Maj. Gen. Charles Lee’s substantial literary contributions to the American independence movement have been overshadowed by his challenging Gen. George Washington for Continental Army leadership and the 1860 discovery of a potentially treasonous document. Initially, Revolutionary Era Americans viewed Charles Lee as a highly accomplished military officer and a learned scholar and admired his ardently-argued republican political beliefs. Don Higginbotham, a twentieth-century historian, asserts that Lee was a “genuinely talented soldier” whose “star shown brighter than Washington” during the first year of the war. However, after his 1778 clash with Washington on the Monmouth battlefield, Lee’s reputation nosedived, and Congress cashiered him from the Continental Army. As a result, historians focus on Lee’s fall from grace, uncouth social manners, and undesirable personal affectations, thereby underestimating his discerning political insights and highly cultivated intellect.
Building upon an English grammar school education, Lee developed into a lifelong reader, amassing an extensive book collection, portions of which traveled with him during his many military campaigns. In addition, he possessed a gift for languages and regularly inserted quotes and commentary from Greek and Roman antiquity into his writing. For example, Lee corresponded with the King of Poland, employing classical illusions and receiving replies written in French.
A few months before hostilities broke out at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Lee wrote two prominent “page one” newspaper articles. The first vociferously attacked Gen. Thomas Gage’s Boston occupation policies. The second cleverly used the colonial example of the Mediterranean island of Minorca to demonstrate that King George III would unjustly use physical force to subdue American colonists. Additionally, Lee corresponded with prominent politicians and intellectuals, including Edmund Burke, David Hume, Benjamin Franklin, and a wide range of American and British politicians advocating anti-Tory, Whig, or republican views. Lee’s artful polemic skills generated a convincing “resistance to tyranny” reputation among the American public.
As a result of his scholarly pursuits, Lee was the most prolific author among the Continental Army generals and the only one to write a pamphlet advocating the Rebel cause before the war. Two political essays stand out as the best examples of Lee’s scholarship, bookending his participation in the American Revolutionary War. The first essay, written before the outbreak of hostilities, bolstered American confidence that its soldiers could stand up to and defeat the British military. The second presented a utopian plan to build a western American military colony late in the war to avoid, in Lee’s view, the Rebel government’s missteps.
Soon after emigrating to America, Lee wrote the first pamphlet, Strictures on a pamphlet, entitled “A friendly address to all reasonable Americans, on the subject of our political confusion:” Addressed to the people of America. Lee published the essay in response to a pamphlet by Rev. Thomas Bradbury Chandler. The cleric argued that Britain had the power to levy a tax on tea and warned that the total weight of the mighty British Empire would fall upon any violent dissent. Loyalist printer James Rivington first advertised Chandler’s essay for sale on November 10, 1774, sparking notoriety and vocal outrage.
While the responding Strictures pamphlet was unsigned, Lee made it known that he was the author. For example, in a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush Lee expressed indignation “that the miscreant Rivington is suffer’d to heap insult on the Congress with impunity” for publishing Chandler’s loyalist missive. One ad for a Strictures reprint identified the author as “a celebrated MILITARY OFFICER, who is a regular Soldier.” Another advertisement characterized Lee as “a certain regular officer of Distinction, who has approved himself a warm Advocate for the Liberties of America.” As a result of Lee’s growing reputation, many in the general public recognized Lee’s authorship.
In his essay, Lee demonstrated his Whiggish republican political beliefs by allying with those Americans opposing the Coercive Acts and arbitrary rule by Tory-dominated Parliament over the American colonies. Initially focusing on Chandler’s ecclesiastical connections, Lee railed against the priest, who possessed “a zeal of arbitrary power” and “has a want of candour and truth” as a “high part of the Church of England.” In addition, Lee criticized the pecuniary-minded Anglican leaders who “wallow in sinecures and benefices helped from the fruits of your labor.” Finally, countering Chandler’s political arguments for American subservience, he counseled the Americans that their cause was just. Lee characterized Parliament’s right to impose a duty on tea based on “audaciously false assertions and “monstrous absurdities.”
Lee spied an opening to display his soldierly skills by asserting that the colonists should not be afraid of British military might. On the contrary, he believed that British military commanders underestimated American courage. Lee argued that the Americans, unlike the British regulars, knew how to fight in North America’s rugged terrain. He estimated that the Americans could raise two hundred thousand yeoman soldiers who would vastly outnumber any British army sent to put down a rebellion. Also, Lee dismissed any British attempt to supplement their forces by hiring German troops as doomed to fail. He believed that if “ten thousand could possibly be transported to-morrow . . . that in less than four months, not two of these ten thousand would remain with their colours.”
Further, he reported that the British soldiers were generally unfit for duty and possessed low morale. Similarly, Lee disparagingly observed that the 1775 British Army officers didn’t measure up to Gen. James Wolfe, the heroic conqueror of Quebec, whom he viewed as liberal and virtuous. While the Americans lacked trained military officers, he believed that civilians such as “country gentlemen, civilians, lawyers, and farmers” could ably serve just as they did in Parliament’s army during the English Civil War. Finally, he advocated that the Americans prepare for armed conflict if the British government did not back down, offering, “to keep the swords of your enemies in their scabbards, you must whet your own.” Lee closed with a rhetorical flourish exhorting the Americans as “brave citizens, with invoking the Almighty God, from who all virtues flow, to continue you in that spirit of unanimity and vigor which must insure your success, and immortalize you through all ages, as the champions and patrons of the human race.”
Lee made a compelling case that the Americans should not fear British military power as they could field a larger army of better soldiers led by more competent officers. Lee’s essay became an immediate publishing success. At least five printers widely advertised its sale as a separate monograph. One publisher observed that the pamphlet “contains particular Military Directions, worthy to be put in Practice by ALL AMERICANS.” A Salem, Massachusetts newspaper editor characterized Lee’s essay as bringing “honour to the author as a soldier and a writer.” To further mass distribution, Massachusetts printer Isaiah Thomas reduced the price to two coppers and even offered it gratis to those who could not afford the cost. Further demonstrating public interest, several New England and Middle Atlantic newspapers reprinted Lee’s work in part or in full. As a result of widespread public acceptance, rebellious-minded leaders took notice.
Dr. Benjamin Rush viewed Lee as a “genius” with “great attainment in classical learning and in modern languages” who “was useful in the beginning of the war by inspiring our citizens with military ideas and lessening in our soldiers their superstitious fear of the valor and discipline of the British army.” Benjamin Franklin recognized Lee’s rhetorical skills and sought to introduce Thomas Paine to Lee as “I know his sentiments are not very different from yours.” While there is no evidence that his writing directly influenced Paine, Lee was the first to characterize America as the “asylum of liberty” in a letter to Samuel Adams. Additionally, the revolutionary firebrand asserted that Lee “has heartily espoused the Cause of America” with “integrity” in a letter to James Warren, the President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Abigail Adams summed up Lee’s literary abilities but added a knock on his social skills: “The eloquence of his pen far exceeds that of his person.” While many contemporaries also pointed out Lee’s impolite social manners, political leaders and the general public demonstrated a high regard for his character and intellect.
After composing Strictures on a pamphlet, Lee continued to write newspaper articles advocating resistance to the British and became one of the first to advocate for American independence. After the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Continental Congress named Lee the second-highest-ranked major general after Artemas Ward in the first tranche of general officer commissions under George Washington’s overall command. Upon effectively serving under Washington during the Siege of Boston, Lee operated as Congress’s troubleshooter and independent commander in Rhode Island, Canada, New York City, and the South. While Lee’s military career started well, a British cavalry patrol captured a careless Lee while transiting New Jersey and held him as a high-value captive for over a year. After a prisoner exchange, Lee returned to the Continental Army. However, a public tiff with Washington and subsequent court-martial cut short his military career, and Lee returned to his home in western Virginia.
Dismissal from the Continental Army did not end Lee’s literary career. As a private citizen, Lee continued to prepare political essays, albeit to a smaller and less receptive audience. In a letter to his friend and fellow former British officer, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, Lee attached a quixotic plan to establish an extensive military colony in western America. The settlement would apportion land by rank, with sizeable areas reserved for common use. Land ownership would be limited to a maximum of five thousand acres. He proposed a strong militia backed by small, professional cavalry and artillery units consistent with Lee’s previous Continental Army recommendations. Religious practices would be encouraged because “without religion, no warlike community can exist; and with religion if it is pure and unsophisticated, all immortalities are incompatible.” Other features of Lee’s liberal community included speech free from government control, personal daily ablutions “as practiced in the religions of the East,” simple laws obviating the need for lawyers, and bountiful trade with neighbors, including an annual three-week to a month great fair. Despite extensive interactions with various Native peoples during the French and Indian War, he did not address how to secure the western lands from the current residents.
While Lee’s Strictures essay received widespread publicity and public acclaim, the military colony proposal never entered the public discourse. The concept of a military colony was the work of a distraught person who suffered from increasing health and financial issues. By considering a new society, Lee continued his search for a community that reflected his political views, which started in Britain, Poland, and Eastern Europe and continued in America. But he never located the political and intellectual home he hunted for, perhaps overly iconoclastically.
Lee’s lifetime of authorship presented two consistent themes. First, he opposed autocratic or monarchial power, professing stridently republican rule. In Lee’s view, by advocating for these rights in America, he was also fighting for the same rights in Britain. Conversely, Lee viewed that the British people could not enjoy republican rights while suppressing similar rights in America. Consistent with contemporaries, Lee’s definition of republican government excluded many people, such as non-white people and women.
Second, Lee offered warnings of governmental abuses of power, resonating with like-minded Congressional members. For example, he advocated citizen soldiers as he was wary of standing armies, and recommended leadership rotation as he opposed long-tenured politicians and generals. Lee’s politics almost saved him from dismissal from the army after his court-martial. Lee’s congressional support emanated from his republican views shared by the more populous, small national government members such as Samuel Adams, Edward Langworthy, and Benjamin Rush. A Lee biographer and noted American Revolution historian, John Alden, asserts Lee retained significant congressional support and the vote to confirm the court-martial sentence was “far from unanimous.” It would have been much closer if all members of Congress voted; several absented themselves on purpose to avoid voting against Washington.
Charles Lee did not live to see a military colony or American independence, passing away in Philadelphia on October 2, 1782. Despite lingering doubts about his loyalty, he died enjoying deep friendships with a broad range of political leaders and military officers. A notable example, writing late in life, John Adams reflected on Lee’s Revolutionary era contributions and republican views. He characterized Lee as “a kind of Precursor of Miranda,” the enlightened, adventurous, and iconic South American Revolutionary leader. Continuing, Adams concluded that Lee generated “Enthusiasm and made as many Proselytes and Partisans” as patricians John Hancock and George Washington. While Congressional leaders, including John Adams, did not want to replace Washington, Lee retained the durable support of republican-leaning politicians who valued his populist principles.
Readers interested in the debate over Lee’s Continental Army military career should consult Christian McBurney’s George Washington’s Nemesis and Mark Edward Lender and Garry Wheeler Stone’s Fatal Sunday for opposing views on Lee’s treason but a consistent assessment of his Monmouth battlefield performance.
Lee biographer John Alden provides the best description of Lee’s formal education and reading habits, John Richard Alden, General Charles Lee Traitor or Patriot? (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951), 3–4.
Charles Lee, “Queries Proposed to General Gage, and Which If He Does Not Think It Consistent with Prudence Publicly, Be It Earnestly Requested to Resolve in Is Own Breast,” Pennsylvania Journal, or Weekly Advertiser, January 18, 1775, 1.
For example, Charles Lee is the only Continental Army General who authored an essay in Gordon Wood’s voluminous compendium of Revolutionary Era pamphlets. Gordon S. Wood, ed., The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate (New York: Library of America, 2015), 2:379-410.
Thomas Bradbury Chandler, A Friendly Address to All Reasonable Americans, on the Subject of Our Political Confusions: In Which the Necessary Consequences of Violently Opposing the King’s Troops, and of a General Non-Importation Are Fairly Stated (Boston, 1774), Evans Early American Imprint Collection, name.umdl.umich.edu/N10432.0001.001
Benjamin Rush, The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush: His Travels through Life Together with His Commonplace Book for 1789-1813, ed. George Washington Corner (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970), 155–56.
Charles Lee to Samuel Adams, Newport, Rhode Island, July 21, 1774, digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/800441f0-1157-0134-2211-0050568a51c.
Samuel Adams to James Warren, June 28, 1775, memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?hlaw:62:./temp/~ammem_f26W::.
John Adams to James Lloyd, April 24, 1815, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-026460.