I consider myself a fairly well-read person when it comes to the American Revolution – both its military and political history. So, it was with some surprise, that I recently discovered another of our country’s “founding fathers” – Richard Henry Lee. Harlow Giles Unger writes about Lee in his book First Founding Father: Richard Henry Lee and the Call to Independence.
According to Unger, history has mainly forgotten Lee. It remembers some of his more famous relatives – Light Horse Harry Lee of Revolutionary War fame and General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy – but nothing really on the first person to call for independence, for union, and for a bill of rights. Unger works to enlighten the reader on the man behind these firsts.
As with most biographers, Unger is partial to his subject – not necessarily a bad thing. This is especially true in Unger’s chapters on the true author of the Declaration of Independence and the Anti-Federalists. Regarding the former, although Thomas Jefferson is credited with writing the Declaration of Independence, the words and ideas came from the speeches and writings of Lee. Unger points to documents written by Lee that first attribute the idea of independence for the colonies.
Regarding the Anti-Federalists, Lee was a vehement supporter. Based on his experiences with the British government, he totally opposed a strong central government. Unger writes that Lee’s Letters from the Federal Farmer was just as important for the Anti-Federalists as Alexander Hamilton’s The Federalist was for the Federalists. Lee’s arguments were so sound that the Anti-Federalists almost forced another constitutional convention if a few moderates had not defected to the Federalists and the Constitution was ratified.
Unger writes passionately and clearly describing the life of Lee and why he should not be forgotten as one our country’s founding fathers.