Unique among the Continental Army generals, Charles Lee expressed prescient insights into the upcoming political issues dividing Americans during the Early Republic era. Born and educated in England, Lee espoused pre-Revolution British Whig views seeking to moderate the monarchy’s powers and engender a more representative government. As a recent immigrant, Lee brought his radical republican ideas to America and fought for them in the American Rebellion. However, Lee’s controversial military command decisions and attempts to supplant George Washington greatly overshadowed his fervent advocacy for expanded democracy. Additionally, while much has been written about Lee’s quarrelsome military leadership and his attack on Washington, a closer look at Lee’s writings reveals keen insights into the coming highly contentious Early Republic era electoral battles. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, two partisan factions would clash over issues raised by Lee in 1779, including the creation of political parties, the establishment of a standing army, political rights, suffrage, and the role of the president. Lee’s anti-Washington and republican political philosophies would re-emerge publicly during the 1800 presidential election campaign.
After Maj. Gen. Charles Lee’s 1778 court-martial conviction for insubordination and unauthorized actions during the Battle of Monmouth, the suspended general engaged in a concerted public relations campaign to regain his military stature at the expense of Gen. George Washington. As part of this self-promotion effort, Lee convinced William Goddard, a friend, and editor of the Maryland Journal (Baltimore), to anonymously publish a series of twenty-five pointed questions making his case that the court-martial verdict was biased and a miscarriage of justice. Initially, the publication of Lee’s queries generated a firestorm of criticism, and violent mobs forced Goddard to retract them publicly. A few days later, after receiving legal and Maryland governmental support, Goddard retracted the retraction. While the initial public reaction was violently adverse, the first nine queries later commanded more respect from the American public.
The initial nine queries examined Congressional policies and actions, raising vexing issues to be resolved many years later. Demonstrating his command of political theory and British history, Lee started his queries by invoking the actions of King George I, the first Hanoverian King of Great Britain and Ireland.
I. Whether George the First did not, on his accession to the Throne of Great-Britain, by making himself King of a Party, instead of a whole nation, sow the seeds not only of the subversion of the liberties of the People, but of the ruin of the whole empire?
II. Whether, by proscribing the class of men to which his Ministry were pleased to give the appellation of Tories, he did not, in the end, make them not only real Tories, but even Jacobites?
Lee contended that King George I made himself “king of a party,” bestowing benefits on a small class of people and giving them the appellation of Tories. Lee asserted that the creation of a favored party led to several pernicious effects, including diminished parliamentary powers and a loss of liberty, which “overturned the mighty fabric of the British Empire.” Lee further stated that Congress was following the first Hanoverian monarch’s example by creating favored and unfavored groups which would engender party politics.
In query three, Lee warned against the “enormous additional weight and pecuniary influence of a large standing army.”
III. Whether the consequence of this distinction, now become real, was not two rebellions – and whether the fruit of those rebellions, although defeated, were not septennial Parliaments, a large standing army, an enormous additional weight and pecuniary influence through into the seal of the Crown, which in a few years have born down not only the substance, but almost the form of liberty, all sense of patriotism, the morals of the people, and, in the end, overturned the might fabric of the British Empire?
Revolutionary War historians have well-documented the military strategy dispute in which Washington sought a large, professional Continental Army equipped and trained to fight massed European-style open terrain battles. Lee favored a smaller central army supplemented by the highly motivated militia to lure the British away from port cities and defeat them through many small actions. While Washington’s military strategy won the day (and the war), the existence and role of a standing army became a highly contested political issue in the Early Republic.
In query four, Lee alleged that Congress was following the example of the “pernicious” British ministry “by proscribing and disenfranchising so large a proportion of citizens as those men whom they find it their interest to brand with the denomination of Tories.”
IV. Whether the present men in power, in the State, do not tread exactly in the steps of this pernicious Ministry, by proscribing and disenfranchising so large a proportion of citizens as those men whom they find it in their interest to brand with the denomination of Tories?
Lee believed that treating a particular group differently from others was an abuse of power and lead to quarrelsome class conflict. He particularly called out the government of Pennsylvania for disenfranchising individuals for political and tyrannical reasons. The aggressive Rebel Pennsylvania government arrested and exiled prominent Quaker leaders who refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the Rebel government.
In queries five and six, Lee offered his most egalitarian and democratic assertions.
V. Whether liberty, to be durable, should not be constructed on as broad basis as possible? – and whether the same causes, in all ages, and in all countries, do not produce the same effects?
VI. Whether it is not natural, and even justifiable; for that class of people (let the pretext be ever so plausible) who have been stripped of their rights as men, by the hard hand of power, to wish for and endeavor to bring about, by any means whatever, a revolution in that State, which they cannot but consider as an usurpation and tyranny?
He rhetorically asked, “Whether liberty, to be durable, should not be constructed on as broad basis as possible?” In this question, Lee pointed to the startling contradiction between the words of the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal,” and actual suffrage rights. During the American Revolution, all states had property and, in some cases, tax-paying restrictions on men eligible to vote and hold office. As a result, a tiny minority of citizens cast votes in the first ten presidential elections. Universal white male suffrage would only emerge after the Civil War, and female and Native American suffrage in the early twentieth century. While Lee posited his question broadly, he likely was not advocating extending the franchise to women and non-white men. As evidence of his gender and racial views, he owned enslaved people and never brought women into the political sphere.
In query seven, Lee posited the Rebel retribution policy against Loyalists as an anathema to liberty and just society.
VII. Whether a subject of Morocco is not (when we consider human nature) a happier mortal than a disenfranchised citizen of Pennsylvania, as the former has the comfort of seeing all about him in the same predicament with himself; the latter, the misery of being a slave in the specious bosom of liberty – the former drinks the cup, but the latter alone can taste the bitterness of it?
To illustrate his point, Lee argued that a subject of Morocco was happier than a disenfranchised Pennsylvanian as all in Morocco knew they were treated poorly but equally. The unequally treated Pennsylvanian knew that he was subservient to others similarly situated.
Further, query eight offered a politically charged contention that many contemporary readers viewed as an attack on a friendly ally. He analogized the juxtaposition of a Russian serf and a member of the French Parliament to the treatment by Congress of those who disagreed with its pronouncements.
VIII. Whether an enlightened member of a French Parliament is not a thousand times more wretched than Russian cirf [sic] or peasant – as to the former, the chains, from his sensibility, must be extremely galling; and on the latter, the fit as easy as the skin of his back?
Lee posited that a French member of parliament was “a thousand times more wretched than a Russian cirf [sic] or peasant” as the chains “fit as easy on the skin of his back.” Lee pointed out that peasants were often resigned to their fate with low expectations while more politically-privileged people felt more profound injustice when unfairly treated.
In the last of Charles Lee’s nine political queries, he aimed directly at the wisdom of granting broad powers to Washington. Lee asserted that it was hazardous to “inculcate and encourage in the people an idea that their welfare, safety, and glory depend upon one man.”
IX. Whether it is salutary or dangerous, consistent with, or abhorrent from the principles and spirit of Liberty and Republicanism, to inculcate and encourage in the people an idea, that their welfare, safety, and glory depend on one man: Whether they really do depend upon one man?
Lee argued that the Rebels possessed too much faith in Washington, which was dangerous as Lee regarded Washington as a flawed general and an ineffectual military commander.
Demonstrating his keen political instincts, Charles Lee’s republican and liberty-seeking political views, as expressed in Goddard’s publication, re-emerged in the highly energized partisan environment of the new republic almost a generation after his death. In the first nine queries, Lee raised four hotly contested issues in the Early Republic era – the creation of political parties, the establishment of a standing army, political rights and suffrage, and presidential powers.
In queries one and two, Lee forewarned the creation of political parties, a development that emerged in the 1790s. Ironically, at the end of his second presidential term, Washington would also warn the nation about the ill effects of political parties, stating, “the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.” Invoking comparable sentiments, Lee and Washington similarly concluded that governmental-favored parties lead to the “ruin of the whole empire” and the “ruin of Public Liberty,” respectively.
As expressed in query three, Lee’s opposition to a standing American Army became a highly disputed issue between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. Under President Washington, Congress initially created a tiny professional army to defeat the Native Americans. However, at the turn of the nineteenth century, the establishment and size of a Federal army became a hotly contested political question. In 1798, the threat of war with France engendered the Federalist Congress and President John Adams to authorize an increase in army size to ten thousand soldiers. The Democratic-Republicans and Thomas Jefferson opposed war with France and the massive Federal Army expansion. Newly-elected President Thomas Jefferson sought to reverse the military enlargement. Jefferson wrote to Congress in his first annual message, “nor is it conceived needful or safe that a standing army should be kept up, in time of peace.” Jefferson’s views became the prevailing public opinion. During his first term, he significantly reduced the army’s size to three regiments (one artillery and two infantry). Consistent with Jefferson’s policies and Charles Lee’s admonitions, Americans would remain wary of large, peacetime armies for the next hundred and fifty years.
As prognosticated in queries four through eight, politically motivated disenfranchisement re-emerged as an issue between Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. The Federalists sought to limit suffrage and disproportionately exclude the opposition to maintain their slipping grip on power. In 1798, the Federalist Congress and President John Adams enacted four Alien and Sedition Acts. The Alien Friends Act extended the naturalization period from five to fourteen years, depriving the Jeffersonians of likely voters. Additionally, under the Sedition Act, the Federalists could prosecute the Democratic-Republicans for espousing competing political beliefs. Issues over expanding and restricting suffrage exploded during the Civil War and in the early twentieth century and continue to vex the American electorate.
As raised by Lee in query nine, the issue of how much power to bestow on the president would fester throughout the Federalist/Anti-Federalist Constitutional ratification debates and during the following Federalist/Democratic-Republican political contests. Many Democratic-Republicans believed that George Washington and John Adams sought to re-create a monarchical presidency. First, Senate adversaries opposed Vice President Adams’s purported desire for a presidential title akin to a European king. As a result of Adams’ suggested royalty-sounding presidential titles, legislators mockingly referred to Adams as “his rotundity.” More seriously, the Democratic-Republicans widely alleged that Washington and Adams sought to amass monarchial powers within the presidency. Federalist opponents cited Washington’s predilection for social levees, birthday celebrations, and a hereditary Society of the Cincinnati as evidence of steps towards creating an American royalty. Eventually, Americans became comfortable with Washington’s presidency as he demonstrated respect for Congress’s prerogatives and power and twice resigned from commanding positions.
Although Charles Lee did not live to see America’s constitution, his reputation and ideas returned to public discourse. During the run-up to the hotly contested presidential election of 1800, Democratic-Republican-leaning newspaper editors reprinted articles extolling Charles Lee’s virtues as a proxy for attacking Washington and the Federalists. A widely reprinted article throughout Northern and Western states characterized Lee as “well-remembered among us . . . besides his military qualities, he was a man of education, taste, and experience in the world.” The article continued by quoting a 1776 Lee correspondence with Patrick Henry objecting to using Washington’s wartime title “His Excellency.” Sarcastically, Lee concluded, “If, therefore, I should sometimes address a letter to you without His Excellency tacked, you must not esteem it a mark of personal or official disrespect, but the reverse.” By invoking the Lee narrative, the Jeffersonians could attack iconic Washington indirectly.
In another veiled attack, a farcical anecdote attributed to Lee circulated in Democratic-Republican-leaning newspapers in the same period. The concocted story recounted a discussion between Frederick II (the Great) and Lee in which Lee predicted that people “will dispense with the service of MONARCHS,” and Frederick purportedly responded, “I am a royalist by profession and am determined to live by my trade.” Perceptive readers would conclude that Frederick II was a stand-in for John Adams and Thomas Jefferson averred Charles Lee’s opinions. Lee’s citations circulated widely in the Early Republic period. Extending into the antebellum period, Lee’s writings and beliefs would periodically be invoked to make political points for broad expressions of liberty and equality.
Lee’s republican and democratic views, as expressed in the first nine queries, have been overlooked by recent historians who focus on the remaining sixteen self-serving queries that stress purported deficiencies in Washington’s generalship. These other sixteen queries highlight the long-simmering Lee-Washington power tussle focusing on Lee’s criticisms of Washington, including the commander-in-chief’s mistakes (by not abandoning Fort Washington), poor battle leadership (the overly complex Germantown battle plan), a penchant for blaming others for his failures (Maj. Gen. John Sullivan at Brandywine), and misrepresenting the facts (Lee’s battlefield performance at Monmouth).
Dismissing Charles Lee as merely a rude, insubordinate, self-serving military officer who inappropriately sought to displace George Washington as commander-in-chief overweights one dimension of his Revolutionary War participation. While interpersonal and behavioral issues limited his fitness for supreme command, Lee possessed a great deal of political theory acumen and genuinely unwavering republican beliefs. As demonstrated by his nine queries, Lee offered unusually perceptive prognostications of the coming partisan issues of democracy, citizenship, and individual rights. As an outsider, Lee offered a de Tocqueville-like lens to describe the emerging American political environment. Neglecting his outside-in perspectives and unwavering radically democratic philosophies oversimplifies his character, contributions, and political influence on America’s Founding Era.
Anonymous and Charles Lee, “Some Queries, Political and Military, Humbly Offered to the Consideration of the Public,” Maryland Journal, July 6, 1779. Also reproduced in Charles Lee, The Lee Papers, ed. Henry Edward Bunbury, 4 vols. (New York: New York Historical Society, 1872), 3:341-45.
Goddard published the retraction of the retraction in the Maryland Journalon July 20, 1779. For a description of the controversy resulting from the publication of Lee’s twenty-five queries, see Ward L. Miner, William Goddard – Newspaperman (Durham, NH: Duke University Press, 1962), 168–74.
Two excellent examples of military strategy disputes are Jonathan Gregory Rossie, The Politics of Command in the American Revolution (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1975) and Stephen R. Taaffe, Washington’s Revolutionary War Generals (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).
For an overview of the treatment of Quakers and others by the Pennsylvania Revolutionaries see Aaron Sullivan, The Disaffected: Britain’s Occupation of Philadelphia during the American Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), 23–44.
For a detailed table of suffrage rules and changes by state, see Stanley L. Engerman and Kenneth L. Sokoloff, “The Evolution of Suffrage Institutions in the New World,” The Journal of Economic History 65, no. 4 (2005): 898.
Farewell Address, September 19, 1796,”founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-20-02-0440-0002.
XIII. Fair Copy, First Annual Message, [by November 27, 1801],” founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-35-02-0497-0014.
“An Act fixing the Military Peace Establishment of the United States, 16 March 1802” reprinted inRobert K. Wright and Morris J. MacGregor, Jr., Soldier-Statesmen of the Constitution (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, US Army, 1987), 251–52.
Charles Lee reported in an April 3, 1765 letter to his sister, Sidney Lee, that he discussed the American situation with Frederick II. However, Lee does not reveal any specifics nor anything reported in the 1797 newspaper reports. Charles Lee, The Lee Papers, ed. Henry Edward Bunbury (New York: New York Historical Society, 1872), 1:37-39.
Three newspaper articles represent the types of Lee citations in the Antebellum press. His supporters periodically republished the proceedings to demonstrate the unfairness of Lee’s court-martial conviction (See Daily National Intelligencer, Washington, DC, November 12, 1823). Others republished Lee’s correspondence with famous politicians (see “Letter from Edmund Burke to Lee” reprinted in the Albany Gazette, July 7, 1803). Finally, newspapers published flattering accounts of Charles Lee’s life (for example, Independent Inquirer, Brattleboro, VT, January 18, 1834).