told, that you have exchanged the rugged and dangerous field of Mars, for the soft and pleasurable bed of Venus, I do in this, as I shall in every thing you may pursue like unto it good and laudable, wish you all imaginable success and happiness.” In 1794, during Washington's second presidential term and after Lee's terms as governor of Virginia, Washington sent him to quell the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. Lee had entered the U.S. Congress by the time Washington died in 1799, where he left one of the most memorable lines in American history, describing his deceased friend as “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere; uniform, dignified and commanding, his example was as edifying to all those around him, as were the effects of that example lasting.”
In addition to Light-Horse Harry, Washington came to know well the other children of Henry Lee, Sr., including sons Charles, Richard Bland, Theodorick, and Edmund Jennings, and daughters Lucy, Mary, and Anne. Charles Lee, for instance, served as a naval officer of the South Potomac District and became Washington's principal attorney after the Revolution. Washington was so pleased with Charles Lee's legal work that he appointed him to two federal posts, first as collector of customs at Alexandria, and then as attorney general of the U.S., a post that Lee held from 1795 to 1801. Charles Lee, by the way, was married first to Anne Lee, the daughter of his cousin Richard Henry Lee. Richard Bland Lee became an ardent federalist and supporter of the Constitution and thus a political ally of Washington. Edmund Jennings Lee, the fifth of Henry's sons, practiced law in nearby Alexandria and frequently brought his sisters to Mount Vernon. Their father, Henry Lee himself, a couple of years before his death in 1787, sent Washington 12 small “Horse Chesnut Trees and an equal number of cuttings of the [American] Tree Box.” Noting that the plants appeared to have been “sometime out of the ground being very dry,” Washington “Planted 4 of the Chesnuts in my Serpentine Walks and 4 of the Box in my shrubberies—two on each side—the rest in the Vineyard.” Unfortunately, I have not been able to learn anything about the ultimate fate of those plants.
Aside from Henry Lee, Sr., and his children, Mount Vernon was frequented by the children of Richard Henry Lee, who had been perhaps the prime mover in Virginia's decision to break away from England and who became one of Washington's strongest allies in the Continental Congress. Richard Henry too sometimes sent seeds and plant cuttings to Mount Vernon, including a dozen Carnation and May Cherry trees in April 1775 that Washington intermingled in rows containing similar graftings sent to him by his neighbor at Gunston Hall, George Mason. Less than a month later Washington and Richard Henry set off together from Mount Vernon for Philadelphia to attend the 2d Continental Congress, where Lee was soon championing Washington's appointment as commander in chief of the Continental army. Richard Henry Lee became one of Congress's most active members, serving on dozens of committees, and his correspondence with Washington is unusually rich and often confidential. With Washington, Richard Henry Lee had an interest in the Potomac River and the Mississippi Land companies, as well as in politics. Unlike Washington, he refused to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and later became an opponent of the Constitution in the Virginia Ratifying Convention.
Richard Henry's children—including Thomas, Ludwell, Nancy, Cassius, Hannah, and Mary—were no strangers to Mount Vernon, and in fact within a half dozen years of Washington's death all the children living at Mount Vernon could claim Richard Henry as their grandfather. That is an interesting story that I learned from John Washington. It seems that George Washington's nephew Corbin (1764–1799), a son of John Augustine Washington, and the brother of Judge Bushrod Washington (1762–1829), the heir of Mount Vernon, married Hannah Lee (1764–1802) a daughter of Richard Henry Lee. When both Corbin and Hannah died young of tuberculosis, their children first lived from 1802 to 1805 with Hannah's brother Thomas Lee (1758–1805) at Park Gate in Prince William County. But when Thomas Lee also died, the children went to Mount Vernon and were brought up by their childless uncle, Judge Bushrod Washington, and his wife. Thus the five children at Mount Vernon from 1805 onward were grandchildren of Richard Henry Lee and children of his daughter Hannah Lee. It would have been anticipated that the eldest son, Richard Henry Lee Washington (1788–1817), would have inherited Mount Vernon, but when he died young and unmarried, the heir became John Augustine Washington (1789–1832), who indeed did inherit the house in 1829 when his childless uncle, Judge Washington, died. Thus the owners of Mount Vernon from then on were Lee descendants, and, in John Washington's words, “felt at least as close to their Lee relatives as to their Washington ones.”
That's not the end, however. John Augustine Washington married, in 1814, Jane Charlotte Blackburn (1786–1855). She too was an orphan, the daughter of Richard Scott Blackburn, who was a brother of Ann Blackburn (1768–1829), the wife of Judge Washington. Thus the orphan niece of Mrs. Judge Washington married the orphan nephew of the Judge. But the interesting part of this is that Jane Charlotte Blackburn also descended from the Lee family, and so was a distant cousin of her husband. Richard Henry Lee's father, Thomas Lee (1690–1750) had a younger brother Henry Lee (1691–1747) of Lee Hall, who married Mary Bland and had a daughter Letitia Lee (c.1728–1788), wife of William Ball 5th, and so a first cousin of Richard Henry Lee. Letitia and William Ball had a daughter Mary Ball (c.1748–1836) who married a cousin John Ball, and so she was a second cousin of Hannah Lee Washington. John and Mary Ball had a daughter Judith Ball (c.1766–1795) who married Richard Scott Blackburn and was a third cousin of John Augustine Washington (1789–1832). The Blackburns' daughter, Jane Charlotte (1786–1855), thus was a third cousin, once removed, of her husband through a common descent from Richard Lee (1646–1714).
The conclusion is that Jane Charlotte Blackburn Washington, who under her husband's will, owned Mount Vernon in her own name, from 1832 on, was a Lee descendant, just as her husband had been. Her son, the third John Augustine Washington (1821–1861), who sold Mount Vernon to the Ladies, was thus a Lee descendant through both his father and his mother. His relationship to General Robert E. Lee through his mother was closer than the relationship through his father. He was on Lee's staff in 1861 and shared Lee's tent, until he was killed.
Listed on the handout are many more Lees with whom Washington had to do, but I have time to draw your attention to only a few more. The first appears third on the list, as “a Mr. Lee” who showed up at Mount Vernon in November 1785 to “sollicit Charity for his Mother who represented herself as having nine Children—a bad husband and no support.” This Mr. Lee was respectable enough for Washington to extend an invitation to stay the night at Mount Vernon, but he apparently was not known well enough for Washington to assign him a first name. I was not able to fit him into any of the known Lee families, and am of the opinion that he was from a different Lee family altogether, but I left him on the list in the off-chance that someone here might have a guess as to who he and his unfortunate mother and siblings might have been. Another Lee whom I'll mention in passing had a family connection, although an uncertain one. That is William Lee, or Will or Billy as he was known, the mulatto body servant who accompanied Washington throughout the Revolution. Washington purchased Billy along with three other slaves in October 1767 from Mary Smith Ball Lee of Cabin Point in Westmoreland County, shortly after the death of her husband, Colonel John Lee. Billy Lee apparently had adopted the Lee surname by the time that Washington purchased him.
As you know, several prominent Lee family members played important roles in the Revolution, and all were connected to Washington to some degree or other. Arthur Lee along with his brother William represented the Continental Congress in Europe. Their brother, Francis Lightfoot Lee, served in the House of Burgesses for almost two decades and then in the Continental Congress for four years, where he became a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Their brother, Richard Henry Lee, was perhaps the most conspicuous of them all. Richard Henry Lee played a very active role in Congress, serving literally on dozens of committees, including the committees that drafted Washington's commission as Continental army general and his initial instructions in June 1775 (the committees consisted of Lee, Edward Rutledge, and John Adams). When it came time to adopt the Constitution, however, Richard Henry Lee rejected it, as did his close friend, Patrick Henry, because of the lack of a Bill of Rights. With Henry's help, Lee was elected one of Virginia's first U.S. Senators, and once in office he was responsible for getting the Bill of Rights to the floor. A fifth brother, Thomas Ludwell Lee, who was, like Washington, an investor in the Mississippi Land Company and a member of the House of Burgesses, was an active Patriot whose mid-war death has caused him to be ignored by most historians.
The Lee family member that I have saved for last is the one that Mark Mayo Boatner III in his Encyclopedia of the American Revolution characterized as “American merchant, diplomat, troublemaker.” Few probably would contest that Arthur Lee was a bit of a curmudgeon, but on the other hand I doubt that anyone would not agree that he was first and foremost a Patriot of the first order, in fact one who in many ways embodied the early ideals of the American Revolution. Arthur Lee was not in America during much of the Revolutionary War, but he had been here earlier, and that is what I want to draw your attention to in closing.
A lot has been made of how the Founding Fathers thought of themselves as Englishmen and did not want to separate from Great Britain, at least not until the spring of 1776. Washington himself presided over the public meeting in July 1774 that passed the Fairfax County Resolves, a remonstrance addressed to King George III stating the colonists' grievances against the British government. The Fairfax Resolves opened with the explicit statement that the inhabitants of the Virginia colony considered themselves to be “subject to all his Majesty's just, legal, and constitutional Prerogatives.” On the other hand, when told by his friend Joseph Reed in mid-March 1776 that many Virginians were “alarmed with the Idea of Independence,” Washington replied (on 1 April) that “My Countrymen I know, from their form of Government, & steady Attachment heretofore to Royalty, will come reluctantly into the Idea of independancy; but time, & persecution, brings many wonderful things to pass.”
By mid-April of the same year, 1776, Washington was ready to declare, again to Reed, that, “I am exceedingly concern'd to hear of the divisions & Parties, which prevail with you, and in the Southern Colonies, on the Score of independence &ca—these are the Shelves we have to avoid, or Our Bark will split & tumble to pieces—here lays our great danger, and I almost tremble when I think of this Rock. nothing but a disunion can hurt our cause—this will Ruin it, if great prudence, temper, and Moderation is not mixed in our Councils, & made the governing principles of the Contending Parties.” Thus, at the same time that Congress was busy debating the subject, Washington had come to see the independence of the colonies as the central and crucial issue with Great Britain.
A little noticed letter to Washington from Arthur Lee in June 1777 recollecting a visit to Mount Vernon nine years earlier suggests that Washington might have contemplated the idea of American sovereignty long before separation from Great Britain came to pass. Lee, in the context of praising Washington for commanding the Continental army, wrote Washington, that, “I never forgot your declaration when I had the pleasure of being at your House in [July] 1768 that you was ready to take your Musket upon your Shoulder, whenever your Country call'd upon you, I heard that declaration with great satisfaction, I recollect it with the Same, & have seen it verify'd to your Immortal honor & the eminent advantage of the Illustrious cause in which we are contending.”
That, in my mind, was Washington's own declaration of independence, despite his protestations to the contrary. Although Washington was often rash he was also cautious, and he would not have taken command of the Continental army—already in the field against the British when he was appointed its commander in chief in June 1775— without having thought through thoroughly the ramifications of his decision. He was, after all, as he later wrote the U.S. Secretary of War, in August 1798, in the process of “stak[ing] my life—my reputation—my fortune—my ease—tranquillity, & happiness, in support of the Government, & Independence of our Country.” Can we say then that Washington was ahead of his countrymen on this issue, more radical perhaps? Most likely. And if so, who was standing with him? Arthur Lee for one and probably several others of the Lee family. Washington's willingness to speak openly, to let his hair down, so to speak, with Arthur Lee reveals the depth of his affinity with Arthur and the Lees. Their early alliance might perhaps go a long way in explaining why Washington never broke with any of the Lees, as he did with five other very prominent Virginians—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Edmund Randolph, George Mason, and James Monroe. The prewar and wartime associations between Washington and the Lees, buttressed by business ties, their affinity as tidewater planters, numerous social interactions, and finally, family associations, produced relationships of mutual respect and in the end proved stronger than any strains regarding sour land deals or differences about the Constitution.
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