Lee's Legion of Lessons
A Man Who Devoted His Life to State Violence Ultimately Found Himself on the Receiving End
SEPTEMBER 01, 2007 by BECKY AKERS
The state is a harsh taskmaster with a taste for eating its own. A man may devote much of his life to its violence only to find himself on the receiving end one day. The Bible warns that “all those who take up the sword perish by the sword.” Yet distressing numbers of folks try to beat those odds for the sake of the power and wealth swords bring.
One such gambler took up his sword in the best of causes. Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee commanded a unit in the Continental Army and helped found a freer country. But he was a devotee of the state and its trademark, force.
Nor was he alone in this paradox. Many of the Continental Army’s officers who pledged their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” to fight British tyranny in the 1770s imposed their own when they rose to power in the new country. Even the man whom Lee eulogized as “First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen” for leading an army against British taxation crushed an American tax revolt when he was president.
The motives that drove George Washington and other Founding Fathers to forget their revolutionary ideals can be hard to discern. Not in Lee’s case. His struggles are big, brash, transparent, and he paid a full and terrible price. Not only did his political principles eventually get him killed; his son Robert Edward would one day defy the very state his father championed.
Harry Lee was just 20 years old in 1776 when he enlisted with the Continental Army. Unlike other armies, the Continentals were not drafted, resentful ranks of the poor and powerless, kidnapped from fields and families to further a king’s ambitions. Rather, they rose from the people themselves as they defended their rights that unforgettable spring of 1775. Nor did any ruler summon them to war. Instead, their neighbors Paul Revere and William Dawes warned them that Redcoats were marching to seize a colonial arsenal at Concord. Hundreds and then thousands of farmers, merchants, and laborers not only chased the soldiers back to their base in Boston but bivouacked around the city to keep them there.
From that was born the Continental Army. Though the Continental Congress was just a few years older, it adopted the army that June and appointed George Washington its commander.
Ironically, the Continental Congress resorted to the very tactics its army fought. It taxed—or tried to: it was too weak to do more than ask the states to tax on its behalf. And it continued the Non-Importation Agreements of the 1760s in which the colonists promised to boycott British manufactures. They promised that their neighbors would too, and then searched the homes, shops, and ships of those they suspected of breaking the “agreement.” Their victims wondered why a warrantless search by one’s neighbors should be preferred to a warrantless search by the King’s customs agents: “tradesmen” in Boston asserted their right “to eat, drink and wear whatever we can honestly procure by our own labour; and to buy and sell when and where we please,” regardless of agreements or Congress.
These inconsistencies may have perplexed some Continental officers, but not Captain Lee. He seems to have loved the Continental Army and even the war itself rather than the principles behind both; he described himself as “wedded to my sword” and “affectionately wedded to my officers & troops.” One of his first exploits came during the horrific winter at Valley Forge, when he and seven other men held off the 200 Redcoats surrounding their quarters a few miles from the main camp. After killing three of the enemy, Lee shouted, “Fire away, men, here comes our infantry; we will have them all, God damn them!” The British believed him and scattered, making Lee the talk of the starving, shivering army.
The Captain eventually became a major. In 1779 he again proved his mettle by capturing Paulus Hook, one of the forts guarding the British stronghold of New York City. Today Paulus Hook is a neighborhood in the industrial port of Jersey City, N.J., but in the eighteenth century it sat at the end of a promontory that submerged at high tide. Lee planned to surprise its 400 defenders with a nighttime attack. This required intricate calculations of lunar phases, complete silence from his own 400 men, and trundling wagons over the dark, rutted roads so that spies would mistake his midnight march for a foraging expedition. Half of Lee’s troops lost their way and missed the attack, but the other half captured the fort’s garrison without a single casualty.
Meanwhile, some of the army’s dragoons had been detached as an independent command under Lee. “Lee’s Legion” became famous for its speed, skill, and loyalty: the high rates of desertion that depleted the rest of the Continental Army never drained the Legion. Lee loved and was beloved by his men. This was despite—or perhaps because of—his assumption that they were overgrown children, unfit to look after themselves and needing a strong leader. Lee transmuted this paternalism into a detailed concern for his troops. Other officers might not care how often their men bathed; Lee issued orders that kept his dragoons clean and healthy, then outfitted and dressed them at his own expense. “Lieut. Col. Henry Lee,” one of the army’s surgeons remembered, “was distinguished in our Revolutionary army, for the health and vigor of his corps. I never saw one of his men in the general hospital; and it was proverbial in camp, that Lee’s men and horses were always ready for action.” (Original emphasis.)
Their most valuable “action” came during the war’s last years, when the Legion helped General Nathanael Greene chase the Redcoats from the Carolinas. The Revolution’s northern campaigns had been brutal and bloody, but those of the south exceeded them. Lee’s Legion was in the thick of this warfare; it fought at Guilford Court House and at Eutaw Springs. More often, Lee’s force was detached from Greene’s for raids, and then the savagery raged without limits. Perhaps the Legion’s most shocking atrocity was “Pyle’s Hacking Match.”
Lee’s dragoons were pursuing British Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s band in North Carolina. In one of those wartime coincidences, Lee’s and Tarleton’s men both wore green uniforms. That led scouts from a Loyalist troop to assume they were among friends when they stumbled across the Legion. Lee exploited their mistake. He sent them back to their column with a request to clear the road so that their commander and his men might pass swiftly.
The 400 unsuspecting Loyalists lined the road on both sides, cheering “Tarleton’s” regiment. Then the joke soured. Lee later insisted that a Loyalist officer, recognizing the deception, ordered his troops to attack and that his own men killed in self-defense. But many people then and now think Lee planned all along to murder the Loyalists. Why else would he have engaged them? He could hardly burden himself with prisoners while galloping after Tarleton. The lopsided casualties also point to premeditation: when the bayoneting stopped, 90 Loyalists were dead with scores more fatally wounded. Lee’s Legion lost only a horse.
Lee’s Change of Heart
By February 1782 the soldier married to his sword wanted a divorce. Lee had discovered firsthand that warfare was not the splendor he had thought, that its brutality warped those bodies and souls it didn’t kill outright. He had executed deserters; in 1779, while patrolling the American lines, he had even severed and displayed the head of one victim as a warning. His men killed 18 British dragoons before breakfast one cold February morning in retaliation for their slaughter of the Legion’s unarmed bugler. On at least one occasion, before the battle at Guilford Court House, Lee tortured a prisoner for information (it didn’t work any better then than now: he learned nothing), and on another, his troops hanged three prisoners without trial.
Lee took these memories back to civilian life along with the conviction that Americans needed a strong centralized government to control their brutal natures. He held one political office after another, strengthening the state in whatever branch he found himself. He sat in Virginia’s legislature, represented the state in the Continental Congress from 1785 to 1789, was governor for three terms, and then went to the U.S. Congress.
Like most of his contemporaries, Lee considered a republic the state’s ideal form. Eighteenth-century Americans revered republics as the key to political paradise, much as their descendants do democracy. Ancient Rome and some of the Greek city-states had been republics; that would have been enough by itself to sway the classically schooled Founders. But the few republics since antiquity also seemed freer and more prosperous than the monarchies surrounding them.
Republics require virtuous citizens, or so the theory went. That meant most Americans fighting for freedom wanted government to enforce virtue lest the republic degenerate to tyranny. Lee and others went further: the state should actively make citizens virtuous. “It is high time,” he once wrote George Washington, “that our people be coerced to habits of industry.” The wise state must discipline citizens, especially during war. In April 1780 Lee and three other officers announced in a Philadelphia newspaper that they hoped to “curb the spirit of insolence and audacity” among those Americans who weren’t as dedicated to the Cause as the quartet thought they should be. They wanted to crush “a spirit of resistance, which . . . receives encouragement from the lenity of Governments, founded on principles of universal liberty and benevolence.” They would also “give energy . . . to the future operations of Government.”
Six years later Lee worked tirelessly for a Constitutional Convention and its promise of a strong central state. “The period seems to be fast approaching,” he insisted, “when the people of these U. States must determine to establish a permanent capable government or submit to the horrors of anarchy and licentiousness.” Discounting all history, he “dread[ed] more from the licentiousness of the people than from the bad government of rulers.”
Many republicans seemed to forget that republics were made for man, not man for the republic. John Adams found few aspects of life that couldn’t be turned to the republic’s good. He exhorted his wife to inculcate virtue in their children, not because virtue is desirable as an end in itself but because virtuous children became better citizens: “The Benevolence, Charity, Capacity and Industry which exerted in private Life, would make a family, a Parish or a Town Happy, employed upon a larger Scale . . . might secure whole Nations and Generations from Misery, Want and Contempt. Public Virtues, and political Qualities therefore should be incessantly cherished in our Children.” Republicans even believed that happiness depended not on personality or circumstances but on the character of the state. Lee asserted that “our national independence, and consequently our individual liberty . . . our peace and our happiness depend entirely on maintaining our union.”
As with some of the other Founders and many modern Americans, Lee’s republican politics were borrowed from Plato. A few choice men of superior virtue could and should guard the morals, actions, probably the speech, and even the thoughts of everyone else. These few included Lee, naturally. And if a few were born to lead, many, such as his troops and his political constituents, were born to follow.
This ideology and his heroism on the battlefield catapulted Lee to leadership in the Federalist Party. His experiences during the war “proved” that without strong leaders men degenerate into beasts, violent and destructive. Perhaps that explains why Lee and other Revolutionary officers who became Federalists prized peace more than they did liberty. Nor did they yearn for peace as the moral alternative to killing and plundering. Rather, they cherished it for the prosperity it brings in its wake. They wanted a strong centralized government that could crush dissent or anything else threatening their peace and their prosperity.
It was their prosperity, and theirs alone, because they grew rich thanks to protectionist laws and state-sanctioned enterprises. Without the fairness the market decrees, without its channeling of self-interest for the good of all, their fortunes piled up at others’ expense. Predictably, those others protested, sometimes violently, destroying the peace that centralizers considered essential to prosperity. Neither Lee nor his fellows appreciated the irony.
One of those state-sanctioned enterprises combined with centralizing politics to spawn the Constitutional Convention. Lee and other Revolutionary heroes, including George Washington, had invested with the Potomac Company. This enterprise hoped to dig canals around the Great Falls in the Potomac River. Theoretically, the river could then carry trade from the country’s interior to the east—trade currently floating down the Mississippi and enriching western merchants. As Lee wrote Washington, “[N]o event comprehends more fully the strength and future consequence of our particular country than the cementing to the interest of Virginia by the strong tie of commerce the western world.”
But Mississippi merchants and waterfalls were not the only obstacles to the company’s dreams. There were also Daniel Shays and the farmers of western Massachusetts, most of whom were Revolutionary veterans. These men could not pay the taxes their new state had imposed and were losing their homes to foreclosure. They defended themselves by shutting down, from September 1786 through the first weeks of 1787, the courts that were evicting them.
They also freed imprisoned debtors. Not surprisingly, this alarmed creditors. There hadn’t been much love lost between the farmers and their creditors in the first place, but freeing folks who owed them money increased creditors’ zest for portraying the rebels as deadbeats, determined to defraud not only the state but honest merchants as well.
The centralizers insisted Shays and his “lawless banditti” would destroy the country. They magnified the revolt into a threat imperiling not only Massachusetts’s politicians but the whole of American civilization. Lee had “new information” that the “insurgents” were “forming connexions with their neighboring states and the Vermontese.” In case “the Vermontese” weren’t scary enough, Lee trotted out the biggest bogeyman of all: “We have authentic information that they contemplate a re-union with G. Britain. . . .” Massachusetts jurist James Sullivan thought that “all our fine-spun ideas of democratical governments being founded in the virtue of the people are vanished, and . . . we find Americans like other people obliged by force only to yield obedience to the laws.” John and Abigail Adams were in London now while John represented America at the British court, but distance did not improve their perspective. Abigail, too, thought Shays and his farmers would “shear” America’s “glory” and “blast” its “laurels. “Is it a trifling matter to destroy a government?” she asked her sister. “Will my countrymen justify the maxim of tyrants, that mankind are not made for freedom?”
Centralizers confused a refusal to pay taxes with lawlessness and immorality. But Americans had not taken to murdering one another in the streets, nor were they clubbing the weak and elderly over their heads for their wallets. Instead, men who had fought hard against taxation were doing so again, though the tax-gatherers were on their own side of the Atlantic this time. But the centralizers were too busy wringing their hands over the breakdown of society to grasp this distinction.
Centralizers also conflated liberty and government, so that threats to government were threats to liberty. “Instead of that laudable spirit which you approve,” Abigail Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson, “which makes a people watchful over their liberties and alert in defense of them, these mobbish insurgents are for sapping the foundation and destroying the whole fabric at once.” Harry Lee drew the obvious centralizing lesson. “A continuance of our present feeble political form is pregnant with daily evils & must drive us at last to a change.” Clearly, the country would never survive without a strong central government.
And so the shareholders clamored for a convention to “revise” the Articles of Confederation. Lee opined that “the imbecility of the Confederation” was a “defective system which can never make us happy at home nor respectable abroad.” The country needed a state strong enough to make it wealthy. Patrick Henry thundered back, “You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured.”
Sadly, investors were more interested in securing their profits than their liberties. They claimed that the confederated government under the Articles was too weak to smash Shays and other protesters—despite the fact that militia dispersed the rebelling farmers in February 1787.
Thanks to their scare tactics and prestige, the shareholders got their convention as well as a Constitution authorizing a centralized government. With its power to tax, that government could crush anyone defying its edicts: according to the Coast Guard, the first Congress established the service expressly “to enforce tariff and trade laws, prevent smuggling, and protect the collection of the Federal revenue.”
In 1794 the fledgling federal government taxed whiskey and provoked another rebellion. This time it was farmers in western Pennsylvania who took up arms. And this time, too, Federalists mistook a tax protest for lawlessness: “If we permit our laws to be violated with impunity,” Lee reasoned, “farewel to order farewel to liberty & all the political happiness we enjoy.”
Most farmers in the rebelling counties distilled their grain for easier transportation to market. They resented a tax on their profits as much as Potomac Company investors resented political unrest and its threat to theirs. Like Shays’ rebels, many of these were veterans who had warred against taxes 20 years earlier, just as Harry Lee had. Lee even admitted that taxing whiskey was bad policy. Yet when President Washington ordered 13,000 militia from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia to march against the rebels, Lee sought the command. He justified this as the Federalists usually did: he equated liberty with government. That turned the protest into a “wicked & daring attempt to destroy our government & with it our liberty.”
But it was Lee whose “wicked & daring attempt to destroy . . . our liberty” sent troops estimated at double the farmers’ numbers marching against them. Rumors of this overwhelming force scattered the rebels long before the army arrived, so thoroughly that soldiers had to hunt some for trial. Federalists gloated. John Adams wrote, “An army of 15,000 militia so easily raised from four states only, to go upon such an enterprise, ought to be a terrible phenomenon to Anti-Federal citizens. . . . Anti-Federalism . . . and rebellion are dropping their heads very much discouraged.”
The Federalist Party of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries roughly resembled today’s Republican Party, with its emphasis on law and order and its defense of authority. Federalists disapproved of the war looming in 1812 for fear of economic disruption. Opposing them was the Republican Party, confusingly enough, founded by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Their members resembled modern Democrats because they were laborers and immigrants. Republicans wanted war with England, especially those Republicans who lived and worked in coastal cities, because the British were impressing sailors and attacking commercial ships at sea, threatening Republican jobs.
The port city of Baltimore was largely Republican, but it was home to a Federalist newspaper, published by Alexander Hanson, with the fence-straddling name Federal Republican. After a handful of incendiary issues, a Republican mob demolished the newspaper’s offices. Then they drove Hanson out of town. He vowed to return with some friends. The arch-Federalist Lee kissed his 5-year-old son, Robert E., goodbye and went to help.
Hanson distributed more copies of his newspaper on July 27, 1812. That summoned the mob. Overwhelmingly outnumbered, the Federalists barricaded themselves inside Hanson’s home. Those within “Fort Hanson” looked to Harry Lee for guidance. After all, Hanson reminded them, this was the hero “who, during the revolutionary war, took possession of a house in which he repelled with only ten men a large body of British Regulars.” Lee named a commander for each room and stationed his “troops” at the windows. They held off their assailants until dark. Then the Republicans stormed the house. That brought out the city’s militia, which escorted the beleaguered Federalists to jail.
The Republicans followed, shouting outside the prison that they would kill its inmates. Then they broke in. The Federalists still had their pistols, yet Lee convinced them not to fire on their attackers. Astoundingly, he advised turning the weapons on one another. This leader who disdained the people, who thought himself and other rulers superior to them, argued “glowingly and with much emphasis” (according to one newspaper) that the Federalists would die by worthy hands that way. The others weren’t willing to go that far. They laid down their guns.
Predictably, the mob beat, stabbed, strangled, and maimed them. The Republicans continued their punishment even after the Federalists lost consciousness. In their pro-war fury, the assailants slit their victims’ cheeks and noses and pried open eyes to pour hot wax into them. Finally, believing that all the Federalists were dead (in reality, only one was), the Republicans left after singing a nationalistic chorus: “We’ll feather and tar every damned British tory/And this is the way for American glory.”
Friends took Lee and the others to a hospital about a mile distant. He never recovered though he lived another six years, crippled with pain and far from home. Convinced that a milder climate helped his “mob injuries,” Lee spent most of that time in the Caribbean. He eventually took a ship to return to his family, but he made it only as far as Georgia and the mansion of his old Revolutionary cohort, Nathanael Greene. “Absorbed in misery & tortured with pain,” as Lee put it, he died there on March 25, 1818, a cautionary tale for all who trust in the state.