Founders and the Constitution

Richard Henry Lee (1732-1794)

Clock One 45-minute class period.

In this lesson, students will study the life of Richard Henry Lee. They will learn about his views on the slave trade and slavery, his role as a leader of the American opposition to British tyranny, and his opposition to the Constitution.

Founding Principles

Federalism image


The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.

Representative / Republican Government image

Representative / Republican Government

Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.


I know there are [those] among you who laugh at virtue, and with vain ostentatious display of words will deduce from vice, public good! But such men are much fitter to be Slaves in the corrupt, rotten despotisms of Europe, than to remain citizens of young and rising republics. - Richard Henry Lee (1779)


Richard Henry Lee in many ways personified the elite Virginia gentry. A planter and slaveholder, he was tall, handsome, and genteel in his manners. Raised in a conservative environment, Lee was nonetheless radical in his social and political views. As early as the 1750s, he denounced slavery as an evil, and he even favored the vote for women who owned property. Lee was also among the first to advocate separation from Great Britain, introducing the resolution in the Second Continental Congress that led to independence.

Though Lee was a planter, politics was his true calling. He reveled in backroom bargaining, and during the imperial crisis he learned how to utilize mob action to resist British tyranny. In denouncing British transgressions, Lee’s oratory was said to rival that of his more renowned fellow Virginian, Patrick Henry. Lee was an ally and friend of Samuel Adams, who shared the Virginian’s aversion to moneygrubbing and ostentatious displays of wealth. Like Adams, Lee neglected his financial affairs and often struggled to make ends meet. At one point in his life, he was forced to live on a diet of wild pigeons.

Lee believed that good government required virtue, defined as self-sacrifice for the public good. He rejected the idea held by some Founders that the proper design of governing institutions was all that was needed to protect liberty. Nevertheless, a poorly constructed government could destroy virtue and, as a consequence, liberty. This is why Lee opposed the Constitution of 1787, which in his opinion dangerously concentrated power in the federal government. Lee has sometimes been credited with authorship of the Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican, a series of newspaper essays published anonymously in Virginia in 1787–1788 by an opponent of the Constitution. Though this is still a matter of much debate among historians, the views of the Federal Farmer undoubtedly mirror Lee’s own quite closely.

Relevant Thematic Essays


In this lesson, students will learn about Richard Henry Lee. They should first read as background homework Handout A—Richard Henry Lee (1732–1794) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers to these questions in class, the teacher should have the students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the students to the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: Richard Henry Lee on the Constitution, in which Lee lays out his objections to the newly written Constitution. As a preface, there is Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions, which will help the students understand the document.

There are Follow-Up Homework Options that ask the students to compose a Federal Farmer letter of their own, based on Lee’s ideas. Extensions provides opportunity for thought as students are asked to consider how Lee might have reacted to later developments in United States history, had he lived long enough to observe them.


Students will:

  • understand Lee’s views on the slave trade and slavery
  • appreciate Lee’s role as a leader of the American opposition to British tyranny
  • explain the importance of virtue in Lee’s political theory
  • analyze the reasons for Lee’s opposition to the Constitution


Student Handouts

  • Handout A—Richard Henry Lee (1732–1794)
  • Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
  • Handout C—In His Own Words: Richard Henry Lee on the Constitution

Additional Teacher Resource

  • Answer Key


CCE (9–12): IIA1, IIC1, IIIA1, IIIA2
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 3A, 3B
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10

Background Homework

Ask students to read Handout A—Richard Henry Lee (1732–1794) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.

Warm-up 10 min.

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Richard Henry Lee.

    Richard Henry Lee was a Virginia planter and one of the leaders of the opposition to British tyranny during the 1760s and 1770s. He was one of the first Americans to call for independence from Great Britain. As a member of the Second Continental Congress, Lee introduced the resolution that led to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. He was also an outspoken opponent of the Constitution. In his Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican, Lee voiced his concern that the Constitution lacked a bill of rights and gave too much power to the central government. Some of the Federal Farmer essays were published as a pamphlet, and thousands of copies were sold. Lee served as a senator in the first Congress under the new Constitution, where he was a leading supporter of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which were ratified in 1791 and became known as the Bill of Rights.


Context 5 min.

Briefly review with students the main issues involved in the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. (The Federalists believed that the confederation would break up if the Constitution was not ratified. Anti-Federalists feared that a stronger central government would endanger the rights of the people.)

In His Own Words 20 min.

  1. Distribute Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions.
  2. Distribute Handout C—In His Own Words: Richard Henry Lee on the Constitution. Be sure that the students understand the vocabulary and the “who, what, where, and when” of the document.
  3. Tell the students that they will read together as a class ten brief excerpts from the Federal Farmer. Ask the students to consider whether each excerpt is (1) a statement of Lee’s principles, or (2) a criticism of the proposed Constitution. The students should mark each excerpt with “principle” or “criticism” accordingly. Have a different student read each of the ten excerpts to the class. Then have a large-group discussion to determine how each excerpt should be labeled.
  4. Ask the students to determine the main idea of each excerpt and write it down.

Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.

Ask the students to imagine that they are in charge of the New York publishing firm that printed some of the Federal Farmer essays as a pamphlet. Tell the students that there is room for only five essays in the pamphlet. Which five of the ten excerpts would work best as topics for these essays?

Follow-Up Homework Options

Ask the students to choose one of the excerpts from the Federal Farmer letters and to compose their own paragraph-long Federal Farmer letter based on the idea expressed by Lee in the excerpt.


Ask the students: How might Richard Henry Lee have reacted to the following developments in American history, had he lived long enough to observe them?

  • The United States Congress’s banning of the importation of slaves (1808)
  • The Civil War between the North and the South (1861–1865)
  • The abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment (1865)


Ballagh, James C. The Letters of Richard Henry Lee. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan Co., 1911–1914; Reprint: Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1970.
Chitwood, Oliver. Richard Henry Lee, Statesman of the Revolution. Morgantown: West Virginia University Library, 1967.
Maier, Pauline. The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Reprint ed., 1990.
Matthews, John C. Richard Henry Lee. Williamsburg, VA: The Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1978.
McDonald, Forrest, ed. Empire and Nation: Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania by John Dickinson; Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican by Richard Henry Lee. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999.

“Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican.” The Constitution Society. <>.
“Resolution of Richard Henry Lee, June 7, 1776.” The Avalon Project at Yale University Law School. <>.
“Richard Henry Lee.” The Atlantic Monthly. <>.

Selected Works

By Richard Henry Lee

  • Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican (1787–1788)

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