Arthur Lee – Continental Congressman – Virginia


Dr. Arthur Lee (20 December 1740 – 12 December 1792) was a physician and opponent of slavery who served as an American diplomat during the American Revolutionary War.


He was the son of Hon. Thomas Lee (1690–1750) and Hannah Harrison Ludwell (1701–1750). His brothers, Richard Henry Lee (1732–1794), Francis Lightfoot Lee (1734–1797) and William Lee (1739–1795), were also Revolutionary-era diplomats.

He attended Eton College in England and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where he graduated in 1765. He then studied law in London, and he practised there from 1770 to 1776. During this time Lee wrote many influential pamphlets and essays opposing slavery and British continental policies. Lee wrote one of his more famous works “An Essay in Vindication of the Continental Colonies of America” in 1764. Lee was against the Townshend acts and became a major proponent of American resistance to the British.{sfn|Chisholm|1911}

In 1770, Lee was named Massachusetts correspondent to Britain and France. He began corresponding with Sam Adams, which began a long friendship, although they probably didn’t meet personally until sometime after 1780. Lee met Benjamin Franklin in London, where Franklin was negotiating on behalf of Pennsylvania interests. Lee criticized Franklin’s extravagant lifestyle and told Sam Adams he would never be a good negotiator between a free people and a tyrant. In May 1776, he was a guest at the dinner organized by James Boswell that brought together Samuel Johnson, an ardent opponent of the American colonists’ cause, and John Wilkes, one of its most prominent British supporters.

During the American Revolution the Continental Congress named Lee its envoy to Spain and Prussia, but his success was at best mixed.{sfn|Chisholm|1911} Later, in Paris, after Lee helped negotiate the Treaty of Alliance (1778) with France, he fell out with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane. He persuaded Congress to recall Deane to America, but he was himself recalled soon afterward.{sfn|Chisholm|1911}

In addition to his diplomatic duties, Lee was arguable one of Americas first spies and gathered information in France and Britain. He also successfully identified Edward Bancroft, secretary to the American legation in Paris, as a spy. Virginia sent Lee as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1782.

Arthur Lee built and lived at Lansdowne, a mansion which still stands in Urbanna, Virginia,{sfn|Chisholm|1911} a small waterfront town on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula. It is presently a private residence, and he is buried in a small family graveyard adjacent to the building. Lansdowne was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.


Arthur Lee was the son of Colonel Thomas Lee, Hon. (1690–1750) of Stratford Hall Plantation, Westmoreland County, Virginia. Thomas married Hannah Harrison Ludwell (1701–1750), the daughter of Colonel Philip Ludwell II (1672–1726) of Green Spring Plantation, and Hannah Harrison (1679–1731).

Arthur’s father, Thomas, was the son of Colonel Richard Lee II, Esq., known as “Richard the Scholar” (1647–1715) and Laetitia Corbin (c. 1657 – 1706). Richard Lee II, was the son of Col. Richard Lee I, Esq., known as “The Immigrant” (1618–1664) and Anne Constable (c. 1621 – 1666).

Arthur’s paternal grandmother, Laetitia, was the daughter of the Lees’ neighbor and councillor (attorney), Hon. Henry Corbin, Sr. (1629–1676) and Alice (Eltonhead) Burnham (c. 1627 – 1684).

Arthur’s paternal great-grandmother, Anne, was the daughter of Francis Constable; she became a ward of Sir John Thoroughgood.