The Lees of Virginia

The title of Paul Nagel’s chronicle of the Lees emphasizes the key characteristic of this notable family—their allegiance to Virginia always took precedence, dominated their behavior, and dictated their actions, from the most famous figures to the less well known. It is to Nagel’s credit that he presents the full story with careful attention to the strong women as well as the determined men who were members of the Lee dynasty.

The reader is introduced to the headstrong Hannah Lee Corbin, the widowed elder sister of Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot, who defied polite society, the church, and her husband’s will. Upon remarriage, Hannah would have been forced to surrender her portion of the Corbin estate. She chose to live together with her late husband’s physician, who was of the dissenting Baptist faith. Their liaison, which may have been sanctified by a Baptist wedding, had no legal validity in eighteenth century Virginia, with its established Anglican church. Hannah was able to keep her new spouse and retain control of the entire Corbin estate until her daughter Patty was married to a Lee cousin in 1769.

Hannah’s sister, Alice Lee Shippen, was the wife of Philadelphia physician William Shippen and presided over social gatherings that included notable members of the Continental Congress who came to discuss politics. Alice corresponded with Abigail Adams, and John Adams included her when he commented on the Lee family: “They are all sensible, and deep thinkers.”

No biography of the Lees would be complete without details about the fiery Richard Henry Lee, his bookish brother Francis Lightfoot Lee, their embittered brother Arthur Lee, and their improvident cousin Light-Horse Harry Lee. These men, despite their differences, shared a strong conviction that they must join as a family to mold the direction of Virginian and American politics. Harry’s heroic son, Robert E. Lee, drew upon this legacy during his own trying times in public service.

Nagel’s prose is colorful and limber, easily negotiating the twists and turns of many generations of Lees. Those with a keen interest in following the far-reaching branches of the Lee genealogy might wish for a more comprehensive family tree than is displayed on the book’s endpapers. This minor criticism aside, there is a rich feast in store for those who wish to know more about this “first family of Virginia.”