Halfway along the flat, damp Northern Neck of Virginia, which stretches down to Chesapeake Bay between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, stands one of America’s most extraordinary houses, Stratford Hall. With its two rooftop triumphal arches vauntingly piercing the sky, Stratford would be remarkable for its architecture alone, unique—and uniquely handsome. But its real distinction lies in the sheer number of key historical figures who called it home. Two signers of the Declaration of Independence—Richard Henry Lee and his brother, Francis Lightfoot Lee—grew up there, along with their diplomat brothers, Arthur (also a spy) and William (also sheriff of London). Their cousin General Henry Lee III—“Light-Horse Harry,” one of the Revolution’s most dashing war heroes—lived there next, before his three terms in the Virginia governor’s mansion and one in debtors’ prison. And Stratford is the birthplace of an even more famous general with a still more equivocal legacy: Light-Horse Harry’s son Robert E. Lee.

These men and their Virginia forebears provide a luminous vantage point into the workings of the British Empire in the New World, how it rose, and why it exploded. They became, paradoxically, conservative revolutionaries, indignantly fighting to preserve long-cherished British liberties from British despoilment. Their famous words, along with their deeds, neatly encapsulate the whole history of the Revolution. As the conflict opened, it was Richard Henry who proposed in the Continental Congress that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States”; it was Arthur who wrote—in the “Liberty Song” that became the Revolution’s anthem—the slogan “By uniting we stand / By dividing we fall”; and it was Light-Horse Harry who marked the end of the era with his eulogy on behalf of Congress for George Washington, which memorably proclaimed the general “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

From their arrival in America through the Revolution, the Lees operated as a multinational family firm, like proto-Rothschilds. In 1639, when their widowed mother died in the English Midlands, three young Lees became wards of their uncle, a prosperous Worcester cloth manufacturer and importer. Dreaming big transatlantic dreams, he sent two of the boys to open a mercantile house in London and dispatched his middle nephew, Richard, to represent the firm in Virginia, raw Indian country with some 5,000 British settlers. “An enterprising genius,” in his great-grandson’s phrase, the 21-year-old immigrant started out as secretary to two successive royal governors, but he soon set up a thriving trading post on Virginia’s most backwoods frontier, swapping British manufactures with the Indians for furs and hides to send to his London brothers. By mid-century, now owner of three plantations and part of a ship—and having narrowly escaped an Indian massacre that killed 300 settlers—he exported mainly tobacco and profitably sold to colonists the goods his brothers sent him. In his ship, he imported indentured servants, too, in exchange for grants of land, Britain’s incentive for getting Englishmen to people and cultivate the wilderness. He traded in African slaves as well, 300 of whom were in Virginia by 1649.

But his uncle’s and brothers’ fortunes dwindled under Cromwell’s dictatorship, so Richard returned to England at the Restoration to start a new London trading house, grooming his son Francis to run it, while sons John and Richard learned the Virginia end of the business. Like British imperialists for the next two centuries, down to Mr. Bertram of Mansfield Park and Jos Sedley of Vanity Fair, he aimed to retire as a country gentleman back “home” and bought a big estate at Stratford-Langton, outside London, suitable for very different guests from the Wicomico and Chicacoan Indian chiefs he’d entertained as the Northern Neck’s first European settler. But in 1664, on one of his periodic trips to Virginia, he foresaw what was far from obvious: that the future lay in the still-untamed New World, not the Old. As death stole up on him at only 45, he wrote his wife to sell Stratford-Langton and bring the family back to Virginia, where he was among the biggest and richest landowners.

Dutifully, his Oxford-educated son Richard II gave up the future his teachers had predicted of “rising to the highest dignities” in the English church and moved from the pinnacle of European intellectual refinement to its opposite: one of his father’s wilderness properties, named, with unintentional mockery, Paradise. When his older brother’s death in 1673 left him head of the family, he took a wife and moved to his father’s Westmoreland County headquarters, Machodoc Plantation, an uncivilized place far north of Jamestown, meagerly furnished with a Spanish table, seven leather chairs, 16 quarts of hominy, some books, a saddle, a pistol, 16 shovels, and two frying pans. Richard “the Scholar” ran the family business conscientiously but with frequent retreats into the civilized cocoon of his own fine library. He followed his father in becoming a burgess, a member of the Council of State (made up of the colony’s dozen or so top military and civil officials), and a pillar of the establishment.

So much so, that when Nathaniel Bacon won a Council seat in 1676 and stirred up his colleagues to slaughter Indians and change the terms of the fur trade, from which “wicked and pernicious” people like Richard Lee II had wrongfully excluded “the commons of Virginia,” the starchily conservative Richard went to jail rather than bow to the “zealous inclination of the multitude.” He stayed there until dysentery fortuitously carried off Bacon two months later—not, however, before the rebellion that the firebrand had sparked among small farmers, laborers, and indentured servants had put Jamestown, the only town in a colony of isolated plantations and pioneer shacks, to the torch.

Two decades later, the establishment instincts of “the Scholar” made him shudder when the Glorious Revolution deposed the Stuarts; but authority being authority and the only bulwark against Bacon-style leveling and anarchy, he led his reluctant neighbors in recognizing William and Mary’s legitimacy. As a reward, he became revenue collector for the Southern District of the Potomac, pocketing a cut of the tax on every ship that came into that bustling commercial hub and every hogshead of tobacco or bale of furs that went out of it. By the time he died in 1715, he had put his sons into the family business, the younger ones in Virginia and the eldest in the London branch.

He made sure, too, that his second son, Thomas, got his lucrative revenue collector’s job, which the young man’s London-based uncle helped supplement with an even richer one that led to the building of Stratford. Uncle Corbin kindly hinted to his friend Lady Fairfax that her million Northern Neck acres overseas seemed to be yielding paltry rents and that his go-getter nephew could boost them. Once young Thomas had coolly informed Lady Fairfax’s former agent—Virginia’s richest and most powerful man, Robert “King” Carter—that he was replacing him, he set about fulfilling Uncle Corbin’s promise. As he crisscrossed the Fairfax domain doing so, he came upon a spot whose majestic white cliffs rising from the Potomac, seven shimmering miles wide at that point, took his breath away. He wanted the 1,443-acre property desperately enough to sail to England to seal the deal with its owner in 1718.

It was 20 years before he began to build Stratford on that beautiful land. Meanwhile, believing that “the first fall and ruin of families and estates was mostly occasioned by imprudent matches to embeggar families and to beget a race of beggars,” he married heiress Hannah Ludwell, as strong-willed and overbearing as he. Entrepreneurial and visionary like his grandfather, Thomas believed that America would burst out westward, that the backwoods would blossom into prosperous farms, and that the Potomac, navigable even without improvement for about 100 miles, would be a main transport artery into the profitable future.

To cash in on that future, he began buying thousands of acres along the river. He also was a key negotiator of the land-grabbing 1744 Treaty of Lancaster, acquiring from the Iroquois all their territory to “the setting sun,” which the Virginians interpreted far more expansively than their Indian counterparties to mean most of the Ohio basin. To settle that vast real estate, Thomas led fellow speculators in setting up the Ohio Company, which in 1749 received a Crown grant of half a million acres. To underscore the immensity of Virginia’s claims, Thomas, the Ohio Company’s first president and the colony’s acting governor, reminded the Privy Council a year later that Virginia’s 1609 charter had granted it all the land “to the South Sea to the West including California.”

As a justice of the peace, Thomas was a hard-liner with lawbreakers, so revenge was the presumed motive for the robbery and torching of his house in 1729, which killed a servant girl and burned his father’s lovingly cherished library. He and Hannah lived in makeshift quarters until they began building Stratford around 1739. The 90-foot-long house—on an H-plan, with two north-south wings joined by an east-west one so as to multiply the number of bright corner rooms—was worth waiting for. It is what the eighteenth century might have called a “swagger” house: rich, stylish, handsome, proud almost to insolence, and strong.

It is in effect a one-story house—a single piano nobile above a raised basement. But what keeps it from looking merely long and low are the main floor’s tall windows (16 panes over 16), the broad stone staircase that climbs steeply to the imposingly elevated front door, and, above all, the two clusters of four huge chimneys, brilliantly conceived as a pair of triumphal arches springing from the roofs of each wing and leading the eye skyward. For colonial America, says the noted historian of English architecture John Summerson, Stratford is “wholly exceptional,” a “remarkable performance” that he would more readily believe the work of such great royal architects as Nicholas Hawksmoor or Sir John Vanbrugh than of some local. But the house’s inspired designer—who worked closely with Hannah Lee, as we know from her son Philip’s complaint that “this very inferior dwelling now over my head” shows “what it is to be ruled by a woman”—was most probably Virginia-born William Walker.

The great houses of early Virginia display beautiful brickwork, but Stratford is a virtuoso masterpiece of the bricklayer’s art, a fanfare in brick, flaunting every one of the refinements that London artisans had developed in the late seventeenth century. The craftsmen, mostly slaves, laid the bricks in “Flemish” bond—header, stretcher, header, and so on—but they distinguished the lower story by firing the ends of the headers hot enough to burn and turn them glassy, producing a checkerboard pattern of shiny dark bricks alternating with ordinary lighter-colored ones. The piano nobile, by contrast, is all the same color and texture of brick. Rounded arches cap the lower-story windows, while flat arches crown the upper ones, all of bricks rubbed smooth to produce a slightly different color and texture, as are the bricks defining the corners of the house and flanking the door and the upper windows. The great chimneys, with viewing platforms at their bases, return to the checkerwork pattern of the lower story. Part of the pleasure of Stratford is figuring out what ingeniously different treatments of the same material, made from clay dug at Stratford and mortared with lime from Potomac oyster shells, produced such subtle but rich variations in effect.

The building of Stratford, begun exactly a century after Richard Lee I set foot in the New World, marks an inflection point in the history of British America. With no help from England other than royal charters saying that they could claim land and create a social order, pioneers like the Lees had built a new civilization in the wilderness, and it was now pouring forth wealth. The prime minister at that time, Robert Walpole, 280 pounds of wily competence, was continuing by wisdom the policy that seventeenth-century Britain had begun by weakness: “salutary neglect,” as Edmund Burke later called it, meaning that colonies that enriched England by supplying raw materials and markets for its manufactures should be left alone to do what they were doing so well. As Walpole’s long, benign rule drew to a close in 1742, and as Stratford neared completion, the colonial wealth-producing machine went into high gear.

The rich got richer, and, as the American population exploded—and as British investment capital poured into Virginia—so did everyone else. At Stratford, the 29-foot-square great hall, still one of America’s most beautiful rooms, acquired a cut-glass British chandelier to hang from its 17-foot-high ceiling, glittering even in the daylight flooding in from the doors and windows to the north and south. Someone went so far as to gild one of the refined Corinthian pilasters on the paneled gray walls before having second thoughts and painting it over, as either too gaudy or too flaunting even for those palmy days.

While Thomas Lee filled his lofty rooms with walnut and mahogany, silver and china, paintings and musical instruments, Americans everywhere, in what historians call the eighteenth-century consumer revolution, started taking luxuries for granted, including matched tea sets from Chinese (and later English) potteries. Benjamin Franklin came to breakfast one morning to find his pewter spoon and earthenware bowl gone, his wife having decided that “her Husband deserved a Silver Spoon & China Bowl as well as any of his Neighbours.” By the 1760s, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law observed that while he’d seen few fancy rugs in his youth, “now nothing are so common as Turkey and Wilton Carpetts.” By then, too, British-American trade had doubled since the 1740s, with nearly half of all English shipping engaged in it—and with Virginia tobacco accounting for 40 percent of American exports.

Thomas and Hannah Lee moved seven of their brood of eight, ranging from toddlers to teens, into Stratford sometime in the 1740s—all but Philip, the eldest, already at Eton. The children had the customary tutors and dancing masters who oversaw privileged Virginia childhoods, and the boys mastered horses and boats along with the social graces and some Greek and Latin. Since Stratford was the outward emblem of social preeminence and political power, Thomas liked to strut its drop-dead splendor with the days-long house parties fashionable among the Virginia gentry. They politicked, courted each other, and gossiped in this spectacular setting, while boating on the Potomac and playing cards, dancing, and feasting in the magnificent rooms. Thomas had become a suaver host in the years since he had anxiously fussed over every detail of his first big party, given when he was a suitor to impress Hannah’s family; back then, he had even taken a cram tutorial in Latin and Greek phrases to seem learned.

When Thomas and Hannah died within ten months of each other in 1750, Philip, studying law in London, returned to become Stratford’s master. Under his regime, the plantation soared to its apogee of wealth and opulence. Colonel Phil, as his five brothers and two sisters called him, turned Stratford into a major tobacco-shipping operation. He upgraded its wharf and shipyard to handle oceangoing vessels, built a big warehouse that collected fees from the surrounding planters for the required inspection of tobacco, and bought the 90-ton Mary to ship the tobacco abroad. A tannery, barrel-making shop, mill, and import warehouse sprang up, too, along with housing for workers that turned the whole area into a little village called Stratford Landing. Philip even brought prize stallions from England and went into the horse-breeding business. Over time, he increased the 4,800 acres he had inherited at Stratford to 6,595.

The new wealth made entertainment at Stratford Hall even grander. Colonel Phil loved music and filled the house with it. Musicians played from the observation platforms between the chimneys; music, not the standard gong or bell, announced dinner; trumpeters atop Phil’s carriage heralded his comings and goings. Getting the latest printed scores from London for his musicians and his harpsichord-playing daughters, who had a live-in music teacher, preoccupied him. And his taste was good: he was thrilled to snag the newly published complete keyboard sonatas of Scarlatti.

As the executor of his father’s will and guardian of his minor siblings, however, the “arrogant, hauty” Phil, in a contemporary’s words, was less openhanded. Thomas’s will called for distribution of the estate among his children once his debts were settled, so Philip simply delayed payment of them and distributed little. Since he couldn’t escape the will’s education bequest for the younger boys, he dutifully sent Arthur, the youngest, to Eton—directing, however, that he get “as little pocket money as ever any boy had at your school and rather less.” After all, he explained, Arthur “has not an estate to support him as a gentleman without a profession. So the more he minds his studies, the less time he will have to spend money.” Tightfistedness turned meaner when young Richard Henry, fresh out of school in Yorkshire, proposed marriage to a highly suitable English girl. Philip refused consent, writing to the girl’s father that such a match “must be very bad for her, as his Brother’s fortune [would] only maintain him alone.”

Little wonder that in 1754, Phil’s siblings sued to make him pay up, though the suit dragged on for years and fizzled out. The four minor children, however, did manage to get their guardian changed. Phil released the real-estate bequests in 1758, but he held tight to the money until he died 17 years later.

Nevertheless, when Richard Henry Lee finally got possession of his Prince William County property, he didn’t want to live there. He wanted to stay on at Stratford, even though he was now married, having wed 19-year-old Anne Aylett the year before. The reason was political: at 25, he had just won election to represent Westmoreland County in the House of Burgesses and needed to stay in the county to keep his seat, from which a political career unfolded that would make him a founding father of a great new nation. So he rented out his inherited land, leased 500 acres of the Stratford Hall Plantation from Phil, and, still living under his childhood roof, began planning his own house three miles down the river. By 1763, he, Anne, and their two baby boys had moved into the gracious new wooden villa called Chantilly, with a big bay window commanding an Elysian view from a high bluff over the Potomac. It was no Stratford Hall, but in its 20-by-24-foot dining room, he entertained like a Lee.

The Lees by then had formed their own faction in the House of Burgesses: R.H., as his siblings nicknamed him, took office the same year as his cousin Squire Richard Lee; his cousin Henry Lee was already a burgess. The next year, R.H.’s brothers Francis Lightfoot (Frank) and Thomas settled into their inherited estates in different counties and also became burgesses, while Phil served on the Council of State. During the next 15 years, R.H. became part of an oligarchy within Virginia’s tiny ruling oligarchy, one of only seven men who chaired the House’s standing committees during that entire time.

But because of his cantankerous temperament, R.H. didn’t start out in the inner circle. Before he had set out for school in England, his father had come upon him—frail, asthmatic, and epileptic—boxing with a “stout” slave. “What pleasure can you find in such rough sport?” Thomas demanded sharply. Oh, R.H. replied, he was taking lessons because he knew he “would shortly have to box with the English boys [and] did not wish to be beaten by them.” That pugilistic spirit never left him.

He certainly showed it in his maiden speech as a burgess in 1759. Despite the stage fright that plagued him until the eve of the Revolution, he rose to support a motion to tax the slave trade heavily enough to end it, and he delivered eighteenth-century America’s most stinging denunciation of slavery itself. Slavery is wrong as a matter of policy, he began. Just look at how the free colonies, settled later and with no richer soil than Virginia’s, have outstripped us economically because “with their whites they import arts and agriculture, whilst we, with our blacks, exclude both.” Worse, the resentment that burns in slaves every minute that they see the “luxury” and “liberty” we enjoy, “whilst they and their posterity are subjected for ever to the most abject and mortifying slavery,” must make them “natural enemies to society, and their increase consequently dangerous.” Only consider the slave rebellions of Greece and Rome, which laid the Greek colonies of Sicily waste, for example, and brutalized the Romans into passing laws to govern slaves “so severe, that the bare relation of them is shocking to human nature.”

But beyond even this, R.H. continued, is the moral evil. How can we believe that “our fellow-creatures . . . are no longer to be considered as created in the image of God as well as ourselves, and equally entitled to liberty and freedom by the great law of nature?” We profess Christianity: Why don’t we live up to its precepts? It’s time, he concluded, to “convince the world that we know and practise our true interests, and that we pay a proper regard to the dictates of justice and humanity.” This, remember, was more than a century before the Civil War.

If this wasn’t enough to rile his fellow burgesses, he then attacked their popular and powerful longtime Speaker, John Robinson, also the colony’s treasurer. Beyond the fact that Robinson had no right holding both these offices at once, the real problem, R.H. charged, is that he seemed to be cooking the colony’s books. Beginning in 1760, R.H. demanded annual audits, which by 1763 had turned up a troubling discrepancy. But only when Robinson died in 1765 did the whole truth emerge. Though the treasurer was supposed to burn old paper currency turned in for new notes, he simply lent out the old money to friends—£100,000 worth to assorted oligarchs. Robinson’s illicit expansion of the money supply explained the mystery that R.H. had been trying to solve: Why was inflation skyrocketing? But by the time he got his answer, Parliament had responded to Robinson’s debasement of the currency by barring the colonies from issuing paper money, hamstringing the American economy.

By then, however, a vast geopolitical upheaval had remade the world—an upheaval that began with Thomas Lee’s forming the Ohio Company in 1749 and that led, after a remarkable rippling outward of events in the Old World and the New, to American independence. The French had their own designs on the vast territory that the Virginians claimed, and in direct response to the Ohio Company’s charter, they sent soldiers from Canada into the Ohio Valley to plant lead plaques warning that this land was their land. In 1753, Virginia’s governor dispatched 21-year-old George Washington (born four and a half miles up the road from Stratford) to find out what the French were doing and to tell them that the region is “so notoriously known to be the property of the crown of Great Britain” that they should clear out. When Washington reported back home that, au contraire, the French planned to fortify the whole valley, the governor sent troops to build his own fort where the Allegheny and Monongahela merge to form the Ohio at present-day Pittsburgh, but the French drove them off and made the strategic fort their own. Sent to evict them in 1754, Washington fought two skirmishes, one a mistake and one a defeat—and ignited the French and Indian War, the first true world war.

It began with a string of British losses. A full-scale British army attempt to retake the fort ended in a rout, with every British officer killed, leaving militia commander Washington to lead the retreat. Then the French launched their own ferocious countercampaign. In 1756, they took Fort Oswego on Lake Ontario; in 1757, Fort William Henry on Lake George, pushing British America’s western frontier as far east as Albany. Even worse, on the European front, they defeated King George II’s son the Duke of Cumberland in Germany, and forced Britain to cede the king’s beloved Hanover.

With the war at its darkest, war secretary William Pitt told his cabinet colleagues, “I can save this country, and nobody else can.” After a couple of false starts, the watchful-eyed, sharp-faced 50-year-old piled victory upon victory. In 1758, his talented young officers, backed up by the huge navy he was enlarging daily, took the great Canadian fortress of Louisbourg, retook Fort Oswego and the fort at Pittsburgh, and by miraculous heroism seized Quebec, the hub of French power in America. By 1759, when the British took Montreal and the sugar islands of the West Indies, they had ended French power in the New World.

And then in 1760, after a 33-year reign, King George II died. His 22-year-old grandson, the pigheaded martinet George III, pushed aside the victory-crowned Pitt, and pushed aside as well Pitt’s Walpolean vision of a fast-growing British America—already with a third the population of Britain—left free to enrich the mother country with a cornucopia of trade. George III had other ideas: after the war ended in 1763, he was determined to make the colonists help pay for the army that Britain had decided to leave in the colonies. Trouble was, now that Pitt had ended the French threat in North America, the colonists no longer needed Britain’s protection, and they had no wish to pay for it.

The new king’s policy sparked all Richard Henry Lee’s pugnacity. He instantly grasped how opposed it was to the Walpole-Pitt vision of an empire based on entrepreneurship and freedom. Eight weeks after Parliament began turning the policy into law in 1764 by tightening enforcement of Britain’s sugar and molasses tax in the colonies and floating the idea of a future stamp tax there, R.H. wrote to a London correspondent that Britain seemed resolved “to oppress North America with the iron hand of power,” depriving it of such “essential principles of the British constitution” as “the free possession of property, the right to be governed by laws made by our representatives, and the illegality of taxation without consent.”

Perhaps people who had done Britain “some great and palpable injury” might deserve such treatment but certainly not people “who conquered and settled these countries, through great dangers to themselves and benefit to the mother country.” Surely it cannot “be just in the benefited, to repay their benefactors with chains instead of the most grateful acknowledgments.” The result was bound to be war, R.H. saw 11 years before the Revolution broke out. “Poverty and oppression, among those whose minds are filled with ideas of British liberty,” he wrote, in time “may produce a fatal resentment of parental care being converted into tyrannical usurpation.”

It’s hard to imagine a more orthodoxly conservative radicalism than this. It is, as R.H. put it succinctly to the pro-America Lord Shelburne a few years later, merely the “manly assertion of social privileges founded in reason, guaranteed by the English constitution, and rendered sacred by a possession of near two hundred years.” It is the assertion, he wrote a neighbor the following year, of “the most palpable privileges of human nature, the legal rights of America, and the constitutional freedom of British Subjects.” After all, he explained in an article, our ancestors received an additional legal guarantee of their constitutional rights when they came to America: the king, “knowing what great benefit it would be to England, to settle this country, and what great dangers the first settlers must meet with, did give them . . . a charter, that they and their children, and all who came after them, should hold their liberty and property, as the people of England did.”

This is the radicalism of a British-educated British subject, steeped in the culture of British constitutional liberty, asserting that, even in the colonies, Britons never will be slaves, as the then-new song put it. But now Britain threatens “to deprive us of that most valuable of all possessions, our liberty,” to reduce us to “Egyptian bondage,” to see us “plunged into the abyss of slavery, and of consequence deprived of every glorious distinction that marks the Man from the Brute,” he protested in letter after letter.

It is not surprising that a man who’d thought deeply about the differences between slavery and freedom would instantly recognize and resent the tendency of the new policy, as would a man well aware that his tough and determined ancestors had helped forge out of a wilderness the British Empire in America and the transatlantic trade that showered Britain with wealth. And, more personally, who would be quicker to feel “a fatal resentment of parental care being converted into tyrannical usurpation” than a man whose brother had wrongly deprived him and his siblings of what their father had bequeathed them?

I wish I could report that Richard Henry never lapsed from this clear-sightedness. He did, though—badly. Six months after he had condemned the 1764 Sugar Act, he wrote a London acquaintance that if Parliament did pass a stamp tax, he’d like the job of collecting it in Virginia. By the time someone else got the job, he realized how wrong he’d been to seek it. But his application was part of his continual, anxious search for extra money. He had a taste for good wine and “Havana segars,” but he had the income of a younger son. He augmented the rent from his lands and the produce of Chantilly by working as an agent for his brother Phil’s tobacco warehouse and later for his brother William’s London-based shipping business, where he once even discussed dealing in slaves before dropping the idea as unprofitable. He was always strapped. When it came time to send his sons to college, for example, he sent them to England because, at £30 a year, it was a lot cheaper than the £100 that Princeton or Harvard charged. (William and Mary, cheaper even than England, was out of the question because “there, so little attention is paid either to the learning, or the morals of the boys.”)

But this lapse aside, R.H. stepped to the front rank of patriot leaders, and in his doings and reflections you can watch the inexorable unfolding of the Revolution with vivid clarity. When the Stamp Act took effect in March 1765, he spearheaded Virginia’s opposition, part of a wave of protest and mob violence that swept the colonies. Heading an angry demonstration and penning a fierce denunciation, he pushed the tax collector to resign—which the collector did, though not without disclosing R.H.’s application for the job, prompting an embarrassed public explanation. In February 1766, R.H. organized the Westmoreland Association “to stigmatize and punish” anyone who tried to administer or obey the act, since it “does absolutely direct the property of the people to be taken from them, without their consent.” And he led an obstreperous mob threatening to pillory and jail a neighbor who had promised compliance with the act. The affrighted neighbor recanted and apologized.

In response to the upheaval, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act that same month, while reasserting, however, in a Declaratory Act, its right to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever,” since they “are, and of right ought to be, subordinate unto, and dependent upon the imperial crown and parliament of Great Britain”—fighting words that R.H. flung back at Britain a decade later.

While things were exploding in the public arena, they were exploding in R.H.’s private life, too. He was out shooting swans one wintry day in 1768—they still abound in the beautiful inlets around Stratford, among hundreds of noisy geese and, overhead, the occasional bald eagle—when his gun blew up, blasting the four fingers off his left hand. Ever after, he wore a specially made black silk glove to cover his disfigurement: in time, he practiced gesturing dramatically with it, which, with his Roman nose, high forehead, tall, gaunt frame, aristocratic bearing, easy fluency, and classical allusions, added to his command as an orator. Shortly after the accident, his wife caught pneumonia and died very suddenly, at only 30, leaving him with four young children. “I have been so covered with affliction this past winter,” he wrote his brother Arthur, “that I have thought but little of any thing but my own unhappiness.”

A year later, however, he remarried. His new wife, Anne Pinkard, herself recently widowed, became “a most tender, attentive, and fond mother” to his children, and between 1770 and 1782 he had five more babies with her. After the first, he wrote with grim jocularity to his brother William of his money worries, “oppressed as I am with a numerous family. Five—children already, another far advanced on the stocks, with a teeming little Wife, are circumstances sufficiently alarming.” But he was “one of the kindest and fondest of parents,” his grandson recounts. His letters are filled with concern for his boys studying in England and anxious inquiries about buying annuities to protect his girls. He writes of his “prattling fireside,” where “I have heared every little story and settled all points.”

Illustration by Alberto Mena

As the crisis with Britain unfolded, R.H. took the lead in uniting the colonies in their opposition, to forestall Britain’s Machiavellian strategy of “conquest, by division.” So when Britain imposed the 1765 Quartering Act on New York, for example, it assumed that the other colonies, relieved to have escaped, would keep silence. But “a prudent man,” R.H. wrote, “should lend his assistance to extinguish the flames, which had invaded the house of his next door neighbour, and not coldly wait, until the flames had reached his own.” He was the first to suggest, writing in 1768 to Philadelphia lawyer and pamphleteer John Dickinson, that the colonies should form committees of correspondence to inform and support one another and that “lovers of liberty in every province” should keep in touch privately, too.

In this spirit, after Bostonians rioted in the wake of the new Townshend Act duties on glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea, and Britain sent in troops to overawe the town later in 1768, R.H. wrote Dickinson again, more sharply. Why, he wanted to know, was Pennsylvania standing by “silent, when the Liberty of America is thus dangerously invaded . . . and when a Union of the whole must infallibly establish the public freedom and security?” Our silence, he warned, will be “deemed a tacit giving up of our Rights, and an acknowledgement that the British Parliament may at pleasure tax the unrepresented Americans.” He himself organized a Virginia boycott of British imports, one of a number in the colonies that within a year slashed sales by up to two-thirds.

When Parliament repealed the Townshend duties in April 1770, except for the tax on tea, R.H. scoffed at the too-little, too-late move. “Instead of appeasing, it has inflamed all N. America,” he wrote his brother William. Clearly, as John Adams famously judged, “the Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.”

But now it began to turn from idea into reality. As Britain threatened to subvert another basic constitutional right, the right to trial by a jury of one’s peers, R.H. added Bostonian Samuel Adams to his circle of conspirators-by-correspondence. In early 1773, apologizing for writing to a stranger, he hoped that “to be firmly attached to the cause of liberty . . . renders proper, the most easy communication of sentiment” among those whom “tyrants” aim “to reduce to slavery.” Britain had already proposed to try customs-evasion cases in nonjury admiralty courts, but now something worse seemed in store. When a particularly obnoxious British customs patrol boat, the Gaspée, ran aground on a Narragansett Bay sandbar, Rhode Islanders rowed out and burned it to the waterline while wounding its captain. Royal authorities, rumor had it, planned to send the suspects to England for trial, where by definition they could have no jury of their peers. Was this true? R.H. asked Adams. If so, “I hope it will never be permitted to take place, while a spark of virtue, or one manly sentiment remains in America.”

Bostonians displayed manly sentiment aplenty at the end of 1773 by dumping into their harbor a shipload of tea not just unconstitutionally taxed but now also under a tyrannous monopoly. As the colonists braced for retaliation, R.H. asked Adams to alert the Virginia legislature when the blow fell, so we can all be “cool, firm, and united,” especially necessary since R.H.’s brother Arthur had just reported from London that “there is a persuasion here, that America will see, without interposition, the ruin of Boston. It is of the last importance to the general cause, that your conduct should prove this opinion erroneous. If once it is perceived that you may be attacked and destroyed, by piecemeal, actum est, every part will, in its turn, feel the vengeance which it would not unite to repel, and a general slavery or ruin must ensue.”

The retaliation, in the 1774 Coercive Acts, was fierce, closing Boston Harbor and imposing quasi-martial law. The British commanding general became also governor of Massachusetts, empowered to appoint legislators and judges and take over public buildings as barracks. “No shock of Electricity could more suddenly and universally move,” R.H. wrote Arthur of the legislature’s response that June. “Astonishment, indignation, and concern seized on all.” He got the legislators to declare a day of fasting and prayer in protest—the kind of tactic that changed minds and hearts—and he called for an expansion of the trade embargo to include exports as well as imports, now that “the dirty Ministerial Stomach is daily ejecting its foul contents upon us.” He also began to agitate for a “Congress of Deputies from all the Colonies.”

In September, the First Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia. As the leading radical firebrands, R.H., his brother Frank, and their fellow Virginian Patrick Henry, along with the Boston cousins Samuel and John Adams, stoked defiance. They persuaded Congress to endorse the just-issued Resolves of Suffolk County in Massachusetts, whose impassioned language invokes the Pilgrims in recalling how the British “of old persecuted, scourged, and exiled our fugitive parents” and also echoes Locke in recalling that the colonists owe the crown allegiance only because of “compact,” which, by implication, the king is breaking. The incendiary Resolves call on the county—which includes Boston—to ignore the Coercive Acts; to pay no attention to the new, unconstitutional courts but to settle their disputes by arbitration instead; to treat anyone who accepts office in the new, illegitimate legislature as “obstinate and incorrigible enemies”; to take a British hostage for every patriot leader the army arrests; and to set up a militia that trains every week, captained by “inflexible friends to the rights of the people.”

R.H.’s call to go a step further and form a national militia while demanding British withdrawal from Boston failed, however, since, as Silas Deane of Connecticut objected, it would be “a Declaration of Warr.” But Congress did form the Continental Association—devised by R.H.’s committee—which urged local groups to police the trade embargo, as part of a fast-spreading grassroots network that was forming a shadow government throughout the colonies. That winter, too, Colonel Phil Lee died, leaving R.H. executor of his estate and, until Phil’s two-year-old heir grew up, master of Stratford.

By the time the Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775, Paul Revere had already ridden his midnight ride, the shots at Lexington and Concord had been fired, and colonial troops had besieged the British in Boston. In June, the British drove the besiegers from their fortified Bunker Hill position. Sure that their trained regulars would make short work of the rebellious rabble, the British gasped at the 40 percent casualties the colonists’ guerrilla tactics inflicted. “What an unfair method of carrying on a war!” a British survivor whimpered. In Philadelphia, Congress now established an army, with George Washington at its head, and R.H. boasted that Virginia could produce 6,000 “Frontier Men,” with amazing “dexterity . . . in the use of the Rifle Gun. There is not one of these Men who wish a distance of less than 200 yards or a larger object than an Orange—Every shot is fatal.”

As a last-ditch reconciliation effort, in early July the congressmen sent the king an “Olive Branch Petition,” asserting loyalty and asking him to restore the “former harmony” of Britain’s pre-1764 colonial policy. More realistically, however, the same week they published a “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms,” explaining to potential foreign allies and lenders how royal policy, not colonial rebelliousness, had ignited the fighting. The king almost instantly replied that the colonists were in “open and avowed Rebellion,” and in October he told Parliament that the “rebellious War . . . is manifestly carried on for the Purpose of establishing an independent Empire.” In December, Parliament passed the American Prohibitory Act, blockading the colonies and declaring all ships bringing goods to America liable to seizure and confiscation, “as if the same were the ships . . . of open enemies.”

The king was right, of course. R.H., like many other patriot leaders, was busily stockpiling gunpowder on Congress’s behalf and buying ships to form a navy. But the royal statements and the Prohibitory Act swept away all his congressional colleagues’ hesitations. The law has “dissolved our government . . . and placed us on the high road to Anarchy,” R.H. wrote Patrick Henry. “We cannot be Rebels excluded from the king’s protection and Magistrates acting under his authority at the same time. This proves the indispensible necessity of our taking up government immediately, for the preservation of Society.”

We need to make “Treaties of alliance with foreign States” for defense against “the despotic aims of the British Court,” and we need foreign trade to survive, and we can’t get either “until we take the rank as an independent people. . . . Our very existence as freemen, requires that we take decisive steps now.”

Accordingly, on June 7, 1776, acting on instructions from a Virginia legislature led by his brother and uncle, R.H. moved in Congress “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” Congress also empowered each colony to form its own government, and R.H. rushed home to help write a constitution—which he made sure was “very much of the democratic kind”—leaving Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration that made his motion for independence a reality. In August, R.H. and Frank joined 54 other congressmen in signing the great document, after R.H. politely commiserated with Jefferson over Congress’s having “mangled” the Declaration by editing out Jefferson’s blaming of Britain for introducing slavery into America. “However,” R.H. assured the crestfallen author, “the Thing is in its nature so good, that no Cookery can spoil the Dish for the palates of Freemen.”

John Adams described the Lees at this period as “that band of brothers, intrepid and unchangeable, who, like the Greeks at Thermopylae, stood in the gap, in the defense of their country, from the first glimmering of the Revolution in the horizon, through all its rising light, to its perfect day.” He meant not only the Lees in the Virginia legislature, congressmen R.H. and Frank (sweet-tempered but hard to glimpse, since so few of his papers survive), but also, because the Lees acted as a transatlantic family firm no less in revolution than in business, the youngest brothers, William and Arthur, who served as American agents in Britain and France.

Arthur’s saga, in which William’s adventures form only a parenthesis, is material for a thriller, as a youth from the fringe of the empire turns into a radical wheeler-dealer at the center of British affairs, intimate with a vivid array of the celebrities of the eighteenth century, and then becomes a spy. After a few post-Eton years back at Stratford, Arthur returned to England in 1760 to study medicine, heading to Edinburgh on Samuel Johnson’s advice that it had Britain’s best medical school. There he became close friends with his classmate James Boswell, later Johnson’s brilliant biographer, and he graduated with the gold medal as top student. Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania’s London lobbyist and a nurturer of talented Americans, got him elected to the Royal Society.

Arthur returned to Virginia in 1766, but after the glitter of London, it palled—as did doctoring, compared with the excitements of politics, once the Townshend Acts radicalized him in 1767. With a series of articles in a Virginia paper, he began a long career as a crusading polemicist for “justice and liberty” for America. “I cannot Conceive of the Necessity of becoming a Slave,” he wrote, in terms that R.H. would approve, “while there remains a Ditch in which one may die free.”

In the fall of 1768, just after finishing his “Liberty Song,” he headed back to London, aiming to turn British opinion against the government’s American policy. Changing professions, too, he entered the Middle Temple to study law in 1770. “In the field of politics,” he wrote, “from the politician in the cider-cellar to the peer in his palace, I had access and influence.”

He was closest to one politician in particular, John Wilkes, a radical member of Parliament and later lord mayor of London. The libertine Wilkes had become a popular hero when the government foolishly charged him with seditious libel and blasphemous obscenity, jailed him, and threw him out of Parliament. The Middlesex voters, chanting “Wilkes and Liberty,” kept reelecting him, until finally the government had to seat him. Arthur, appointed head of his political party, the Bill of Rights Society, grafted the cause of American liberty onto British radicalism.

Arthur became a propagandist, writing—“with a pen dipped in the gall of asps,” one royal official complained—75 widely read newspaper articles between 1769 and 1776, condemning Britain’s injustices in the colonies and warning that Britain couldn’t win an American war. When the fighting started at Concord and Lexington, Arthur got the first accounts by fast schooner and spread the pro-American version of the story uncontested for two weeks, before official news reached the British government.

Using Wilkes’s political machine, Arthur had gotten William, a prosperous London merchant and Stratford’s agent abroad, elected co-sheriff of London in 1773 and an alderman two years later. William emerged as the London merchants’ radical spokesman and in 1775 organized a pro-American petition from them, complaining to Parliament that the American embargo was ruining them. Petitions from Britain’s other commercial cities soon followed.

While R.H. was buying gunpowder and ships, Arthur was making his own equally essential war preparations. At Mansion House, he had met another celebrity-to-be, Pierre-Augustin Caron, harp teacher to Louis XV’s daughters and later—having added “de Beaumarchais” to his name—the immortal playwright of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. At that moment, he was a French secret agent and arms dealer, through whom Arthur arranged for a clandestine loan to Congress of a million livres from officially neutral France, as well as supplies of arms and provisions.

As Congress’s spy in London after independence, Arthur sent a flood of intelligence about troop movements and political developments. In December 1776, Congress made him one of its three secret commissioners to France—to negotiate loans, buy arms and supplies, and, above all, to get France to join America’s war against Britain. William crossed the channel soon after him to serve as one of America’s commercial agents in France.

And now Arthur’s troubles began. He discovered that his fellow commissioner, ex–Connecticut congressman Silas Deane, was war-profiteering, accepting kickbacks and loading the blockade-running supply ships not just with needed matériel for Congress but also with scarce and valuable commodities for private sale. Arthur was scandalized, the more so after smoldering under his brother Phil’s swindles and finagles for so many years. He was equally outraged that the third commissioner, Benjamin Franklin, seemed not to care—perhaps because he believed that when in France, do as the Frenchmen do; or perhaps because his grandnephew was part of Deane’s operation.

But there was worse. Arthur began charging that Deane’s office was a nest of “spies and traitors.” Deane angrily countered that Arthur was quarrelsome and paranoid. Franklin told him that he had a “sick mind, which is forever tormenting itself with jealousies, suspicions, and fancies that others mean you ill,” and which “will end in insanity.” But Arthur was right. Deane’s secretary, an American doctor named Edward Bancroft, was indeed a spy, whom the Foreign Office handsomely paid to copy the American commissioners’ correspondence in invisible ink and hide it in a hollow tree for British agents to speed to London.

The brouhaha among the diplomats prompted Congress, led by R.H., to recall Deane to explain his behavior. He had no receipts to show for his purchases and little to say beyond bluster. Instead he wrote a scathing article, reprinted in English and French newspapers, falsely accusing Arthur Lee and his brothers of double-crossing France by seeking a separate peace with Britain, and claiming that Arthur achieved nothing by his diplomacy but “universal disgust.” Congress publicly vindicated Arthur, but as Deane and Franklin had discredited him with the French government, his diplomatic career was as dead as Deane’s, and he returned to America for good in 1780, becoming a state assemblyman, a congressman, and one of the three directors of the Board of Treasury until Alexander Hamilton took it over. “Unprejudiced posterity,” summed up Samuel Adams, “will acknowledge that Arthur Lee has borne a great share in defending and establishing the liberties of America.”

Arthur returned to America to find R.H. and Frank out of Congress. Worn out, they had gone home to Virginia in May 1779, Frank for permanent retirement. The fight over the Deane affair had dispirited them: it was bad enough to fight the enemy, but life in Congress, which served as the executive branch and the bureaucracy as well as the legislature, seemed an endless struggle against their own people—trying to get the individual states to provide troops and supplies; trying to stop war profiteers, who seemed to be everywhere; trying to smooth over the squabbling among generals; and trying, in R.H.’s case, to convince the delegates of the need for a navy and get it built.

For three years, R.H. had poured out torrents of correspondence each day—ordering 40,000 uniforms from France, which “should be generally for Men of stouter make than those of France”; diplomatically assuring a general that of course he is “conscious of the thousand occasions in which the service must suffer immensely if Commanders at a distance are not to accommodate conduct to circumstances,” but that even so, it’s a good idea to follow orders; joyfully telling Samuel Adams that Virginia will ratify the Articles of Confederation; bursting out to Patrick Henry about the difficulty of recruiting soldiers: “O for 10, or 12 thousand Americans to sweep these vermin from our land!”

And all this under wartime conditions. “Mr. Lee’s fortune not being very ample & having a large family to support, he was obliged to live on the payts from the State of Va.,” someone wrote long ago in the corner of one of R.H.’s letters. “To be of as little expence as possible, to his Constituents, at a time when every Dollar was needed for their preservation, he Marketed for himself. For two months during Nov & Decr ’77 which were unusually cold, he lived upon wild pigeons,” which “were sold for a few cents pr Dozen & afforded but a scanty fare.” The House of Delegates had not originally reelected R.H. to Congress in 1777 because his enemies had spread a false rumor that he was purposely trying to devalue Virginia’s currency. He had to vindicate himself to that body before it held a new election that allowed him to go back to Philadelphia and eat pigeons in a cold room. “My eyes fail me fast,” he wrote Patrick Henry that year, “and I believe my understanding must soon follow this incessant toil.”

He was a changed man when he returned to Chantilly in 1779. Loyal Virginian that he was, he nevertheless dreamed of ending his days in the “wise and free republic in Massachusetts Bay,” he wrote John Adams, since he had come to prefer it to “the hasty, unpersevering, aristocratic genius of the south”—sentiments already latent in his antislavery speech 20 years earlier. And in the same vein he had changed his views about the future he wanted for his sons. He always wanted Ludwell to be a lawyer, but now he’d like him to learn soldiering, too, to be ready for anything “the service of his Country might point out.” For Thom, his eldest, he wanted a career no longer as a clergyman but rather as an international businessman. Virginia may have strayed from its entrepreneurial roots, but he’d like the Lees to return to theirs.

After the fighting ended at Yorktown in 1781 and the Treaty of Paris restored peace in 1783, R.H. returned to Congress in 1784, and his colleagues elected him to a one-year term as their president, the chief executive of the United States. Now R.H. made up for the cold and the pigeons with presidential opulence. “If for the good of my country I must be a Beau, why I shall be a Beau,” he sighed archly, and he dressed up in “the very best black silk” as befits “my station.” When Congress moved to New York in January 1785 and began paying the presidential expenses, a nephew reported that R.H. was living “in a palace” and “does the honors of it with as much ease and dignity as if he had been always crowned with a royal diadem. . . . Crowds of obedient domestics run to his call,” and at thrice-weekly dinners for 25, “Champagne, Claret, Madeira, and Muscat” accompany “a profusion of the delicacies and luxuries of good living.”

Pomp aside, R.H. led Congress in passing two crucial democratic measures: the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which laid out America’s western territory in parcels that ordinary citizens could buy and provided for their organization into new states with the same political rights as the old ones—and without slavery. It was built into British America’s democratic DNA from the start that, as new settlements sprang up, they sent representatives to the colonial legislatures as a matter of course. Before these ordinances could pass, Virginia had to give up its vast western claims, as R.H. energetically urged, though the measure rendered worthless his family’s shares in the Ohio Company, which had triggered so many years of upheaval. He saw Congress’s sale of the lands as a quick way of paying off the Revolutionary War debt, though Alexander Hamilton, like an alchemist, later transmuted that debt into something magical.

R.H.’s passion for democracy sparked his last public drama, over the new Constitution. He had declined appointment to the Constitutional Convention because, as a congressman charged with revising the new document, he thought it a conflict of interest to help write it. He was aghast, therefore, when the convention decided to send its work directly to the states for ratification rather than let Congress tinker with it first, as the Articles of Confederation demanded. And though he thought the Constitution sound, it needed fine-tuning.

Providing for insufficient separation of powers, he complained, the new Constitution was “most highly and dangerously oligarchic,” concentrating too much power in the president and the Senate, with the House of Representatives being “a mere shred or rag of representation.” Worse, it lacked a bill of rights, without which, he wrote Samuel Adams a few days later, its purpose appears to be “the acquisition of power unlimited, not the security of civil liberty.” Shouldn’t we cure these defects before rushing to ratification? he asked. These reasonable objections helped impel the Constitution’s supporters to promise adding a bill of rights by amendment, and R.H. accepted election as the first senator from Virginia in order to support those additions.

Crippled by gout and having injured his one good hand so he could no longer write, he retired to Chantilly permanently in 1792. There, his nephew recalled, he was often “of a gay and cheerful disposition and very fond of promoting mirth.” He died two years later, aged 61.

In the last famous master of Stratford Hall, his cousin General Henry Lee III, R.H.’s dream of renewed Lee family entrepreneurship turned into a nightmare and ended in a peculiarly American self-made tragedy. “Light-Horse Harry” earned his nickname as an intrepid Revolutionary War hero, the perfect incarnation of a Virginia cavalier, a shining favorite of his superiors, George Washington and Nathaniel Greene. A virtuoso of the lightning raid that captured British prisoners and supplies with no losses of his own, Harry won command in 1778 of “an independent partisan Corps” of light dragoons (hence “Light-Horse”) that operated outside the normal chain of command. After the 23-year-old major’s breathtakingly audacious 1779 capture of a British fort at Paulus Hook, New Jersey, Congress promoted him to colonel, gave him its highest medal, and expanded his corps into Lee’s Legion, with infantry as well as cavalry.

With its courage, esprit de corps, fine uniforms, and splendid horses that could always outrun the enemy, the legion quickly gained a mystique. These were self-consciously elite troops, and though Harry maintained rigid discipline (to the scandalous extreme, once, of setting up the head of an executed deserter on a pike to deter others), he took solicitous care of his men, keeping them well fed and healthy and never endangering them needlessly. He led them in gloriously daring exploits, but only after meticulous calculation, preparation, and sometimes rehearsal. “A soldier is always in danger,” he emphasized, “when his conviction of security leads him to dispense with the most vigilant precautions.” He molded the legion into “a band of brothers,” one observer wrote, “having entire confidence in each other, and all having equal confidence in, and personal esteem for, their commander, Lee.” Unlike other Continental Army soldiers, who signed up for a limited hitch, Harry’s men volunteered for the duration of the war. As for Harry himself, this was, he said, “a command I most sincerely love.”

But the raids that were the legion’s specialty don’t win wars. “To win a victory [is] but the first step in the actions of a great captain,” Harry wrote, in censure of the British commander General Howe. “To improve it is as essential; and unless the first is followed by the second, the conqueror ill requites those brave companions of his toils and perils, . . . and basely neglects his duty to his country.” Did Harry never wonder if this shoe fit him? Certainly he heard other carping, since the favoritism of his superiors, and the arrogance that stares out at you from Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of him as a young officer, germinated resentment and enmity all around him. The result was two trumped-up courts-martial, which acquitted Harry with honor but left him embittered, a resentment that grew with later, and more justified, criticism that his absence from his assigned positions at the Battles of Guilford Court House and Eutaw Springs cost his comrades clear-cut victories.

What he took to be slights, “ill natured insinuations,” and neglect of his merit gnawed at him, prompting his mentor, General Greene, to remind him sharply that “I have run every risk in favor of your operations” and that “jealousies and discontents have not been wanting in the Army at the opportunities afforded you to the prejudice of others.” Nevertheless, he decided to quit the army in February 1782, six months after the last great battle at Yorktown, citing ill health, “grief,” “misery,” “the persecution of my foes”—some force majeure from outside rather than his own free decision.

Another reason he gave for leaving was undeniably true: he was getting married in April. His bride was his second cousin, “the Divine” Matilda Lee, the 19-year-old harpsichord-playing daughter of Colonel Phil, a “fine lady with a fine fortune” and a “fine figure.” The pair lived at Stratford, which, because Colonel Phil’s toddler heir had tumbled headlong down its steep stone stairway to his death, now belonged to Matilda’s mother. When she remarried and moved away, she left Harry and Matilda in charge. When she died in 1789, Stratford became Matilda’s in fact. Harry put his stamp on it, enlarging and updating its drawing room with a stylish federal mantelpiece, wainscoting, and window frames, and turning the basement story, hitherto storage and servants’ quarters, into more bedrooms.

Harry had grown up with great expectations. His father was a Potomac grandee; his mother, even richer, a famous beauty whom George Washington had courted unsuccessfully. But his uncle, Squire Richard Lee, was rich and unmarried, and everyone expected him to make Harry, his favorite nephew, the heir of his 10,000 acres. The squire was not wifeless for lack of trying: his brother had tirelessly bowled a succession of eligible widows at him, and he himself had proposed to a parade of unsuitable young women who humiliatingly turned him down. In amorous matters, the Falstaffian squire was a “barbarian,” “lewdly indulgent” with his slaves, Bab and Henny. “If he ever marries,” a friend predicted, “you may depend upon it, . . . it will be with some mop-squeezer who can satiate his filthy amours in his own way.” But around the time of Harry’s marriage, the squire, now past 60, wed a beautiful 16-year-old cousin, with whom he fathered four heirs by the time he died at 69.

Harry, then, would make his great expectations a reality all by himself. He would be even more heroic an entrepreneur than he was a soldier and would finally win the full-throated hosannas he deserved. He saw like a shining vision the same American dream that his great-uncle Thomas Lee had dreamed half a century earlier, of settlers thronging into the continent’s rich undeveloped lands, planting farms lush with ripening fields and fat cattle, and turning the Potomac into a river of gold. Now that America had won independence and the Northwest Ordinance had set the terms for new settlements, all this was bound to come to pass, supercharged by a flood of immigrants and foreign investment.

And so, while Harry had a seemingly normal official life as a statesman—at the Continental Congress from 1785 to 1789, Virginia governor from 1791 to 1794, commanding general who put down the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, U.S. congressman from 1799 to 1801—he had another life that seemed more real and much more exciting to him. He bought land compulsively—well over a million acres of it, from the Great Falls of the Potomac into the Northwest Territory; in Kentucky, in North Carolina, in Georgia. He bought mines and mineral rights. He bought shares in the Potomac Company, which George Washington and others had first conceived before the war to build canals to float barges around the Potomac falls and ultimately become a trade artery linking up to—who knows?—maybe Lake Erie. Harry began to talk in a promoter’s get-rich-quick language: “the value of the spot is above present calculation,” “the most convenient & productive iron estate in our country,” and so on.

Harry’s vision was right, of course. It all came true. Even the canal materialized, though more modestly than he figured. It’s just that he was way too early, he way overpaid, and he was way overleveraged. The European investors, growing rich financing Napoleon’s wars, kept their capital in Europe, and in 1795, the American real-estate bubble began to deflate, even as speculators were frenziedly buying warrants for land neither they, the sellers, nor any surveyor had ever seen. It exploded in 1797, when Robert Morris’s 6-million-acre North American Land Company went bust, vaporizing $40,000 that Morris owed Harry. But Harry kept on buying. “Lee ought long ago to have asked himself,” observes Harry’s judicious biographer, Charles Royster, “why George Washington—one of America’s most experienced and active land speculators—was selling rather than buying land in the boom of the early 1790s.”

At first, Harry had spent—“invested”—his own money and his wife’s. A few days before Matilda died in childbirth at only 27 in 1790, she cannily put Stratford in trust for their three children, but Harry chipped away at their inheritances as much as he could. In 1793, he married Ann Hill Carter, 20, of Shirley Plantation and spent her grand fortune, too. When the cash ran low, he began borrowing, mortgaging existing properties to buy new ones and constructing, with gravity-defying leverage, a pyramid of debt. Ann’s father took his measure accurately and left his property “solely” to her and her children, “apprehensive” that “they may be destined to come to want.” When he died in 1806, Ann begged Harry to come to his senses, since “your afflicted, fatherless wife can now only look to you to smooth her rugged path through life, and soften her bed of death!”

But nothing stopped him, not even as creditors dunned him in the governor’s mansion; not even as the acreage around Stratford shrank, the best furnishings went out the door, the house itself grew shabby; not even as he gave Washington a bad check, by no means the only one he passed. “No event of my life has given me more anguish,” he wrote his lifelong friend and hero. As creditors closed in and threatened lawsuits, he sold the same land to two different buyers, land that was still mortgaged, land he didn’t own, and reportedly even a friend’s horse and slave. He made promises, asked for more time, grew vague. He begged his Princeton classmate and friend, Secretary of State James Madison, to send him abroad as a consul—to escape the duns. But they cornered him. Because the laws then gave creditors the right to take all a bankrupt’s property, Harry, trying to save something for his family, refused to take the oath of insolvency. He took the other choice instead: starting in April 1809, he served 11 months in jail for debt.

When he came out for the brief and violent finale of his tragedy, he turned Stratford over to his and Matilda’s 23-year-old son, Henry Lee IV, to settle a debt, and Harry, Ann, and their children decamped to a small row house in Alexandria. As the family was boarding the boat for the trip up the Potomac, legend has it, no one could find three-year-old Robert E. Lee, who turned up in the nursery next to the room where he was born, saying a tearful good-bye to the winged cherubs cast into the iron fireback of the little fireplace there. Arriving at the new house, the first thing Harry did was spread out his papers, soaked in the voyage, to dry—especially the first chapters of his memoirs of the Revolution, which he had begun in jail. Though the vivid book never made money, as he’d hoped, it became a standard reference work on the war.

Harry claimed it was to find a publisher for the memoirs that he went to Baltimore in July 1812. He also claimed he’d gone there to play whist. He claimed, implausibly, that he did not go there looking for trouble, but trouble is certainly what he found.

Baltimore was a Republican town filled with England-hating French and Irish immigrants who full-throatedly supported the War of 1812, declared that June. Harry was a staunch Federalist—like most Virginia ex–Continental Army officers, whom the wartime failures of the Continental Congress had made supporters of strong central government—and he opposed this new war as a useless waste of soldiers’ lives. Two days after the war started, a mob had chased Federalist newspaper editor Alexander Hanson out of Baltimore and had wrecked his office for his antiwar stance. Hanson returned to town on July 26, distributed the next day a new issue of his paper, which charged the mayor and governor with letting the June riot rage unrestrained for political reasons, and then locked himself in his house with a gang of tough young Federalists who’d come from southern Maryland intent on “wresting Baltimore from the tyranny of the mob.” Harry happened to drop in that Monday evening and suggested that the group be “fully prepared to resist an attack.” He became leader by popular acclaim.

For all his talk of driving off the mob with “the vigorous use of the bayonet,” when night fell and the mob swelled, Harry counseled keeping the house dark and quiet. But the Federalists fired over the heads of the crowd, and when the mob, throwing rocks and shooting guns, swarmed into the house—and a gun held to Harry’s head misfired—Harry, who “wished above all things, to avoid the effusion of blood,” advised surrendering to the militia and going to jail. Over the sharp protests of Hanson that “there is no confidence to be placed” in the protection of the authorities, the Federalist defenders took Harry’s advice.

That was a mistake. When darkness fell the next night, the mob overran the undefended jail, beating, kicking, and knifing the Federalists, with special animus toward those “damned old tories,” Lee and his fellow ex–Continental Army officer James Lingan. When Lingan pulled open his shirt to display the wounds he’d suffered freeing the country when his attackers were still “in the bogs of Ireland,” the rioters killed him. As Harry told the “base villains” that “they disgraced the country in which they had found an asylum,” they beat him senseless, slitting his nose and trying to gouge out his eyes. Only when they thought all their victims were dead did the rioters depart. Lingan, however, proved the sole fatality.

“Black as a negro” from his bruises, “covered with blood from tip to toe,” Harry never really recovered. In May 1813, permanently scarred, “absorbed in misery & tortured with pain,” he sailed for the Caribbean, wandering from island to island for five years, trying different doctors and treatments, looking for relief he never found. He wrote letters of advice, encouragement, and love to the abandoned Ann and her five children, who, as the bank twice reduced the interest on the annuity her father left her, grew poorer and poorer. Finally, as what sounds like bladder cancer ate away at him and he knew he was dying, he booked passage for home, so ill that he never made it. He had to be put ashore at Cumberland Island, Georgia, where Nathaniel Greene’s daughter lived, “to die in the house and in the arms of the daughter of my old friend and compatriot,” which he did, in agony, two weeks later, on March 25, 1818, aged 62. He was buried on the island, the flagship of the nearby naval base firing its minute gun until the earth closed over him.

What happened to Stratford is briefly told, though scandal-tinged—not that sexual irregularity necessarily made the Lees squirm. When the young husband of R.H.’s strong-minded sister Hannah died, for instance, leaving a will that would force her out of their beautiful house if she remarried, she had her new love move in without marriage, and gave the son she had with him her first husband’s surname. Family and friends didn’t shun her, and, stretching orthodoxy even further, R.H. even agreed with her gingerly that, taxation without representation being tyranny, taxpaying widows like Hannah should have the vote.

But nobody forgave the transgression of Harry’s son Henry Lee IV. Henry married the orphaned heiress next door, Ann McCarty of Pope’s Creek, whose 2,000 acres bordered Stratford. Ann spruced up threadbare Stratford munificently, bore a daughter Henry modestly allowed was “said to be beautiful,” and brought along her younger sister Betsy, whose guardian Henry became. But at a high-spirited family party, Henry’s beautiful two-year-old plunged down Stratford’s steep front steps to her death, just like Colonel Phil’s son 40 years earlier.

Ann, inconsolable, turned to morphine—and died of it alone in a Paris garret at age 43. Henry turned to Betsy, who believed he had made her pregnant, though no one knows if that part of the story was true. Betsy complained, and a public scandal ensued. Henry didn’t see what was such a big deal. Couldn’t a moment of “unguarded intimacy,” he reasoned, “surprise” anyone into sex with his 20-year-old sister-in-law and ward? He couldn’t understand why “recent events here have shattered my amicable and social relations.” It was totally unfair: “For one transgression, one fatality rather, I am left in total darkness.” But there were two transgressions: Henry had also squandered Betsy’s fortune, of which he was guardian, and to pay her back, he had to sell Stratford in 1822. When the buyer died six years later, the house went on the auction block. The new owners, for $11,000: Henry D. Storke and his wife—Betsy McCarty, who presided as mistress of Stratford for half a century, until she died in 1879.

By then, of course, Light-Horse Harry’s fifth son, General Robert E. Lee, whom Harry had abandoned when he was six, had broken up the union his forebears had toiled to create; had won his amazing string of victories from Second Bull Run to Chancellorsville in 1862 and 1863; had stood on the field at Gettysburg apologizing to the few bloodied survivors who made it back from Pickett’s doomed and foolhardy charge, which he had ordered; had surrendered, in resplendent full-dress uniform, to the muddy and bedraggled General Grant at Appomattox; and had been buried in the chapel at Virginia’s Washington College (later Washington and Lee), where he had dutifully served as president to support his wife and four spinster daughters. Eight months into the war, before all these great and tragic events unfolded, he wrote to his wife, “I wish I could purchase ‘Stratford.’ That is the only other place that I could go to, now accessible to us, that would inspire me with feelings of pleasure and local love. You and the girls could remain there in quiet.”

As if life at Stratford had ever been uneventful.

Top Photo: A “swagger” house, Stratford Hall is proud almost to insolence. (CHRISTOPHER CUNNINGHAM/COURTESY OF STRATFORD HALL)


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