Rhetoric, as defined in the lexicons, as taught in the schools, as practised in times of peaceful leisure–is not the kind that graced the forum during the American Revolution. No studied or written speeches were then crowded upon the audience to kill time or gain popularity. Judge McKean remarked just before his death–“I do not recollect any formal speeches, such as are made in Parliament and our late Congresses. We had no time to hear such speeches–little for deliberation–action was the order of the day.”
See also Founder Francis LightfootÂ Lee
School eloquence is very different from native heart-thrilling soul-stirring rhetoric. The former is like the rose in wax without odor–the latter like the rose upon its native bush perfuming the atmosphere with the rich odors distilled from the dew of heaven. The former is the finely finished statue of a Cicero or Demosthenes, more perfect in its lineaments than the original–the latter is the living man animated by intellectual power–rousing the deepest feelings of every heart–electrifying every soul as with vivid lightning. The former is a picture of the passions all on fire–the latter is the real conflagration pouring out a stream of impassioned words that burn like liquid flames bursting from a volcano. The former brings the fancy of an audience into playful action–the latter sounds an alarum that vibrates through the tingling ears to the soul and drives back the rushing blood upon the aching heart. The former moves the cerebral foliage in waves of recumbent beauty like a gentle wind passing over a prairie of tall grass and flowers–the latter strikes a blow that resounds through the wilderness of mind like rolling thunder through a forest of oaks. The former fails when strong commotions and angry elements agitate the public peace–the latter can ride upon the whirlwind of faction, direct the tornado of party spirit and rule the storm of boiling passion. This was the only kind of eloquence practised by the Sages and Heroes who achieved our Independence. At such times school elocution is a mockery–a vain show that disgusts men when the fate of millions is suspended by a single hair. At such a crisis the deep fountains of the soul are broken up and gush out in living streams of natural overwhelming eloquence.
Among the powerful orators of ’76 was Richard Henry Lee, son of Thomas Lee, born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on the 20th of January 1732. His ancestors were among the early settlers of the Old Dominion and were
prominent in directing the destiny of the Colony. They were men of liberal principles and at all times promptly resisted every encroachment upon their rights. The arbitrary power exercised by Charles I. over his European subjects which hurled him from his throne, was resisted by the Lees. When Cromwell assumed the crown he was never recognised by Virginia. The mandate thatÂ proclaimed the second Charles King–originated with Lee and Berkley of the Old Dominion. The plan of ultimate Independence was cherished by the elder Lees. Through the bright vista of the future they contemplated the millennium of Freedom in America. So strongly impressed was the father of Richard Henry with this idea that he fixed in his mind the location of the seat of government and purchased lands in the vicinity of Washington. By some historians this act is called a paradox that philosophy has been perplexed to explain. To my mind the solution has no perplexity. A man of deep reflection and large intelligence does not draw his conclusions alone from present appearances. He compares the past with the present and makes deductions for the future. The historic map of the world is covered with the rise, progress and extinction of nations, kingdoms and empires. From the causes and effects delineated upon the same map, it was the natural conclusion of a penetrating mind that the expansive territory of this country, with all the bounties of nature lavished upon it, must eventually become so densely populated that its physical force would be too powerful for any European country to hold dominion over it. The geographical centre was also plain as the settlements were then progressing. This prophecy, as it has been termed, was the result of deep thought arriving at conclusions drawn from the unerring laws of nature, showing that Mr. Lee possessed an analyzing mind that moved in an extensive orbit.
Richard Henry Lee commenced his education at Wakefield, Yorkshire, England and remained in that kingdom until he completed it. He returned a finished scholar, an accomplished gentleman with a reputation untarnished by vice or folly. From his childhood honesty and morality were his darling attributes–he delighted in reposing under the ethic mantle. During his absence his innate republicanism did not become tinctured with the farina of European courts or the etiquette of aristocracy. In classic history he found the true dignity of man portrayed–his inalienable rights delineated. In the philosophy of Locke he saw the rays of light reflected upon human nature–the avenues of the immortal mind opened to his enraptured vision. In the Elements of Euclid the laws of demonstration were presented to his delighted understanding and gave fresh vigor to his logical powers. Endowed with these qualifications he was prepared to enter upon the great theatre of public action and adorn the circle of private life.
His first public act was in raising a company of troops and tendering his services to Gen. Braddock. That proud Briton considered the Provincials puerile and declined the proffered aid. His fate is a matter of history. In 1757 Mr. Lee was appointed a Justice of the Peace and President of the Court. Shortly after he was elected to the House of Burgesses and made himself thoroughly acquainted with the laws of legislation and government–the true policy and various interests of the colony and with the rules of parliamentary proceedings. Retarded by an almost unconquerable diffidence, he took very little part in debate at first. It was not until he became excited by a subject in which he felt a deep interest that his Ciceronean powers were developed. A bill was before the House imposing a duty on the importation of slaves into Virginia–virtually amounting to a prohibition. It was strongly opposed by several influential members. Mr. Lee became roused and poured upon
his astonished audience such a flood of burning eloquence against the importation of human beings to be made slaves, that his opponents trembled as they listened. In vivid colors he painted the cruelties of Cortes in South America, the Saracens in Spain and passed through the dark catalogue of monsters who had disgraced humanity with barbarism–then pointed his colleagues to the darker blot–the more barbarous practices that branded with infamy the unhallowed slave-trade then monopolized by mother Britain. He pointed to the bloody scenes of other times when the physical force of the slaves had enabled them to rise and crush their masters at one bold stroke. By stopping the traffic, the evil entailed upon them might be provided for and the certain and dreadful consequences of a constant influx from Africa be warded off. His eloquence was applauded but his philanthropic views were voted down by the friends of the crown. The trade was virtually originated and long continued by Great Britain, now so loud in complaints against us for not at once providing for an evil entailed by her. Had this bill passed, her revenue would have been less and thousands of Africans left at their peaceful homes. O! shame where is thy blush!
This powerful effort raised Mr. Lee to the rank of the Cicero of America. The exposure of the base corruptions practised by Mr. Robinson, then treasurer of the Colony, was the next important service rendered by him. As this was an attack upon the aristocracy, it required much skill, boldness and sagacity to introduce the probe successfully. This he did in a masterly manner and proved clearly that the treasurer had repeatedly re-issued reclaimed treasury bills to his favorite friends to support them in their extravagance by which the Colony was robbed of the amount by their payment a second time without a _quid pro quo_ [equivalent.] For this bold act Mr. Lee was applauded by every honest man–hated and dreaded by public knaves.
When Charles Townsend laid before the British Parliament the odious and more extensive plan of taxing the American colonies which Mr. Grenville called _the philosopher’s stone_, Mr. Lee was among the first to sound the alarm. Within a month after the passage of the preliminary Act in Parliament followed by a revolting catalogue of unconstitutional and
oppressive laws, he furnished his London friends with a list of arguments against it sufficient to convince every reasonable man of the injustice and impolicy of the measure. When Patrick Henry proposed his bold resolutions against the Stamp Act in 1765 Mr. Lee gave them the powerful aid of his eloquent and unanswerable logic. He was very active in the formation of associations to resist the encroachments of the crown. He aided inÂ compelling the collector of stamps to relinquish his office, deliver up his commission and the odious stamp paper. The people were advised not to touch or handle it. His pen was also ably used and produced many keen, withering, logical, patriotic, pungent essays that had a salutary influence upon the public mind. He corresponded with the patriots of New York and New England. According to the testimony of Col. Gadsden of S. C. and the public documents of that eventful era, Mr. Lee was the first man who proposed the Independence of the colonies. He had unquestionably imbibed the idea from his father whose ancestors had predicted it for the last hundred years and had probably handed it down from sire to son. In a letter from Richard Henry Lee to Mr. Dickinson dated July 25th 1768 he proposes upon all seasonable occasions to impress upon the minds of the people the necessity of a struggle with Great Britain “_for the ultimate establishment of independence–that private correspondence should be conducted by the lovers of liberty in every province_.” His early proposition in Congress to sever the material ties was considered premature by most of the friends of Liberty. He had long nursed this favorite project in his own bosom–he was anxious to transplant its vigorous scions into the congenial bosoms of his fellow patriots.
Soon after the House of Burgesses convened in 1769, as chairman of the judiciary committee, Mr. Lee introduced resolutions so highly charged with liberal principles calculated to demolish the Grenville superstructure and reduce to dust his talismanic _philosopher’s stone_,Â that they caused a dissolution of the House and concentrated the wrath of the British ministry and its servile bipeds against him. The rich fruits of their persecution were the formation of non-importation associations, committees of safety and correspondence and the disaffection of the English merchants towards the mother country in consequence of the impolitic measures calculated to prostrate their importing and exporting trade. Lord North now assumed the management of the grand drama of oppression and laid more deeply the revenue plan. By causing a repeal of the more offensive Acts he hoped to lull the storm of opposition that was rapidly rising and prepare for more efficient action. Had the Boston Port Bill been omitted his dark designing treachery might have succeeded more triumphantly. This fanned the burning flame of resentment to a white heat. It spoke in language too plain to be mistaken–too strong to be endured.
In 1774 Mr. Lee was a delegate to the Congress convened at Philadelphia. At that memorable meeting he acted a conspicuous part. After Patrick Henry had broken the seal that rested on the lips of the members as they sat in deep and solemn silence, he was followed by Mr. Lee in a strain of _belles-lettres_ eloquence and persuasive reasoning that took the hearts of his audience captive and restored to a calm the boiling agitation that shook their manly frames as the mountain torrent of Demosthenean eloquence was poured upon them by Henry. He was upon the committee that prepared an address to theÂ king–the people of Great Britain and to the Colonies. Those documents were written by him and adopted with but few amendments. He was upon the committee that prepared
the address to the people of Quebec and upon the committee of rights and grievances and non-intercourse with the mother country. In the warmth of his ardor he proposed several resolutions that were rejected because considered premature at that time–not that the purity of his motives were doubted. Many of the members still hoped that timely redress of grievances would restore peace. They had clearly and forcibly set forth their complaints and desires and could not yet be persuaded that ministers were madly bent on ruin. For solidity of reasoning, force of sagacity and wisdom of conclusion–the proceedings of that Congress stand without a parallel upon the historic page. So thought Lord Chatham, Burke and many of the wisest English statesmen at that time.
In 1775 Mr. Lee was unanimously elected to the Virginia Legislature where the same zeal for Liberty marked his bold career. He received a vote of thanks for his noble course in Congress and was made a delegate for the next session. A more congenial field now opened for this ardent patriot. Temporizing was no longer the order of the the day. Vigorous action had become necessary. His zeal and industry had ample scope. With all his might he entered into the good work. Upon committees–in the house, everywhere he was all activity. In 1776 he was a member of Congress. In obedience to the instructions of the Virginia Legislature and his long nursed desires, on the 7th of June he rose amidst the
assembled patriots of the nation in the Hall of Liberty and offered the resolution for the adoption of a Declaration of Independence. This resolution he enforced by one of the most brilliant and powerful displays of refined and forcible eloquence ever exhibited in our country. On the 10th of the same month he was called home by the illness of his family which prevented him from taking his place as chairman of the committee upon his resolution agreeably to parliamentary rules. Mr. Jefferson was put in his place. The wrath of British power against him was now at its zenith. During his short stay at home an armed force broke into his house at night and by threats and bribes endeavoured to induce his servants to inform them where he could be found. He was that night a few miles distant with a friend. They were told he had gone to Philadelphia.
In August he returned to Congress and most gladly affixed his name to that sacred instrument upon which his imagination had feasted for years. He continued at his post until June 1777 when he returned home to confute a base slander charging him with unfaithfulness to the American cause in consequence of having received rents in kind instead of Continental money. He was honorably acquitted by the Assembly and received a vote of thanks from that body for his fidelity and industry in the cause of freedom–rather a cooler to his semi-Tory enemies. During the two ensuing years his bad health compelled him to leave Congress several times, but his counsel was at the command of his colleagues at all times. Nothing but death could abate his zeal in the good cause.
The portals of military glory were now opened to Mr. Lee. He was appointed to the command of the militia of his native county and proved as competent to wield the sword and lead his men to action as he was to command an audience by his powerful eloquence. Defeated in the north the British made a rush upon the Southern States. Whenever they approached the neighbourhood under the charge of Mr. Lee they found his arrangements a little too precise for their convenience and abandoned their visits entirely. In 1780-1-2 he served in the Virginia legislature. The proposition of making paper bills a legal tender–of paying debts due to the mother country and of a general assessment to support the Christian religion–were then before the House and excited great interest. Mr. Lee advocated and Mr. Henry opposed them. From the necessity of the case he was in favor of the first. Upon the sacredness of contracts he based his arguments in favor of the second and from ethics he drew conclusions in favor of the last. He said refiners might weave reason into as fine a web as they pleased but the experience of all time had shown religion to be the guardian of morals. He contended that the declaration of rights was aimed at restrictions on the form and mode of worship and not against the legal compulsory support of it. In this Mr. Lee erred. He probably had forgotten that Christ declared his kingdom was not of this world and that the great Head of the Christian religion had for ever dissolved the bans of church and state by that declaration. In other respects the position is untenable in a republican government and can never promote genuine piety in any.
In 1784 he was again elected to Congress and chosen President of that body. At the close of the session he received a vote of thanks for the faithful and able performance of his duty and retired to the bosom of his family to rest from his long and arduous toils. He was a member of the Convention that framed the Federal Constitution and took a deep interest in the formation of that saving instrument. He was a U. S. Senator in the first Congress that convened under it and fully sustained his previous high reputation. Infirmity at length compelled him to bid a final farewell to the public arena. His last public services were rendered in the legislature of his own state. On his retirement a most flattering resolution of thanks for his numerous valuable services was passed by that body on the 22d of October 1792. He then retired to the peaceful shades of Chantilly in his native county crowned with a chaplet of amaranthine flowers emitting rich odors lasting as time. There he lived–esteemed, beloved, respected and admired until the 19th of June 1794 when the angel of death liberated his immortal spirit from its clay prison–seraphs conducted his soul to realms of bliss there to enjoy the reward of a life well spent.
Mr. Lee was a rare model of human excellence and refinement. He was a polished gentleman, scholar, orator and statesman. In exploring the vast fields of science he gathered the choicest flowers–the most substantial fruits. The classics, _Belles Lettres_–the elements of civil, common, national and municipal law–the principles of every kind of government were all familiar to his mind. He was ardently patriotic, pure and firm in his purposes, honest and sincere in his motives, liberal in his principles, frank in his designs, honorable in his actions. As an orator the modulation of his voice, manner of action and mode of reasoning were a _fac simile_ of Cicero as described by Rollin. He richly merited the appellation–CICERO OF AMERICA.
His private character was above reproach. He possessed and exercised all those amiable qualities calculated to impart substantial happiness to all around him. To crown with enduring splendor all his rich and varied talents–he was a consistent Christian–an honest man. As his dust reposes in peace let his examples deeply impress our heart: and excite us to fulfill the duties of life to the honor of ourselves, our country and our God.
From Sages and Heroes of the American Revolution; L. Carrol Judson