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Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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Vol. I
p159
Chapter X

Lee Studies His Ancestors

For diversion during his months of idleness in the winter of 1838‑39, when his own future seemed none too bright, Lee continued a study of his genealogy, a study he had begun in 1837. Then he had tried to get a correct copy of the family coat of arms in order that he might have a seal cut. He knew, of course, his general line of descent, and his degree of kinship with most of the other Lees of northern Virginia, but he had little information about the early generations of his family in the New World. He was so unfamiliar with his arms that he wrote down the motto as "Non Incautusº Futurus" instead of "Futuri" ("Not unmindful of the future"), a mistake over which he would have blushed in the days when Mr. Leary had been teaching him his cases.1 Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Talcott, whom Lee consulted, was not satisfied with his former assistant's heraldry. A quest for correct data followed. "I once saw in the hands of Cousin Edmund, for the only time in my life," Lee explained to Cassius F. Lee, "our family tree, and as I begin in my old age" — he was then thirty-one — "to feel a little curiosity relative to my forefathers, their origin, whereabouts, etc., any information you can give me will increase the obligation."2 Cassius Lee had a copy of the coat of arms, which, it developed, was not quite correctly drawn, and he also possessed a sketch of the family, made by William Lee, before the American Revolution. These were forwarded to Captain Lee. He did not, at the time, fathom all the heraldic mysteries, but before sending the papers to Captain Talcott, Lee read and perhaps copied the sketch.3 It formed the basis of his knowledge of his forebears, and he believed its assertions to the day of his death.

p160 Inasmuch as the Virginia Lees were bearing as early as 1659 the arms of one branch of the Lee family of Shropshire, it is quite probable that kinship existed between them. If so, the stock of Robert E. Lee was that of an upper-class English family of somewhat better than average intelligence, whose descent can be surmised from the end of the twelfth century and can be followed with some probability from the sixteenth. But every effort to establish definite connection between Robert E. Lee's American ancestors and any line of the English Lees has failed.4 It does not matter. After reading his cousin William's manuscript, Robert E. Lee believed that he had in his veins the blood of conquerors, crusaders, and cavaliers. That belief contributed to his sense of noblesse oblige, and if it was based on fiction it was as influential with him as if it had been sustained by the adjuration of all the heralds of Europe.

The American ancestry of Robert E. Lee began with his great-great-great‑grandfather, Richard Lee, who, as early as 1642, was residing in Virginia, and was patenting land as a married man. Before his death, in 1663 or 1664, he became one of the most considerable men of the colony. Owning some 16,000 acres of land, he must have lived in a style almost baronial.5

The son of the first Richard Lee bore the same name. He was born in 1647 and died March 12, 1714, "a gentleman," said Governor Alexander Spotswood, who knew him well, "of as fair character as any in the Country for his exact justice, honesty and unexceptionable loyalty."6 Educated at Oxford, he was more interested in letters than in life, and more often to be found in his large library than on his wide plantations.7 Robert E. Lee, who was his great-great‑grandson, wrote of him, almost reproachfully, in later life, "Richard . . . spent his time in study, writing his notes in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and did not improve his paternal estate, which might have produced a princely revenue."8

p161 By the third generation the Lee connection was becoming large. Henry Lee, General Lee's great-grandfather, was the fifth son of Richard Lee, the scholar, by his wife Letitia Corbin, herself a well-born woman of a prominent colonial family. This Henry Lee (1691‑1747) lived at Lee Hall on the Potomac, adjoining the older Lee mansion, Mount Pleasant. While probably not so wealthy a man as his father or grandfather, Henry Lee the first was a planter of ample means. He married Mary Bland, daughter of Colonel Richard Bland, representative of a family of high station.

Henry Lee the first had a son Henry, who was born in 1729 and died in 1787. He was Robert E. Lee's grandfather and for convenience is styled Henry the second. Tradition has it that this Henry Lee and his wife were rather dull persons, so dull, indeed, that their phrase-making son "Light-Horse Harry" was wont to explain his own scintillation by saying "two negatives make an affirmative."9 But the evidence now available does not bear out tradition: if Henry Lee the second was not a brilliant man, he had his share of mental endowment. And if his few remaining letters suggest that he might have been the better for a closer acquaintance with Doctor Johnson's dictionary, his spelling is no worse than that of a certain gentleman who resided up the Potomac at Mount Vernon. Many of his distinctive qualities, in surprising confirmation of current theories of eugenics, are plainly discernible in his grandson, Robert E. Lee.

"Grandfather" Henry Lee the second on December 1, 1753, married Lucy Grymes, who is supposed to have been the "Lowland Beauty" that won the heart of the youthful Washington.10 Probably bettering himself financially by this union, Henry Lee developed the plantation known as "Leesylvania," which occupied p162 a point of land extending into the Potomac, three miles north of the old town of Dumfries, in Prince William County.11 There he raised tobacco that usually was of a superior quality,12 and there he attained to measurable prosperity. He "was apparently a favorite in the community," according to his grandson,13 and he served Prince William for many years as county lieutenant, burgess, member of the Revolutionary conventions, and justice of the peace. In 1773‑74 he was among the Virginia negotiators of Indian treaties.14 Although possessing no dominant qualities of leadership, he was heart and hand in the Revolutionary causes. "We are determined," he wrote in 1775, "on preserving our libertys if necessary at the Expense of our Blood, being resolved not to survive Slavery."15 As might be expected, his letters show him proud of the achievements of "Light-Horse Harry" Lee. "Your brother's enterprise," he wrote another of his sons, "does him signal honour, and I flatter myself it will not be in the Power of his Enemies to Pluck from him those laurels they cannot acquire, and on his conduct being inquired into, his Military fame will be raised. I agree with you that the surprise of Paulus Hook casts a shade on Stony Point. . . ."16

Serving in the general assembly during the time his son and namesake was winning fame at arms, Henry Lee heard all the empty rumors of victory and disaster that come to a war-time capital. He took a coldly critical attitude towards these reports and in time developed a certain flair for analyzing them. This is amusingly illustrated in a letter he wrote from Williamsburg on June 12, 1779, to his son Charles, who was then studying law in Philadelphia. Two Frenchmen had come from Charleston, S. C., with a blood-stirring report of a great American victory. On their heels, a British deserter told how the Continentals were advancing on the English, who were cooped up on James Island and likely to share Burgoyne's fate unless their fleet arrived and relieved p163 them. "The truth is I believe," Henry Lee concluded in disgust, "they have had some small skirmishing and we got the better."17 His own grandson, contending with wild rumor as he studied the intelligence reports of the Army of Northern Virginia, might well have employed those very words.

System, thrift, and love of horses were three characteristics of Henry Lee the second, plainly observable from the few of his papers that have survived, and equally pronounced in Robert E. Lee. "I received your agreeable letter by post, but without date;" Henry told his student-son Charles in Philadelphia, "the best way is dating letters at the top, for fear of omitting in the hurry of conclusion" — a practice the grandson always followed.18 In another letter Robert Lee's grandfather wrote: ". . . as soon as I get home shall endeavor to contrive you a remittance. The expenses of your Phila. Studies when had you taken my advice might in a great measure have been saved, had you applied yr. hours wasted in Idle pursuits of dissipation to Cooke, [sic] Blackstone, etc., having had a gen'l. knowledge of the System of Law tracts, Possessing the fundamental Principals, you might now have been employed in reading the reports applying the Practical Cases and digesting the reasoning of the Pleaders and Judges on the applied maxims. . . ."19 Despite the thrifty scolding, when Henry Lee came to die, he named Charles his executor, rather than his eldest son, "Light-Horse Harry," who never could keep money, and he provided that in case of Charles's death, his son Richard Bland Lee and his cousin Ludwell Lee should serve in that capacity. In his will he took pains, also, to list the horses "and the bay mare Famous," that were to be his wife's.20 His letters to Charles, and his messages through him to Henry Lee, contain several references to the young men's animals. "Your mare," he wrote Charles, "is in good order at Whaley's and with foal by Megnanine; her colt is small but in good order, and a pretty Neat turned thing. I would not advise the sale of her."21

p164 There had thus been in succession two Richard Lees and three Henry Lees as follows:

Richard Lee the first (d. 1663 or 1664) — m. Anna [last name unknown]
            |
Richard Lee the second (1647‑1714) — m. Letitia Corbin.
            |
Henry Lee the first (1691‑1747) — m. Mary Bland.
            |
Henry Lee the second (1729‑1787) — m. Lucy Grymes.
            |
Henry Lee the third (1758‑1818) — m. Ann Hill Carter.
            |
Robert E. Lee.

For these five generations, at least, the ancestors of Robert E. Lee had sustained their social position or had bettered it by advantageous marriages. For in those instances where the younger son inherited comparatively small property he increased it by winning the hand of some wealthy heiress. No misalliance marred the strain of Robert E. Lee's blood or lowered his inherited station as a gentleman. Eugenically, his career is perhaps, above all, a lesson in the cumulative effect of generations of wise marriages.

Along with this gentle blood, Lee inherited a tradition of public service and of leadership. The family record in this respect bears out the statement George Washington is reported to have made in 1777. Said he, "I know of no country that can produce a family all distinguished as clever men, as our Lees."22

The first Richard Lee was justice, burgess, secretary of state for the colony and a member of the council. To hold the office of councillor in Virginia was to have one's social status fixed above cavil. Richard Lee the second, despite his love of books, took time to be burgess, colonel of horse, and councillor. Henry Lee the first was lieutenant colonel of militia, but apparently held no other public office. Henry Lee the second was justice, long-time burgess, delegate to Revolutionary conventions, county lieutenant, and p165 member of the state senate. The public record of "Light-Horse Harry" Lee has been given already. A great-granduncle of Robert E. Lee, Thomas Lee, brother of Henry Lee the first, was a member of the council and later was its president and acting governor of Virginia. His sons were the remarkable brothers, Thomas Ludwell Lee, Philip Ludwell Lee, Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, William Lee, and Arthur Lee, all of whom attained to definite distinction in the service of their state or of their country. Two of them were signers of the Declaration of Independence. Still another branch of the Stratford Lees, as they were called, went to Maryland, where it was long prominent in public life.

From Richard Lee, the immigrant, through the sixth generation, that of Robert E. Lee, fifty-four male members of the Stratford line are known to have lived to maturity. Five of them were professional men who did not hold office. Of the remaining forty-nine, thirty-seven had some record of public service. These thirty-seven included ten burgesses, ten members of the state legislature, six professional soldiers, three naval officers, six militia officers, six members of the colonial council, four members of Revolutionary conventions, three governors or acting governors, two signers of the Declaration of Independence, two diplomatists, three members of the Continental Congress, three members of the United States Congress, one member of the United States Cabinet, one secretary of the colony, one London alderman, one town mayor, one judge, five justices of the peace, two clerks and one deputy clerk of courts, and two prosecuting attorneys — a total of seventy-two offices.23 The record is the more impressive when it is remembered that during the later years of Richard Lee the second the family was little in public life.24

Several of the families that had intermarried with the Lees had also contributed perceptibly to the life of Virginia, in some instances, perhaps, less because of special aptitude for politics than because their social position carried with it a certain right of p166 leadership in a society where the franchise was much restricted. The Corbins supplied two burgesses, one councillor, and one president of the council.25 Of the Carters and Moores, including the Spotswood ancestors of the Moores, one was burgess, three were councillors, one was speaker of the burgesses, one was treasurer, one was acting governor, and one, Alexander Spotswood, was governor. The family of Robert E. Lee's paternal grandmother, Lucy Grymes, was connected with the Jenings stock. Among her forebears and family were one governor, two receivers general, one auditor general, two members of council, two burgesses, one militia officer, one justice, and one sheriff.26 The Blands, the family of Robert E. Lee's paternal great-grandmother, were less numerous than the Lees, but they were brilliant people and, with the related Bennett stock, listed one governor, one speaker of the burgesses, four members of the council, two burgesses, one member of a Revolutionary convention, one member of the Continental Congress, one member of the Congress of the United States, one Revolutionary soldier, and one militia officer.27 Robert E. Lee's remoter kinsmen held other posts almost as numerous and distinguished. Of Virginia's seven signers of the Declaration of Independence, he was connected with five. In eastern Virginia there were few families of the highest standing whose members Robert Lee did not call cousin.

These partial lists of the major lines of Robert E. Lee's inheritance show, in summary, that to and including his own generation, his ancestors and immediate kinsmen filled the following offices the indicated number of times:

OFFICE NO. OF TIMES HELD
Governor or acting governor 7
President of council 1
Speaker of the house of burgesses 2
Secretary of the colony 2
Member of the council 16
Colonial treasurer 1
Colonial receiver general 2
Colonial auditor general 1
Burgess 17
Member state legislature 10
Member Revolutionary conventions 5
Soldier 7
Naval officer 3
London alderman 1
Militia command
8
Sheriff 1
Court clerk 2
Deputy clerk 1
Justice of the peace 6
Prosecuting attorney 2
Town mayor 1
Signer Declaration 2
Diplomatist 2
Member U. S. Cabinet 1
Member Cont. Congress 3
Member U. S. Congress 4
Federal judge 1

In seeking and holding office, the earlier Lees displayed a degree of clan spirit. Robert E. Lee's grandfather, the second Henry Lee, announcing to William Lee in 1775 the death of William's brother Philip, said downrightly, "The vacancy I hope you will use your utmost efforts to fill up in council with your Brother Thomas or Francis . . . I could wish the honor of the family to be fixed at Stratford, as to your Bro. Col. Ric'd. Henry I would by no means have him out of the House of Burgesses, as there is at present the greatest reason to Expect he will succeed Mr. Randolph as Speaker, who is old and infirm."28 Some years later Richard Henry Lee, William's brother, solicited Governor Patrick Henry to make Henry Lee commissioner for the estate of a "Mr. Paradise," a British sympathizer.29 On one occasion, the Lees had to choose among their own kinspeople for the public weal. Richard Henry Lee, in Congress, wrote his brother Francis in 1787, urging him to prevail upon their eccentric cousin, Richard Lee, to resign from the Virginia legislature, or to stand aside so that "Light-Horse Harry" Lee might represent the County of Westmoreland. "I know," said he, "it is like persuading a man to sign his own death warrant, but upon my word the state of public affairs renders the sacrifice of place and vanity, necessary."30 Always in the attitude of the Lees toward the offices they held, there was a conscious and sensitive regard for public opinion. The feeling of generations of the family was expressed by young Lucinda Lee, when she insisted, about 1787, in a journal kept for a girl friend: "I would not have you think from this that I pay no regard to the opinion of the world; far from it; next to that of a good conscience, the opinion of the world is to be regarded."31

p168 The Lees without exception were Revolutionaries in 1775. The sons of Thomas Lee, who were then the chief representatives of the family, were in the full vigor of their early forties or late thirties, and were among the leaders in the rising against England. Henry Lee the second was forty-seven, and though he was not so influential as his cousin Richard Henry, he was as ardent in his opposition to the policy of the crown. But in no other crisis of their one hundred and sixty years of residence in Virginia, prior to the birth of Robert E. Lee, had the sympathies of the Lees been with the younger government or with the apostles of change. Their older allegiance was their stronger.

It was so from the time of the first Richard Lee. His heart was with the Cavaliers, and when Charles I was executed, Lee "hired a Dutch vessel," according to an admiring contemporary's account, "freighted her himself, went to Brussels, surrendered up Sir William Barcklaie's [Berkeley's] old commission (for the Government of that province) and received a new one from his present majesty (a loyal action and deserving my commemoration)."32

Singularly enough, the second Richard Lee had to meet a like test on two occasions. He opposed Bacon's rising against Berkeley, and for his obduracy spent seven weeks in the rebels' prison, "at least 100 miles from his own home whereby he received great Prejudice in his health by hard usage, and very greatly in his whole Estate by his absence."33 Little more than a decade later, after the flight of James II, when Parliament called for a new oath of allegiance to William and Mary, Richard Lee the second was unwilling to subscribe to it. He was a member of the council of Virginia at the time and quit that body rather than foreswear his fealty to the Stuarts. It must have been some years before he reconciled himself to the new régime and acknowledged the House of Orange.34

Three generations later, when the father of Robert E. Lee was governor of Virginia, James Madison inquired whether "Light-Horse Harry" was disposed to accept the command of the forces that might be sent to the Ohio to redeem Saint Clair's defeat at the p169 hands of the Indians. Lee was pleased with the prospect, but as he wrote Madison, he did not like to abandon "my native country, to whose goodness I am so much indebted." He added, "No consideration on earth could induce me to act a part, however gratifying to me, which could be construed into disregard or forgetfulness of this commonwealth."35 Henry Lee did not have to make a choice then between Virginia and the Union. Two years later, when called to lead a militia force to put down the "Whiskey Boys' Rebellion" he left his post of governor and thereby almost forfeited the office. But he held fast to his first allegiance to "his country," as he often called Virginia. In 1798, as a member of the house of delegates of his state, he defended the Federal alien and sedition laws against the resolutions of condemnation sponsored by the Jeffersonians. Exhausting argument and realizing that his was the losing side, he concluded his address with this language: "Should my efforts, Mr. Chairman, be unavailing, I shall lament my country's fate, and acquiesce in my country's will, and amidst the surrounding calamities, derive some consolation from recollecting my humble exertions to stop the mad career."36

Thus the Lees had the choice between the older and the newer allegiance presented to them six times in five generations, and in every instance except that of the American Revolution, their decision was to support the older government. That was a tradition that became a part of the inheritance of the greatest Lee of the sixth generation.

Robert Lee did not get all these data from the paper that William Lee had written and Cassius Lee, in 1838, had lent him. Some of the most interesting facts about his ancestors Robert Lee never knew, because they were not established until his own fame had made men curious to ascertain more precisely what was his background. Lee, however, was conscious that he had traditions of honor, of loyalty, and of public service. He set himself to be worthy of them, precisely as he had made Washington his model, almost without being conscious of it.


The Author's Notes:

1 Lee to Talcott, MS., Aug. 17, 1837, Talcott MSS. (VHS).

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2 R. E. Lee to C. F. Lee, Aug. 20, 1838; Jones, L. and L., 33.

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3 Cassius F. Lee to R. E. Lee, Sept. 8, 1838; R. E. Lee to Talcott, MS., Oct. 3, 1838, Jan. 1, 1839; Talcott MSS. (VHS).

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4 E. J. Lee, 2 ff. After Robert E. Lee became famous, one of his admirers, W. W. Fontaine, satisfied himself that he had proved the descent of Lee from Robert Bruce (9 S. H. S. P., 193‑206).

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5 E. J. Lee, 51 ff. Richard Lee is said by one contemporary to have produced tobacco worth £2000 annually (ibid., 60), and on one return voyage from England to America he had with him 200 ounces of silver plate engraved with his arms (ibid., 61).

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6 1 Spotswood Letters, edited by R. A. Brock, 178.

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7 For his library, see William and Mary Quarterly, 2, 247.

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8 Henry Lee's Memoirs, 13.

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9 Mrs. Roger A. Pryor, in Brock, 99.

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10 Her genealogy, admirably done by W. G. Stanard, is in 27 Va. Mag., 185 ff.; 28 Va. Mag., 90 ff. Reverend Charles Grymes settled in York County, Virginia, by 1644, and married a woman whose name is not now known. His son John (1660‑1709), a justice, a colonel of militia, and a man of moderate fortune, married Alice Grymes (d. 1714). They had two sons. The elder was John Grymes the second (1691‑1748), member of the house of burgesses, a councillor, auditor general and receiver general. The younger son of John and Alice Grymes was Charles Grymes the second (c. 1697‑1743). This Charles, who was also a burgess, married Frances Jenings, daughter of Edmund Jenings, colonial governor. Lucy Grymes was their daughter. Bishop Beilby Porteus of London was her uncle (Henry Lee's Memoirs, 15; 2 Spotswood Letters, 54n; Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 46, p195).

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11 Henry Lee's Memoirs, 16.

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12 R. H. Lee to William Lee, June 28, 1773; 1 Letters of Richard Henry Lee,    .º

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13 Henry Lee's Memoirs, 16; the quotation is from Robert E. Lee.

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14 E. J. Lee, 329.

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15 Henry Lee the second to William Lee, March 1, 1775; E. J. Lee, 293.

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16 Henry Lee to Charles Lee, MS., Sept. 8, 1779; E. J. Lee, 292.

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17 E. J. Lee, 294.

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18 Henry Lee the second to Charles Lee, Sept. 8, 1779; E. J. Lee, 292.

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19 Henry Lee the second to Charles Lee, June 12, 1779; E. J. Lee, 294.

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20 E. J. Lee, 295‑297.

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21 Henry Lee the second to Charles Lee, Sept. 8, 1779; E. J. Lee, 292‑93.

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22 Fitz Lee, 6. The writer has been unable to find this remark in either Sparks's or Ford's edition of Washington's writings.

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23 This list has been compiled from E. J. Lee. Probably there are other offices that Doctor Lee did not mention. As divided, thirty-two of the seventy-two offices were legislative, six were judicial, fifteen were military, four were executive, and nine were administrative. The six members of the colonial council combined various of these functions.

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24 This is apparent from the Spotswood Letters, which seldom mention the Lees.

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25 E. J. Lee, 85‑86.

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26 Including, of course, the multiple offices held by one individual during the course of his career; E. J. Lee, 299‑300.

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27 E. J. Lee, 137.

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28 Henry Lee to William Lee, March 1, 1775; E. J. Lee, 293.

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29 2 Letters of Richard Henry Lee, 380.

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30 2 Letters of Richard Henry Lee, 425.

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31 Journal of a Young Lady of Virginia, ed. Mason, 11.

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32 John Gibbon, Introductio ad Latinam Blasioniam, 158; quoted in Brock, 75.

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33 Report of March 15, 1677‑78, quoted in E. J. Lee, 76; cf. Neil: Virginia Carolorum, 365.

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34 2 Spotswood Letters, 38.

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35 James Madison to Henry Lee, Jan. 21, 1792; Henry Lee to James Madison, Jan. 29, 1792; Henry Lee's Memoirs, 44‑45.

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36 Va. Report of 1799‑1800, 108‑9.


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