Williamsburg at Dawn: The Duel That Touched Off A Revolution In Arthur Lee

Excerpts from the Preface by George T. Morrow II

The first time I encountered Arthur Lee was at a dinner party in London in 1775. No, I was not there, but I might have been, so vividly is it described in James Boswell's Life of Johnson. Now a set-piece of 18th-Century letters, Boswell's party has been justly called "the most famous dinner party in history." That Johnson, a violent Tory, should have dinner with Arthur Lee and John Wilkes was remarkable. It was also a put-up job: Boswell wanted to see how Johnson would react when he found himself seated between America's fiercest Whig, Lee, and the man George III had called "that Devil Wilkes!" The party turned out to be a great success. Everyone spent the evening abusing Boswell, whose deft staging of the affair was later described by Edmund Burke as unequalled "in the whole history of the Corps Diplomatique."

The second time I came across Arthur Lee's name was in 2001 when I read in an old issue of the Virginia Gazette that a Williamsburg physician by that name had challenged one James Mercer, a local lawyer, to a duel. With a little research I learned that the Williamsburg Lee and the dinner party Lee were one and the same, and that the reason Lee and Wilkes had come to Boswell's party together was because they were close friends. From the only life of Lee ever written, Arthur Lee, A Virtuous Revolutionary, by Louis W. Potts (1981), I discovered that Lee had managed Wilkes' campaign to become Lord Mayor of London in 1774 and that Wilkes, a staunch supporter of American liberties, had once described Lee as "my first and bestfriend." I already knew that Lee, along with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, had negotiated America's 1778 treaty of alliance with France and that Lee had charged his two Paris colleagues with malfeasance. Deane and Lee would eventually be recalled by Congress, leaving Franklin to take sole credit for forging the alliance that won America's independence.

Excerpt from "Williamsburg at Dawn" by George T. Morrow II

He was especially vain of his brother, Richard Henry Lee, a model (in Arthur's view) "of wisdom which every one admires, exalted very high in the opinion of men as a member of the legisl[ature], beloved as a relation, esteemed as a friend and admired as a man." It was unthinkable to Arthur Lee that his dear brother might, in the nature of humankind, not always be so admirable. Had Richard Henry not been father and protector to him ever since their father had died in 1756? Was he not obliged by every tie of blood, affection and hero-worship to come to his brother's defense? The task of issuing a corrective to James Mercer's laboriously arch An Enemy to Hyprocisy, (printed concurrently in both Rind's and Purdie and Dixon's Virginia Gazettes on July 18, 1766) was thus truly a joy for Arthur, a chance to testify to his love for his brother in disdain for an upstart lawyer.

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[A]s Amicus Superbiae noted at the time, the Lee-Mercer feud inverts all the old truths. The victor in the fight at Charlton's Coffeehouse and the winner of the hearts of his countrymen was both a coward and a liar. Lee, the supercilious fool for honor, would remain a good patriot - only to be dismissed as paranoid by scholars taken in by an unsent letter from Benjamin Franklin, a man who once described Lee as his "most malicious enemy." Meanwhile, Virginians watched and decided that all things being equal, they preferred the coward. Slavery survived - not because it was just, good for Virginia, or even economically beneficial, but because the world was a naughty boy, preferring mirth to truth, inaction to right action and security to unrest. Historians have generally agreed, preferring a Virginia wholly in favor of slavery to one perplexed by choices. The vision of Arthur Lee in his virtuous blue coat fades to that of a society dominated by Mercers.

In the tale told by James Mercer, his family of self-made men and former servants had been victimized by a decadent aristocracy. This would seem to be the stuff of revolution, but Mercer was no Marat. He not only respected birth, power and wealth, he aspired to them as a man of no great distinction, while the real fire-breather in the piece, Arthur Lee, was forced into exile by people who hated his self-conceit. The final irony ? one that Amicus Superbiae would probably have approved ? is that the man who dishonored himself that spring day in 1767 spurred his honor-crazed antagonist to help fashion a revolution for America.