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New England Looks at the Lees

ISSUE:  Winter 1936

The Lees of Virginia. By Burton J. Hendrick. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $3.75.

To write the history of a family is a risky undertaking. It necessarily involves a compromise between biography and genealogy, and no such compromise can be completely satisfactory. Mr. Hendrick certainly realized this difficulty when he set himself the task of telling the story of the Lees of Virginia, and he must have had strong reasons for doing so. He alone could say precisely what those reasons were, but the reviewer is prepared to surmise. Being a gentleman of the old New England school and a devotee of the brand of history that has flowed from that section, the author is inclined to praise the triumphs of Federalistic democracy in the United States. At the same time he has a Victorian sense of tradition and “standards” and obviously mourns the lack of them in our present society. Since the perennial stuffiness of the Adams family had already been exploited, it was natural that Mr. Hendrick should turn to Virginia for a more ancient and richer example of that kind of family tradition that England knows so well. The author is aware that triumphant democracy has deprived America of the type of leadership that once made politics an honorable profession among us. He knows also that this kind of leadership has never been consistently furnished except by families of independent means and views—by men with leisure, education, and inclination to ponder on the nature of the state and the philosophy of government. In other words, it is the product of a noncommercial aristocracy. The Lees offer the best example our country affords of such leadership, and it is significant that their day was done when Grant’s victory ushered in the rule of an industrial oligarchy.

Beginning with Richard Lee, who came to America in 1640 and established the family, and ending with General Fitzhugh Lee and the Spanish-American War, “The Lees of Virginia” covers many years and many Lees, none of them altogether lacking in interest. Richard the immigrant from Shropshire; Thomas of the third generation who built up the huge family estate; the dashing “Light Horse Harry” who dissipated it at the price of two heart-breaking years in debtors’ prison; “Black Horse Harry,” the blot on the family escutcheon; Richard Henry who moved the Declaration of Independence; Robert Edward, the unwanted child who became the embodiment of the Confederacy—all pass in brief review. It will surprise the average reader that nearly half the work is devoted to a member of the clan whose name has been all but forgotten, and who has been mentioned with opprobrium by those writers who have noticed him at all— Arthur, youngest brother to Richard Henry. The reasons for this emphasis seem to the reviewer to be good ones, for Arthur Lee certainly deserves a greater reputation than he has heretofore enjoyed. And his claim to fame rests upon a single adventure of his life: his experience as American commissioner in Europe during the Revolution. In Paris he was associated with two other commissioners, Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane. Yet his association was only technical, for his colleagues, living together under the roof of a great French speculator, excluded him from their counsels as far as possible, and prejudiced the French ministry against him. The headquarters of the commission was a nest of spies and traitors; state secrets were used for stock-jobbing operations in London; Deane and his associates engaged in mercantile, privateering, and speculating ventures for their private emolument while the aged Philosopher devoted his hours to leisure and pleasure. Living in closest intimacy with Franklin and Deane was Dr. Edward Bancroft, a spy in the employ of the British government. Through him England was accurately informed of all that transpired at the headquarters of the American commission, and his reports, now reposing in British Archives, form a disgusting commentary on the dishonesty and unfitness of our first diplomats. In this manner the war was prolonged and the American cause suffered almost irreparable damage. With ample knowledge of the unscrupulous profiteering and with knowledge also that state secrets were being discovered from his papers and conveyed to the British administration, Franklin nevertheless used all his powerful influence to prevent an investigation of his friends Deane and Bancroft, and succeeded in throwing suspicion on Lee, who was on the track of the traitors.

Mr. Hendrick is almost the first writer to do full justice to Arthur Lee, and to paint Deane in his true colors, but he suffers great embarrassment on account of Franklin. Gainsborough, attempting to paint a crafty, insincere English nobleman, threw his pencil down in disgust after the second sitting, saying, “Damn it! I never could see through varnish.” Was it that Mr. Hendrick could hot see through the varnish? Or was it that this exemplar of American shrewdness must not be shaken on his philosophical throne? Mr. Hendrick attributes Lee’s dislike of Franklin to the Virginian’s cantankerous and suspicious nature, and in this he follows the line taken by nearly all our historians. However, in at least one passage he comes perilously near spoiling his case. Here he says that “even the great Benjamin [before an investigating committee] would have had his unhappy moments, not necessarily explaining acts of guilt, but tenderness to relations, ‘lethargy’ in the midst of disorder, indolent trust in unworthy associates, failure to perceive things that were apparent to casual observers and a matter of daily gossip in every European capital.” This comes near to being an admission—nearer, apparently, than Mr. Hendrick meant to come. “When you come to a low place, stoop,” was a favorite saying of the Philadelphia Philosopher. It should be obvious to so keen a student as Mr. Hendrick that Franklin found himself in a viciously low place, and that he followed the advice of “Poor Richard.”

There will be those also who think Mr. Hendrick far afield when he compares the Whisky Rebellion and the secession of the Confederate States. “Light Horse Harry,” leading troops to suppress the Whisky insurrection, is portrayed as taking entirely opposite ground to that taken by his son, Robert E. Lee, when he led the Confederate soldiers. Insurrection within a state and the secession of a state are entirely different matters.

Despite these limitations from the historian’s viewpoint, the book, written from primary sources, is a fresh and vigorous work. Mr. Dooley said: “I know histhry isn’t thrue, Hinnissy, because it ain’t like what I see ivry day in Halstcd Sthreet. If any wan comes along with a histhry iv Greece or Rome that’ll show me th’ people fightin’, gettin’ dhrunk, makin’ love, gettin’ married, owin’ th’ grocevyman an’ bein’ without hard coal, I’ll believe they was a Greece or Rome, but not befure.” After reading Mr. Hendrick’s charming narrative, one will have no difficulty in believing that the Lees of Virginia lived; he shows them loving, squabbling, despairing, owing the tailor, conquering, dying in their Virginian environment. The work defends an aristocratic tradition that few Americans are likely to understand, and it goes far toward putting a great family in its proper place in the annals of the country.


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