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:
PLACES TO VISIT

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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Since the heady moment when he married Martha Custis in 1759, combining their estates into one of the preeminent holdings in northern Virginia, everything Washington touched had turned to brass. He had failed repeatedly to grow profitable tobacco crops. In London his leaf had acquired an unshakable reputation for mediocrity. Meanwhile the expenses of maintaining a great planter’s lifestyle, while keeping up a slave labor force and several plantations, had proved unrelenting. His own debtors — former comrades-in-arms who unhesitatingly touched him for loans, neighbors with whom he ran accounts, tenants who owed him rent — were slow to pay, and sometimes never did; yet he was too tightly bound by the expectations of gentlemanly behavior to refuse a loan when asked, or to press a debtor insistently when payment fell due. By 1763 Washington found himself deep in debt, doubting that he would ever extricate himself by growing tobacco, and casting about to find some way out of his predicament.

Fred Anderson
Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754 - 1766 (2000)