Today it is generally assumed that, from the beginning, the American Revolution was launched with the intention of creating a new nation. This perception is untrue. Much like their efforts in the decade before fighting began, colonists hoped the first year of armed resistance would show Great Britain how earnest they were to enjoy the same rights as native Englishmen. Unfortunately, British leaders were equally committed to subduing the rebellion and asserting their dominance over the colonists. To that end, they approved such measures as the destruction of American towns. When they received word of these acts, patriots like Ben Franklin and John Adams knew that an amicable settlement of differences was no longer possible. Instead they argued for a formal separation. They were not the only ones encouraging action, however. A recent arrival from Europe also saw the need for independence. Not only was he a fierce opponent of the British monarchy, but he was also an ardent defender of the American colonies. His name was Charles Lee. This is the story of how he fought to help secure American independence in the early months of 1776.
Despite his long and distinguished British heritage, Charles Lee did not fit neatly into the standard aristocratic role. He was born in Chester, England in February 1732 into the British gentry, but like his father, he had strong Whig principles, meaning he championed restrictions on the king’s power. As a young boy, he read Enlightenment authors like John Locke and Montesquieu as well as ancient Greek scholars like Thucydides and Plutarch. These works transformed him from a mere Whig into a republican, someone deeply opposed to monarchy, and not even his long years of service fighting for the crown in North America during the French and Indian War of the 1750s could dampen his zeal. In fact, his years in the New World solidified his views, and soon his passion caused him trouble. Not long after his return from America in 1760, he denounced King George III and his ministers for attempting to increase royal authority. In December 1764 he left Britain for Poland to become a major general, but he returned to Britain often over the next nine years. During this time, his attacks on the monarchy intensified as the government directly taxed the American colonies through the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townsend Acts of 1767. He joined the colonists’ protests and celebrated with them when the legislation was repealed. He believed America was the first true land of liberty, and he warned British leaders the colonists would ultimately reject the crown if such policies continued. And yet, the policies continued. By August 1773 Lee was so disgusted with the government’s North American policy he decided to migrate across the Atlantic.
No sooner had Lee arrived in America in October 1773 than he was swept up in the furor that finally erupted into war in 1775. Parliament had recently passed the Tea Act, which lowered the price of British tea and thereby encouraged colonial purchase of taxed tea, a leftover from the Townsend Acts, rather than smuggled Dutch tea. Lee viciously condemned this underhanded maneuvering and praised the Boston Tea Party as a symbol of Americans’ refusal to give in to oppression. As 1774 began, Lee decided to use his pen to rally Americans to the banner of freedom. His task was not an easy one since British leaders had recently adopted the Intolerable Acts, designed to punish Boston for the Tea Party. Lee was shocked to hear colonists beginning to speak of moderation to appease Britain. To curb these sentiments, he penned an article equating moderation with submission. If the colonies gave in, he said, absolute despotism would engulf both America and Britain. In fact, “the monster Tyranny already begins to pant.” By the start of 1775, Lee was warning of the coming military domination of the belligerent colonies, evidenced by the first step of the British occupation of Boston. In response, he developed a military structure for an American fighting force and in short order was enlisted by the Maryland Provincial Congress to drill the troops. He knew a military confrontation was fast approaching. He was proven right when British and colonial “minutemen” clashed at Lexington and Concord on April 19th. Two months later in mid-June the Continental Congress commissioned Lee a major general in the Continental Army.
Soon after joining the Continental Army at Cambridge, Massachusetts in the late summer of 1775, Charles Lee began to contemplate the more drastic option now gaining support — a formal separation from Great Britain. Despite his strong ties to Britain and a desire to maintain a harmonious relationship between London and the colonies, it was clear the current leadership was determined to pursue its destructive policies. With every attempt by the colonists to demonstrate their resolve however, British leaders instituted even more tyrannical measures. Lee was now convinced the only chance to avoid all out war was if the current administration in London was replaced. With this in mind, he appealed to ordinary Britons to exercise their parliamentary prerogative to form a new government more amenable to colonial demands. If such a course was not adopted, he said, “I would advise [the Continental Congress] not to hesitate a single instant, but decisively to cut the Gordian knot.” He soon put his words into practice.
Throughout the fall and winter of 1775, Lee became steadily more outspoken about the need for colonial action. He was outraged by the Continental Congress’s adoption of the Olive Branch Petition, a document offering renewed colonial allegiance to King George III in return for concessions on taxes and trade. To Lee, it was essentially a submission to British demands. Rather than offering peace, Lee argued, Congress should threaten immediate independence if British troops were not removed from American shores. Such a declaration would send a clear message to Britain and to American Loyalists that the patriots were deadly serious. In an effort to propel the patriots forward, he proposed opening American ports to European commerce and adopting “A Solemn League and Covenant,” which would pledge members to wage offensive and defensive operations against British forces. He saw these steps as a precursor to a proclamation of independence, which he knew the colonies were not yet ready to make. He quietly voiced support for the more radical step of independence in personal letters to Congressmen, like Pennsylvania’s Dr. Benjamin Rush, but he knew the time to go public was not yet right. That all changed as 1775 turned into 1776.
The momentous year of 1776 had just begun when word reached America that King George III and his ministers had declared the colonies to be in open rebellion and intended to use all their might to crush it. The king’s position convinced Lee that the “English nation is lost and that a separation must (and immediately) take place.” Writing to John Dickinson, a Pennsylvania delegate and the primary opponent of independence, he maintained that King George would never relent in his efforts to subjugate the colonies. Lee said it went against his principles. He went on to say that even if both sides reached an agreement, it was unlikely to be honored by the king and his supporters. Therefore, he said, the “legislature of my country should lay aside all childish attachments and prejudices and make it the sole aim of their politics to insure the welfare and safety of this community.” To impress on Congress the urgent matter before them, Lee, now almost at the point of desperation, considered publishing a pamphlet to shame Congress into action. The pamphlet went unpublished, but Lee’s fervor remained unabated.
By early spring 1776, the efforts of Lee and others began to pay off as the colonies stood on the brink of independence. Lee continually pressed South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge and Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee (no relation) to secure a declaration of independence and install a national legislature in order to gain military assistance from France. Richard Henry Lee wrote back telling Charles that the legislature in Williamsburg had not authorized him to support independence. Deciding to seize the initiative, he hurried to Virginia and met with local legislative leaders like Edmund Pendleton and Patrick Henry. After much discussion, Lee disabused the men of their fears, mainly Henry’s belief that France would try to resurrect its empire in North America by assisting the colonists in their fight. The two men were finally convinced, and on May 15th, they joined the rest of the Virginia Convention in voting to instruct the delegates to the Continental Congress to favor separation. When the instructions reached the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Richard Henry Lee moved that independence be declared immediately. The final vote came on July 2nd, and it was unanimous. Two days later on July 4th the Declaration of Independence was signed. Charles did not receive word of the signing until the end of July, but that did not stop him from celebrating the act. He proclaimed the document would give birth to an empire of free men and women who would not be “fettered by a proud domineering hierarchy.”
Ironically, Lee’s role, for which he was immensely qualified, in the actual fighting of the Revolution did not result in him becoming the champion of the American cause for which he had so doggedly struggled. In fact, quite the contrary occurred, though initially all seemed to be falling into place. Early in the war in the summer of 1776, General Lee’s men defeated a British army bent on capturing Charleston, South Carolina. That fall he returned to the main American army, which had suffered several defeats in and around New York City. He was placed in command of the army’s rear guard, but he felt no compulsion to remain silent about the army’s setbacks. It was not long before he began to openly condemn George Washington for the losses, especially Forts Washington and Lee. His attacks increased as the army withdrew across New Jersey to Pennsylvania. In one letter to Washington’s adjutant general, Joseph Reed, Lee not only criticized his commander’s “fatal indecision of mind” but also declared his “chief will do better with me than without me.” Unfortunately for Lee, the British captured him soon after, and he remained in captivity for over a year. During that time, he tried to bring peace to the warring factions, even though his plan would have resulted in less than complete independence. This led some, both then and now, to speculate that Lee was a traitor to the American cause. Lee was released from captivity in April 1778 and rejoined the army as it prepared to leave Valley Forge. At the near disastrous Battle of Monmouth in June, he inexplicably ordered his men to fall back at a crucial point in the fight, bringing Washington’s wrath down on his head. General Lee demanded a court-martial and was subsequently found guilty of disobeying orders, misbehaving by ordering the retreat and disrespecting his commander-in-chief. He was released from duty and died virtually forgotten in October 1782.
Charles Lee remains a contradiction to this day. He was born in Britain, but he found a home in America. He was a member of the nobility, yet he fought for freedom. He was a military man whose role in peacetime far eclipsed his wartime accomplishments. He helped chart a course to independence that challenged the greatest military power at the time, but his bitter and relentless attacks against George Washington, a man beloved by his countrymen, eventually resulted in his disgrace. Whether it was pride, jealousy or simple arrogance that led to his downfall, one can only speculate. Regardless of his faults, however, Charles Lee, native son of Britain, played a pivotal role in securing the birth of freedom in the new land of liberty, the United States.