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Behind the Book 5: The Strange, Stirring, and Sad Life of Henry Lee

Henry Lee III is one of the most interesting personalities of the American Revolution and the early American republic. He was one of the innumerable Lee’s of Virginia, sent north for schooling to the College of New Jersey in Princeton, from which he graduated in 1774. The plan seems to have been for Henry–or Harry, as he was generally called–to travel to London to learn law. But the war intervened, and Harry Lee soon discovered that he could be a soldier. Indeed, a very good soldier. By the time he left the war, he was commander of the Second Partisan Corps, a combination of cavalry and infantry.

Peace was not as kind to Harry Lee. True, he excelled politically, serving as Governor of Virginia, and at various times in the House of Representatives. More importantly, he along with James Madison and John Marshall were the chief proponents of the new Constitution at the Virginia Ratification Convention. But Harry was very bad at business of all kinds, including farming and land speculation. To make things worse, he could not resist land speculation. By 1809, he finally was imprisoned for debt. Three years later he was beaten almost to death by a mob in Baltimore. Honor and health ruined, he fled from his ever-growing family to the West Indies, to enjoy both the climate and a refuge from creditors. Eventually knowing that the end was near, he attempted to return to his family in Alexandria. But he died on the coast of Georgia, in the home built by the family of his old commander Nathanael Greene.

It’s a sad story, for all sorts of reasons. In a very, very long discussion with Lee’s new biographer Ryan Cole, we talk about the strange, stirring, and sad life of Harry Lee. If you thought “founding fathers” were boring men in wigs, you should really get to know Light Horse Harry Lee.