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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The French years provided Franklin’s detractors precisely what they needed: proof that the ur-American was un-American. Franklin was the Founding Father who had come the furthest, which makes him today the most compelling; he was also the Founding Father who traveled the farthest, which in his own century made him the most suspect. Few other homes in Philadelphia sported both Réaumur and Fahrenheit thermometers. The story goes that when Franklin proposed that Congress open its meetings with a prayer, Alexander Hamilton quipped that that body had no need of foreign aid. The story may be apocryphal but the sentiment was real. The expatriate patriot, Franklin was associated in many minds with the dependent chapter of American independence, one better expunged from the record.

Stacy Schiff
A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (2005)