In public awareness, Richard Henry Lee (1732-1794) has slipped into the cracks of historical anonymity; this book pulls him back into the light.
Historian Unger, who has published frequently about the Founding Fathers (Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman, 2015, etc.), returns with a generous, well-documented account of the life of Lee, focusing on his varied roles in the birth of the United States. He served in the Continental Congress, was among the first U.S. senators (appointed in his day, not elected), and was instrumental, as Unger shows, in the addition of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. Lee was not a fan of the latter document—he feared federal overreach—but he later mellowed. The author rehearses the Revolutionary War, revisiting significant moments but always with an eye on Lee, a noncombatant: what were his responsibilities, how did he carry them out, with whom was he corresponding? Lee was friends with most of the significant figures of the time—Washington, Jefferson, Madison et al.—though those friendships waxed and waned as situations changed. Although Unger does not especially focus on these men as entitled, white, Christian, slave-owning males, neither does he neglect the subject. He notes, for example, that the first Senate comprised the richest white male property-owners in the country, and all of them abhorred taxes. The author also astutely reminds us that unifying for the Revolution and for the Constitution was an extremely difficult and complex business. Tempers flared, and civil war lay barely below the surface. It took the fierce determination of a few—and quite a bit of good fortune—to forge the documents that we now revere. At times, Unger can’t resist using superlatives, but, considering what ensued, who can blame him?
A sturdy, instructive biography of the “first of the Founding Fathers to call for independence, first to call for union, and first to call for a bill of rights.”