William Lee

William Lee as a young man by unknown artist

QUICK FACTS
BORN:
1739 at Stratford Hall Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia
  DIED:
1795 at ???

  • William Lee, son of Thomas Lee (1690 – 1750) and Hannah Harrison Ludwell (1701 – 50), was born into one of the most politically powerful families in Virginia. Three of his other (four) brothers also played significant roles in American Revolution:
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William Lee, born in 1739 at the family plantation, Stratford Hall, in Virginia, was a diplomat during the American Revolution. He accompanied his brother Arthur Lee to England in 1766 to engage in mercantile pursuits, and in 1775 was elected an alderman of London, then a life position.

In April 1777, however, he received notice of his appointment by the Committee of Secret Correspondence in America to act with Thomas Morris as commercial agent at Nantes, France. He became involved in his brother’s opposition to fellow American commissioners, Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane. In May 1777 Congress chose William Lee commissioner to the courts of Vienna and Berlin, but he gained recognition at neither. In September 1778, while at Aix-la-Chapelle, he negotiated a plan of a treaty with Holland. However, a copy of the draft fell into British hands on the capture of Henry Laurens, the duly appointed American minister to the Netherlands, which led to Great Britain’s declaration of war against the Netherlands in December 1780.

Lee was recalled from his mission to Vienna and Berlin in June 1779, without being required to return to America. He resigned his post as an alderman of London in January 1780, and returned to Virginia about 1784. He died in 1795.

ADAPTED FROM:
Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 ed.

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[Thomas Jefferson] was undoubtedly complicated. He mingled the loftiest visions with astute backroom politicking. He spared himself nothing and was a compulsive shopper, yet he extolled the simple yeoman farmer who was free from the lures of the marketplace. He hated obsessive money-making, the proliferating banks, and the liberal capitalistic world that emerged in the Northern states in the early nineteenth century, but no one in American did more to bring that about. Although he kept the most tidy and meticulous accounts of his daily transactions, he never added up his profits and losses. He thought public debts were the curse of a healthy state, yet his private debts kept mounting as he borrowed and borrowed again to meet his rising expenditures. He was a sophisticated man of the world who loved no place better than his remote mountaintop home in Virginia. This slaveholding aristocrat ended up becoming the most important apostle for liberty and democracy in American history.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)